Jamie's death was sudden and unexpected. Just five days earlier, I had taken him to a cabin in the mountains, as we've done many times. Everything went smoothly and he seemed to be a happy and healthy old dog right up to the moment we got home, when everything started to change.
During those first few days after he was gone, I was in shock. I kept thinking back to our many adventures, and especially that last night at Eagle Guard Station cabin. I didn't want that memory to fade, so I decided to write it up while it was fresh in my mind. This post is the result, and I'm sharing it here for any of his friends who want to know a bit more about Jamie's final wilderness experience than what I posted on his Facebook page at the time.
Wednesday, August 24 was an exciting day, for two reasons. One was that the back yard project was taking a big step forward: after nearly a year of delays and multiple cement contractors that didn't come through, we were finally getting the first of the concrete slabs poured for our patio and driveway. The temporary chain link fence had to be removed for the day to get the cement truck in, so the dogs all got walks that morning instead of hanging out in the yard. Even Alice, who usually doesn't want to go for walks these days.
The other exciting thing happening that day was that Jamie and I were going to spend the night at a new (to us) cabin, Eagle Guard Station high in the Elkhorn Mountains.
A month earlier, we had spent the night of the July new moon at Bloody Dick Cabin in the Bitterroot Mountains down near the Idaho border. We had a great time, but due to thick trees around the cabin I didn't get the star photos I had hoped to get. So the next day, I searched for a cabin in a more open spot that would be available around the next new moon in August.
I knew it was a long shot, because the Forest Service cabins tend to be booked all summer long, but I found an available night (most likely due to a recent cancelation) for Eagle Guard Station on Wednesday, August 24. I checked the map and online photos, and was pleased to see that this cabin sits in a meadow with no nearby trees on the south side, where the Milky Way would be visible that night. We should be able to get photos of the Milky Way from right in front of the cabin! I booked it, and spent the month of August looking forward to a night under the stars with Jamie.
I had a specific photo in mind that I hoped to get. I would set up the tripod and shoot the Milky Way, and then with the same lens and framing I'd get a shot of Jamie wandering in the meadow with soft fill flash. I'd blend the two exposures in Photoshop, and I'd have an image of Jamie in the mountains of Montana at night, with a sky full of stars above him.
Wednesday morning before work, I put out the crates on the dining room table and packed up all of our gear. For all of our road trips, whether an overnighter or a three week vacation, we pack everything in big plastic crates and lash them down in the back of the truck. They're weatherproof, they're easy to carry, and they stack nicely in motel rooms or cabins.
Jamie knew the signals: road trip! He tried to not let me out of his sight all day. While I was upstairs working, he lay at the bottom of the stairs. Whenever I came downstairs, he followed me around to make sure I didn't leave without him.
I finished my last meeting at 4:00, and ran downstairs to check out the concrete. That was all looking good, so I quickly loaded the truck and told everyone goodbye, then Jamie and I left.
The truck was parked right in front of our house, in the spot I've been parking all summer to make it easy for Jamie to get in. When the truck is tight against the curb there, it's a shorter hop into the passenger seat because the grass is a few inches above the level of the street, and Jamie can usually get in without help.
I opened the door and stood ready to help if needed, but Jamie joyfully leaped in on his own power. I walked around to get in the driver's seat, and with Jamie riding shotgun we drove away.
We had one stop to make on the way out of town, for an oil change. I had deliberately scheduled it for this afternoon because I liked the idea of our friends at Butte Toyota doing a safety inspection before we headed into the mountains.
Jamie and I walked around the parking lot while they worked on the truck. I posted on his Facebook page a photo Megan took in the summer of 2010, of Jamie and me sitting at a picnic table waiting for an oil change in Butte when Jamie was a pup on his first long road trip.
After the oil change, we headed east on I-90 up over Homestake Pass and the Continental Divide. Jamie rode shotgun, leaning into the curves while scanning the road ahead. We turned north on MT-287 near Three Forks, and 40 miles up the road at Townsend I stopped at the Thriftway to buy two fried chicken breasts for my dinner. Then we drove north across the Missouri River and turned west onto a narrow dirt road. Jamie grew even more alert and attentive: leaving pavement and getting onto a bumpy dirt road is always a good sign.
A few miles later, we parked along the road across from Graymont Limestone Quarry, where I stood outside the truck eating my chicken dinner, handing Jamie little pieces of white meat through the open window. An elderly man drove past in a pickup truck, and that was the last human we would see until the next day.
I got back in, and we headed up into the mountains past the quarry and through a narrow rocky gorge, eventually coming out into high open meadows where Jamie barked at free-range cows.
After 14 miles of the road growing rougher and narrower, we arrived at the cabin. Eagle Guard Station was built by a gold miner named Dick Owen in 1895, and he lived there with his wife and daughter until 1908, when the Forest Service took it over and used it as a ranger station until the early 1950s. In the early 1990s, after the cabin had fallen into disrepair, a group of volunteers renovated it using the construction techniques of the 1890s to preserve its original character. It's the oldest cabin Jamie and I ever stayed at, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
After the crates were unloaded, I pulled the cooler out onto the tailgate, and Jamie knew that meant his dinner would be served. He and Alice have eaten countless meals served off the tailgate on road trips.
For the next couple of hours, we just hung out and took a few short walks. There was no sunset because the cloud cover was thick, and a storm was approaching from the southeast. At first we heard faint thunder off in the distance, but the storm grew steadily closer and louder.
We went to sleep a little after 10:00, and then we were both awakened around midnight by thunder and lightning directly overhead. We couldn't see the bolts through the rain clouds, but they shook the cabin and lit up the area around us.
It rained off and on most of the night, and we got up and went outside every couple of hours to look around and so Jamie could pee in the meadow. That's our usual routine when the two of us visit cabins, and I loved being out in the darkness with Jamie.
We were up early to pack up for the drive home, because Thursday was a work day. Jamie and I have done overnight cabin trips on weeknights several times, and for places within two or three hours of home I don't have to take any time off work if we get on the road just after sunrise. Most of my coworkers are on the West Coast, so I just need to be online by 10AM (9AM their time) most days.
I loaded the truck, and Jamie wandered in the meadow while the clouds cleared and the sun came out. After I was done loading up, I walked out into the meadow to get him for the drive home.
Jamie was sniffing around in the meadow, and as I walked toward him he disappeared around behind a shed. I called him, and he came running around the corner of the shed at good clip – the only time I've seen him moving like that all year! His gait was beautiful to me, and I was so taken aback that I didn't think to try to get a photo until he started to slow down as he approached me.
We walked back to the truck together, and since he was panting from that bout of exercise I lifted him into the driver's seat of the truck. He got in the back seat, and I closed the door and walked over to open the gate so we could leave.
We drove down the rough road through a forested gully, and then up into a huge open pasture dotted with free range cattle. As we drove east on the dirt road, the rising sun made the puddles from the storm glow orange ahead of us. A few cows were on the road, and Jamie did what Jamie has been doing since he was a pup: he told them a thing or two!
We had one more stop to make on the way out of the mountains. On the way in, I had noticed a pullout on the dirt road near a little peak that looked like it might offer a nice view for a photo.
I parked at the pullout, where I planned to walk the couple of hundred yards up to the top. I left the truck door open behind me, but didn't call to Jamie. I've done that many times this year, to give him a choice: sometimes he wants to get out, and sometimes he'd rather just sit in the truck and wait. This time, he leaped out and followed me.
After our little hike, we walked back down to the truck, I lifted him in, and we drove slowly down out of the mountains to Highway 287 just north of Townsend, where we turned onto the pavement and headed for home.