The rain increased as I stumbled along the path, tripping over tree roots. Confused, I realized I’d made a wrong turn somewhere along the way and turned to correct the path when I saw a group of men approaching in the ever-darkening Guatemalan evening. I continued forward while trying to project confidence with Aspen glued to my side. I uttered a greeting as we passed the group and received long stares in response before their gaze turned to the large black dog at my side. I hurried her along the path and arrived safely at the villa shortly after, my nerves totally shot. The saying goes “Who saved Who?” in the world of dog adoptions but in that instance, I was absolutely certain it was she who saved me.
Aspen came to us by happenchance in January 2013. We had lost Maddy only five months earlier and had spent four of those months attempting to figure out a way to help Porter with his separation anxiety issues to no avail. A New Year’s Eve weekend camping trip found us agreeing to something we never had anticipated; the idea of getting a 2nd dog.
She was featured as Dog of the Week at the Salem Animal Rescue, and rightly so. A stunning jet black labrador, she was an unusual dog to be found at a rescue. Truth be told, we adopted her as a companion to Porter, not because she was “the one”. She was a pleasant, friendly, fetch-obsessed typical lab but, honestly, had a bland personality. The theory was she’d been a breeder dog and something went wrong so she was dumped on New Year’s Eve. It was obvious she had not come from a home setting because while extremely friendly, she didn’t possess that family type socialization attitude.
So began an incredible journey proving how strong a bond exists between human and dog. Not that the journey was easy in the beginning. Aspen was not only incredibly strong but also strong-willed. She did NOT want to stop a game of fetch. She did NOT want to walk on a leash. She did NOT want to remain in our fenced two-acre yard which should have been doggie heaven with a kiddie pool to splash in, sun and shade options, and a dog-door into a climate-controlled house.
That first couple of years were a learning curve for our entire pack but during that time she embraced her new place in the world. Porter was utterly content with his companion, and family life brought out Aspen’s extremely silly personality. We found a middle-ground option for ending play sessions and while she was always a fast walker prone to pulling if allowed, she learned the benefits of walking with the pack.
Eventually, we even got the fence secured enough to keep her contained.
And she loved me. Oh, how this dog loved me. Maddy had embraced us both equally. Porter was definitely Jim’s dog. But Aspen, that girl adored her mama. Jim often joked that she couldn’t take her eyes off me and, truthfully, to her I was the most fascinating person in the world. Most mornings began with an early morning nose poking me to let me know she was ready to jump up on the bed for a cuddle.
While I mourn her passing I am assaulted with memories… so many memories. Hiking trips to remote lakes, dinners at fancy cafes, meeting and greeting literally thousands of dogs, her sweet smile each morning as I got down to give her a hug.
I quickly learned how to cook while performing “labrador stretch”. Everyone who has loved a lab knows that they insist on being directly underneath your feet at all times, especially in the kitchen where clean-up duties may be required.
All of our lives took a turn for the better when we hit the road full-time five years ago. Every dog’s dream is to be with their pack 24-7 and that dream became our reality as we headed for points south. To say we all embraced life on the road is an understatement.
After we lost Porter just three months into the journey our attachment to Aspen became even more complete. She proved to be an extraordinary traveler and true adventure dog. Her absolute passion for each day is something that should be bottled. She jumped with joy each time we got back into the truck to head to the next adventure around the bend.
In these last five years, she has hiked to 10,000′ elevation hot springs and explored Mexico’s colonial hill towns. She spent hours at our feet in endless restaurants and cafe’s and swam in such diverse waters as the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Cortez, and Lake Atitlan in Guatemala’s high country.
She embraced our multiple winters in Baja while merely enduring the heat & humidity of a few months in Puerto Vallarta with her typical lab stoicism.
She has made friends with everyone she’s met. Even as I type this the tears flow freely reading the amazing comments on Facebook from people around the world who loved her.
She explored eight states and three countries with us, logging tens of thousands of miles; more than many people we know.
Absolutely fetch-crazy, she developed a passion for coconuts that nearly surpassed her tennis ball obsession and she became adept at finding them. In Guatemala and Mexico, this was an easy task. The big surprise, the day she found a coconut while hiking in northern Idaho! Our girl was truly a miracle.
Now in my grief, I run through memory after memory. I see her diving for coconuts in Lake Atitlan, hiking the canyonlands of Utah, swimming in the sea, and more than anything gazing at me with those stunning chocolate eyes sending me all of her love and adoration.
When our lives turned to working campgrounds some of the year Aspen found a new career: camp mascot. Her days were spent charming all who met her and we’d often find her covered with children wanting to hug and pet her while examing her huge paws.
When fetching was no longer an option we changed it up and played roller ball. This game involved one of us rolling a tennis ball towards her while she, in the prone position, would pick it up and roll it back to us with a flip of her tongue. In her typical fashion, she made the most of what was and her tail would wag furiously with joy throughout the game. Her overflowing toy box also got random attention when she would occasionally pull out every single toy and then take a nap in the middle of the debacle, causing us to shake our heads at our silly girl.
Her final camp post was on the beach in southern Oregon which offered the perfect spot for her to enjoy the beach while not stressing her ever more delicate feet and joints. She slowed down considerably but continued to shine her amazing light on our life. I can truly think of nothing more special than watching her huge smile each day as she enjoyed life to the fullest.
While you can never be prepared enough, we are eternally grateful for our life with this amazing dog. After nearly losing her to salmon poisoning last summer she recovered only to fade badly in the damp chill of an Oregon winter to such an extent we feared she might not make a final Baja trip. Then we worried we’d lose her along the way. Her strength of spirit rose yet again and she not only made the trip she continued to thrive until only days before we said goodbye.
Her final week was spent camping in various spots throughout central Oregon with Dave & Anne and Aspen’s boyfriend Max. Mornings spent sleeping in, lake swims in the heat of the day, and comfortable evenings by the fire. As had become typical she tended to share my meals and was spoiled beyond imagination. She was happy. We were all so very happy.
Sadly, her body continued to betray her and the increased activity of camping with friends became too much for her poor body to manage. In less than 24 hours she went from a long day spent lakeside to barely being able to walk two steps at a time. We frantically doubled upon pain meds hoping to ease her suffering but the reality of our situation became all too clear. And my stomach began to ache.
We knew this was coming.
We’ve always known, of course, but we’ve truly known for 515 days. 515 days since X-rays in Phoenix showed the devastating extent of arthritis in her spine and joints. 515 days spent trying different treatment options to keep her pain manageable. 515 days to embrace life with this magical creature who had so enriched our lives. 515 days of my toes being licked during yoga, of her never-ending appetite, of appreciating each and every moment we were blessed with.
Yesterday we said goodbye. Yesterday we departed East Lake early to head to her long-time vet in Oregon City. Yesterday, as always, I sat on her bed with her in the morning and shared my banana, one of her very favorite snacks. Yesterday, we stopped in Government Camp for a break and to share a final huckleberry shake. Yesterday, we hugged and kissed her and told her how much we loved her. And we cried. A lot.
Yesterday we made one final trip with our sweet baby girl into Milner Vet where we cuddled on the floor on a blanket and held her in our arms, kissing her ears and telling her she was the best dog ever, as we said our very final goodbye.
Today, we woke up to emptiness. There was no morning kisses, no dog walk, no very special breakfast to make while she eagerly watched from her spot at my feet. Today, there is sadness and grief, and a deep, overwhelming sense of loss.
This is never easy but as a friend commented “the final gift we give them is the hardest one of all”. Her spirit was still strong. She wanted so badly to keep going but we could no longer bear knowing that part of the reason she wanted to keep going was to please us. We knew our minds had to overrule our hearts and do what was best for her, even at the expense of our sorrow.
As another spectacularly special dog leaves our life we remain forever grateful for the years her spirit lifted our lives. From Aspen, we learned to begin each day appreciating the gift of merely being alive. Her spirit will live forever.
RIP sweet baby girl until we meet again.