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One More Old Man Lap

It’s a long way from the top, when you used to rock ‘n’ roll.

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This article originally ran in the summer print issue of Beta. Become a Beta or Outside+ member to receive a print subscription as well as a growing packet of member-exclusive benefits, like discounts on products from brand partners, an ad-free online experience, premium subscription to Gaia GPS, and much more.

Waking up in the morning is hard. Everyone tells you that it gets worse as you get older, but you always think you’ll be the exception. I know I did. I’ve been diligent about stretching my entire life, always drank a ton of water, and felt like I did all the right things. But age is a funny thing, my friend, and arthritis is a bitch. So here I lay, laughing at the cruel reality with my funny friend, and softly cursing that nagging pain that persists throughout my entire body. Being 12 is hard, but it doesn’t sound nearly as impressive as being 84. That’s why we call it “dog years,” because who wants to say they’re circling the drain when they’re 12?

I’ve been slow to accept the fact that my days as a trail dog are over. My human kept me going for as long as she could. In fact, on my 84th birthday she took me to the tippy top of our local mountain. It took us a while. I needed to pee a lot. I chalk that up to my still-excellent hydration. My joints were stiff and I felt slow.

As we meandered through the fairy tale-like forests, I noticed things that had never before caught my attention. I noticed the hoarfrost on the ground looked like mini glaciers. I noticed the excellent traction from the nearly frozen dirt. I noticed my breath curling up from my nose and I even tried to bite it more than once. It was a fun game. I stopped to lay down in the trail while my human patiently waited. She got off her bike and walked over and told me that I was the best boy and rubbed my belly. There’s really nothing better than affirmations and belly rubs. I rolled onto my back and had all four legs in the air and wiggled around happily while she scratched, laughed, and maybe cried. It was hard to tell. “I can’t believe you’re 12,” she said quietly. “I’m 84,” I barked back softly. She patted my belly and I made my way back to my feet.

Illustration collage of mountain bike rider and her dog

“You good to keep going? We will be in the sunshine in 5 more minutes,” she said encouragingly. I wanted nothing more than to make it to the top of that hill. After my year, just being in the woods felt miraculous. I had what the doctor thought was a cancerous mass in my stomach. It was big. They tried to remove it but were unable to, so I was told to take a huge course of pills and return for ultrasounds every six weeks. I was put on Prednisone, and other damaging drugs. The steroid weakened me to a state of total apathy. I’d wake up in a puddle of pee and not understand what happened. I lost so much muscle mass that my 80-pound frame dropped to 60. My human had to carry me up her very steep stairs. It felt pathetic that I couldn’t even manage to move myself around.

I’ve been slow to accept the fact that my days as a trail dog are over.

I heard her talking about things like “cremation,” “Viking funeral,” and “one final Old Man Lap.” It’s weird hearing people talk about your imminent death. We all know we’re going to die, but it sure feels strange when you’re listening to your posthumous plans being made for you. “Please live forever,” she’d whisper while crying warm tears into my fur “Please don’t leave me. Maybe science will make it so we can go on the same day many, many years from now. That would be perfect,” she said with a sad little laugh “Yeah, but then I’d be well over 1,000 years old, and if I’m already struggling this much at 84, I can’t imagine the suffering of a true millennial,” I woof-howled in what she calls my inside voice. Still, she was right. I couldn’t just die like this, pissing my bed, looking like Skeletor covered in husky fur. What kind of exit was that? I still had my dignity, so it was time to dig deep.

Over the course of the next few months, I started to meditate. To my human it probably just looked like a lot of intense napping, but there was more going on. I recalled our best times together. I put myself back into those rides that lasted for hours in the alpine sun. I smelled the moist organic matter that came from putting a shovel to dirt, and then eating that dirt. I tried to imagine what it felt like to do a proper Zoomie. Man, I was fast for a big dude. I could keep up with the sinewy little pups with short hair. I was like Thor on the mountain. Big, powerful, and the God of Big Barking. Where do you think the sound of thunder comes from? These lungs, my friend. These lungs.

We would drive to Whistler almost every weekend and play in Lost Lake with all the other dogs. I’d chase bears to prove to my human that they weren’t nearly as scary as she thought. I’d conjure up the adoration of pedestrians throughout the village with the perfect little white tip on my tail. “Oh my gosh it’s like he dipped his tail in paint!” they’d say. I am very handsome, they’d say. My human tells me at least five times a day, so they must have been right.

Throughout the course of these meditations my body changed. I willed my stomach to swallow that mass whole and upon our sixth ultrasound we discovered it no longer existed. The doctors were baffled. They called me a miracle. They couldn’t explain why a 5-centimeter mass had somehow shrunk to nothing. They switched my medications to some back-alley concoction we have to order from New Jersey. It costs about what my human would pay for a crappy used bike, but instead she spends it on me. These new drugs gave me life. I gained my strength back and was able to regain control of my bladder. Let me tell you something. When you’re a dog and your entire existence hangs on what you ‘own’ and you can’t pee on the things you need to ‘own,’ it’s really hard to find a purpose in life.

I reclaimed the plants and mailboxes and fire hydrants and someone’s shoes (sorry about that one). I broadcasted that the Nation of Roscoe was alive and well! This old dog had a new trick, and it’s called learning to pee all over again

After I took ownership of all my rightful plants and fence posts, I told my human that I was ready to try for one more lap. One more go at the thing that created the most amazing bond that two creatures will ever know. I walked over to her bike shoes and put my head on them. I pulled out the ol’ puppy dog eyes trick and put on my best smile. She looked at me curiously and said hopefully, “Bike ride? Go outside?” My ears perked up and I stood up as fast as I could and wagged my white-tipped tail. “I don’t know buddy. It’s been a while and you’ve been through a lot,” she said, eyeing me with what I think was a hint of doubt. I tap danced my way to the door proudly and howled in my deepest Thor howl, “Awoowooo!” I’m pretty sure the floor shook. She laughed and said “Ok, let’s try it. After all, it’s your birthday and you get your steak dinner tonight. We better go make sure you work up an appetite!”

I told my human I was ready to try for one more lap.

And there we were, laying in the middle of the trail, getting belly rubs in the cold November sunshine. “Let’s go buddy,” she said. “You can do it!” And I did. My creaky old bones and lipoma-laden body lumbered up the singletrack into the golden autumn light. I was panting and prodding along in sheer joy. To be out there with my human on such perfect tacky dirt in the low-angle heavenly sunshine—it was the stuff of dreams. We did finally make it to the top. I collapsed into an exhausted heap while she gave me more pets and water. I just needed a minute to recharge. Our descent, part two of the Old Man Lap, is her favorite trail. I used to be able to show her the lines, but now I could no longer even keep her in sight. She was too fast, and I was too slow, but just like always, she waited for me and cheered me on. I could hear her voice over the jingle of my collar tags and my heart pounding in my ears.

We eventually made our way back to the bottom of the trail and she was on her knees with her arms open. I ran right into them and breathed my delicious fish-like dog breath right into her face. She smiled and gave me a big kiss on my face. I licked her nose and wagged my tail. My bones were aching and all I could think about was my soon-to-be consumed New York Strip that always filled my bowl on my birthday. I couldn’t imagine a better day. My human, steak, and one final Old Man Lap. Perhaps 84 isn’t so bad after all.

Illustrations by: Eliza Southwood