What More Could We Do? An Encounter on the Pacific Crest Trail

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Disclosure: Some readers may find this material difficult to consume. Please use discretion if you are sensitive to animal neglect or have trauma related to animal neglect.

When my 26-year-old pal, Cullen, described a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail he was preparing to tackle, I graciously offered to play trail angel and drive him to Castle Crags State Park. When he invited me to join him, I did not hesitate. At 59 years of age, I have few peers interested in pursuing such endeavors. 

There was something ominous having Mt. Shasta looming over our shoulders. She would appear without warning, a purple haze shrouding her lower elevations, tongues of snow lolling 4,000 feet down the mount into her deep crevices, lenticular clouds crowning her peak. I kept my head down and focused on the rhythmic clicking of my hiking poles, the thump of my boots. After three glorious days, we began a six-mile stretch of the trail in 80-degree heat, without springs or streams, each of us carrying two liters of water. 

We were blissfully reeling in the miles when we heard rustling up ahead, the snap of a twig.  

“Bear?” Cullen asked as we rounded a cluster of Ponderosa Pines. An impressive beast lurched from the shadows and struggled to its feet. 

“Nope. Bullmastiff. What the heck is a massive hunk of animal doing on the trail by herself without a collar?” Our thoughts ricocheted around the mountains as we struggled to make meaning out of this unexpected encounter. The beast was panting heavily, drooling. Black flies swarmed the liquid of her eyes. She fell to the ground with a deep thud and settled into a pocket of shade beside a family of boulders. 

“What’s wrong with her?” While Cullen was focused on the what, I was focused on the why.  

“Why would someone abandon their dog? How could they do such a thing?”

Cullen seemed to be searching for a plausible explanation in the dirt. With his boot, he began drawing random patterns. “Maybe she got lost. Maybe she has cancer, and the owner couldn’t afford the treatment.” 

Without responding to Cullen, I mopped the sweat from my brow with a filthy shirt sleeve, and turned my attention to the dog: “How you doing, Sweetheart?” I pulled out my Sierra cup and filled it with warm water. I looked into the mastiff’s eyes and set the cup down, scooching it slowly toward her gaping mouth. The dog gazed at me suspiciously before slurping up four cups of water. How much more could we afford to give her? Were we providing comfort or merely prolonging her agony?

Cullen pulled out a baggie packed with pepperoni. The dog gobbled greasy slices from his outstretched hand, and when it was gone, she accepted some petting on her cinder block head. I started calling her Pepper, short for pepperoni.

Meanwhile, Cullen began hatching a plan. “The nearest trailhead is only a couple miles away. Maybe we could make our way into town, get a wheelbarrow, and roll her out of here.”

“All 130 pounds of her? Over rugged terrain?”

“Maybe we’ll find cell reception. We could call for help …” 

While Cullen considered the different actions we might take, I was stuck wondering how we found ourselves in such a wretched situation. We didn’t choose or cause this predicament, but here we were. “Nature’s going to take its course. Do you think we could … should put her out of …”

Cullen interrupted my dark thoughts. “No way! She’s still got a lot of life in her.” Clearly, the many years I spent walking the planet failed to cultivate the wisdom necessary to address the problem before us. 

Eventually, our ideas and discourse fizzled out. 

We threw our packs on our backs and tried to get Pepper to follow us; she couldn’t get back to her feet. I gave her one more pat and looked at Cullen. He had tears in his eyes. What more could we do?

As we trudged away from Pepper, I glanced over my shoulder and noticed Mt. Shasta looming. Why did it seem we were always hiking in her shadow? 

An hour later, Cullen was on the phone with Nancy, a Park Ranger from the National Forest Service, who expressed concern that Pepper might be a threat to other hikers. We all have such different lenses into the world. She promised to get someone to follow up, but who was she going to call? 

With less food and drink in our packs and an effective hand-off (not our problem anymore), why did our packs feel so much heavier? We marched down the trail in silence, each of us lost in thought. Always, there is more we can do, but we convince ourselves that because the problem is not of our own making, it’s not our responsibility to deal with it.

* * *

While a part of me did not want to know what had become of Pepper, curiosity eventually got the better of me. When I returned from the mountains, I called Nancy the park ranger to find out what had become of our furry friend. I was surprised how easy it was to get back in touch. After a few words with her, I was ashamed of my deep-seeded pessimism. Nancy was thrilled to recount the actions taken by so many:

Within a day of our original call, the Weaverville Forest Service had activated Search and Rescue, Animal Control, and an ad hoc group of volunteers from the PCT Trail Angels Network. One man offered to drive three hours to participate in the search. Another woman offered to groom Pepper from toes to tail, once she was found. Yet another individual offered to adopt her. Many who couldn’t actively participate, reposted the message on social media. 

In the meantime, the owner called Animal Control to report his missing dog. Wait. What? Did the posts prompt the owner to make the report? Did he suddenly remember that his dog was micro-chipped? Just a little more skepticism to go with my morning coffee. After hearing about the incredible outpouring of love, why couldn’t I reserve judgment until I learned what really happened to Pepper?

When the owner was told the horrible news that his dog could not be located, he reported: “Oh, I found my dog.” But, did he really find Pepper? How did he get her out of there? Why didn’t he immediately call to let folks know he found his dog? 

Nancy updated her Facebook thread with the following post: “DOG IS BACK WITH OWNER! Thanks everyone for your help!!!”

But I was not satisfied. I felt this burning need to learn what really happened out there. However, after several calls to governmental agencies and multiple postings on the PCT Angels Facebook page, I was unable to connect with the owner. Clearly, my skills in investigative journalism are sorely lacking.  

So that’s it? That’s the end of the story? Incomplete. Open-ended. Unsatisfying. But isn’t that how so many adventures end in real life … with speculation about how a situation came to be and plausible claims about how it concluded?  No wonder we choose to scurry down our respective trails and train our attention on the roots, ruts, and rocks before us that may cause us to trip and fall.

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One thought on “What More Could We Do? An Encounter on the Pacific Crest Trail

  1. Bullmastiffs are known as gentle giants and are very expensive. From the photo, this dog looked healthy. My guess is that he was off leash and took off chasing a squirrel. After becoming worn out, he got lost. So glad you didn’t decide to put him out of his misery.

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