The Dog, The Desert, and Me
© Copyright 2018 by Doug Sherr
It was early morning in the Mojave Desert as my girlfriend Judy and I were in her truck heading to California after a season of skiing. Just over a gentle rise, the road was painted with a long black arcing skid mark. Bits of torn aluminum around the dented guardrail spoke of a shredded motor home. In the middle of this scene sat a tiny, white poodle. This Life Magazine image came in a passing flash at sixty miles an hour. In that instant, Judy and I exchanged glances and knew we had to help the poodle. I braked and then backed up near the poodle. I slowly got out of the truck, circled, crouched, and spoke in soft vowel sounds, along with “good doggy” and “come.” At a range of ten feet the dog bolted for open country. Hard to blame him, a poodle shouldn’t expect a life this harsh. Now we had to make a conscious decision—stop the journey until the dog was safe or continue on and wish the dog well. My father advocated finishing anything once started and, by my late thirties, I realized he was right most of the time. I made apologies to Judy for the delay and she returned that look women reserve for their slightly dull-witted lovers who finally make a right choice.
So there was the immenseness of the Mojave and the tiny white blob moving out at high speed. This was going to require some intense running. The spring desert air was still cool, and running was as pleasant as could be. At least I was in shape after a season of skiing. I took off after the little dog thinking it would be a short chase. Never assume that a poodle, even a miniature or toy, is not an athlete. It can run with the wind. After 100 yards or so it seemed that catching this frightened dog in an unending desert was impossible. Time for another decision —was this worth it? Father would say nothing was impossible until you proved it so.
When I was in college I had the good fortune to hear anthropologist Louis Leakey speak on his travels and finds around Olduvai Gorge. His vision of early man being able to run down and kill game was not widely accepted at the time. His reply to critics was, at age fifty, to pick up a jaw-bone lying on the ground, run down a gazelle and kill it. It’s difficult to argue with a man who could do that. While most animals run at speeds unapproachable to man, the old up-right, bi-ped can outlast them all. If Louis could do it, so could I. At least, that was the rationalization I used to chase a poodle in the desert.
Time becomes space in a situation like this. It’s not minutes of running, but the distance to an arroyo, the number of steps to a hillock that measures the segments in a day. The dog was good. There was dedication to his pace, not panicked bursts of speed. My own pace became measured. I wasn’t going to run this dog down, just outlast him. Soon, my shirt hung on a convenient bit of scrub, and breath and perspiration rates were steady. The sun was higher; that did give some clue to time. I could see our truck in the distance and Judy leaning against the fender. The dog seemed to like a hill that rose about sixty feet from the level of the desert floor and resorted to it a number of times. Either this animal was randomly making some wise choices or was purposely trying to wear me down. Good adversaries quickly form a bond of mutual respect and this dog was rapidly gaining all of mine.
When the body shifts its priorities to keeping the engine running perhaps it begins to shut off less useful functions, such as random thought. Leakey experiments were forgotten along with the things I should have done in life since birth and the things I shouldn’t have said to my lover. As the brain-monologue quieted, I concentrated on efficient running patterns, looking for the easiest routes in the undulating roughness of the desert. The dog was now only about ten feet ahead as I eased him to the edge of a steep arroyo he couldn’t see from his low perspective. He should have been trapped, but as he came to the drop-off he jumped into the void without hesitation. When it was my turn I jumped too. Leaping into a place like this should have broken something, but my feet didn’t bother to wait for my brain. They bounced from niche to niche in the rock and used loose skree to slide and slow the fall.
In a few minutes we were back near the highway and the dog ran through a culvert under the road. I waved at Judy and dived in after the dog. The other side of the road offered more desert. The dog kept up a steady pace. I knew I couldn’t stop. To rest was to lose: Just keep the engine running. But it was more than that. It was no longer a simple matter of will. Running became its own purpose. The sound of my feet hitting the ground worked in rhythm with breathing and heartbeats. There was an ordered beauty to this exercise that existed for itself and didn't require rationalizations or tasks to accomplish.
The dog turned and ran back towards the culvert. Now I could see two California Highway Patrol cars pulled up behind the truck. The troopers were watching the chase. One of them was old and overweight and the other was young and seemingly in shape. As we went back through the culvert the young one joined in, but I didn’t want his help. This was between the dog, the desert, and me. The trooper smiled bravely trying to run carrying his burden of armament, but he only lasted a few minutes. It wasn’t a matter of conditioning, it was a matter of commitment. Soon he returned to the highway and the dog and I were alone again.
The sun angle said we’d been running for at least an hour. I was losing energy fast now, however, the dog wasn’t slowing down. I knew I didn’t have much left. Then in the same feeling of being in over my head that I had with the “Demon” in Topanga, I asked for help. What came in mind instantly was the name, Great Spirit. I asked the Great Spirit to help me help this animal. I said I couldn’t run much longer. Several steps later, I knew I couldn’t fail. I felt at peace, as if I had Free Time. Time released from the normal limits that order a day. The next thing that came was my name. Not the one chosen by my parents in honor of a general soon to be thrown out of the Philippines, but a name I had earned. A name some might call an Indian name, but one I now know is given as reward for completing a difficult task. I knew I would succeed in catching the dog and I knew who I was.
The sun was just past zenith when the poodle ran up the hill again. He was slowing down and I knew I had him. He turned to face me, panting deeply. As I picked him up he evacuated his bowels and bit my thumb. He would die fighting. Then, he seemed to realize I wouldn’t harm him and he relaxed in my grip. The task was completed and my mind started to take back control of my life. I smiled when I realized that Leakey was right. We were about a mile from the truck, but I was too full of energy to walk back. It took no time to run that distance. The troopers thought I was crazy. One of them said he wouldn't want to chase me in the desert. I knew if he followed me into the desert I would be chasing him. It didn’t seem to be bragging; it just seemed to be the truth of a warrior. A warrior? Had I suddenly become a warrior simply by chasing a poodle around a patch of sand and rock?
Being a warrior has always been about fighting the battles within; the struggle to overcome implanted limits. I have heard that some warrior tribes tested their young men by sending them to run in the desert. I ran into the desert believing in the power within me to make things happen, but chasing this poodle made me search below layers exhausted by the chase. I found a belief in a power beyond myself that could be consulted and which helped when asked. I now could name that power: Great Spirit. I could also find identity in a name given, seemingly, from that power. I have read that you don’t reveal your secret name because your power will be reduced if you do. I can say I completely understand my secret name and the honor and limitations it imposes. I’ve never revealed it and I won’t now.
Those who have experienced this kind of test and reward will understand and those who haven’t perhaps can appreciate it is possible to go beyond what you think is yourself. All these things were going through my mind as I talked to Judy and the troopers and slowly stepped back into their world. The troopers knew about the dog. He was in a wreck that happened a week before. The old couple that owned him survived the crash, but in the confusion of the moments after the accident and the trip to the hospital they had lost the dog. The troopers were amazed he survived because most dogs abandoned like that were dead within twenty-four hours from coyotes, the climate or maybe just fear. They cited several cases of German Shepherds and a Doberman that didn’t last a day in the Mojave.
The poodle’s collar had a registration number and a phone reference. We called the number from the next truck stop and found out his name was Homer. A name fit for a saga. We contacted the owners and agreed to deliver him, several hundred miles away. They said Homer was a lapdog. He wasn’t allowed out alone in their backyard. For the next two days until we could deliver Homer, he stayed close to me. We had become friends. I believe he had his own revelation in the desert. Within Homer was the strength of legends. You just can’t judge the size of the revelation by the size of the poodle.