Some of you will remember my posts a few years back when two of my dogs died. Dulce’s mom, Hipo, in 2012, and her brother, Dooley, in 2014. Both are buried in the rubber tree orchard behind my wife’s house in Nakhon Si Thammarat. Now the last one is gone. After the initial shock and sadness waned, I began to reminisce … with Dulce, it had been a rocky start.
She popped into my hands just after 2 a.m. on February 23rd, 2002. I always believed she would die of old age in my arms. That was not meant to be, though.
Driving from Oregon to Texas in the summer of 2002, with Hipo (e-poh) and her two four-month-old pups, I passed through what Wikipedia calls a ghost town. Orla, Texas had one intersection with two stop signs, neither of which applied to me so I blew right on through. Orla also had two buildings—one being a dilapidated clapboard-sided edifice with, out front, an ancient hand-crank gas pump topped with a glass reservoir. (Wikipedia actually has a photo of this.) The arrow-straight never-ending ribbon of asphalt promised nothing but hour after hour of empty, sunbaked, mirage-puddled driving, in a bone-dry, desolate land sprouting rusted-out oil wells.
The middle of Nowhere, USA. A perfect place to safely water the mutts. What could go wrong?
Five minutes later I pulled onto the western shoulder and parked facing the barbed wire fence that lined both sides. Scant traffic. Over the next 40 hours, I would count perhaps ten vehicles per hour.
It had been a week since one of our daily outdoor hikes, plus the rambunctious pups had been stuck in the truck for three days, and I’m pretty sure they scented a jack rabbit amongst the tumble weeds and cactus. Only a moment after opening the door I stood blinking in disbelief while squinting into afternoon sun. On the bottom strand of wire, three chunks of black and tan hair dangled a yard apart from each other.
An hour of whistling and shouting promises of food went unrewarded. If I’d been flying, visibility that day was unlimited, but at ground level it was reduced to mere yards by chest-high clumps of sagebrush. Two hours later, voice shot, I backtracked three miles to the nearest gravel side road and followed it for a half mile, until sighting Hipo and Dooley lying very still in the dirt on the side of the road. Twenty feet off the road I’d never have seen them. Severely dehydrated, I gave them water and stuffed them in the back of the Bronco, setting the A/C to meat-locker. I spent the rest of the afternoon driving back and forth and up and down, looking for Dulce, until low on gas.
I returned to the original spot and waited. Dogs come back to the starting point, right? The triple-digit temperature fell with darkness. Drafts from a few dozen semis rocked the Bronco like a cradle through the night, but I didn’t sleep.
From time to time I’d pierce the darkness with my headlights, or stand on the hood with my Streamlight, or toot the horn. Each time a multitude of beady eyes looked up, staring back. I wondered if coyotes hunted in packs, or attacked their domesticated cousins. Timid, I knew Dulce wouldn’t fight, just try to run and the coyotes certainly had the home team advantage.
In the morning I again walked deep into the sagebrush, eventually losing sight of the Bronco, Hipo and Dooley now glued to my side like little kids first time in a horror house. At noon I drove the seven miles back to Orla, surprised to find the dilapidated building occupied. No gas, but a fearless eighty-year-old woman eked out a living making sandwiches for the handful of oil workers still in the area. We talked a bit—until I choked up and turned away. I bought bottles of water and a sandwich for Hipo and Dooley. Then, still hoping, I bought two for Dulce and went back to my search.
Another fifteen hours in the original spot, I saw sunrise through the back window. Between the forty hours and the heat and the sun and the lack of water and the coyotes, no way Dulce could still be alive. Still, I walked into sagebrush one last time, calling her name. Backhanding away tears of guilt, I got in the Bronco and slowly drove away, eyes not on the road, but in the rearview mirror.
Arriving in Fredericksburg mid-afternoon, the motel manager immediately handed me a pink message slip. I saw your dog this morning eating the food you left for her. She wouldn’t come to me, but I left her some beef stew and water. Bessie.
Other than the unmanned, one-man post office, Miss Bessie was the only permanent human for miles. I had given her the phone number in Fredericksburg of where I’d be staying. Don’t know why. There really was no reason for me to do that, because I had sworn not to leave until all hope was lost.
I jumped back in the Bronco with Hipo (Dooley stayed at the hotel with a babysitter) and drove six hours in sunshine, then the final three through thunderstorms. West Texas gulley washers featuring a barrage of constant lightning bright enough to read a book. This created a new problem. Dulce did not like thunder and lightning. But if by some miracle she stayed at the spot, could I even find that spot again? At night, in a thunderstorm? There were scores of pull-offs with no landmarks. With nothing to do but drive and think, my hopes roller-coastered.
I arrived after midnight, sixty hours after the adventure began. The road was six inches under water when I pulled into what I hoped was the same spot and jumped out. But before I even could call her name, a black and tan mop scrabbled under the fence, rocketed by me, and leapt into the Bronco, whipping water everywhere, then jumping and spinning. Dulce kissed Hipo. Hipo kissed Dulce. I got in and Dulce kissed me and … well, it was a very wet reunion.
How did she survive two and a half nights and two and a half days in such conditions? And, on an infinite stretch of sameness, how did I unhesitatingly choose the right spot in a thunderstorm? And why did Dulce remain in that spot in such a storm, and not run in panic? You decide.
For the next sixteen years, Dulce stayed close by my side. She was a happy dog. A quiet girl who only barked twice in her life, one bark each time. Dulce—all my dogs—changed me. That is a dog’s true purpose, to slowly but surely make us better people, if we allow it. Her serene disposition slowly dissolved my anger at past transgressions. I stopped cussing years ago, because whenever I swore—even under my breath—she’d leave the room. And the things I gave up for her and Dooley and Hipo taught me sacrifice is not only a necessary component of love, it is love’s benchmark. Going back was the best thing I ever did.
I could say there are no others like her. But that’s not true. Your dog is special too. While Dulce was unique, like most things in life we get out of something what we put into it, and dogs can teach us many life lessons if we allow them to. But those lessons aren’t free. You have to make a sacrifice of unconditional love.
In the end it was cancer rather than old age that took her. But when it did she was in my arms. Had been constantly for the final two-and-a-half days.
But all those years, right up until those last sixty hours, it was never the rustling of a potato chip bag, or the scent of my cooking her dinner that would unfailingly get Dulce on her feet. She was too calm and trusting and patient for that. It was just a few simple words …
Hey, Dulce, wanna go for a ride in the truck?
Miss you, Dulce.