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CHAPTER 30—Like Orion

 

...the autumnal star, whose brilliant ray

    shines eminent amid the depth of night,

  whom men the dog-star of Orion call.

                                     Homer — The Iliad

 

 

It remained a gorgeous blue September day. The temperature climbed to 80 degrees. I derived considerable satisfaction from simply tidying, rearranging, and drying out the camp…and watching Penny and Pedro, of course.

 

When Pedro is content to be lazy and enjoy the sun, Penny can sure entertain herself; she’ll just run and throw a ball…she doesn’t need to play fetch, she throws it and fetches it herself, and inevitably she’ll get Pedro’s attention, and then the two of them will be at it. It’s funny how they look at each other…and one of them will suddenly charge.

 

It was usually Penny. Then they’d race together on a collision course like two fearless jousters…and if Pedro wasn’t nimble enough to step around or leap over Penny there’d be quite a pile up. Penny was a smashing dog in more ways than one.

Alone again, I was looking forward to recovering the delightful, meditative mood I’d experienced just a few days before. During the day I came real close, but after dark, for no particular reason, I found myself assaulted by increasingly serious thoughts.

One night, prior to falling asleep, with several owls hooting and a cow mooing like a distant foghorn, I recorded:

 

I’ve been up here 3 months, but now I can see the end of this journey I’m beginning to worry about maybe a late summer tropical storm or hurricane coming up the gulf, and what that might do up here in the mountains. There is no evidence or sign of it, and the more time passes the less likely it is to happen.

 

Later that night, I woke around 4 a.m. from a weird but disturbingly vivid dream—a crazy man had set off a nuclear explosion. It seemed an odd and incongruous intrusion into my world there in the mountains. Given the way that the thunderheads had been mushrooming like nuclear detonations, I wondered if the sight of those clouds had percolated into my brain…or if the dream foreshadowed a mighty storm to come.

Whatever tension I had felt in the dark night had previously served to accentuate the glory of the morning, but that morning as I watched the bluebirds catching the sunlight high in the pine trees and glimpsed the orangey-red flash of a red-shafted flicker flitting between the trees, I sensed something was missing…something indefinable had left the forest, or at least my appreciation of it.

The evening of September 6 was unusually windy.

 

It’s totally dark now…suddenly the wind just kicked up and I can hear it ghosting through the trees. And the smoke from my fire is going along the ground hitting poor old Pedro mostly; he’s up on his chair. I just threw my head back to look into the sky to see if it was cloudy…and as I looked up I saw the stars and then some really bright clouds that were just glowing. ‘What’s that?’ I thought. I can’t believe it’s anything natural—it’s too unreal. As I stood up and turned around I could see the moon peeking above the ridge, and its light had obviously caught those thin wispy clouds.

 

On the afternoon of September 8—another beautiful, sunny, invitingly meditative afternoon—a group of four people arrived in a blue jeep. They started setting up camp a hundred yards away. Before I spoke to them, my first reaction was a kind of territorial resentment that strangers had encroached upon my space, but the three guys and a gal turned out to be friendly, fascinating, informative people. They were young University of California, San Diego, post grads and lecturers who had come up to climb Picacho del Diablo. Two were fellow Brits, and two were Americans.

The research interest of one of the Americans was ants. He said that the vicious two-tone red and black ants that both Penny and Pedro had learned to be wary of were probably western thatching ants, Formica obscuripes, which are fairly common in coniferous forests from Canada to Baja California at elevations between 5,000 and 8,500 feet. They bite rather than sting, he explained, and the mounds of pine needles overlaying the nests serve an important regulatory function—worker ants move larvae and eggs up and down inside the mound to keep them at the optimum temperature.

Always glad of an excuse to hike east to the ridge, I led them up the trail to one of my favorite viewpoints and caught up on all the news from San Diego and Britain. As they surveyed the canyon, and the mighty twin 10,000 feet peaks, I could see that they were impressed if not overawed by the climb they were about to undertake. I lent them my detailed map of the peak and the plateau, and suspecting they might encounter more insects down in the canyon bottom, I offered them some repellent.

We raced the dark back. After feeding my guys and grabbing some snacky food, I took the dogs over to their camping area to chat some more. And by the time I led Penny and Pedro back “home” it was too late to bother with a fire. The dogs were in their kennels by 9:15. Thirty minutes later, after paying my respects to the night sky, I jumped into my sleeping bag. Considering what the next few nights would bring, I did well to grab a good night’s sleep.

After breakfast next morning, I led the dogs and the four climbers south along the trail through ColumbineCanyon and up into and a little beyond the aspen grove. It was hot with a cool breeze—too dry for mushrooms, but otherwise the most perfect day. When it came time to part, Penny was rolling at the feet of her new friends, enchanting them, and reveling in their belly rubs. Pedro was less forward, but happily accepted a few goodbye head pats.

I worried about Penny going after them, so I put her on a leash and retreated more than half-a-mile before daring to release her. It was a delightful excursion, but I was glad to be back in camp, alone again, reading and trying to relax.

An hour later, Ruben came over to inform me that a Mexican construction worker had gone missing from the observatory. He conveyed the sketchy details: the man was maybe 40 years old, wearing a white T-shirt; he disappeared at night, he could have been drunk, he might be a little crazy, he may be injured. A helicopter would fly up tomorrow to begin searching for him.

Even though I spent the rest of the evening alone, my longed-for solitude was now somewhat vitiated by finding myself on edge thinking about the missing man. I had been left with a disturbingly vague picture—I didn’t know if he was a poor lost soul wandering out there in need of help, or a madman to be feared.

It was windy and cold. I was staring into the small, burned down fire, studying its pulsing glow like a crystal ball.

It was a losing battle with the frigid wind. I buried the coals and hurried to my sleeping bag. My fingers and toes were so cold I couldn’t warm up even with an extra blanket on top of me.

Eventually I fell asleep and at two in the morning I was woken by the noise of the wind raking the treetops. And as I listened, I was sure there was something else outside, something sizeable moving about. Penny and Pedro hadn’t raised a bark. Safe and warm inside their kennels, they probably considered themselves off duty, but I had to know who or what was out there.

I went out wearing just a sweater and flip-flops, and clutching a hammer. There was half a moon. It seemed to be “misty” in the forest—not something one could see, but rather a thing subtle and intangible, like heavier air close to the ground.

Turning around by my tent door, I was shocked to see right in my campsite two cows and a large, white bull. The bull was just twenty yards away, nostrils spewing steam. I walked slowly towards him, flashlight beam in his face. His reflective eyes stared back. I shouted and threw my arms up and started hitting a fallen tree with the hammer. The two cows hoofed it up the hill, but the bull just shuffled nonchalantly twenty-five yards, and then stood his ground among the small aspens.

Not wanting to push my luck, I retreated to my tent hoping that was the end of the matter. Sleep had barely claimed me before the sound of invading cattle woke me again. I stepped out dressed as before. And there was the bull, back grazing in my camping area. I went running towards him shouting and waving the rock hammer; this time he took off more purposefully. A fifty yard chase ended when I put my foot in a rotten tree stump. Wearing just flip-flops, I had to shake off all the cold, damp, crumbly, wood chips from my toes. The bull stopped when I stopped. I ran at him again, hissing and slashing with the light beam. As he trotted away, it seemed reasonable to assume that at last he’d got the message.

Back inside the tent, I listened to the radio for a while…and then I couldn’t sleep. So I just kept on monitoring the news and the talk shows, and periodically pulling off the headphones and listening.

At 3:45, I was surprised to hear more munching from outside. “Bollocks!” I shouted. I knew it was the same bull. Frustrated and angry, I scrambled out of the tent, picked up my walking cane and threw it at him. It swished through the air like a boomerang. Unfortunately it missed. Then, getting an insight into Penny’s mentality, I found myself shouting and running at that bull not caring about anything except him leaving my territory. It took off galloping to the west. As my anger subsided, I could hardly believe I was doing this at almost four in the morning. I was tempted to release the dogs if there was a next time.

Above, in the heavens, as he’d done for countless eons, the mighty hunter Orion was rising in the southern sky to battle his own fierce red-eyed bull, Taurus. While at his feet crouched his two faithful dogs, the constant companions of the chase: Canis Major, the big dog and Canis Minor, the little dog. Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens, is the adamantine nose of the big dog. It is not only intrinsically a bright star, but also one of the closet stars to earth, and it is often called the Dog Star, after Homer’s reference to it in the Iliad.

Returning to my tent, I shone the light on Penny and Pedro in their kennels; their big tired eyes seemed to be saying, “You’re on your own pal. See you at sunup.” I caught a couple of hours sleep and woke with corpse-cold toes. I never really got warm the whole night.

September 10, 2001: I stuck my head out in the morning and there was that chunky white bull just forty yards away. Exasperated, I chivied the dogs out, and after a couple of curving stretches they both immediately gave chase. They were now very much on duty. I never recalled them. Pedro stopped and came back of his own accord, but Penny kept going, chasing that bull, like Orion himself, right across the arroyo, snapping at its hocks.

The bull eventually kicked like a horse and turned around to try to strike Penny with his horns, but that didn’t deter her; she kept snapping and harrying till the obdurate creature decided he’d met his match, and if he wanted any peace he’d better hoof it over to Campo Salvatierra. Penny ran proudly back to my open arms, panting, tongue hanging, eager to receive my copious congratulations.

After a well-deserved breakfast, Penny stretched out to glory in the morning sun. She was my Canis Minor, my little Miss Martial, my Nergal, my she-wolf. As I looked at her in her basket I thought that she had come to me like a boisterous bouncing daughter of Mars drifting on the Tiber, or an effervescent baby Moses eagerly rowing his basket down the Nile.

I recorded:

 

If anything happened to Penny I would be so upset…I would be upset if anything happened to Pedro of course. But I see him more as an adult, a soldier taking his chances, but with Penny though, I see her more as a fun loving child and a sweetheart, like a beautiful daughter, so it would be more tragic for that reason, although in some ways she is more martial and aggressive than Pedro, but nevertheless that’s how I see them.

 

I paid my respects to my sunlit cathedral, then led the dogs east to the ridge and the canyon overlook to see if the UCSD guys were visible on Picacho. I trained my binoculars on both summits and all the approaches but there was no sign of them...and no sign of the man missing from the observatory. I was particularly watchful for vultures gathering in the sky. It was a beautiful cloudless day. “Sad to see the sage so shriveled…red has become the predominant color up here with monardellas, paintbrush, and pinks.”

We got back to camp and instead of lying down as they usually do after a long hike, Penny and Pedro were sniffing around as if something had really got their attention. And I noticed that the water I had left in their bowls had almost all gone!

They began staring at a nearby hill. I looked over and was amazed to see two other dogs. They were about the size of Pedro. One appeared to be a small-eared, German shepherd mix; the other was a white nondescript mutt. I looked through my binoculars—they had no collars but they didn’t look particularly flea bitten or famished. Neither Pedro nor Penny barked or moved, but Pedro’s fur rose along his back till the dogs walked off south in the direction of the road to Blue Bottle. I had no idea what their story was, but I was glad they had disappeared.

A couple of hours later, however, the “wild” dogs returned, ambling across the valley, heading towards us on the ring road. I managed to clip a snoozing Penny to a line, but Pedro bounded over barking furiously, looking like he intended to attack them.

I shouted, “Pedro…Come! Come!” At which, both the “wild” dogs took off back up the road.

If they had to pass my camp to return to wherever they’d come from, I hoped they would detour around us and I’d never see them again, but having seen them twice, and mindful of how hot and dry it was, I began to worry that they might be desperately thirsty.

It was a fine evening; I secured the camp a little more than usual then took Penny and Pedro for a walk in the opposite direction from where we had seen the dogs. Back in camp, still tired from my exertions of the night before, I was happy to sit awhile and listen, and look at the bugs in the evening sky—the sunlight caught them like little forest sprites. I could hear voices in the wind, human voices, but there was an ethereal, unreal quality to the sounds, like in a dream. I doubted there was anyone out there.

Events were conspiring to keep me ill at ease. As well as the missing man, I now sensed the presence of the strange dogs somewhere close by. It was hard to know how to react. I decided to wander out a way and leave water in a bowl, but back by my fire I wondered about the wisdom of attracting unknown dogs in case they got into a fight with Penny or Pedro.

 

I should stop looking around; it’s making me paranoid. In the last light I was looking at a fallen tree that had been cut up to clear it from the road to Blue Bottle, and there was something white in among the pieces; I wondered if it was that poor white dog, but looking through my binoculars I could see it was a boulder.

 

Around ten o’clock, I was drawn up close to the glowing remnants of the fire with Penny hooked to a line beside me. Pedro was already in his kennel.

 

I’m just about ready for bed…I didn’t get much sleep last night. Looking up at the magnificent stars and the Milky Way, I feel glad I got through this evening without dogs and bulls…and just hope I get a peaceful night because I am tired and I had visions of going home. Instead of enjoying this experience I started thinking, ‘O man I’ve got to deal with all this stuff’…No way can the dogs harm me, they’re too timid, but even so it’s draining, like an unknown factor out there.

 

Inside the tent, I covered my sleeping bag with even more blankets and jackets, so I wouldn’t get as cold as the previous night. Under all that weight, I could hardly move.

 

It’s about 11:30…I was woken from a deep sleep by what sounded like the sound of chopping, like chopping wood…and I woke up thinking was that a dream? The wind was kind of gusting in the treetops and I wondered if it had clouded over and some weather had moved in. But it was all starry as far as I could see.