This photo was taken In Island Park, Idaho about 900 miles into our long-distance pack trip across Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. I am riding my horse leading two mules toward Yellowstone National Park following my long-term backcountry partner, Woof.
Woof always led the way. For many years I made my living as a cowboy and horse packer. We mostly worked the country adjacent to the southeast corner of Yellowstone. For almost twenty years I never once rode a backcountry trail without Woof, her tail raised like a flag ahead of us. She was the consummate backcountry dog. She knew the smell of every animal, knew how to find her way. She scared off predators and served as my alarm system, warning me long before any danger. She slept on a horse blanket in my tipi, where during the coldest nights she would sleep so close to the stove that her fur would steam.
We had worked together so long that all our communication had become nonverbal. There's comfort in that kind of relationship, one that has survived the early challenges and head-butting and the idiosyncrasies of each individual to become one in which the bond has become unbreakable and words become moot in lieu of a look, expression, or gesture.
For almost fourteen years we worked the national forests. One day I made a rough count of the miles we had traveled the backcountry, and the distance totaled more than two times the circumference of the Earth. I rode dozens of horses and mules during those years, but only one dog traveled with them.
For financial reasons I had to eventually leave cowboying behind. Doing so was hard, but I often thought that Woof had it harder. At least I could intellectualize the reasons for the changes and all the time spent in town and at a "real" job, but Woof only knew her wild, free life had become a lot less free. We continued to ride and pack for pleasure, but my new business training and boarding dogs meant that Woof had to share me with many dogs.
For the most part she ignored them and did her own thing, but her presence had a profound effect on the dogs, especially the young and troubled who all seemed to look up to her. Before long, though she no doubt would rather have been working the backcoutry, she was helping me mentor dogs. She did this without my asking.
We both worked hard and tried to get away and ride every blue moon. Years passed, and in perfect health, Woof turned 19. She lived for our rare rides. Every time I saddled my horse she would jump for joy on her back legs, and then, when I squeezed my horse forward, she would, tail up and flagging, trot down the trail.
One night Woof suddenly fell violently ill and started falling on the floor. I didn't know it at the time, but a single grass seed had lodged in her ear and caused a major infection. This began a long cycle of her declining and fighting back. She was often so dizzy I had to walk her by slinging a towel under her chest. She didn't care as long as she and I headed out the door.
One morning, though she couldn't see straight and could barely lift her head, she thumped her tail on the floor when I opened the back door. I left it wide open so the winter wind could blow in and bring her the smell of the familiar, a nose trigger to her best memories. When my hand hit the knob, her tail wagged as if she believed I was about saddle up and she was going to lead us away.
But she had to head down a new trail on her own. Woof died in her cowboy's arms the way a cowdog should. I wondered if she kept looking back and waiting for me to follow a-horseback. I wanted to go with her, something fierce.
I had to travel a different trail, though, and this time on my own. For a couple of years I felt lost and empty trying to ride without her leading the way.
These days I still think about her every day. Where is she? Where do the good dogs go? I wonder. Often I remember her running through some mountain meadow, swimming a river, or heading down the trail ahead of me. One day I'll die and travel the trail she took, and I hope that she'll be there waiting, turning back to look for me then flagging her tail as she trots ahead to lead the way.