A Heart Left on Smarts Mountain

Submitted by Nancy

Mountains: Smarts Mountain (3,240)
Date: March 29, 2008
Time: 6 hours and 30 minutes
Weather: Partly sunny, temperature 30's at the bottom and low 20's at the summit, windy on the ridge
Miles: 7.68
Elevation Gain: 2,351
Steps: 21,224
Trail: Lambert Ridge Trail to the Ranger Trail
Picture Gallery

I anticipate Smarts Mountain may be a hard hike for me emotionally.

Pat and I leave Keene at 7 am, which is a leisurely morning for us. We arrive at the Smarts Mountain trailhead in Lyme, NH, and start up the steep beginning of the Lambert Ridge Trail at 9:30.

Hiking always seems to bring to the surface whatever is lying deep within me. I just can't get up the mountain if I am carrying extra baggage, so I shed it as I climb. And in the shedding I learn something. Today I am carrying a heart full of grief.

The snow is sparkling in the bright sunlight today, and the sky is an incredible deep blue. Although the trail had been packed out some time ago, the most recent snow covers the trail untouched, leaving a slight dip that marks the way. Thank goodness we have something to follow since the blazes are very few and far between. Our journey into the woods and up the mountain seems somehow more sacred because it is only us.

We reach our first view early and I am surprised how high we've climbed so quickly. The wind along the ridge reminds us it is winter, sending the snow crystals into a swirling plume of sparkles and sending both Pat and I into our packs for an extra layer of clothing.

As we ascend, I find myself holding onto the last moment of Rajah's life. As if I were right there, two days ago at 3 in the afternoon, lying on the floor next to my 96-pound golden retriever, stroking his head, telling him I loved him, that I would miss him, that he had been a perfect dog.

Perfect. Really. Rajah showed me how perfect life is. He was pure exuberance chasing tennis balls in the backyard and dredging up rocks in Charley's brook, his head underwater so long I often worried. He was in ecstasy swimming in Goose Pond, running on the beach at the inlet on Cape Cod, drooling for a piece of cheese at night and rolling in smelly gross stuff in the woods. His joy was contagious bounding through the deep snow or running in the rain, or walking with me to the Beaver Pond in the summer. He loved car rides and would sit in the back seat, his head out the window, his ears blowing back in the wind. I loved it when he would steal my mittens, hoping for a game of tag, which I always lost, or he would grab the end of the dishtowel for tug-of-war. I would start to pull and he would choke up on the towel. I would laughing call him a cheater and he would yank the towel out of my hands.

Whenever I was upset, or needed advice or comfort, I would lie down on the floor of my office next to Rajah and talk to him, tears soaking into the rug. He would always lift his front paw and put it on my shoulder. Those were the times I felt closest to Rajah. It was as if we knew each other's hearts. There is no doubt that in those moments he loved me and he knew I loved him.

Rajah was too old to join me when I started hiking, so I brought Dejah, my daughter's 3-year-old yellow lab (who moved to Texas last month). Rajah would always greet us at the door with a happy growl of welcome when we came home from our hike, no jealousy, just sheer joy we were home.

Even after two knee operations and a series of health problems, Rajah dealt with each setback with an acceptance that this was life, still at its best. He would struggle to stand and to walk, but always managed to get outside to do his business and then back inside to relax on his bed while we watched TV. No matter how sore or lame, he would always chase a tennis ball.

The Lambert Ridge Trail evens out and I am enjoying the white beauty around me, and the sight of Pat's backpack in front of me. Even though I am alone in my thoughts, I know Pat is with me in my grief.

She called me up yesterday afternoon to see how I was the day after we put Rajah down. I answered, but could barely speak, my voice high with choked sorrow, tears rolling onto the phone. She asked me if I wanted to do something and I told her I couldn't seem to make any decisions. "I'll be right there," she said. Such kindness. We drove to EMS, our favorite store, then to Panera Bread with my computer to research a mountain to hike.

As Pat and I climb Smarts, I let the thoughts of Rajah move through me, but I keep coming back to the moment he left me. As we approach an opening in the trail, I say, "Let's make a memorial to Rajah." Walking with our snowshoes, we form the letter R surrounded by a heart in the new snow. I hope he can see it. I hope he is okay where ever he is. I hope he knows how much I still love him.

From the 90 other mountains we have climbed in a little less than two years, I know this beautiful flat trail will eventually start to go up. And sure enough, it does. We leave Rajah's heart to melt in the sun and head up. Although our pace slows, it's not too steep.

As I slog, I find myself not in tears of sorrow as I expected, but with an overwhelming appreciation of how lucky I am that Rajah blessed my life with his gentle wisdom and playful radiant spirit. How could I have been so lucky to have this noble, quiet creature for the past 12 years who taught me about unconditional love, pure joy, tug-of-war cheating and graceful aging?

Before I know it we are on the summit and it's 1 pm. Pat gives me a high five and a beautiful smile. Smarts Mountain, check it off the "52 With a View" list. The tower's ice covered stairs keep me on the ground, but Pat goes up halfway for a picture. Then we head down the mountain. We get to the intersection of the Lambert Ridge Trail and the Ranger Trail. I ask Pat which she would like to take and she says, right off, the Ranger Trail. Loops are great because they enable the adventure to continue - we never know what the trail will be like or what we will see because we haven't been there before.

Unfortunately, the Ranger Trail is literally unmarked. There are no blazes that we can see. We follow the incredibly eroded trail as best we can, but the footing is difficult on the path where the snow has melted and left muddy, leafy soup. We bushwhack through the woods or along the narrow snow bank that lines the trail whenever possible. We arrive at the garage marked on our map; relieved we are actually following a trail and not just a river. We continue along what looks like a snowmobile trail. It feels like we are walking for miles and miles. As I negotiate my way, I continued to flash back to Rajah's last hours.

I had been in Florida visiting our daughter when Don called me and said that something was very wrong with Rajah and he was taking him to the vet. A deep Rajah-lover himself, it was difficult for Don when he learned Rajah had herniated a disk in his spine and lost all control of his back end. He couldn't walk or stand or go to the bathroom. Don continued calling, giving me sad updates, each call getting worse, until it was clear we had a decision to make. And the decision was easy. Rajah was telling us it was time. He had shut down, hadn't moved, wouldn't even take cheese and could barely lift his head.

He waited for me to come home from Florida to say goodbye. I left my suitcase and stuff in the car, ran into the house and laid down with Rajah on the floor. "I'm here, Raj, " I said. He immediately put his paw on my shoulder and looked into my eyes. I sobbed.

And then we eased his passing. I held him as the vet gave him the shot and then I watched as his life slipped away, my tears rolling down his cheeks.

But in my sorrow, as I hike, there is an acceptance inside that could only come from watching Rajah live.

How could life be there one minute and be gone the next? Where did his exuberance, his spirit, his love for me go?

As I snowshoe along the never-ending trail, I wish Rajah's life had been never-ending. The stuff you want to end, never does. The awesome moments are gone in a flash. As I plod the last mile, I can see myself gazing into Rajah's big brown eyes, knowing at that last moment I still had him. Even though I knew we were doing the right thing, I couldn't help but not want it to happen. Even as he was dying, I wanted to hold onto him and not let him go.

The trail continues for what seems forever. There are still no blazes and Pat and I start thinking we might be lost; somehow we might have gotten turned around and lost the unmarked trail. Pat finally gets out her compass and we determine we are walking in the right direction and that eventually we should hit the road. We keep walking. I cross a gully, fall down on my hands and knees and I hear Pat laughing. I think she is laughing at me, but when I stand up I see it too. The parking lot.

    Dejah and Rajah

Ahhh, the end. Maybe that is what Rajah was saying.

It's 4 o'clock and we are thrilled to not be lost and more importantly, blessed by our experience honoring Rajah on the mountain.

13 out of 52 With a View