My first marriage was a troubled one. There were good moments but it seems that each day held pain and conflict. The ups and downs finally led to a violent dissolution in 1992. But for a brief time in the mid 1980’s there was hope and even some progress. Two acquisitions, one for Christmas of 1984 and one in the following summer, marked that progress. The summer purchase, a Eureka Wind River 4 tent, was an emblem of that progress. The Christmas purchase, a puppy we named Henry, was the very cause.
Anyone who ever met Henry would tell you that he was an extraordinary dog. He was half Golden Retriever, half Irish Setter and he got the best of both breeds. As a puppy he looked indistinguishable from a purebred Golden – in other words, irresistibly adorable – but as he grew, the color, strength and stature of his father, an unusually large Setter, became his. He eventually filled out at nearly a hundred pounds, no fat, in height nearly a head above any Golden I’d ever seen. Physically he was simply a stunning animal, burnished red-gold, strong nose, rippling muscles under his coat, a head-turner everywhere he went.
But what was truly extraordinary about Henry was his soul. I remain in love with him to this day – no less than that – for his beautiful spirit and companionship. He had none of the typical high-strung nature characteristic of purebred Setters. Rather he had a calmness, intelligence and power that recalled Jack London’s Buck to me. He had all the warmth and loyalty for which Goldens are famous, but he was independent and almost regal. He was, in his short life, my best friend.
There was a state park under construction north of Madison at the time. I would take Henry there most evenings when workers left and we had it all to ourselves. It was a rolling swath of land running along the shore of Lake Mendota, half wooded and half prairie. Here Henry could run free, his spirit unfettered. Always he would return to me after bounding through the grasses and into the woods beyond. Always we would play hide and seek. I would send him charging off and then I would run as fast as I could, reckless over the uneven ground, to plunge below a small rise or duck behind a tree. “Henryyyyy Dog!” I would cry and he would spring into view at the signal and begin the chase. Some times I would wait for him to go the wrong direction and I would reveal myself, sprinting the opposite way in a frantic attempt to make another spot in which to hide. Always he would catch me.
There was only one path that had been completed, a loop through the woods. Some times we would take that path together in evening light, hiking to a large rock at the height of the ridge. There Henry would come into my lap and sit, with exquisite stillness, sit in the quiet of the dusk and take in the sounds and smells of the surrounding woods. We might remain there for half an hour, motionless and content, connected to our surroundings with the kind of profundity only nature can effect. It was a bond between us, between our deepest and wildest selves. Henry never disturbed the bond, never broke it. He would sit peacefully until it was time to go, utterly content to be in my lap and watch and listen and smell.
These were dark times for my wife and I. But as Henry grew into adulthood his beautiful presence began to make a difference in our marriage. I adored him and in those times at the park, the joyous, enthusiastic boy I once had been found new life. My wife, so wounded and hurt by people and by the harshness of the world, found in Henry a purity of spirit and affection that all dog lovers know. She adored him too. In that mutual adoration we found a common hope.
My wife and I were always happiest together camping. Our honeymoon was a backpacking trip out west, but the Adirondacks became our go-to destination. I had grown up as a summer visitor to Blue Mountain Lake, which was my favorite place in the world. My wife, although reluctant to embrace anything that was mine and not hers, was unable to resist the charms of that lake either and camping in or near it became a yearly desire. We had received a two-person Camel tent as a wedding present but it was woefully inadequate against Adirondack conditions, so we bought the Eureka Wind River as an upgrade. I decided that comfort trumped weight and we opted for the four person version, a geodesic design that even today is considered one of the best tents ever made (as attested to by the numerous on-line tributes). We loved that tent and made regular use of it, Henry too, who tracked in mud and dirt and sticks and voluminous quantities of dog hair.
In July of 1987 we took an extended vacation to Blue Mountain Lake. Part of the time we stayed in a small cottage and part of the time we camped. Like all our time together the trip had its ups and downs, but our adventures together with Henry, including a dangerous mishap jumping off a rock wall in West Bay, had an effect that I had not before experienced. We started to believe in a future, I think, and we reveled in our happiness with that dog in that tent, together in close space. It rained hard at once point and Henry made sure the inside got its share of mud. Wet dog smell was overwhelming. We didn’t care. That trip was the high point of our marriage.
In November of 1987, just three months later, while on one of our regular visits to the still-unopened state park, Henry was stuck by a car. I will never be able to write more about it than that, except to say that only people who love dogs with all their heart could possibly understand. It remains the most unbearable agony of my life, a life that for a time to come was going to have some incredibly painful experiences. The moment Henry’s body stilled I knew it was the end not just of him, but of my marriage. I refused to accept that reality for a while but it was true, even if it took five more years and the birth of two kids before it completely destroyed itself. I know this: we never had a purely happy day together, like those days camping as a threesome at Blue Mountain Lake, ever again.
I have no memory of the tent in those years after Henry was killed. It was folded up and put away; I don’t think it was used. It ended up in my possession.
In 1993, a year after my wife and I separated, I took my two young sons to the Adirondacks. We backpacked in the Giant Wilderness and camped at the Washbowl. I hauled both boys, food, bags and the Wind River 4 up the steep switchbacks and past the first great overlook.
I don’t remember the details of making camp. But there is one thing. I pitched the tent, placed the fly, unzipped the door and made ready to put pads and bags inside. It was sunny and afternoon light streamed into the tent. I ducked into the tent and suddenly caught my breath in a gasp. Tears welled. The floor of the tent was covered in Henry’s muddy paw prints.
Some may think it silly that a tent can be sacred, that it can be the subject worthy of such writing. I know better. No tent floor was ever treated with more care than the floor of that Eureka from that day forward: never cleaned, just preserved. Henry’s prints became our prized trip companions. They lasted many years, even through repeated bouts of mucky Adirondack weather, before finally and inevitably fading away. Which Henry’s place in my heart will never do.
Photo: Henry at the Eureka, 1987