A tree for Max
I’ve owned about a half dozen dogs over the years, but none was more beloved than Max. He died in 2013 after we discovered he had an inoperable cancer. He was perhaps 12 years old at the time and otherwise would have had years of active life left in him, and we had to let him go just before my partner and I were to move from Lake Tahoe to Washington State. One of the sadder aspects of his passing for me is the fact that he never got to run the great trails of the Columbia River Gorge.
I met Max in the early 2000s when a coworker sent a work-wide e-mail asking if anyone wanted a dog; attached was a photo of a stray who had been wandering his suburban neighborhood alone for weeks because his previous family had apparently disavowed him. Max’s big golden eyes spoke to me, and that afternoon I drove out to my colleague’s house to meet him. The dog jumped into the back of my Jeep Cherokee before I had fully opened the hatch and sat down quivering with excitement as if to say, “Where are we going?”
“Well,” I said to my coworker, “I guess that settles it.”
Max was the best trail dog anyone could ask for. He was wiry and strong, probably a Vizsla mix, and would attempt to conquer almost any obstacle, even if it were mostly vertical. He was forever having narrow escapes, like the time he wandered back to the unstable edge of a snow bridge we had just crossed and broke through to the water rushing beneath. I raced to the edge of the stream, already preparing myself for the shock and grief of his demise, but before I could get there his face and paws suddenly appeared at the edge of the hole, and he clawed his way back out.
He was always “happy,” as dogs go, and never so much as when we drew close to the foothills on the way to a trailhead and he suddenly caught smell of the trees. His energy never flagged; he followed me up and down mountains all over California and Nevada, usually covering twice my own distance by constantly running ahead and then doubling back, and we bagged at least a half dozen peaks.
Along with my lab mix, Scout, he backpacked with me for 50 miles in four days on the Tahoe Rim Trail, carrying his own food (“everybody works,” was our motto). The most difficult thing was to keep him from shivering through the cold mountain nights; his short coat provided little insulation, and even with his fleece doggie jacket on, he would curl into a tiny ball, like a cat, and wedge himself against my sleeping back in order to conserve heat. He may have had a little cat in him, now that I think of it, judging by the way he liked to leap high into the air to pounce on anything that moved, whether a leaf, a lizard (the very word “lizard” could send him into a frenzy), or a flickering reflection from a wine glass in the sun.
The season before he died, Max and my now-former partner spent many afternoons building a mountain bike trail along a beachside bluff near our winter hangout in El Sargento, Baja California Sur. The name of the single track was to be “Max Loop.” It was about half finished at the time of Max's death, and I hoped that my ex would continue work on it the following season so that I could spread Max’s ashes along his namesake trail ... but absent his sidekick, my ex lost interest.
So for the next 8 years, Max's remains sat in a box along with my taxes, and his long-expired eye drops, and his doggie nail clippers, and those little vinyl-soled hiking booties that made him prance around like a goat in clown shoes until he inevitably kicked them off (to this day Max is the reason I never hike without a pair of tweezers and nail clippers to remove the occasional thorn).
This morning, though, I decided to finally transplant a young neem tree that I have been nurturing for a few months, and decided on a good spot where it will, in not too much time, provide some much-needed summer shade on the sunniest side of my house. It seems a good spot for a dog who loved lounging in sunbeams and adored the smell of the trees, and who would instinctively curl up against me on the couch whenever he sensed I was sad or upset. Not just a formidable athlete, Max had a deeply nurturing quality, which I like to imagine can now live on in a new form.
I dug a good hole, filled it with water, and as it drained sprinkled Max’s ashes in a spiral around the bottom. There was a fresh pang of sadness and loss as I released the neem from its pot and gently set it in the hole.
I don’t know whether cremains are particularly beneficial to tree roots, but I do know from experience that plants are alive and wise and that they respond to nourishing energy -- and Max was not just an enjoyer of life but a giver of unconditional love. I like to imagine the tree roots reaching for and reveling in his inexhaustible enthusiasm, then sending it up to unfurl branches and leaves ... sap coursing with all the joy of a fast dog who knows he’s about to run a long trail.
So this is your tree, buddy: Max’s Tree. Or maybe I should just call the tree itself “Max” — same energy, different form. Either way, may your namesake grow tall and your final rest be as peaceful as you were, sleeping off 50 miles of Tahoe Rim Trail in the back of my old purple Jeep.