No one here could know how far you have to drive, through lodgepole groves, past old mines, past the ruins of miners’ cabins and broken-down trucks, up a narrow canyon, to the town of Sunset. They could not know how ice clings to the road in winter, how the sun rises late and slips behind the plateau early, creating a perpetual sense of dusk. They could not know the delicate twinkle of Christmas lights on the few houses that dot the road, or the crows that light on tailing piles where people once dug for gold.
No one here could know that Sunset itself is nearly dead. A crumbling family of Victorian memories held together by rusty tin and ice. There is no stopping at the old train station, made of grand stone blocks. Wind has turned the trees into sculpture. Just west of the remaining buildings the road turns feral, the mountains shrug their massive shoulders.
No one here could know, of course, that my sweet dog and I scrambled in the rock formations beside the road just two weeks before he died. They couldn’t see the beauty in his eyes, the willingness in his body, the pleasure he took in being together with me, purposeless, in a dark canyon in the winter doing the things dogs and men do: poking around, scaring things up, causing minor trouble among the forest critters.
I still remember his soft eyes seeking mine as we scrambled up steep slabs, ice and rocks tumbling below us. Asking in his silent way if we were OK. Trusting my answer, accepting my hand, a shove on the furry butt to get over something. We had no destination. No reason. And when we came down muddy, piled into the truck again and took off through the twilight, I was happy that he’d had no seizures and hoped maybe we could live a life together like this. Normal. Playful. Unburdened.
He'd begun having seizures six months prior. No warning. No reason. "Idiopathic epilepsy," the vets called it -- an illness with no origin, no cause. In the short time we had, we’d mapped out our magical places: canyons, bluffs, creeks and sunlit rocks. Loamy trails and distant bowls. High, windy mountain meadows filled with columbine. We’d chased bears and foxes, buried bones, had our meals on the tailgate together, watching the sky turn pink. We wanted the same thing, had the same vision for life Shadow and I, but in the end we couldn't pull it off.
Two weeks after our visit to Sunset the seizures returned. So brutal. Unstoppable. He staggered and fell on the west deck, in a light snow. He never really got back up, dragged down over and over in the same terrible way: standing and staring, then staggering, then falling and seizing and finally lying exhausted. With each seizure he receded.
What a long journey it was – my struggle to understand his illness, my desperation to fix it, the helplessness I felt when it became apparent that his problem couldn’t be fixed. Research on dogs with cluster seizures is quite clear: most of them are put down.
I dreamed for a while that I’d be the exception. The guy so strong that he and his epileptic dog lived a normal life. An occasional interruption, a bit of medicine. That was just us. But the disease isn’t stagnant. The brain learns how to seize, becomes accustomed to it, and eventually does it more frequently, more powerfully. Ultimately I wasn’t strong enough to stop it.
No one in here could know what it was like to drag Shadow's soft body into the side yard, drape a towel over his head, and shoot him. My buddy. My partner. My son’s future guardian. No one here could know how he slumped into the snow, how we dug his grave in the frozen earth, and slipped him gently beneath the massive root of a Douglas fir, his paws still rough and warm like he might jump up and follow me into the mountains, into the sun, the blood-orange promise of another day.