Laying on my back in the sand, head on my dog, feet on my husband’s lap, book in my hands, this is one of my favorite moments in time. It’s the kind of memory that makes you smile first and then tell the story. It was a day on the Oregon coast where nothing spectacular and everything spectacular happened. We relaxed, I read a book, we had some cold beers, our dog played in the waves and chewed on seaweed and sticks, it was sunny and not too windy.
We had walked down to the beach after breakfast, brought a small cooler and beach bag, enjoyed the day and then walked back home when our dog Utah wanted to have some dinner. Utah was great like that, he loved everything about every minute and rolled with life like he had already figured out what the rest of us were searching for.
Our Utah was a big dog; part black lab and part boxer. His mother was a champion sporting class show black lab and his dad was the neighbor’s Boxer who jumped the fence at the wrong/right time. One hundred and thirty-five pounds of love and loyalty. He was with us through everything.
About eleven years ago, I was driving from Portland to southern Oregon, hit black ice, and my SUV spun around on the highway three or four times before I was able to put it into a snowbank. Utah had hunkered down in the back, and as soon as the car stopped moving, he put his head on my right shoulder and licked my face. He stayed in the exact spot for 150 more miles of ice and snow. When we finally arrived safely home at 1am, Utah had about a million doggy treats and I enjoyed a tall boy after our heart-stopping drive.
My husband Luke and I got Utah well before we were married. Our parents tried to talk us out of getting a dog, but they fell in love with him as quickly as we did. I was eighteen, and Luke was nineteen when we brought home Utah. He was with us for thirteen years. The three of us grew up together, from teenagers to successful adults. Utah made us a family and I discovered that as much as I had ever loved a human being, I loved Utah with a fierceness I didn’t know I had. He taught me what it truly meant to protect my family and to love without end.
In fifth grade, I read a book that would come to influence many areas of my life, for decades. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George was and is the kind of book that sticks with you and you reread a hundred times to discover something new each time. I have worn out two copies of the book myself.
When I first read the book, I was ten years old and my parents were fighting an unusual amount. I worried they were going to get a divorce and also wondered if that might be the best route. My brother and I were constantly being shooed out into our yard while they argued. He threw sticks at things, as seven year old boys do, and I found a new world with exciting friends in Julie’s adventures.
In the book, Julie finds herself at first dependent on a wolf pack for survival and later becomes a part of their pack. Amaroq is the head of a wolf pack, she and I learned a great deal from him.
Sometimes the people that are your family aren’t the ones you are related to, they’re the ones you relate to.
Amaroq was an imposing, large black wolf. He did not accept Julie as part of his pack long after the other members had become fond of her. He pushed her and required more of her. Amaroq made her and all the family members in the pack better; at hunting, parenting, and relating to each other. He stuck with the family, always provided for them.
Amaroq was a father figure like no other. He was steadfast in his beliefs, fair in his judgments and the family always came first. It’s often not so black and white with human fathers, there are more dimensions that can fog the glass of fatherhood.
The pack, along with Julie and I, relied on Amaroq and his unwavering support. His family looked to him for guidance, encouragement and discipline. He taught them the skills that each of them needed to be successful adults. Each wolf, just like each person, has strengths that contribute to the well being of the pack, the family. Amaroq recognized each individual’s abilities and helped them capitalize on their personal traits. Pack dynamics change, just like human families. Amaroq aided and inspired each wolf to adapt and overcome any challenge.
From Amaroq, I learned what a great father is and does. I related so deeply with the book, so I truly connected with Amaroq. I knew that for this character to possess these traits, fathers like that were, in fact, out in the world. The man I came to rely on didn’t share my last name, well until I got married that is, but we shared a lot more. He has more Amaroq in him than any other man I know, other than his son, whom I had the privilege to marry.
Ol’ Dan and Li’l Ann
I cannot remember when I first read Where the Red Fern Grows, but I first reread it when I used it in one of my book clubs with my fifth and sixth grade class. The kids’ reactions and discussions around this book were as moving as the plot of the book itself.
At the time when we were reading Where the Red Fern Grows, my dog Utah was ten years old. He had just been diagnosed with chronic renal (kidney) failure and we had to put him on a strict diet to extend his life. This book is just such a powerful one, I wanted to make sure the kids read it, I knew I couldn’t read this book aloud, given what we were going through with Utah. I put it into our book club, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I ran my book clubs in my classroom very similar to the book clubs we as adults attend, with more guidance. I would meet with each group for thirty minutes, contribute when needed, and the children ran the meetings. Their insights never ceased to amaze me and those book clubs were hand down, the best days of teaching and learning.
Where the Red Fern Grows begins with the main character as an adult, recalling his dogs as a child and telling the story of their lives. He had raised the money to buy the dogs when they were little puppies. This little boy spent every spare second training, working and caring for his two dogs. They were his best friends and protected each other as siblings.
As amazing as the book is, and trust me, it’s incredible, it’s what I learned after I read it that stuck with me.
After reading the book with my sweet book club, our dog Utah passed away. Our entire family was there, it was and still is the worst day of our lives. We were broken, for a long time. We cried a lot, we couldn’t be around other labs, it was ugly. He was our first baby, taught us how to be a family and we were lost in a tunnel of black without him in our days.
A few months later, I was reorganizing my classroom library and this book dropped onto my foot. I picked it up and cracked it open. The book begins with the main character as an adult, seeing a dog that reminded him of Ol Dan. His memories were happy, he remembered their life together and all of their adventures. His dogs had created a legacy that lived inside him and that he was teaching all this to his son.
Shortly after, my husband and I had a long talk. That we needed to celebrate Utah life, not be so sad because he wasn’t sad a day in his long life. We eventually found room to be happy, to tell the silly Utah stories, to keep his story going.
Where the Red Fern Grows is an epic book, for so many reasons, one being that grief doesn’t stop you. The main character in this book lost his best friends, his hunting partners and his whole world as a little boy. As an adult, he remembered their joy, their bond and their love. Ol Dan and Lil Ann were the best traits of all, put into four legs and wagging tails. Their spirit is still here, it grows as a red fern out back.
My husband and I find ourselves saying that a lot, sometimes it’s “Ohhhhhhh!!! MAX!!!”
Or “Oh, Max?”
And sometimes, with a smile, “Oh, Max.”
Maximus is our two and half year old Chocolate Lab, we bought him from a lovely family out in the middle of nowhere in Washington state. We pulled up to the owner/breeder’s house to see two soaking wet labs running from behind the house, each with two tennis balls in their mouths. I knew we were at the right place.
We had told the breeder we were looking for a male, and she told us that she had five. Then she jokingly mentioned that only one of the five had surpassed the others in weight and had figured out how to escape the puppy pen and explore under the house. Luke and I looked at each other, that was the one we wanted.
Max barked and howled for ninety straight minutes in the truck ride home and promptly fell asleep on the center console, head on Luke and feet on me. He slept with his tongue out, nursing in his dreams.
Therein lies Max; equal parts loud, ridiculous, adorable and sweet.
We weren’t totally sure we could love another dog like Utah, and Max showed us that it was possible to embrace love and loss gracefully and joyfully.
Max brought out the silly, goofy sides of us! He makes us laugh hundreds of times a day. His personality is as big as the world and he makes ours that much happier.
Every morning Max lays on his back, wiggles around like a sea otter, and can’t wait to kiss our faces. It’s like he wakes up and every single day is the very best day that he has ever seen. Makes it hard to wake up on the wrong side of the bed when you have a squiggly, squeaky, floppy pup just waiting to get the day started.
Max instantly loves, all humans, dog, cats, squirrels, birds, you name it, Max loves it. Like Buddy the Elf, everything is his favorite! There have been a handful of times that Max has growled and demonstrably protected me, and he was correct every time.
We had just moved to Texas and I was awfully, horrifyingly, and haltingly terrified that we would die writhing deaths by snake bites. I hardly allowed Max off into any bushes. I don’t even think he’s ever seen a snake, but he had a natural fear of anything that looked like, moved like or sounded like a snake. We were getting back from a run, and Max bodychecked me back on the sidewalk like a hockey player in the last minute of the third period. We both froze because by that time I had heard it too. The distinct sound of a rattlesnake. I knew it was close but couldn’t tell where. Max growled and kept backing me up. By the time I located the sound, I also figured out the source. A big, bad, mean… sprinkler head that got stuck underground. Max and I simultaneously looked at each other in relief.
Max has an intuitive nature that I’ve never seen before. Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s because we took on a big adventure and moved across the country this year, maybe it’s because I just give less fucks than I used to, but dammit that little dog makes it ok for me to run through puddles in the rain, play silly games, and laugh too loudly in public.
Be all in on your feelings, and enthusiastically tell your world about them. That’s what my silly Maximus has taught me and he’s been by my side snuggling, kissing, jumping, drooling and wiggling as I’ve been writing.
These dogs have all shaped me, given me great lessons, and shown me the way throughout my life. Their legacies live in me and drive me. There’s a great quote I read somewhere, probably Pinterest, that I wish to live up to the person my dog thinks I am. That would be a damn good life, hope I can do it; Utah, Amaroq, Ol’ Dan, Li’l Ann and Max. A damn good life.
*Author’s Note: All photographs on this site are taken by the author, with a variety of beloved cameras and lenses. If you look very closely at the top picture (Utah), you can see the author reflected his eyes. It’s one of her very favorite, treasured photographs.