He wanted to be alone in his grief, but on a rural hiking trail in Calabria, Italy, a 60-pound puppy wouldn't take no for an answer.
Posted in , Jul 27, 2020
This dog! She insisted on following me every time I hiked this trail. Why couldn’t she see that I wanted to be alone?
It was a crisp November day. I was halfway up to Rocca Angitola, a breathtaking hilltop in the Calabria region of southern Italy. I’d lived in Calabria part-time for years, and this was the place I’d always come to find peace and renewal, the place I felt closest to God. But now I could barely take a step without this darn dog getting underfoot.
I whirled around, then picked up a clod of dirt and tossed it in front of her. “Shoo!” I said. The dog retreated a bit and cocked her head, thinking we were playing a game.
“Fine, have it your way,” I muttered and went back to hiking, the camera in my knapsack bumping against my shoulder. Maybe something on my walk would catch my eye and take me out of my grief for a moment—the sunlight coming through the trees, the eagle that nested high up on Angitola, the incredible panorama from the summit.
I heard the dog padding behind me. I couldn’t stay mad at her. She was just a puppy—a big puppy, weighing 60 pounds at least—a Maremma Sheepdog mix favored by the sheep and goat herders who have been bringing their flocks to graze these hillsides for centuries. The pastoral scene usually added to the sense of tranquility. That was what I’d been seeking these past months, ever since I’d lost my fiancée and my younger brother.
I’d been coming here regularly since their deaths, anytime I had a few days off from my job as a yacht captain, moving boats for demanding clients. It’s a trail I know well, about a 10-minute drive from my house. It offers spectacular views of the Mediterranean in one direction and the peaks of the Sila mountain range in the other.
At the summit, after a two-hour trek, you’re greeted by the ruins of an ancient fortress. Gazing down at the rolling hills of Calabria, the vastness of the sea beyond them, used to make me feel as if I were on top of God’s world.
But I’d learned how fleeting that feeling can be.
Ten months earlier, in January, my fiancée, Anne, died suddenly. She’d suffered a brain aneurysm while at dinner with friends. Our wedding was supposed to be in February. We’d been seeing each other for three years, and our lives revolved around each other. Then, in an instant, she was gone.
I was still mourning Anne when my younger brother was killed in a freak accident during the summer. Ron was an accomplished musician and singer. I’d visited him just a month before he died. The unexpected loss of these two people I loved shattered me. Grief, thoughts of death and dying, filled my waking hours and haunted my dreams.
The first time I’d come to Rocca Angitola after my brother’s death, I was only a couple miles up the trail when something heavy slammed into me from behind. I fell to the ground. There was the puppy, tail wagging, ready to play.
“Scram,” I snarled. She paid no mind then either. Every few weeks, when I would come back to the trail, the puppy would follow me. There were other herding dogs who came around, but they quickly lost interest. Not this dog. I just couldn’t shake her.
Any more than I could shake off my grief. Now, halfway up the trail, I plodded on. A dark flash streaked above me. I looked up. A massive, magnificent eagle, the one I’d seen before, was perched high in a nearby tree. He’d always been out of range of the photograph I wanted to take. Now here he was, closer than ever, but I couldn’t even summon up the interest to reach for my camera. I kept walking mindlessly.
It was getting darker, with only flickers of sun overhead. Without realizing it, I’d entered a part of the trail in thick woods. Behind me I heard a deep, menacing growl. Slowly I turned. The dog. I’d forgotten about her. She was crouched down, hackles up. Had she turned on me? I suddenly regretted not being friendlier to her.
“Nice puppy,” I offered. She lifted her head slightly, her eyes trained on something. Something behind me. The eagle, perched on another branch, down a slight slope from me.
In an instant, the dog was directly under the eagle, snarling, baring her teeth. But the eagle was having none of it, wings outstretched, squawking raucously. I froze, bracing myself for one or the other to attack me.
The eagle took flight, still squawking. The dog turned toward me, snout flecked with foam. “It’s okay,” I said. “Nothing to worry about.”
I walked ahead. The dog didn’t move. Maybe I would finally be free of her. I quickened my pace. She came running, dashing ahead, then planted herself directly in my path. I tried to go around her. She nudged me, pushing hard. Herding me. She forced me back to the tree where the eagle had roosted and barked several times, clearly trying to tell me something.
I looked down. There in a slight depression was a baby goat, bleating faintly. The dog sat down, tilted her head, tongue lolling, looking quite pleased with herself. See, I told you so. The bleating grew more insistent when the goat saw me. Its coat was stiff from dried birth fluids; it was a newborn. I couldn’t believe it. We were in the middle of thick woods. The mother must have wandered up, given birth and wandered off.
I picked up the baby goat, then settled it into my knapsack to return to the flock. New life. Almost as if it had been there waiting for me. Or more accurately, as if I’d been led to it.
I sized up the dog that had once seemed like my nemesis and thought of the parable of the lost sheep. There were things that happened in this world that I’d never be able to resolve or understand. But it wasn’t for being overlooked by God. Or forgotten.
It was nearly an hour’s walk to where the goats were grazing. I planned on soaking up every minute of it. “C’mon,” I said to the dog. She trotted alongside, mission accomplished.
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