You’d Think It Was Nothing Special, but…

Yesterday afternoon I took a good look at my lilac hedge. It was was waving back and forth like a metronome set on “allegro.” The wind meant that the bugs out at the Refuge would not molest me. I put Teddy’s jacket on him, and off we went.  

All around were dragonflies in love, a wonderful thing to see. How cool would that be to be stuck together, flying through the air on a breeze while, you know, doing THAT?? It also means baby dragonflies, and THAT makes me happy because dragonflies eat deer flies. I wished them a successful fleshment.

I watched a Harrier Hawk female evade a few little birds, and, later, a red tail hawk evaded some other little birds or maybe the same ones. There were some ruddy ducks, mallards and coots. Most of Canada geese have gone. I always wonder how many of these birds are able to hatch their eggs and raise their young to migrating ability — I don’t think many. Some years I see them swimming with a little train of young geese, but not so far this year. The black-crowned night herons have arrived, but I haven’t been able to spend time where they like to hang out. 

Teddy and I walked our walk. I looked, Teddy sniffed, and all was right with the world. Not too long after we headed back the great miracle happened. An American Avocet flew past my face about 2 feet away, heading for the large pond. Wow.

Last year, about this time, as I was leaving after a walk, I saw two adult Avocets walking on the road, frantically looking over their shoulders. I wondered why they didn’t fly. I couldn’t see beyond the hood of my car, so I stopped. Soon I saw they had chicks with them. I put Bella in reverse, backed down the road for half a mile where I could turn around, and drove out the “wrong” way. I’d like to think that the Avocet who gave me such a beautiful gift yesterday was a member of that family. It’s not likely, but it’s the kind of story that would make a nice kid’s book. 

I thought about this long apprenticeship as I walked. I don’t see anything twice. I might see another Red Tail Hawk or the same Red Tail Hawk, but it won’t be doing exactly the same thing in the same way. And I’m never the same “Martha.” I am sure I act upon the natural world. I will never know how other than the times I disturb a bird from its perch, a vole from its hiding place, a salamander from its saunter. 

On my walks, I’ve often thought about the trap of language. Is the word the thing? I don’t think so. I think the thing is the thing. I thought of the Tao Te Ching, the phrase, “More words count less: hold fast to the center“, which years ago I printed out and taped over my desk (irony?). And here I am now, about to write a LOT of words on the subject of no words. I guess words are humanity’s province.

The Tao Te Ching has been translated in so many different ways. This is the one I learned, with my edits. I like the word “ruthless,” but it can imply malice… And “dummies” can mean different things…

Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu – Chapter 5

Heaven and earth are ruthless; neutral
They see the ten thousand things as dummies illusory
The wise are ruthless neutral
They see the people as dummies illusory

The space between heaven and earth is like a bellows.
The shape changes but not the form;
The more it moves, the more it yields.
More words count less.
Hold fast to the center.

I try, when I’m out there, not to put words or human values on things, but it’s impossible. I see a place where it looks like some coyotes pushed the reeds/cattails down to get to a duck nest. I know there was a duck nest in that spot because I heard them for a few weeks. I’ve seen the eggshells and the battered plants and mud. I have somehow to navigate the narrow human trail between being happy the wild dogs got food and sorry for the ducks. It seems the breeding pair got away — there would be a lot of evidence if they hadn’t. If they could, they did. If not?

That neutrality is — almost paradoxically — love. All my dogs, the pain of losing one, and in these years, I’ve learned one thing, and I learned it from a dog. My golden retriever, Kelly, died suddenly of a coronary in my living room as I was getting food for my dogs. I came out to the living room and found her dead. She was the second dog I had lost, and I was devastated. I held her close to me, my chin on her head. After a little while, my dog, Truffle, came to me and, with her nose, lifted my chin off of my dead dog so that I was looking at her, Truffle. She said, “I’m sorry Kelly is dead, but I’m not.” I loved on my good, living dog, and got up from the floor to take care of the remains of my dead dog. As Truffle said, “There are other dogs.”

I’m sure those ducks did everything in their power to make a safe nest for their eggs, but when they couldn’t, they headed to Montana. I’ve seen this in nature over and over, the vast bellows between Earth and sky. I attempt to see the story that I find in front of me, always challenged to see it for what it is while accepting its beautiful gifts, given with total neutrality. And that is — as far as I can tell — the neutrality of the Tao. It’s pretty incomprehensible for us human beings, but it is love.

Sorry about all the words 😉

XVI — Ravens and Hawks

Mission Trailed

“What’re they doing?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t look like a road. Those cuts seem random.”


“Remember those flags we were seeing all winter? Here’s one. ‘RT 173-24’.”

“Weird. Wonder what it means.”

“I don’t know.”

“Look. It’s here.”

“This is the worst place. They don’t even know, do they? They don’t know what’s in this canyon.”

“Well, if it’s a road, it can’t go here. This is granite.”

“Have you ever heard of dynamite?”

“Then the road really will go here.”

“Why here, do you think?”

“This is the end of Mission Trails Park. Miramar starts just a little further on.”

“I thought all of this was the park.”


“Well, let’s go home.”

“Look, in the dead tree. That mourning dove, all in shadow, except for that one glowing spot where the sun is shining on her chest. Last December I was standing right here. The hawk was chased by the raven. He landed right where that dove is perched. He didn’t move when I passed; he just looked at me with golden eyes.”

“How many times have you seen him?”

“I don’t know. Almost every time I’ve been here, he’s been here. How many miles did we figure I put on those Raichles in the last two years?”


“So I guess 2500 miles of times. Once, I was up ahead, in the oak grove. It was in the winter, just before the Gulf War started. I’d stopped to give the dogs water. We sat beneath the trees. I ate an apple. The ravens came. They were everywhere!”

“How many?”

“Maybe a dozen! It was like a Hitchcock film. They circled down, lower and lower, cawing. The dogs were frightened. They refused to drink and flattened their bellies to the earth.”

“Were you afraid?”

“I didn’t know what to do. I was fascinated, and I thought if I got up to go, I would threaten the birds, but I couldn’t stay. I leashed the dogs so they wouldn’t get any crazy ideas of chasing the ravens.”


“I started up the trail. I noticed the ravens were leaving.”

“That must have been what they wanted.”

“Yeah, it seemed like it, but that wasn’t it at all. After I went about 20 yards, I looked back. The ravens were tiny black spots high in the sky. Above me were two hawks, flying low. They had chased the ravens away.”

“Were they protecting you?”

“I can’t say that was their intention, but that was the result. I gave the dogs water and this time they drank. The hawks flew low over us. I could see their feathers. When the dogs were done drinking, I got up to move on. The hawks circled higher, but stayed above me for two miles or more.”

The two walked back in silence. The crude, shapeless scrapes violating the hillsides into a road stretched into the distance, portending a future that would make this moment a flicker in a different world.

The graders came in. The Good X and I went around pulling out stakes every weekend in imitation of the “Monkey Wrench Gang” but it didn’t make any difference. Following the indefatigable laws of human progress, the road was built, the bridges were built, the traffic came through. I avoided driving on that road unless I had no choice. Let me tell you, my boycott made as much difference as my monkey-wrenching. 🤣

Looking down at the road cut from the top of North Fortuna Mountain

One good thing about the bridges is that they were shelter from the rain. One afternoon Lupo (a dog I got in 1994) and I went out for a ramble. It started to rain, and, for a while it was great. Among the things we saw — or I saw — was a rainbow above a hill in Spring Canyon. A hawk flew under the arc of the rainbow while I was watching. Later in that adventure the sky opened up. Lupo and I made a run for the bridge where we met three mountain bikers. All of us were laughing — maybe even Lupo was laughing. We were all very wet, very muddy and very happy.

Lupo and Molly at Mission Trails. Lupo was a prince among dogs.

One awesomely cool and serendipitous post script…

It took a while for the road to be built and longer still for it to open. There were some long pauses, such as when fossils of prehistoric horses were discovered during the digging of the roadbed on the west side, just at the base of North Fortuna Mountain.

One December evening in 1993, I took some friends up to a solstice circle I had found on South Fortuna Mountain. They wanted to stay there, and they had their own car, so Molly and I headed down the silent mountain in ocean mist and dim moonlight. We stopped a couple of times to take everything in. That was my first night hike and after that?

The next morning the new segment of Highway 52 opened. In the following years I often thought about that, how the fates had led me there to savor that last silent night. 

On the matter of boots. Within two years, I had worn out the Raichle Eigers. In 1991, I got the best boots I’ve ever owned, Merrell Wilderness Legends. The soles were stitched to the tops (Norwegian Welt construction) and in our lives together, I resoled them 3 times. I had to say “goodbye” to them in 1997 when they could not be resoled any more.

Here they are at Zion Natl. Park.
Here they are in Zürich when I had to tell them goodbye. The laces for these boots are supposed to be blue, but when I couldn’t replace the broken laces with blue ones, I got red ones.

“Thank you for reading all this! I hope you enjoyed it.”
Yours truly,
❤️ The woman pictured below and her much beloved dog, Molly ❤️

These are all stories from a folder I found in an old trunk. As I was busy shredding them, I stopped to read. This turned out to be something I didn’t want to shred. I’ve shared them here, and I have also put the stories into a little book. The stories are from the very first years I lived with dogs and hiked on my own, with dogs, in the California Coastal Chaparral of San Diego. I wrote these stories in my late 30s.

There are more stories about hiking with dogs in my book, My Everest. The little book with these stories is titled The Beginning of Everything. I saw that the hikes and dogs in those stories were, for me, the beginning of everything. I want to say, “I don’t have words to describe how I feel about my experiences with dogs in nature” but I clearly have a LOT of words for that. The bottom line? It’s been the best thing in my life and that’s saying a LOT.

XV — People Gotta’ Get from Here to There, Dammit!

Mission Trails



“Is your dog friendly?”

“Oh yeah. She loves children. Your kids can pet her.”

“Nice evening.”

“Sure is.”

“Did you see any deer?”

“Just tracks.”

“I haven’t seen deer up here since three years ago.”

“I saw some last December, there on that hill.”

“Well, that’s good. It’s good to know they’re still here. Who knows what will happen when the road comes through.”

“What road?”

“Oh, they’re joining up with the 52.”


“Back there someplace. Near the boundary with Miramar.”


“Well, they’ve had it the works for ten years or more.”


“To ease the traffic on Mission Gorge. Of course, what’s the point? Those people in Tierra Santa keep voting down the bridge, so they’ll never get Jackson Drive through.”

“What if this road is built?”

“It’s being built. Go on down to Santee. You can see how they’re doing it.”

“They’ll be building it all winter? They’re going to have equipment here all winter?”

“Yep. They don’t want to have those workmen walking around here now with snakes all over the place.”

Boring factual background: The “52” was a highway that ended up going from Santee — a burb east of San Diego to La Jolla, by the ocean. The western part had existed for a long time and until the eastern suburbs started to grow, I don’t think anyone thought it would need to be longer. But those suburbs DID grow, and so the 52 “had” to extend WAAAAY out there.

Tierra Santa was a comparatively new community just west of Mission Trails. People in that community did NOT want the traffic going through their community. I don’t know what deals were brokered to make that happen.

When Mission Trails became a park, and I began working with the board, I learned how deals like this work. There was another place where a different major road was supposed to cross the landscape from north to south. It was never built. That turned out to be part of the deal. Another part of the deal was a “mitigation area” where the highway department had to pay for returning a damaged part of this landscape back to its original state. In my stint on the board, I learned that deals like these are complicated and take years to finalize.

The road also had to provide significant animal crossings which were, of course, under bridges. Because of the mitigation agreement, the bridges had to be built a certain way to provide for the happy prowling of ungulates, canids, bobcats, and mountain lions. Part of the mitigation was a long section of a new (to me) canyon, Spring Canyon. It was a beautiful canyon and I got to know it well.

In late spring of 1992, after the Good X had moved out, I hurt my left knee — an ACL tear that, because I had no insurance, was treated “conservatively” rather than surgically. Grrrrrr…. The immediate upshot was I was not allowed to hike for 3 months. The long-term upshot is that I have a fucked up knee. I spent half of those three months in a knee brace and walked with crutches. When those six weeks were over, my “doctor” cleared me to walk cautiously BUT I was allowed to ride a bike. I get that a bike is low-impact exercise and easy on knees, but I got a mountain bike. One bright spot of that period of my life was learning how fun THAT is. Because of my knee, I absolutely refused to fall. Spring Canyon became my favorite place to ride, and I never fell. 🙂 The only bad thing about mountain biking was that the dogs couldn’t come along.

No nettles in Mission Trails but plenty of poison oak.

These are all stories from a folder I found in an old trunk. As I was busy shredding them, I stopped to read. This turned out to be something I didn’t want to shred. I’m sharing it here and I have also put the stories into a little book. The stories are from the very first years I lived with dogs and hiked on my own, with dogs, in the California Coastal Chaparral of San Diego. The stories are a kind of record of the beginning of the best things I’ve done in my life — hiking in nature with dogs. I wrote these stories in my late 30s. There is one more story remaining. I may post it later today, who knows. 😀

XIV — Time’s Museum


In the canyon, ghosts of ancient Indians grind dreaming acorns on timeless stone morteros, ghosts and grandsons of ghosts, the granddaughters of ghosts, pounding the yucca to fibers, stretched across the water, woven into baskets, sandals. The memory songs are sung, the fires built, the rain caught in the stone-carved cisterns, the soft invisible footfall past rattlesnakes. 

She approached past the fading blossoms of the lilac, the green grass, now tall, no longer the surprising short lawn of early spring. From the beginning, her heart beat fast and cold. The dogs barked ahead of her, surprising a man sunbathing on a rock. They went ahead. The big snake was there, in front, stretched in the middle of the trail, his sand-red body warming, moving slowly beneath the feet of the running dog. “I will lie quietly beneath this foreign coyote.”

A quick inhalation. A scream. “Stay. Cody, Molly, come!”

The big dog danced over the head of the snake who looked up, hissed, and rattled a slumbrous, half-hearted rattle. The dog barked. The snake lifted its head, lulled out of its apathy. 

She turned and ran, the dogs followed. 

All over California, wherever there are oak groves (almost everywhere) and rocks (almost everywhere), a person can find morteros where the various Indian tribes ground acorns into meal. Mission Trails has two prominent sites. There are several in an area that’s been named “The Grasslands” where there is one large flat patch of gneiss or a gneiss flat patch of stone. There are more in the place I named the Indian Kitchen in Oak Canyon where there is a seasonal stream, only a few yards south of a large oak grove. The Indian Kitchen is along a small fissure. The morteros were dog water bowls. 🐾❤️

Kelly O’Dog, my golden retriever, drinking from a mortero in the Indian Kitchen. Molly is looking off somewhere thinking profound Molly thoughts or watching a lizard. Hard to say.

The first morteros I ever saw were on the way up to the Hale Telescope on Mt. Palomar. The juxtaposition of THAT with the grinding holes was a little mind-blowing.

The Indians who lived (live) in San Diego County in the “olden days” wandered from the sea to the desert, an annual migration for food and warmth. Their primary food source (acorns) grew all across their range. Their shelters and containers were made of willow branches. In my time working with Mission Trails Regional Park, I got to work with some of the leaders of the Kumeyyaay tribe to whom this land “belonged” before the Spanish. If you’re interested, here’s a good film.

The snake in this story didn’t strike. I think he was offering Cody a kind of Rattlesnake Avoidance Training. It didn’t work. I realize NOW that observing all these snakes was teaching me a little something, though.

It seems that when I wrote this Cody the First had come to live with us. He was a very good dog — German Shepherd and??? — but somehow I never fully bonded with him even though we did a lot of fun things together. I liked rollerblading on Fr. Junipero Serra Trail (two miles of paved road with little traffic) and Cody the First was a great companion for that. Thinking about it now, I think it’s because he became my dog shortly before my marriage broke up. He was supposed to have been the Good X’s dog, but…

I had him for only a couple of years. He died from something like 16 snake bites from baby rattlers. He was bizarrely attracted to rattlesnakes and ran into a nest. I now think he could smell them and the smell attracted him. The day he got bit, he was leashed, but pulled furiously away.

The snake in this story was a red diamondback taking a nap, maybe following lunch. They are beautiful and, as a fellow hiker and I agreed, they are very mellow. The snake in the Onward Christian Soldiers Story was also a red diamondback. Rattlesnakes are really NOT interested in putting their venom into something they can’t eat. That’s one thing that makes baby rattlers so dangerous. They don’t KNOW anything. Other rattlesnakes were not as “chill.” The Southern Pacific Diamondback Rattlesnake and the Speckled Rattlesnake are more venomous and more “aggressive” — or defensive?

Reading these stories — which are so rattlesnake centered — I wonder what I was trying to work out and whether I worked through whatever that was. In time, I more-or-less accepted them, but when I wrote this?

These are all stories from a folder I found in an old trunk. As I was busy shredding them, I stopped to read. This turned out to be something I didn’t want to shred. I’m sharing it here and I have also put the stories into a little book. The stories are from the very first years I lived with dogs and hiked on my own, with dogs, in the California Coastal Chaparral of San Diego. The stories are a kind of record of the beginning of the best things I’ve done in my life — hiking in nature with dogs. I wrote these stories in my late 30s.

XIII — Summit, Continued, AND More Wild Dogs


Dusk. He tips the beer back and takes a swallow. The parking lot is emptying. “Well, Lucky, we better go on along home.” The big white dog barks. “Who is it? Well, hi there Maggie. Hi there, you.”


“Where’d you go?”

“Up there.”

“On the ridge?”


“That’s far. When did you get here?”

“3:00. What time is it?”


“It’s great up there.”

“I haven’t been up there in a while. Did you go to the wires?”

“I went to the top. It was wonderful. I could see forever, no houses, nothing, just chaparral.”

“Lucky you can git here so early.”

“I know.” 

“You want a beer?”

“Naw. I have to go home. I’m dirty and it’s getting cold. This poor dog.” She pointed at Truffle. “It was tough sledding for her.”


“She doesn’t like to go down hills, see. Her center of gravity is in her chest. I think she thinks she’s just gonna’ go down in somersaults.”

The hill down the fire road from the top of Fortuna is very steep. Along it are power lines. It was a lot of fun to run down, and I ran down it many many times in ensuing years. Ask me how that worked out for me long term… 🤣

Once coming down that road, my three dogs, the Good X, and I were stopped in our tracks by five coyotes. I held the dogs and the coyotes just looked at us for a few minutes before ambling up the canyon. We continued and turned into the side of the canyon the coyotes had just left. A woman was hiking along saw my dogs and said, “Well, THAT explains all these footprints!” But it didn’t. The coyotes had made the tracks, splashing in the stream. That’s when I realized we probably have no idea what’s going on.

These are all stories from a folder I found in an old trunk. As I was busy shredding them, I stopped to read. This turned out to be something I didn’t want to shred. I’m sharing it here and I have also put the stories into a little book. The stories are from the very first years I lived with dogs and hiked on my own, with dogs, in the California Coastal Chaparral of San Diego. The stories are a kind of record of the beginning of the best things I’ve done in my life — hiking in nature with dogs. I wrote these stories in my late 30s.

XII — Summit

Fortuna Mountain — Hawks

“Come on!”

Pant, pant, pant. 

“Truffle, Maggie! Look. This waterfall! I bet water cascades down this in winter. Come on. You want a drink? Before we climb it? Watch for snakes. Here. Good, huh? I’ll have some too. Come on. You ready? You ready? Let’s go! Up. OH ROCK! How great! Where, put my foot here, here, here — I feel like flight — like a Dharma Bum! Up, up, up, the sun is flaming at the top. Let’s go dogs. No, Truffle, don’t follow me. You don’t want to mess with these rocks, there are easier ways, better dog ways. This is a silly people way. Watch ahead of my hands. Now what? Foot, there, down — oh shit! Now I’m falling — god, if I put out of my hand, I’ll probably break my arm, my heart, beating, beating, my head. Now this is stupid. Time really does stop! What if I get hurt? Who’s going to call an ambulance? Who’s going to know? The dogs? I’m on the mountain’s terms. I’m OK, dogs. I’m OK. Let’s go. This time I PAY ATTENTION. I bet in the spring this place is covered with shooting stars! Through this mess. I hate this part, bang, bang, bang on the ground with the stick. The breeze, finally. Let’s go come on dogs, all the way! I’ll give you a drink once we’re up there. This is good, this is hard, but it’s good, look, everywhere! Feel the wind! What’s the top? Bang, bang, bang the ground. What? A rabbit? Be careful, Truffle. Such a place — wow! Out there! Wow! I can see real mountains! Up. Up. Up. A hawk! Look at YOU!

I caught this morning, morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple — dawn — drawn Falcon, in his riding of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing in his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing like a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding Stirred for a bird!” *

Come on Maggie. Climb up here. He has a baby! Incredible! He’s teaching it to avoid ravens! He dives for it; if the baby evades the dive, the big bird lifts it on a wave of air from its wing; if it fails? The big bird bites it! Look at that baby! He seems to be in love with the sky! The sun is getting low. Come on. Down the road. I know it’s hard, Truffle. It’s steep, but you can do it — MAGGIE! Stay out of the bushes! Stay here — oh look at the sycamore trees! They seem lit! And the field! It’s glowing! What? What’s that? Louder. Again. What do you mean, “What will happen can’t be stopped: what won’t happen can’t be forced.

At this point in the file folder — after everything had seemed more-or-less in chronological order — I realized things WEREN’T in chronological order. The young woman writing this (aka me half a life ago) was doing something else, trying to write the kind of “order” that we all actually live. We go through life, always forward, one step at a time, but our minds are all over the place. Her dog’s death was ever-present in her mind, and on hikes she would ruminate about what happened. In this story, she’s hiking somewhere but remembering the first time she hiked up Fortuna Mountain. That day she had Truffle and Maggie. Why no Molly? No idea and she wasn’t telling.

Until that early November day she had hiked up ONE mountain — Kwaapaay. For some reason that afternoon when she pulled into the parking lot at Old Mission Dam she felt ready to tackle a new trail, a higher hill. She ended up going straight up a dry waterfall., bushwhacking. She fell at one point and caught herself, only scratching her hand. Meanwhile Maggie, whose existence exemplified “joie de vivre“, ran madly through the overgrown brush chasing scents.

Once the young woman was on her feet, the three went on their way. She felt happily impelled to keep climbing and ended up on top of Fortuna Mountain. From there are views in all directions, and back then a lot of the country was still virgin chaparral. Luckily, Mission Trails DID become officially a park and it acquired a lot of the land around it so people in San Diego can still see the REAL Southern California if they want to.

She didn’t come down the way she’d gone up. All the trails were obvious from the top and she went down a fire road. In later days she often wondered if that was the day Maggie had been bitten so that was on her mind as she took the hike that led to this bit of story. The reality is she never figured out when Maggie had been bitten, but the message she got,”What will happen can’t be stopped, what won’t happen can’t be forced,” quieted her mind. She realized she’d probably never know, and it didn’t matter. Knowing wouldn’t change anything.

Even today she remembers a thought she had as she headed up the waterfall. She had looked down at Truffle and Maggie and thought that her dogs were young and they’d be able to have great hikes like that for a long time. She stops herself now from thinking that because we don’t know. Jim Morrison was right. The future IS uncertain, etc..

Our ties are both permanent and impermanent, accurate and mistaken, concrete and illusory. Thirty years after this hike, Bear leans against my leg, and Teddy licks the remaining cream and coffee from my cup, every moment so very precious.

View from the top of Fortuna Mountain looking back at the trail. The trail goes to South Fortuna Mountain where there was a solstice circle. In the middle distance is Kwaapaay and then Cowles Mountain.

*Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Windhover”

These are all stories from a folder I found in an old trunk. As I was busy shredding them, I stopped to read. This turned out to be something I didn’t want to shred. I’m sharing it here and I have also put the stories into a little book. The stories are from the very first years I lived with dogs and hiked on my own, with dogs, in the California Coastal Chaparral of San Diego. The stories are a kind of record of the beginning of the best things I’ve done in my life — hiking in nature with dogs. I wrote these stories in my late 30s.

X — Denoument

Montana Answers

“Yeah, our dogs used to get bit by rattlers. You never knew ’til the dog got sick. I’d say to my dad, ‘What’s wrong with the dog?’ Dad’d say, ‘Oh, he’s just been snakebit.’ Sometimes the dogs’d make it; sometimes not.”

“What happened then?” she asked her uncle. He’d grown up on a ranch west of Billings, Montana.

“Oh, they’d swell all up, here, around the neck. They’d be real sick for a day or two, maybe bleed from the nose, seizures. They’d make it or we’d shoot ‘em. It all depended how much venom they got.”

That conversation with my uncle told me what had killed my dog Maggie. The city vets in San Diego wouldn’t expect a dog to be snakebit, but here in rural Colorado every vet would expect that. Now there’s a rattlesnake venom vaccine. I don’t know how good it is — even vets have given me mixed reviews. I guess its one main advantage is that it slows the progression of the venom so a person has a longer to get the dog help. I also understand that the antivenin has to be matched to the exactly type of rattlesnake.

I was out pretty early this morning with Bear. As we walked I passed a dead garter snake. I had probably run over it. I felt bad for a moment then thought, “Hungry birds.” A raven flew overhead. Later we passed a living garter snake. Bear is no longer interested in them, and I’m glad of that.

I thought of all the snakes I saw back in the day. Most often it was one of the three kinds of rattlesnakes that lived there — but sometimes king snakes — the yellow and black California Kingsnake and the rare and elusive Laguna Mountain Kingsnake with his red, black and yellow/white stripes. Gopher Snakes were always nice to see as were my favorites, the Desert Rosy Boas. Ring-necked snakes are small and beautiful. I guess it was lucky that I have no real aversion to snakes though a snake on a trail will make me scream. Even the skinny little garter snakes I see out at the Refuge.

Rattlesnakes will never be my favorite critters, but I learned about them. Most useful is that they are territorial, and I could expect to see one in certain places along the way. As much as I truly miss my little house in Descanso, CA, I don’t miss living in a place where there could be rattlesnakes in my yard.

These are all stories from a folder I found in an old trunk. As I was busy shredding them, I stopped to read. This turned out to be something I didn’t want to shred. I’m sharing it here and I have also put the stories into a little book. The stories are from the very first years I lived with dogs and hiked on my own, with dogs, in the California Coastal Chaparral of San Diego. The stories are a kind of record of the beginning of the best things I’ve done in my life — hiking in nature with dogs. I wrote these stories in my late 30s.

In other news, Tu Fu, Lao She, and Pearl Buck — the Scarlet Emperor Beans — and now Li Ho!!! have emerged and I am very happy to see them. I recently read an artlcle about genetically modified — what does the O stand for? — anyway GMOs. The writer is a farmer and he explained that all seeds are genetically modified just by being grown and harvested. It’s true. I look at my beans, see who is busy pollinating them, and (to me) it appears pretty random. The writer explained the obvious, that hybridization is genetic modification, and people have been doing that as long as they’ve farmed, even unwittingly, just by harvesting what grows. He said that using the seeds that come from the previous year’s crops isn’t such a great idea and that buying new seeds every season will give a better yield. He gave a litany of reasons all of which made perfect sense. But every year my beans (so far) have been very very happy to grow from the seeds of the previous summer. Maybe his assessment doesn’t hold for a handful of beans grown by a lady in a 4 x 8 garden but it should be even MORE true when there aren’t many plants. This is the sixth generation from the TWO seeds I planted from a packet that was a year old. Anyway I will give them my best. They are wonderful beings. Or beans.

Lao She

IX – Wild Dogs


“Listen! Coyotes!”
“Have you heard it before?”
“No. Never.”
Against purple hills, the sun low behind them, invisible wild dogs howled a song which — among other messages — said, “The park is closed. The people are gone. We are free.”

Even back then, there were gates on Father Junipero Serra Trail (road) that went through Mission Trails. The gates only kept cars from driving through. Bikes and foot travelers weren’t blocked out. They opened from sunrise to sunset. In summer, the best time for me to go up there was late, late, late in the afternoon so I was often leaving at sunset. I parked outside the park so my car wouldn’t be locked inside.

In my early Colorado life, the timing of a hike had been different — start early in the morning so the mountains would warm up through the day, and a person could be home (or camped) before the thunderstorms began. In the coastal chaparral it was, for me, the opposite. Start out at 5 pm so the day cooled as I warmed up.

It was wonderful because — as I was near the end of my hikes — the crepuscular creatures (isn’t “crepuscular” a cool word?) were emerging. One afternoon Molly and I were walking through a wash. A barn owl flew beside us for a while, watching me. We briefly made eye contact which was, whoa…unforgettable.

At the time I first heard coyotes, I hadn’t seen any — yet. Coyotes would become an important and lovely part of my apprenticeship and this love story, but that was in the future.

Coyote, ink drawing, 1996

I’ve heard coyotes only once or twice since I moved back to Colorado. They’re around, but I’m no longer often out at that magical, petillant moment when they send their yips and howls into the sky.

These are all stories from a folder I found in an old trunk. As I was busy shredding them, I stopped to read. This turned out to be something I didn’t want to shred. I’m sharing it here and I have also put the stories into a little book. The stories are from the very first years I lived with dogs and hiked on my own, with dogs, in the California Coastal Chaparral of San Diego. The stories are a kind of record of the beginning of the best things I’ve done in my life — hiking in nature with dogs. I wrote these stories in my late 30s.

VIII — Perspective

Born Again

“Onward, Christian Soldiers! Marching as to war! With the Cross of Jesus, going on before.”
Fifteen college boys.

“Dogs, look! Oh, no. Let’s hurry. Maybe we can beat them to the top.”

Running, running, the group comes closer, closer, closer, singing, louder, louder, her heart beating faster, faster, too fast, too dry. “Damn! Why are they here? There’s a whole world for them, such a little space for me! Come on, we can do it, Molly, Truffle.”

Running, running, running, marching, closer, closer, Bibles held against the chests of the boys like Mao’s Little Red Book. They don’t look down, they don’t look around, they don’t see morning sun backlighting the froth of seeded weed heads, the cool, damp places beneath the stones where small green things grow, where snakes linger.

“Wait, dogs! Wait. It’s a big one. Damn. What should I do? If I don’t tell those boys, they’ll step on it. If I tell them, I’ll have to wait here and I want to go up, ahead, away. Sit, girls. He’s still sleepy. They’ll walk right on him. They’re walking blind. DAMN!!!”

“Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to…”

“Hey, wait a minute. STOP. There’s a big rattler in the trail four feet in front of you.”


“A rattlesnake. In front of you. I don’t want you to step on it. It’s still kind of sleepy.”


“Not two steps from here.”

“Oh! I see it! Man, he’s big! Give me that rock,” the leader called to his buddy.

“Before you kill it, I want to see it,” said another boy. “I’ve never seen a rattlesnake.” 

“Where’s the rock? That’s perfect. Yeah. OK, that does it. Let’s go. Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War, with the Cross (the rocks? the sticks?) of Jesus marching on before.”

The woman looked down at the broken, bleeding, dying snake. “Look at you, look at you. There was no need. I never meant them to kill you. They come, they march, they sing, they pray, but they are blind. Damn, damn, damn, damn them.”

“Hey down there! Come on! It’s safe now!”

The “woman” felt it was far from safe.

The mythology in the book those boys were carrying made snakes the embodiment of evil. And the boys? Ignorant and arrogant. I was prepared to move the snake with the long stick I hiked with, but I didn’t get the chance. I just wanted the boys to stay back until I could do that. Truffle and Molly were sitting, patiently, some distance away. They got it, but the boys didn’t. I went back down the trail — well, actually straight down the hill. I heard shouting and beating, sticks and rocks and then a whoop of victory. Victory over a sleeping snake. All this in less than 5 minutes.

Just because a thing in nature is potentially dangerous to us doesn’t make it evil or malicious. It means its interests might come in conflict with ours. It doesn’t mean it does not have an equal right to pursue its interests. It means we should be aware.

Rattlesnakes turned out to be a major part of my apprenticeship. More than a decade later, when I no longer lived in the hood, but lived in the mountains east of San Diego, my apprenticeship continued. After losing two dogs — Lupo and Ariel — to rattlers that were hiding in gopher holes in my yard, I had to find a solution to this. I didn’t want to lose my two new dogs, Lily and Jasmine, or any other dogs who might come into my life.

My yard was a snake food supermarket. There were mice, gophers, lizards, frogs, and ground squirrels, AND there were rattlers and gopher snakes. There was NO WAY — living out in the country as I did — that I could possibly get rid of the snake food. The dogs had to learn that snakes were dangerous and had to be avoided.

There was a guy at the time who offered Rattlesnake Avoidance Training. A big Irishman — Patrick Callaghan (RIP) — from a California town where, it was conceivable to me, snakes outnumbered people. He had devised a training method to teach dogs to avoid snakes. I signed up Lily and Jasmine, and out we went to a hunt club not far from Descanso.

I was driving a red 2002 Ford Ranger with a topper. I was told to bring in one dog at a time, so I brought out Jasmine first as the more mellow of the two Siberian Huskies. Here’s how it worked — a review from a website from the time:

Patrick holds a rare license from the Department of Fish and Game for handling the snakes. The rattlesnakes are either muzzled or defanged for the training session. The snakes are rotated through the sessions so that they do not become stressed or tired out. The approach is safe and humane for both the dog and the rattlesnake.

The training appears simple at first glance. A handler leads the dog into the presence of the rattlesnake. Patrick uses a remote training collar to administer a low level aversive stimulus (shock) when the dog becomes aware of the presence of the snake.

Avoidance response stimulation is administered for each of the three senses – sight, sound, and smell. After the visual and auditory recognition experience, the dog is presented down wind to a concealed snake whose rattle is taped so that it cannot rattle. This experience isolates the sense of smell for the dog. Snakes give off a strong and pungent odor that a dog can recognize from some distance. Again, the aversive stimlus is administered so that the dog associates it with the smell of a rattlesnake.

Does this procedure sound simple? It is actually extremely complex. Patrick explains that every dog is different, and the size and amount of reinforcement must be administered according to each dog’s unique make up to be effective. Patrick is able to read every nuance of the dog’s breathing, posture and body language as the dog approaches the snake. It is important that the negative stimulation be tied specifically to the presence of the snake and not to other factors in the environment. Some dogs will require multiple experiences of approaching and leaving the snake to get the conditioning


After the third snake, the dogs were let loose. Well, you don’t let huskies loose as there is no way to know WHERE they would go, so I positioned myself so Jasmine would HAVE to pass me. I caught her and put her in the truck. I brought out Lily.

Both dogs did great. The next spring, I took them back for a refresher. At that time, I was driving a Scion with a hatchback, not the red truck any more. Again I started with Jasmine. After the third snake, she ran faster than I imagined she could run, and not toward me, but to a red truck parked in the parking lot. She tried to get in, too, much to the surprise of the driver and the golden retriever in the back. 🤣🐾❤️

The side benefit of this training is that dogs will then alert their human to the presence of rattlesnakes.

A few years later, after Jasmine had gone to the Enchanted Forest, I realized that there was a large snake in my yard, hopefully a gopher snake (bull snake) not another rattler. I was confident that my dogs would avoid the rattlesnakes, but Siberian Huskies are hunters. Lily — who had the prey drive of a hungry Sabre Toothed Tiger — caught the enormous snake. She didn’t let me near enough to identify it. She held it high in the air and ran around the yard with her trophy. It seemed that from what looked like a narrow, pointed tail, she’d caught a gopher snake. A shame. Gopher snakes were my allies in diminishing the number of ambient vermin.

Here’s Jasmine with a far more benign trophy; a ground squirrel and Lily on Garnet Peak. I put them here just because they were so beautiful, and I loved them so much. Jasmine died of cancer and Lily died of very old age, at 17, here in Colorado, where she got to experience one real Colorado snowstorm.

But many times before that, Descanso turned into a snow globe for my huskies (and me). It was never all rattlesnakes. Sometimes it was:

These are all stories from a folder I found in an old trunk. As I was busy shredding them, I stopped to read. This turned out to be something I didn’t want to shred. I’m sharing it here and I have also put the stories into a little book. The stories are from the very first years I lived with dogs and hiked on my own, with dogs, in the California Coastal Chaparral of San Diego. The stories are a kind of record of the beginning of the best things I’ve done in my life — hiking in nature with dogs. I wrote these stories in my late 30s.

VII — the Apprenticeship


It was December. The rain had ended and the valley was green. She looked down on it from the halfway point on the ridge, moved by its beauty, its softness. “God,” she spoke aloud, “why are you so beautiful?”

“So you would love me,” came the answer.

“I do love you.”

“You love me now. I’m green, I’m beautiful, but can you love me later, in my hot months when my ground is hard and my plants are dry and sear?”

“I can love you then.”

“Can you love me with my snakes, my tarantulas?”

“I can love your snakes.”

“Will you come?”

“I will come. I will not miss a day.”

“I will show you things.”

“You don’t need to bribe me. I know that you will show me things. You always do.”

“You will come?”

“Don’t doubt me.”

“Nor you me. This is the real thing. Can you understand it?”

“Not really. What you offer is beyond me, but I will try.”

That was it. I got my job description that December day. Then I went home and set up a pretty Christmas party with toothsome treats for the Good X and his Toastmaster group.

Yesterday afternoon, I was in the front yard raking. I hate yard work, but I do it. I filled four bags with dead leaves and grass, and I will probably fill two more. My street is noisy now with semi-trucks and motor homes. I had my phone in my pocket and I was listening to music. A couple of guys walked past — one heading east, one heading west. We exchanged friendly words. I plan to refresh the wildflower garden I started last year and plant another one soon, adding some iris as anchors.

As I raked, I thought about what happened AFTER this conversation with God. I hadn’t even meant to talk to God (when I write God what I imagine is the great unknowable mystery of the infinite. It’s just a lot easier to spell God). It was just an exclamation like, “God what a beautiful day,” or “Oh God, I spilled a whole gallon of milk.”

When I saw Kris Kristofferson in the mammatus clouds one afternoon, I understood how people got the idea that the Great Infinite Unknowable Mystery was a guy in the sky.

I was pretty shaken, honestly. I told a friend at work who said, “Don’t tell anyone. They’ll think you need to be locked up. That’s schizophrenia.”

It wasn’t schizophrenia. I don’t know what it was — my imagination? Likely, but I took it seriously. I didn’t realize that I had already served part of an apprenticeship. I’d gone blindly into it with no idea where I was going or what would happen. I only knew I’d promised not to run away. I had promised to love it.

Love is terrifying and dangerous. God (Nature?) spelled out the hazards pretty clearly that day, and over time I came to know them well, and more. I learned that two things were required of me in that love relationship. Courage and acceptance/faith. No one who is not afraid needs courage. Acceptance/faith? That’s just keeping your eyes open to the existent hazards so you can keep going.

My marriage was falling apart because there was no love. In time I saw that, holding up my marriage to the promises God made me that day, and what I had agreed to in agreeing to that love. In this apprenticeship, no one is ever a master.

Maybe the same is true of any real love.

These are all stories from a folder I found in an old trunk. As I was busy shredding them, I stopped to read. This turned out to be something I didn’t want to shred. I’m sharing it here and I have also put the stories into a little book. The stories are from the very first years I lived with dogs and hiked on my own, with dogs, in the California Coastal Chaparral of San Diego. The stories are a kind of record of the beginning of the best things I’ve done in my life — hiking in nature with dogs. I wrote these stories in my late 30s.