Zen On Dirt


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Leaving Tucson

Leaving Tucson is always hard. Honestly, leaving any place is hard, but since Tucson (and the surrounding areas) is the single place where we spend the most time, it’s exceptionally hard to leave behind. We have friends, we have the city figured out, and it’s the most beautiful desert there is.

But it was getting hot, and we had play dates in the north. So, after day of errands in town, we towed the Scamp up to Picacho Peak State Park, just south of Phoenix where we were able to sneak in a quick hike up the peak (Trails closed at sunset, 6:59, and we finished at 6:57) and grab a shower before calling it an early night for an early departure the next day.

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I like to use the arrival and departure from Tucson as an event that involves reflection on the past summer/winter. A chance to look back on the things I did, the goals I accomplished, and the things that I didn’t get around to.

This year, winter in Tucson flew by much faster than past. We did arrive 19 days after our usual arrival time of November 1st. We did leave 13 days early from our usual departure date of May 1, and I did spend 10 days in Boulder over Christmas, a week there to take Sparkles up there, and another 2.5 weeks there dog sitting, but still, mid-April came up so fast it felt like it smacked me in the face.

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So first I think back to what I didn’t get a chance to do. The running traverse of the Catalinas. Hiking the Huachuca Crest. A silly trip up Tumomoc Hill. I didn’t ride Bugs/Prison Camp/Millie, or at Sweetwater, or Ridgeline. I also didn’t ride Fantasy Island, but I haven’t ridden Fantasy Island since moving to Tucson.

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And then I think about the things that I did get around to. I got to run Agua Caliente twice. I ran Wasson countless times. I bikepacked in the Gila. I showed many people from out of town around Starr Pass. I went running on the Starr Pass trails that I have no interest in taking a bike on. I ran my Tucson Mountains Traverse and didn’t die.  I learned many of the common birds in Southern Arizona, got to see three Elegant Trogons, a Green Kingfisher, and can now identify a handful of birds by their song alone.

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We bought the Scamp. This was a lifelong dream come true. And we pared down our belongings to fit into said 13-foot Scamp and our minivan.

And I found a stray dog and found her a new home. If I think back to what I’ll remember the winter of 2015/16 for, it’ll be the Sparkles dog, and all of the stress, heartbreak, and eventual happiness that she caused.

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We rolled out of Picacho at sunrise the next morning, hoping to beat the heat to the big hills leading up to Flagstaff. We were leaving the Sonoran Desert behind, and while I was sad to bid farewell to the final saguaros north of PHX, I was unbelievably excited about what lay ahead.

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Sending off the AZTR

I love the Arizona Trail Race.

I loved racing it in 2013, I’ve loved sending it off every year since. While it’s entirely Scott’s baby, I feel like I get to be some sort of step-parent to it. I don’t actually do any work to get it off the ground, but I feel like I give people good pep talks at the start line. That’s got to be worth something.

Plus, it’s the second time in the year (the first being 24-Hours of Old Pueblo) that all of my friends come to see me in the desert.

It’s such a unique route that showcases so much of what is awesome about Southern Arizona, I love to see people roll down into the Canelo Hills, ready to see so much. And experience so much. Nobody gets out of the AZT 300/750 without an adventure of some sort.

After our weekend with Salsa (post about that one coming at a later date), we headed back to Gilbert Ray for a night. We call these layover nights, they are mostly used for getting reorganized and running town errands. Living in a Scamp still requires life-maintenance days…we just don’t have to clean bathrooms. IMG_3479

But we did have to get new tires for the Scamp and grease for the bearings, Scott needed to pick up a re-laced wheel, I had to make returns at REI and Radioshack, and groceries. We always need groceries. And Seis. There’s never a bad time for Seis burritos.

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We did get out for a sunset ride.

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I’m going to miss this place.

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And Shannon was having a pre-AZTR BBQ and pool party (which devolved into a bike-building party), which was the main motivation for staying in Tucson. It’s always fun to see pre-race puttering and bike maintenance. Shannon puts batteries in a SPOT, Alexis builds a bike last minute, Elliot danced with a bag of chips…

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Alexis’ pile of bike protection from unpacking…

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Scott’s half of the job…

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Leaving late, we took another layover night in the Rincon Valley before heading down to Parker Lake before the heat hit.

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We knew we had a few hours before nervous racers started to show up, so we took the chance to ride some new-to-me AZT south of Parker up to the Wilderness Boundary. While the AZT segments beyond, the Huachuca Crest, called, I was now nursing a sore shin and a cold. No running for me. Drat.

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We’ve never camped out the night before the AZT, but I think it’s going to become a new tradition. Talking about riding bikes is always a good way to spend the evening. Nerves seemed to be relatively under control, and for those who were nervous, I reminded them that they’d done all the work, the racing was just the reward so they might as well enjoy it.

Scott has built quite the event. 74 racers total this year, split evenly between the 300 and 750.

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The leaders of the 750 came through with barely a hi-five. The Schilling crew decided to stop for a picnic 15 miles into the race.

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The unicyclist stole the show.

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As of this writing, he’s trucking along Oracle Ridge.

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Within an hour, the parking lot cleared out and we were left with just our thoughts, and a nasty cold each. So much for big riding plans.

Though I can’t complain…Parker Lake isn’t a half-bad place to hang out and nurse a bug. As it turned out, the lake was home to all sort of neat birds.

We saw a flock of White-faced Ibises who are mere migrants in the area.

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A handful of Ospreys soared through the skies.

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And the Belted Kingfisher. He flew from a tree on one side of the bay to the other and back, over and over and over. He was my favorite.

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I could have stayed longer. The grasslands of the borderlands definitely have my heart. But, as with every year, forecasted temperatures looked to be in the 90’s for the foreseeable future. It was time to go north. And that, that made me a little bit sad.


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Patagonia with neighbors of the feathered and ‘illegal’ types

There’s a little town call Patagonia just 12 miles north of the Mexican Border. It consists of a main street, a half dozen side streets, and the some outlying residences, including the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center. There’s also a hippy commune, an amazing pizza place that is only open four days a week, a coffee shop, and a bakery.

This little town is world-renowned among birders, especially those looking to catch a glimpse of a Violet Crowned hummingbird.

We like Patagonia because it’s quiet, there’s free camping close to town, it’s cooler than Tucson, and there’s not a palo verde tree to be seen anywhere. This, in the spring time, is a great thing because Scott’s massively allergic to the big green trees that bloom a beautiful yellow and fill the air with pollen. Everyone and their mother seems to be allergic to them.

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We love Patagonia, so we went to Patagonia and were tickled pink to see that our favorite camp spot was still open. We had to share our site with Fred the Coopers hawk who hung around laughing at us for several hours each day. (Ok, maybe he wasn’t laughing *at* us, but his call definitely sounded like a laugh to us.)

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We also had a daily visit from a little Hermit Thrush.

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Plus, we heard the call of an Elf Owl each night, which is the size of a sparrow and is the smallest owl in the world. We had beta on which telephone pole he liked to inhabit each year, but we never did manage to get eyes on him. It’s okay, he barked away all night and every time I heard him, it made me smile.

One morning we went out for a little pedal to a place where Scott thought we could find some cool birds. He promised a whole mile of good single track on a two hour ride. In the Canelo Hills area, any good trail is worth exploring.

And the birds!

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First we happened upon a flock of Montezuma Quail. These guys usually flush like gunfire and give me heart attacks, but this flock seemed to be pretty content to just waddle off.

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Their camouflage is amazing.

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The singletrack, as promised, was fun. Primitive, but fun.

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And then as we pedaled the road back, we flushed two Elegant Trogons from a tree! As they flew across the road in front of us, bellies red as can be. I think my exact words were, ‘Those were f-ing Trogons!’ We dropped the bikes in the middle of the road (safe, I know) and followed them up the hill for a bit. They were much shyer that the one that’s been living at Patagonia State Park and is used to being photographed. It was pretty neat to see these birds so unexpectedly.

As we pedaled back mid-morning, we saw the road crawling with Border Patrol, something not entirely unexpected in the area, but the sheer number of them indicated that something was up.

We left our campsite soon after, headed to town for breakfast and then to Patagonia Lake State Park for more birds and showers. The birds were cool, but this lizard stole the show.

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Looks like someone lost their tail!

We got back to camp and heard voices in the campsite next to us.

‘I wonder if we have neighbors,’ I said, thinking nothing of it. The next door site was well within earshot of ours, but well out of eye sight.

‘Sounds like it,’ Scott said. ‘It sounds like a group, maybe on bikes coming down the canyon?’

We never saw any bikes come down the canyon.

We continued on with our afternoon of lounging. Scott napped. I hung out with Fred the Cooper Hawk.

Our bubble of tranquility was burst when a pickup truck came into our camp. A cowgirl (Ranch girl? Ranch woman?  She looked tough, I wouldn’t have picked a fight with her) got out of the front seat.

‘Hey there,’ she said. ‘Border Patrol has been searching for some illegals all day, have you seen anything?’

‘Nope.’

‘Well, they were seen up by the Spirit Tree Inn about 40 minutes ago heading up the canyon, but if they come wandering into your camp, could you call Border Patrol so that they can get a free ride back home?’

‘Sure thing,’ we said and took the number scribbled on a piece of newspaper.

We watched Border Patrol race down the road in all manners of vehicle towards the Spirit Tree Inn and now understood why there had been so many this morning.

A few minutes later, I turned to Scott, ‘Hey, have you heard our neighbors lately?’

‘Nope.’

I wandered over to find an empty campsite with a handful of catholes dug into the wash with toilet paper strewn about. I had to laugh. We knew exactly what route our ‘neighbors’ had taken over to the Spirit Tree Inn after we’d flushed them out from their afternoon bathroom spot when we’d gotten back.

We headed back to the Rincon Valley the next morning for the first of our Tucson engagements. The cloudy skies and mild temperatures made for pleasant evening riding.

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The next morning, showers pummeled Tanque Verde Ridge all morning. We wondered if weather really was going to shut down our weekend plans.

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But then, as predicted, the weather cleared, and the Salsa Cycles demo van showed up at our door with a pile of brand new, soon to be released bikes. An amazing weekend of riding bikes was in store, but that story is going to have to wait for another time and an other place.

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Playing in Madera Canyon

We had one goal on our mind when we rolled out of Tucson: Escape the heat.

Really, if it wasn’t for a handful of Tucson-based commitments that we had in the following weeks, we probably would have abandoned the ship called Tucson and headed north. We’re discovering that anything above mid-80’s gets hot in the Scamp unless we park in the shade, and then our solar doesn’t really do us much good. #scamptrampproblems

Luckily, there’s no shortage of fun things to do in the highlands of Southern Arizona, and a certain Mt Wrightson had been sitting on the Tucson horizon all winter just begging to be run. So Madera Canyon it was. We found ourselves a less-than-perfect-but-workable campsite in the camping area.

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It was an added bonus that it’s getting to be high birding season down here with migrant birds galore. It also means that there are birders galore, and birder-watching is almost as good as bird watching.

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The Arizona Woodpecker is always a fan favorite.

It’s the hummingbirds that are the big thing in the canyon, the various lodges and B&B’s set up feeders and chairs to watch the feeders. Chairs that seem to be fully occupied every time we strolled by. The claim is that birding brings in more tourism money to Tucson than golf.

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But me? I like the big and questionably ugly birds. This dude was strutting his stuff for the ladies all afternoon.

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And the woodpeckers. I really love the cartoon Acorn Woodpeckers.

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With the elevation and the shade, our campsite was the perfect place to nap away an afternoon, listening to Mexican Jays and White Breasted nuthatches cause a racket right up until the sun set.

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The run in the morning was as stunning as I remember. It was neat to be up a year after my last run up it and to have so much better of a grasp of Arizona geography. Red Mountain is there. Patagonia is there. Those are the Catalinas, and those are the Rincons. And I’m in the Santa Ritas with Mt Hopkins right next to me. And that’s the ridge that goes down to Florida Canyon where the Elegant Trogons live.

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By the end of the run, my shins were sore, my foot was ouchy, and I figured that I’d probably overdone it on the running front. This is typical Ez behavior, and maybe someday I’ll learn. But probably not.

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We briefly pondered staying another night, and if we’d had one of the better camp spots, we probably would have, but decided on pointing even farther south to Patagonia, where the birds are plentiful, the coffee shop exceptional, and the camping is free.


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Big runs, big rides

I had planned on doing a long run from our Scamp site in the Rincon Valley to see how the legs would hold up to some level of milage. But when I woke up with a sore shin (I hate the fact that I can’t run forever. I can ride forever, why can’t I run forever without injury? These are the great injustices of life.) I put the long run plans on the back burner.

Instead, we packed up the Scamp to move it closer to Tucson for a handful of days so that we could partake in some Tucson-based activities. It was also going to cool down for a few days, and there’s no better place to be than Tucson when it’s cool out. We ended up at our favorite site at the Gilbert Ray campground which gives sweeping views from one end of the Tucson Mountains to the other. It’s also easy to back into so that I don’t make a complete ass of myself backing a trailer.

‘Hey Scott,’ I said after we’d set the Scampy up. ‘What would the milage estimate be if I started running at Ajo Highway, went up Cat Mountain Trail, over Krein, over Golden Gate Pass, over Brown Mountain, up to the top of Wasson, and then down to the parking lot in the National Park?’ Basically, a south to north traverse of the Tucson Mountains.

I looked far down south to where I could see Cat Mountain poking up to the north where Wasson towered as the high-point of the range.

’21 miles,’ Scott said after some Topofusioning.

‘Could you run my shuttle tomorrow? I would love you forever and ever.’

‘Sure.’ Scott was skeptical. It was a big run, but the temperatures were supposed to cool down, and I’d end up running right by the Scamp halfway through the route, which would provide an easy bail-out option if needed.

But the first order of business was an afternoon ride on the Trail of Tears, aptly named (by me and Shannon) because we know multiple people who’ve ended up in tears on it (as in, both of us). With some skills, it’s really not so bad. It’s just Tucson.

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The following morning, Scott drove me to the trailhead off of Ajo.

‘Just don’t go for any Strava times,’ he advised. ‘You’ll be fine.’

Based on the amount of puttering I’d done before I’d gotten into the car, I was more than a little nervous.

I started nice and steady up Cat Mountain Trail. Easy-peasy.

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When I’d asked Scott how to find Krein Trail, he’d hold me to look for the offshoot that was more rubble than trail. He wasn’t lying.

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Top of Krein panorama! To the left, Cat Mountain. To the right, Golden Gate and Bushmill Mountain with Golden Gate Pass going through the middle.

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Golden Gate was much easier on foot than on a bike and I started down the easy powerline road on the far side of Gates Pass Road thinking that thus far, I was definitely faster on foot than I would have been on a bike.

These were the types of routes I was looking for…where foot travel really was more efficient than bike. Give me a smooth trail, I’d much rather roll over on wheels.

I cruised into the Scamp, 9 miles into the route in two hours. Scott, genius that he is, had bought me a sodie-pop. Carbonated sugar tastes sooooo good on hot days, it’s outrageous. I made a point of filling up water, drinking the soda, and getting out of there as quickly as possible. I had momentum on my side, and I didn’t want to kill it.

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Up and over Brown Mountain, the Gilbert Ray backyard trail.

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A miserable quarter mile of pavement connected the picnic area with the Kings Canyon Trailhead. It was, by far, the hardest part of the run.

Then up Wasson, just like every time before, except a little bit slower, with a little more hiking. But I was going to make it! I just had to get down the other side.

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I spent a few minutes at the top, texted Scott that I was headed down with six miles to go, and looked back south to Cat Mountain. Dang, that was a long way.

I took a new trail down to the road. It was filled with giant steps, that after 1,500 feet of down started to wear on me. I passed the sign that said 2.7 miles. I started passing people who looked like they wouldn’t stray far from a car. I nearly ran right into Scott who’d hiked partway up the trail and was taking pictures.

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‘You made it!’ He exclaimed.

‘I did!’

After 21 miles and no Strava QOMs, I was a little bit wobbly on my feet and ready to drink as much soda as I could, but I’d finally done a watered-down version of a traverse that I’ve been thinking of for a long time.

Next time, there’ll be summits of Cat Mountain, Golden Gate, Bushmill, and Brown, but that’ll add several hours to an already long run. Next year.

I ate well and slept well that night.

Good thing, because we had a ride date planned in the Tortolitas the next day.

But first, we stopped at Sweetwater to look at birds.

The Black and White Warbler is always a rare treat.

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And we even got to watch a bobcat search for birds for lunch.

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Then on to the ride…which we were only 15 minutes late to.

There were rocks to play on.

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Spokes to break.

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Snakes to scream at.

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Lunch to eat on rocks.

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In the end, we all bailed on the full planned ride, claiming fatigue, tapering, and an intense need for In and Out Burgers and shakes.

With the temperatures forecasted to rise the next day, we said our goodbyes. There were migrating birds to see and cool temperatures in the mountains to embrace. The Scamp was on the move again!

 


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Coming Home

One of the most common questions in human interaction is “Where are you from?”

Pretty much every interaction in a campground involves the question at some point of time. It’s a funny question in this particular moment in my life because I haven’t lived in one place for more than six months in four years. And before that it was a two year stint. And then it was kid/college/grad school in Boulder, which to me is much more of a ‘Where did you grow up?’ versus ‘Where are you from?’

‘Where are you from?’ to me, at least, means, ‘Where do you identify with?’ More of a ‘Where does your heart feel content?’

And that’s a funny question.

Most camp neighbors we talk to seem to fit squarely in the category of ‘Worked for a long time, retired, now seeing the west.’ Which I think is awesome. But they all had a home base for some extended period of time that they can call ‘Where they are from.’

As I was flying in over Tucson and then waiting in the warm air saying ‘Hi!’ to the airport saguaros, I got to thinking, ‘Is Tucson the place I now most identify with? Even though I’ve only spent sub-20 months here over the past three years? And I still have to look at a map to get anywhere in town (besides Seis for burritos)?’

Scott did say ‘Welcome home’ when he picked me up with the Scamp in tow.

I did say, ‘It’s good to be home’ when we parked in our favorite near-town spot.

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I’m getting to know every corner of the AZT both north and south from our spot both on foot and on bike.

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And Scott even okay’d going out to see Cjell Mone during his AZT 750 time trial since the trail was technically less than a mile from our ‘home.’

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I’ve spent more time on the Arizona Trail than the Colorado Trail in the past three years. That’s got to count for something when shifting mental residency.

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Adios Cjell! Have a good trip to Utah!

I’m getting to know the neighbors pretty well.

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Some are better than others.

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I’m in love with the sunsets.

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Nearly every one of them is a cause for celebration.

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And I have some really awesome friends here.

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The type that’ll pull cactus needles out of your ass if you fall in the wrong spot.

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And then ride single speeds straight to Seis for burritos.

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Tucson. Yeah. You can be ‘Where I’m from’ because I sure do like you a lot.

 

 


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Dogs in Boulder

*Warning – All about dogs. I love dogs.

Two days before I was scheduled to leave for Boulder for dog sitting, I called my mom to confirm flight times and that someone would be able to pick me up from the bus station in town and take me home. I received news that I didn’t want to hear.

While Sparkes was, well, Sparkles, their old hound dog Huckleberry had collapsed that morning and hadn’t been able to get up all day. My old dog, Miss Maia, had had a similar episode where she collapsed on a walk and had to be carried home. Huck was scheduled to visit the vet the next day since he didn’t seem to be bouncing back.

This was the same day that I’d found out that an old ski buddy, Kip, had been killed in an avalanche in Washington. It was definitely a bad news bears type of a day and I was ready to go to bed before anyone else could tell me something bad.

The vet diagnosed Huck with Senile Dog Vestibular something-or-other. Basically, his inner ear was messed up and he probably felt like he was on a tilt-a-whirl. He’ll most likely be fine within a week, they told my mom.

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When I got to Boulder on Friday morning, he still couldn’t stand. My dad had to carry him out to relieve himself. I gulped as I looked at the 13 year old, 70lb hound…how was I going to do that alone? We were force feeding him water through a syringe and plunger. He had no interest in food.

Sparkles on the other hand, was still a sparkling ball of energy who was far too excited about anything and everything.

She’d also bonded amazingly well with my mom, which was so good to see. Even if she puts herself in the most unfortunate locations…

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On Saturday morning, my parents got on a plane bound across the big pond. Huck looked at me forlornly, head tilted drastically to the side. Sparkles bounced, and bounced, and bounced.

You and me, dogs. Two weeks. Let’s do this thing. I honestly didn’t know if Huck was going to make it. Anytime a dog stops eating and drinking and moving, it’s not a good sign. I had full permission to make any hard decisions that had to be made, but I really didn’t want to have to make them.

Every morning when I woke up, I dreaded going to upstairs to see what I would find.

My brother came over to help me get Huck out that night and the following morning. We even got him, with a lot of support and very slowly, to walk around the neighborhood before we had to carry him home. He still wouldn’t eat on his own. He still wouldn’t drink on his own.

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I called the vet 6 days after he’d first collapsed. ‘What do I do? He can barely stand, he only eats if I put tiny bits of food in front of his nose, and his water bowl isn’t getting any lower on its own.’

‘Give it two more days. Sometimes it take more than a week to see any improvement,’ they told me.

We waited. I discovered that Sparkles loved to watch other dogs on the computer.

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I took Sparkles to the top of Mt Sanitas so that she could be considered a real Boulder trail dog.

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Two days later, as if Huck knew that the stress he was causing me was making me reach my limits of sanity, he struggled to his feet when I came upstairs, and when I carried him outside, he made his way, very unsteadily, to the gate and looked at me, ‘We’re going for a walk, aren’t we?’

Two days later, I actually had to put a leash on him because he’d trot away. Still, he’d fall to the ground every time his shook his head, the first steps of the morning were always unsteady, peeing on one leg was always a dicy proposition, but he was eating, and drinking, and even growling at Sparkles when she was being a little brat.

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Well, old hound dog, I think you’re going to make it.

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But damn, please no more scares like that!

Through all this, it snowed a lot. The sump pump failed in the basement and the water alarm went off at 2am. I pretty much saved the house from flooding by bailing water all day because RotoRooter was on a travel advisory. Thanks snow.

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Sparkles thought the snow was the greatest thing ever.

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She loved to pretend that she was a snow dolphin, bouncing non-stop. There were many visits to the dog park to let her burn off spare energy.

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And to chase the birds who loved to fly low over the park and taunt her.

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She wouldn’t believe me that the Meadowlark wasn’t going to come down.

It was quite the contrast at first. Sparkles, so full of life, and Huck, who seemed resigned to lay in his bed until the end of his days. It made me so sad every time I went to visit him and scratch his ears.

But by the end, he’d come hang out with us in the main room. He’d wait patiently for his post-walk Greenie before settling down for his mid-morning nap, and he’d throw a fit when I took Sparkles out for a run but left him behind.

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Probably for the first time in his life, he got praised for barking at the UPS man.

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After two weeks, he was nearly back to normal.

I met my parents at the airport for a beer before they went home and I got on a plane back to the desert. ‘That was the most stressful two weeks ever!’ I told them. Thankfully, all was forgotten after a beer (I really am that much of a lightweight) and before I knew it, the metal tube was flying over Tucson, the red towers on Mt Lemmon seeming to blink at eye-level, I-10 headed north to Phoenix.

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Scott picked me up with the Scamp in tow. It was time to get back to Scamp Life. I missed the doggies already, but my mom had already scheduled my dog-sitting services for the end of June. I guess I get to be the cool pet-sitter who does all the fun stuff. That’s a position that I can be okay with.

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