Saved by the smell

Reese the dog: Lifesaver?
Reese the dog: Lifesaver?

“How someone saved your life.”

This prompt comes pretty much smack in the middle of 642 Things to Write About, an enjoyable collection of writing distractions that sparked last month’s ramblings about the Colorado Trail, and above other cues it gave me considerable pause. Do you go deep and metaphorical, delving into how a significant other rescued you from eternal loneliness and despair? Or do you approach it literally, detailing how another person shoved you out of the way of a charging bison?

The first option strikes me as cornball melodrama; cheap and soft as a paperback romance. But to my recollection, no one has taken a bullet intended for me or otherwise directly prevented my death. Maybe some long-forgotten doctor who vaccinated me? Or a parent who prevented me from toddling into traffic?

The closest brush with death that I recall was on a winter-break road trip from Montana to Illinois with a friend. My friend was driving along what seemed a clear stretch of highway in South Dakota while I napped in the passenger seat when we struck black ice and went into a wild spin.

I don’t recall much of the incident. Just waking to us being backward and rotating toward the median while my friend shrieked nonstop; it was late, and there were thankfully no cars behind us, though I did note headlights in the oncoming lanes. My friend told me afterward, over an extra-jittery session of coffee and cigarettes, that I essentially transformed into John Houseman in The Naked Gun. As our pickup completed a circle, I calmly directed her to keep her foot off the accelerator and to steer slightly with the turn; as the truck veered and she corrected us back on course, I advised her to tap the brake pedal lightly (this was before antilocks became omnipresent and you have to cope with their grinding terror). She did as I said, screaming all the while.

I consider that episode a case of saving my own life.

Then the event in which I had otherwise most feared for my safety, and in which I may have been in the most peril, occurred to me. Though it was not exactly a someone who saved me.

It was late afternoon on an unseasonably warm autumn day amid Montana’s Lionhead Mountains, a modest range that tops out at about 10,600 feet along the Continental Divide and extends into neighboring Idaho, and several panic-inducing headlines were rushing across my brain’s ticker. We were lost. In a wilderness area in which we had never been. And which was prime grizzly country (we had already seen three from some distance that day). And at a time in which the great bears were in hyperphasia (their pre-hibernation binge). And we had maybe two-and-half hours of daylight left. With at least a four-hour trek to our transportation.

The Lionhead Mountains, as seen from the far side of Montana's Hebgen Lake.
The Lionhead Mountains, as seen from the far side of Montana’s Hebgen Lake.

Our supplies were down to a granola bar, two Milk Bones, and a half-empty—or, if you prefer, half-full—Camelbak. I also had a headlamp, bear mace, a Swiss Army knife and a Bic lighter. The sun coaxed me to remove my sweatshirt and stocking cap, but I was less than prepared for the freezing temperatures that would follow sunset.

Not only had I failed to heed the Boy Scout motto, but this ill-fated adventure came on the heels of my reading Between a Rock and a Hard PlaceThe book details the infamous ordeal of Aaron Ralston, a young outdoor enthusiast who in April of 2003 set off by himself into desolate Utah backcountry and subsequently, and literally, found himself in the spot suggested by the title. I was captivated by Ralston’s story, yet the lesson about venturing off alone without telling someone where you’re going had not stuck.

The dogs—Reese was nearly 2, Miles almost 1—and I were in this predicament because I led us off trail in search of a nearby lake, which ended up not being so near-by, and beside the piercing, pure waters of which we lingered for too long. The lake was surrounded by a lush meadow that also betrayed the season, but most of the surrounding valley was thickly forested; landmarks were difficult to note through the trees, and the shadows cast by the shifting sun played disorienting tricks.

Usually reliable, my internal compass failed to lead us back to the trail. As the sun crept closer to the peaks towering to the west of us, I decided to aim in the right general direction, believing we would eventually encounter either the trail or one of the creeks that bypassed it. I knew we were more likely to run into a bear than another person.

The Lionheads, also boringly known as Henry’s Lake Mountains, rise from more than 30,000 acres of roadless wilderness rich with streams, small lakes and wildlife. Though the area is much loved by those who frequent it, it is frequented by relatively few due to the more accessible terrain of nearby Yellowstone National Park, and the Gallatin and Caribou-Targhee National Forests. On a half-dozen or more later trips to the region, I encountered other human beings only once.

About the time I hoped to be on the way home for dinner, Mother Nature dimmed the lights. The hike in had taken about six hours, with periodic stops; after trekking in what I thought was the direction of the trailhead for another couple hours, I recognized nothing but the sun-burnished peaks in the distance.

Due to their youthful attention spans and the surrounding risks, the dogs were leashed for most of this particular outing, and as I struggled to find our way back I noticed that Reese often pulled to the northeast (though he has a history of tugging toward anything he wants to smell then urinate on).

Exhausted and anxious, and with minimal light remaining, I decided to make time by turning the dogs loose. Reese had long since keyed in on the term “ride,” as hikes and other outings were typically prefaced by the question, “Do you want to go for a ride?”, which now never fails to get all of the dogs riled up. I repeated the query a couple times, first sparking a raised ear and tilted head, then igniting a dash in a northeasterly direction.

Miles and I trotted after Reese, who maintained his pace as I breathlessly shouted “Let’s go for a ride!” Reese moved confidently, and for a short time I maintained confidence in him. Until he went through a fit of stops and starts to investigate boulders, chase chipmunks and mark trees. He would focus briefly every time I uttered the magic word, but I began to lose faith, and tried to steer him back to what I thought was the correct way.

Darkness dropped, and I pulled on my headlamp, hoping the battery had enough power to illuminate the path to warmth and shelter, where the Jeep could take over and get us to beer and pizza. Reese continued to stray on his own trajectory, and Miles followed; I relented, and looped the let’s-go-for-a-ride command as much to spur the dogs as to alert any unseen bears to our presence as we charged through the woods.

As reliable as a compass, and much more entertaining.
As reliable as a compass, and much more entertaining.

After another hour or so, The Fear was sinking its claws in deep. At best, I figured we would soon have to stop for the night and try to start a fire with damp wood and a granola bar wrapper; at worst, I would be mauled by a bear or freeze like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining.

I was close to giving up, but the dogs moved ahead with purpose. Soon, the trees thinned, the elevation dropped, and we strode over intimate terrain. The woods parted above a star-lit meadow; the pasture was split by our trail, where Reese waited with what I thought was a gloating expression. Sometimes a sense of smell is better than a sense of direction; and sometimes it takes a something to save a someone.

2 thoughts on “Saved by the smell

Add yours

  1. Loved this post, especially the image of JOhn Houseman as the drivers ed instructor in The Naked Gun. That hike sounded scary, though.


    1. Thanks for reading! Alas, that outing would not be the last time that Reese’s proclivity for peeing on trees, etc., would be required to lead us back to civilization.


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