For you shall go out with joy, And be led out with peace; The mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Isaiah 55:12
It was some years after our beloved Harvest Moon died that we started to look for another dog. We knew Moon could not be replaced, and we were right – he never will be. There was something about Moon that seemed to radiate peace and strength to those he met. Many folks at the nursing home didn’t know my name, but they knew his. He calmed many an anxious soul there, and my soul as well.
When I hike, I usually don’t do man-made trails. I think they are a good idea, and there are places where they are necessary, such as high-use areas in national parks. But where I live, I am blessed to be able to take off in most any direction. I enjoy hiking in country where I am unlikely to see any sign of another human being.
I once hiked Moon and me into a predicament, the steep “trail” suddenly ending in a sheer drop-off of several feet. I told Moon to stay while I backtracked and dropped down to some large boulders below. I made my way back towards Moon until I was standing directly beneath him, my dog watching me patiently the whole time. I thought it would take some coaxing from me to get him to leave his safe perch. I lifted up my hands and had made just one click of my tongue when Moon nearly leapt off the mountain into my arms. We tumbled to the ground unharmed, and I was once again humbled at his complete trust in me. When we’d take a break during a long day of hiking, Moon would often fall asleep on the sunny mountainside, knowing better than I the nearness of the cougars and wolves and bears. He had complete confidence that I would always wake him when it was time to go, as he knew I’d never leave him out there to fend for himself.
In the field there were times when Moon appeared to know what I was thinking even before I gave him guidance. I would see him studying me, and it seemed he could often figure out what I was going to do before I did it. This is difficult to put into words, but if you’ve ever experienced being in-tune with an animal in this way, it is almost surreal.
About three years after Moon died we finally decided it was time to start looking for another dog. We prayed before we went, just as we did before we found Moon. And just like with Moon, we found our new treasure at an animal shelter. Star was in a kennel surrounded by some pretty aggressive-looking, snarling dogs. I have nothing against any particular breed of dog, but I have found issue with a few owners in my lifetime. I still remember the moment I first saw Star and how she looked at me through the wire mesh of her small kennel. I wish I could go back to that moment now. When we put her on a leash to take her to the fenced-in “meet and greet” area, we had to walk between several more cages of barking dogs. After a few moments, Star turned around and looked at us. She then grabbed the leash in her mouth and took off toward some peace and quiet at the meeting area, towing us behind.
We tossed a ball a few times, and Star obliged by retrieving it for us. But I noticed she had a look in her eyes that went above the fence into the surrounding mountains. As we started to put the leash back on Star to take her back to her kennel, she looked up at me and just tipped over on her side. She kept her eyes fixed on mine.
Star seemed a bit unsure of us, and understandably so. She had been dumped, and had spent some time on the streets surviving on her own. That experience seemed to stay with Star for several months even after we adopted her. She was extremely anxious whenever we’d leave her at home or even in our car until she finally realized we’d always come back for her, and that she’d never be abandoned again. After about ten months, Star began to relax, and she surprised us by becoming quite vocal. She would grunt and snort and stretch and dance her approval whenever we’d pick up the leash or I’d start gathering my things for a hike. Star radiated extreme joy and exuberance over the least little thing – things which I might consider commonplace. Each day was an adventure for her, and like Moondog, she never wanted to stop exploring.
Star made us laugh almost every day with her goofiness and ability to make the most out of what I thought was routine. After her daily walks, drying off her feet would turn into an enthusiastic wrestling match. Star would burrow into the towel as she grunted and flopped over onto the floor, squirming around and sneezing and snorting the whole time.
When we’d find a stream while hiking in the mountains, Star would not only get a drink, she would often put her snoot into the water and proceed to blow numerous bubbles as she’d wade along. When we’d come to a fallen log on our hikes, Star would get great delight out of sailing over it, only to spin around and fly back over it again in the opposite direction. Star would repeat this until she decided it was time to move on and explore new territory once again.
One time we took Star to a grass air-strip in a small mountain town not far from our home. The grass had been mowed short on the runway, but was about waist high along the outer boundary. We had one of those gizmos that enable you to throw a tennis ball a long way. And since the runway sloped away from us, when I tossed the ball it went a long, long way. No matter to Star. She would run full speed to chase down the ball, grab it, turn, and run back past us to the end of the runway. Then she would leap as high as she could into the air and sail over and into the tall grass. She would stand perfectly still, her brown eyes sparkling and peeping at us through the grass. Sometimes all we could see was the top of her head and ears as she stood panting and waiting for us to call her to do it all over again. Her desire to sail through the air with all four feet off the ground was a game she never tired of, regardless of where we were hiking. It always amused us that when we completed the paperwork to adopt her, we had actually named her ShootingStar. That name certainly turned out to be quite appropriate!
Star had a stubborn streak, and “conversations” between the two of us about who was alpha went on for years. I wonder how much of that came from her past – having to fend for herself on the streets to find something to eat or a place to sleep. Soon after we got Star, we took her to an obedience class with about twenty other dogs. At the end of the eight-week program, the local paper took a picture of the graduating class. All the dogs in the picture were lying or sitting in the grass and calmly looking at either their owners or the photographer. All the dogs but one that is. Star had all four feet off the ground and was whirling through the air at the end of her leash like a tarpon on the end of a fly line.
A short time ago Star became ill. Although the vet did all he could, within days we buried our joy-filled companion in our garden next to Moon. During her final days I could tell Star knew she was in major trouble, yet somehow she still managed to keep her joyous demeanor. She even swished her tail as our vet pushed the plunger on the needle that stopped her heart of gold. The surrounding trees displayed their golden colors all around their graves as we laid Star in the ground next to Moon, a reminder to us of their priceless value in our own hearts.
We had the privilege of taking care of Moondog for twelve years. I knew he was slowing down, but I’d hoped for a few more years of easy hikes together. We only had Star in our lives for seven years, as she was still in her prime. I was anticipating many more treasures to find and logs to leap over and bubbles to blow in the streams.
One of the things my wife prayed for before we ever found Star was that God would give us a dog with really soft fur. I thought that rather odd, but almost everyone Star walked up to (she believed everyone was her friend) would tell us: “She’s so soft!” That opened a door for us to tell them about God and how He cares and hears even prayers we think may be insignificant. ShootingStar was indeed the softest Lab I’ve ever felt.
I know both Moon and Star showed me countless things on our hikes that I never would have seen without them being with me (or was it me with them, I’m not quite sure). Their sense of smell was astonishing – I’d seen them dig antlers out from under ice and snow, and find bones at the bottom of a running stream. Whether it was showing me a cougar food-cache or an active bear den or an antler or animal bed, or a thousand other things, they were instrumental in helping me get the most out of my hikes. I have no doubt that both Star and Moon were gifts from God – as well as other dogs that shared our younger years.
Dr. Seuss once wrote: “How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”
Star managed to lift my heart with joy and laughter so many, many times. Our home is too silent and empty to bear at times these days. But then, so is the seat next to me in my pickup truck. And so are the mountains where we would hike together. Always together.