Even when the Ventana got the better of me, Belle didn't care.
It didn't get the better of her, and she would have loved to go
We'd planned the trip for months, and very carefully measured out food, trimmed pack weight, and planned for contingencies. We figured shortcuts out, ways to signal for help, and lots of room in both schedule and route for the unexpected. Ours was to be a week-long buddy trip, just the two of us watching out for each other in the isolation of the wilderness.
Long ago, during and after high school, hiking the Ventana was more a political statement than a personal one. The GraniteRock company owned Jeffers' "steep sea-wave of marble," Henry Miller had added a touch of scandal to the auslanders hidden down the coast, and the battle over water development rights pitted the upper Carmel Valley against the rest of the Peninsula. It was important then that we tromp the trails to show we knew what we had to preserve; it is important now to tromp the trails to break free of the complications of our lives.
Belle didn't care. She'd go for any reason. As long as she was with me the exertions, the difficulties, the schedule didn't matter. She didn't complain when the first easy up-grade peaked and then headed down to a saddle where the next grade only began again. We reveled in the wildflowers and the lush abundance of water El Niņo had left. The trail damage from the long, wet winter was a pain, but with a little persistence we overcame every problem. Our first night's camp was at Pine Valley; immediately upon shedding the packs Belle collapsed into a profound sleep, so deep that I felt compelled to see if she was still breathing. She didn't care about the pre-historic mortar holes I found, tolerated my examination of the nearby cabin and corral, and stirred only when I prepared dinner. With the last of the evening's light we scouted the sandstone outcrops and looked for the path downstream, saving the falls there for another trip. Then, despite her sedentary home life, she prowled around off and on all night long and was ready to go in the morning.
We climbed the next morning to the Bear Basin trail junction. Schaffer had been right, it was a steep, exhausting trail (he calculated 15%). I clawed my way to the saddle, hauling 55 pounds, and tried to find the energy to make a mid-morning snack to supplement the gorp and Gatorade. Belle stood by and waited patiently; after all, she'd had to wait for me any number of times along the trail, and watching me sit at this break was just another. Her patience was extraordinary.
Back on the Pine Ridge trail, headed south, the climb became easier. Even so, my legs were getting wobbly but Belle remained optimistic and curious. My shoulders ached but Belle just kept walking. I stopped ostensibly to count peaks but really to catch my breath, and Belle happily scouted for wildlife.
By the Black Cone Trail junction it was clear I was in trouble. It was late morning and neither food nor rest stops was breaking the drain on my energy. My legs were so wobbly the occasional snag across the trail was a major problem; Belle, on the other hand, merely skipped over or scrambled around, without complaint. Clearing the junction and starting down hill we stopped to gasp at the view of the deep chasm into which we were headed: the Big Sur River was thousands of feet down, and our plans called for us to mount a ridge after that. I felt like I needed a rest home walker just to keep me upright; Belle displayed a deep fascination with the local flora.
Pine Ridge camp was a godsend. The spring was gushing forth many gallons a minute, overspilling the pipe. The winter rains had washed away any human mark. The "two-trunked madrone" Schaffer described was reassuringly still standing, and the view remained magnificent. At least a brief stop, here, Belle, OK? She nodded her approval and commenced a vigorous exploration of the hillside.
I sat and waited for my legs to recover. Did I want to commit to the 2,600 foot drop down and the necessary hike back up? Did I want to battle the rainsqualls now off the coast? Was it really calorie depletion or was that a cold I felt coming on? Belle didn't mind the questions and didn't care about the answers. She napped then continued her explorations.
I set up camp there, deferring for a day the hike to Rainbow Camp. I rationalized that I'd just delete a planned day hike from later in the excursion. Belle was content with the moment and listened appreciatively as I explained the logic.
The following morning the rain squall had not dropped much, but the tent was dripping with condensed fog. The cold had turned into a sinus infection, so that danger and not opportunity awaited a descent to the river. There was no choice. Reluctantly, I turned back to China Camp.
Belle trod the same trails in reverse, only occasionally complaining about the deadfalls in the way. She kept up an easy lope and watched me carefully. We climbed the cliff above Church Creek Divide then slid down the wildflower fields on the reverse slope; we plodded up the gully-torn path beyond the saddle then skated down to the car park.
Belle never complained. She carried her weight and held up the emotional end of the trip. If she was upset at the loss of a week in the woods, or grateful at an early return to the comforts of civilization, she never said. She was simply happy to be my companion.
Two weeks in May later Belle came crawling for help. She was terribly, terribly sick. The vet diagnosed fast-moving lymphatic carcinoma, always fatal. We did what we could to buy her some time, first with antibiotics and later with the mixed blessings of a corticosteroid. She rallied and revived for months. She hiked Carson Pass, leapt in the snow packs, ran the parkways, patrolled the neighborhood. Most of all, though, she remained my friend. Patient, always present, always willing, completely trusting, a close confidant. Then one day in September we awoke to find her gasping for air and unable to move for the pain. There was no choice; we put down the best friend in the world way before we should even have had to think about it, two weeks before her seventh birthday. Thank you, Belle. I loved you. You were a good friend and a gentle soul. I miss you.