Training, Bonding, and Bliss

Puppies bring revelations. Don’t adopt a new pup if you’d rather not reconsider everything you thought you knew about dogs… and life. Having new energy in the house seems to wring new thoughts, feelings, and revelations from me on a damn near daily basis. And wring really is the best verb, as I feel rather like a damp sponge a lot of the time. It’s been raining a fair amount lately and I’m soggy and filthy. I’ve wiped up gallons of mucky grossness from every surface in this house. I smell faintly of funk. Welcome to fall, the season of dampness and rot.

This morning I watched the gang do their thing: Bindi anointed Cinder with her floppy paw (which has been christened the Wonky Booper – thank you, Stephanie, for that epithet!), Peeka threatened to kill them all, and Brody shrieked obscenities from the couch. Hawkitt stayed completely out of it, placidly chewing a kong and awaiting further instructions. All as it should be: Bindi is a puppy, Cinder is a princess, Brody and Peeka are brain damaged, and Hawkitt is a confident dog.

Princess Of The Mud Puddle

I scroll through social media posts and live vicariously through other people’s experiences: hiking, wildlife photography, and dogs. Metric boatloads of dogs. It was while skimming through a bunch of posts about training dogs that I had my revelation. I do not train my dogs. Like, not at all. I don’t engage in any training ever.

I know you’re all chuckling because of course I do. But I’m pretty ding dang certain I don’t. Training, (here’s the revelation part) means teaching them HOW to do something. Heel? Break it into smaller steps and teach the dog to do each step. Nope, I’ve never done that. Come? I have never explored teaching a dog HOW to perform a recall command. My guys just do it. I ask for a down and half the time I get an up. No big deal. I’m pretty sure laughing my head off and giving the dog a snuggle for trying is not exactly “training.” One of my famous and oft-repeated lines is that the first thing I teach any dog in my home is “go away.” But I don’t teach it: I just say it. The dogs seem to know what I mean.

That’s the fascinating thing right there and that’s the kernel of the revelation: I don’t ever teach my dogs how to do anything. Yet they do what I ask of them pretty damn reliably.

That doesn’t mean I don’t monitor the pack and assess needs as they arise. I bounce things off trainers and address issues as they pop up… and with 5 pointy-eared miscreants, all manner of acute issues pop up with alarming regularity. But beyond that, I don’t do much more. I don’t see any need to. Pushing them to fulfill their potential? Mica was one of those Malinois who could have jumped out of airplanes. Hawkitt is that caliber of dog as well. It’s a shame they never got to plumb those particular depths, but how much of a shame? Both of them have (had, in Mica’s case) about as enriched a life as I can manage. I’m ok with what we do here and how close to “good enough” we come. I know I get criticized for “not asking very much of them” but asking any living being to put up with Brody and Peeka is asking a tremendous amount. Tolerating mentally ill dogs 24/7 is spiritual work, advanced level. The rest of the gang has the equivalent of a PhD in patience and kindness, qualities that I didn’t teach, but I sure as hell demanded. And Peeks and BroMan are also peddling as hard as they can, trying to get to “good dog” in as straight a line as they can manage.

I don’t train them, but that doesn’t mean I don’t ask them to do things. I ask all of them to do all sorts of things all the time. I tailor what I ask of each dog to the situation and the dog’s ability. But I don’t explore breaking down tasks into components and teaching each component. I don’t care how they get there. If I say go get a stick, and Hawkitt rips a sapling out of the ground to comply, he gets a robust “good boy.” If I ask Peeka to stop harassing Brody and she turns on me, shrieking like a banshee, she gets praise and a cookie. Over and over again, in various ways, all the dogs get asked to give up something they very much want, and receive in return something they might not value very highly. Why on earth does this work?

Pretending to be normal…

Don’t worry, I won’t say the D word or the A word (dominance or alpha) (oops, I said them). I don’t roll the dogs or insist I walk through doorways first. I don’t ever think about whether or not I’m the Alpha, but I do pay attention to whether or not my dogs are “with” me. I know when they’re with me and I know when they’re “gone.” I don’t know how else to say it but I know those are not technical terms or WorkingDogSpeak. When the dogs are with me, it’s a palpable connection that I can see and feel but will probably stink at explaining. It’s a look in their eyes and body language and just… a vibe. It’s when we’re walking and we reach a trail junction and they all hesitate and make eye contact with me and await my nod or gesture to determine which way we go. Or when they leap up to destroy the joint because there’s a truck in our driveway and I just shake my head, just a little, and they settle. It’s when I think about giving a command, but I haven’t said it yet and they can see or feel the change in me and respond before I speak. It looks like magic to folks who don’t know dogs, but it’s probably just biochemistry.

When the gang is with me, we’re in the zone. I can ask for anything and reliably, consistently get it. Recall, down at a distance, polite leash walking or protect me from danger – I know that when the dogs and I are in the zone, they are available for pretty much anything I ask. I know this because I ask for all sorts of ridiculous things all the time. The word I haven’t said yet but is on the tip of all of our tongues is bond. The dogs and I develop a bond – deep, true, and fast. The dogs don’t need to be told how to do stuff because they are smart and capable and not confused about what the end result needs to be: they know they need to get to “good dog.” And they know they will find their way there.

Someone saw a video of me playing tug with Hawkitt and asked “are you training him to play nicely?” Great question. That may be the result of what I’m doing but it’s not the goal. I’m just playing with my dog. Play, enjoyment, and intimacy are goals in and of themselves. They are enough. I live with five dogs because I love them and want them in my life. And part of that is interacting with them, in a fun, joyful, affectionate, goofy manner.  

The revelation continues: I don’t need them to be anything other than what they are. I accept them fully as they are, flawed and wonky, boisterous and intense, sweet and … not so sweet. I don’t need them to develop of change or do anything other than exactly what they are already doing so well: live here in harmony with me and Tom and all the wildlife here on this mountain. I don’t need them to jump through hoops, proverbial or otherwise.

This is not such a shocking disclosure. I think most people live this way with their dogs, enjoying their unique “person”alities. They are fascinating housemates, and great company. Finding that rhythm of the day that includes dog stuff and human stuff is deeply satisfying. And that’s it in a nutshell for me: this life with these dogs is deeply satisfying. This is awesome, right here, right now, as it is.

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Beer, Steak, and Writing: Dog Training by Metaphor

I am blessed with a generous friend who is also a great trainer. She has witnessed Peeka and Hawkitt in their native habitat, has seen me managing them, and has been my “go to” person for all training and behavior questions. We met over Cinder: Brydon fostered Cinder and the relationship an adoptive owner can strike up with a foster can be profound. Dog after dog, wacky situation after even wackier situation, I’ve found that I could lean on Brydon for advice, reality checks, and friendship. This morning we talked about motivation.

I asked Bry to give me an example of a dog being asked to work for stuff he or she doesn’t want. I was thinking “don’t dogs want everything? Food, love, praise, tug, etc… aren’t dogs easy to motivate?” Brydon’s reply was so awesome I was inspired to write this whole blog post about it. She said “I want you to write a story. I will pay you in beer.”

Sheesh, I thought. “Brydon, I love you, I love writing, and I love beer. This is a no brainer.”

“What if I offered to pay you in steak?”

“I am allergic to beef. I haven’t eaten a cut of beef since I was 16 and had an anaphalactic reaction. I still love you and I still love writing but I’d walk away from the reward.”

“What if I asked you to clean the bathroom and offered to pay you with a hamburger?”

“I still love you but I hate cleaning bathrooms.”

And so on. It was starting to make sense for me in a new way. Three components to asking anything of a dog: your relationships with the dog (I love Brydon and would clean a bathroom or even [shudder] change a tire for her); the task you’ve asked of the dog, and the reward you’re offering the dog for compliance.

The three components work together, though. If Brydon offers me a beer, I trust Bry that it will be a craft brewed India pale ale, and not a poorly-balanced, overly citrusy one. We have an established relationship so I can trust that if she says beer, she doesn’t mean Coors light.

I love to write. But what if every time I wrote Bry a story, instead of giving me a delicious IPA, she said “that story wasn’t what I had in mind. I’m sorry if I didn’t make myself clear, but I need you to rewrite it from scratch.” What if no matter how many stories I wrote, she always found fault and withheld the beer?

And let’s take Brydon out of the equation for a moment. What is the person asking me to write has no relationship with me at all? How would I go about deciding to write for him or her? I’d need more information about the story (what type of story? How many words? On what topic? And just one beer? Or a whole six pack?)

Building relationship and building motivation or engagement or working drive or all four of these separate but related aspects of training happen organically as we live with and work with our dogs. Bry and I were chatting about Bendy Bindi and how she’s adapting to our lifestyle here on the mountain. One of Bry’s quotes, taken slightly out of context, but relevant nonetheless was “every time she even glances in your direction, love the shit out of her.” Building relationship means, in part, building joy in interacting. When I was studying to be a social worker, I learned the term “role induction.” Mothers of newborns induce their babies to be “givers of joy.” It’s a feedback loop for sure – mom responds to baby as if baby is a giver of joy and … lo and behold, baby starts acting like a giver of joy. It’s not the same process with dogs, but it looks similar from the outside: every time the dog approaches you of its own volition, you let it know that approaching me is AWESOME. Interacting with me is AWESOME. Me in your life? AWESOME. How awesome? Add a bit of delicious food AWESOME.

Tired but happy. Bindi hiked in the Catskill Forest Preserve and showed me what bond in action looks like.

The proof of the pudding is in the tasting: Bindi shows an obvious intense bond and profound engagement and she’s only a silly Bendy-Pawed Puppy who has been here 4 weeks. But in photo after photo, video after video, if I step back and watch objectively – it’s clear she is focused like a laser on me. She is eagerly trying to figure out how to be my giver of joy. And she is clearly receiving the positive feedback that I am trustworthy, fun, and safe. We will start trading stories for beer at some point, but by the time we do, she will know she’s got nothing but craft brewed double IPAs coming her way and I will trust that her stories will be a pleasure to read.

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Meeting Needs, 5 a.m. Puppy-Style

I spent a few years of my adult life as a single mom. Tuck that fact away for future reference.

Maya and Midnight. Photo by Margaret or Ted Pitera

This morning Tom and I were awakened at 4:50 a.m. by impassioned whining. Bindi was crated for the night and it’s unusual for her to suddenly commence whining during the night. I had been dead asleep so it took me a moment to become coherent.

“I think she needs to pee,” I announced, knowing full well Tom was awake.

“I’ll take her,” he replied and got up.

Genius, I thought. What a fabulous solution to the problem of “I don’t want to reward whining” versus “I don’t want a soggy crate pad.” Bindi is a good girl for Tom and listens to him but he is NOT a reward. She still fears him and is a bit of a clingy Mommy’s girl with me. By having her whine answered by Daddy, we’re killing multiple birds with a pile of rocks… or maybe something slightly less violent.

They returned to our hallway (we all sleep in a hallway. The joys of building a house: The bedroom is a work zone.), and Tom asked me if he should crate Bindi. I said no, it’s only an hour, I’m wide awake now, and she jingles. If she is moving around, I’ll hear her. She can try behaving like a big girl, loose with the big dogs, for an hour without any human attention. Let’s see how that goes. That was my thinking.

Tom got back into bed. Bindi bop-waddled over to his side of the bed and stood up (paws on the side of the bed) and peered through the darkness at the (faux) sleeping humans. Neither of us responded at all, but she and I made eye contact. I managed not to laugh at her ears. Don’t ask me how.

She stumbled over to my side of the bed and stood up. Instantly I had puppy feet in my hair and eyes, and a snoot in my neck. I gave her a slow calm pet and said in my yoga teacher voice “oooooh kaaaaay, sshhhhhhhh” or something like that. She hopped down, ambled off and was still and silent until 6:20.

So here’s the thing: every smart and sensible dog trainer on the planet would advise against doing what I did. DO NOT REWARD BEHAVIOR YOU DO NOT WISH TO SEE REPEATED. That makes total sense. It’s bang on the dot correct for 99.99% of dog training situations and most of life is a dog training situation. So why the hell did I pet her when she was seeking attention at 5 a.m.? Why reward puppy paws on my bed, or in my face?

Meeting needs… remember that I was a single mom? My kid was raised by a malinois mom: she had to learn to handle me or she would see teeth (or tears… or guilt trips…). I can sum up my parenting ethos in one simple analogy: do not ask me for a ride to the mall if I’m hungry, tired, or in a bad mood.

You cannot ask me (or, in my opinion, any other living being) to perform, comply, or be nice when I’m overwhelmed with unmet needs. I can’t help you with your homework if I’m exhausted, ill, or haven’t slept. But give me five minutes to get some of my most pressing needs met (e.g. let me get a cold drink and a few minutes of silence or a brisk walk with the dogs) and I can then be Nice Mommy – pleasant to be around and helpful with whatever you ask.

I spent 16 years diagnosing and treating mental illness as a clinical social worker and one of the life lessons I learned is that meeting a living being’s needs isn’t enabling or coddling: it’s empowering. More to the point: if a kid or a dog or your spouse is overwhelmed with anxiety, simply demanding anything of them is pointless. It’s a “can’t” not a “won’t.”

One of the most basic tenets of dog training is building relationship. Call it bonding, call it leadership, call it whatever you want, but at its base, it’s about trust. The dog needs to trust you. You need to trust your dog. Refusing to meet basic needs does not build trust; it builds the opposite.

Back to my 5 a.m. bedside “aha moment” – I petted and gave verbal attention to a dog that I wanted to go away from me and settle down. Seems totally contraindicated, right? I just reinforced that dog “bothering” me, right?

Wrong. I met a need. Once her need to connect with me was met, she was able to go settle down WITHOUT BEING TOLD. I gave no command, no “go to place,” no correction for paws on the eye. I just met her need and deepened the trust that’s developing. I gave her a clear message: ‘I am here. You are safe. All is well.’ Her anxiety melted away and in that calm and safe space, she was then empowered to go be a good puppy and shut up and lie down.

Here’s the tricky part: I had to know which approach to take in that moment. I had to glean “is this a puppy seeking to be a bratty spoiled pushy (AKA totally normal) jerk at 5 a.m.?” or “is this a mildly anxious puppy who needs a little reassurance?” They look pretty similar. I definitely had to make a judgment call. That meant even at 5 a.m. I had to be focused and intuitive and “feel” her, rather than judge her. I had to consider her needs… while deep in the throes of my own. I really wanted to go back to sleep.

2003, Photo by Maya Fischer. Iske and me

While training involves a ton of technique, it requires a ton of feeling. To me, feeling with a dog is pure magic. It’s why I have sacrificed all that I give up to live with five very messy dogs. Sometimes some folks seem impressed with my lifestyle and the sheer volume of caninity I share my home with, but it’s really not that hard. I just meet their needs. It all flows from there.

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Bindi Bendy Paw

Against the backdrop of autumn in the western Catskills – a riotous clashing of cornflower blue skies and sulfur-yellow maple leaves showing off – I drove the bendy-pawed puppy and her striped chaperone across three upstate New York counties to the Veterinary Specialties clinic.

When I adopted Bindi, I knew at some point I’d be faced with decisions regarding her deformity. Watching her race around our home turf, I felt increasingly hopeful. She uses the paw well and at times even appears to run without a limp! I think that’s because she’s such a blur, I can’t pick out any individual limb. She gets zoomies daily. Her coat glows. She’s gaining weight steadily and yet looks trim – even a bit underweight to my Jewish Mama eyes. She’s definitely a happy pup actively learning about her new life here on the mountain.

But what about that paw? Here’s the most concise report I can give based on an orthopedic surgeon’s review of her file (including x rays and report from the University of Tennessee) and clinical exam:

  1. The cause of the floppy paw is a bone deformity. Her radial carpal bone (it’s a rectangular-ish shaped bone that is in between the radius and the tiny bones of the wrist) is malformed. About half of it is missing. While the vet couldn’t say for certain, she believes Bendy Bindi was born this way. The missing half of the bone accounts for the odd sideways placement of the paw and the gait abnormalities.
  2. There is nothing to be done with that bone and that joint. It is, as the vet explained, a lost cause. In my terminology, her wrist is utterly and hopelessly fucked.
  3. No, a brace, boot, splint, or any other mechanical device to “help straighten that thing out” is not recommended. No brace. No cast. No splint. Yes, I specifically asked. No, it is not recommended. If I sound a little testy it’s because only about eleventy thousand of you have suggested it and I get it. It makes perfect mechanical sense. It looks like it should help. But a creative and problem-solving brain and a couple google searches does not equal a veterinary orthopedic specialty and it’s the vet’s opinion I’m giving creedence to. Tom suggested a brace to, and I snapped at him. I wish it were mechanical and simple. It isn’t.
  4. Two surgical options were discussed. The first would not be considered until Bindi’s growth plates close. It was described as a fusion (ok, the technical term is arthrodesis, but I am able to remember and spell fusion). All the cartilage in the wrist would be removed and a bone graft from the shoulder would be used to help the joint fuse. Plates and screws from the toe to above the wrist would be used to hold the fusing joint in place. The whole shebang can be summed up as expensive, invasive, and risky. The recovery would involve a long period of crate rest – many months. The prognosis is not fantastic. It might work; the joint might fuse. Apparently sometimes it just plain doesn’t take. Infection is a huge risk. I described my lifestyle and the four other dogs in the home and admitted to the vet: it’s not suburbia here. We share our home with raccoons, bears, foxes, porcupines etc… and all their poop. Keeping Bindi and her bedding etc clean – post op recovery clean – would be a daunting task. Keeping her quiet would be a challenge. And the risks seem to work against this being a smart move.
  5. The only other option is to amputate the leg – the whole leg including the scapula. No prosthesis recommended. The procedure is less invasive than the arthrodesis, but still plenty invasive. Recovery is typically two weeks. The risks are infinitely less. I know most dogs recover well from amputations and continue on as before with minimal drama. The surgery is typically harder on us humans than it is on the dog. And it’s about half the price.
  6. Arthrodesis would have to wait til she’s fully grown.  The amputation could be scheduled at any time. Her age is not a contraindication for that procedure.
  7. Deciding to amputate is a huge decision for me. The vet framed it up as “help versus hindrance” – when the balance of that tips to the hindrance side, we consider the surgery. As long as having the leg there is more of a help to her than a problem, it stays.
  8. What are the risks of doing nothing? At this point pretty minimal. As a puppy, arthritis isn’t a huge concern. At some point, all the vets agree, her toes joints and her elbow joint will be impacted by this issue and she will have chronic pain. How bad and when? Unknown. Could she be a refugee from the odds and never develop issues and live out her entire life in relative comfort? Maybe. Best guess is that she is a German Shepherd mix and GSDs are notorious for elbow dysplasia anyway.

So, at this point, I’m left with a bad prognosis and unappealing options. And a happy puppy.  The good news is that I don’t have to do anything quickly and she is not in pain now. The vet remarked that her bad front leg is well muscled despite the wrist issue. Her body condition was noted as excellent. The vet supported allowing her to be as active as she wanted to be, with zero restrictions. She can hike, swim, run etc. as much as she wants to. The key is that I don’t push her, but allow her to choose her activity level and monitor for signs of pain or exhaustion.

Initially I was really upset. I felt like crying and yelling at the incredibly sweet vet “No, you may NOT cut my puppy’s leg off.” But after taking a look at my emotional reaction I realized that a big part of that emo meltdown had to do with expectations. I had hoped and perhaps even expected that the orthopedist was going to describe a nice little wrist surgery that, while perhaps expensive AF, would solve the problem neatly and forever. In other words, I was dreaming. The consult brought me back down to earth and I’m sobering up and adjusting to the situation. The joint is a lost cause. All solutions are end stage solutions and involve risk, expense, and significant adjustment.

But it’s autumn in the Catskills. And autumn despite its beauty is all about death, letting go, dropping what won’t serve you through the coming winter. And surviving until spring. My plan is to do nothing until Bindi has stopped growing and then reassess. Miracles are not outlawed. And she is using that chicken wing well for now. I’ll watch and wait and breathe and stop crying over lost causes. And now I have to stop writing and go see what she has in her mouth.

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Day 7: Call The Police

I adopted a 6 month old puppy and I am an committed hater of puppies. Don’t get me wrong; I adore other people’s puppies. But do I long for one of my own? Nope. Not even a little bit. Puppies are worse than human babies and I’m not a fan of them either. I broke my No Puppies vow, however, when I was arrested by the sight of a Little Black Puppy with a wonky paw being fostered by a Facebook friend. Her floppy paw, her soulful eyes, her donkey sized ears… Long story short I was besotted. Smitten. Done for. I have learned when that happens, it’s magic. It’s chemistry. Honor it or regret it for the rest of your days.

So how’s it going?

This afternoon, after a miles long romp in the woods and plenty of indoor harassment by the rest of the pack, I took her and the rest of the gang outside to play while I stacked firewood. The puppy engaged in digging in the dirt (excellent work out for the wonky paw). Great. Then she commenced to eat the dirt. And rocks. And leaves. And sticks. When Peeka threw up, she ate that. My firewood stacking became a dive-grab-remove detritus-get mauled by puppy teeth-insert appropriate plaything extravaganza. I invented a new sport. And I think I could become a serious competitor because I have an amazing puppy coach.

At one point, she was chewing away on a mouthful of pebbles and dirt and probably some tiny frogs, crickets, bugs and what was left of a deceased shrew she found the other day, and I got a touch too close during the removal. “Bindi, YUCKY! Leave it!” I commanded. She pounced on me, depositing everything she had in her mouth in my face… my eyes, lips, and mouth instantly smeared and gritty and full of godknowswhat.

I pawed at my eyes and started spitting. That got Peeka (the reactive dog) very interested in what was happening so she ambled over and stood threateningly over baby Bindi while I tried not to puke. Meanwhile Brody, the other reactive dog, is shrieking at the top of his lungs at a stick he has cornered down by the pond. He sounds like a maniacal machine gun crossed with a lovesick coyote being strangled. Hawkitt just keeps throwing a ball at my feet. Like no matter what else is happening, we’re playing fetch. Come the apocalypse, Hawk will be tossing a ball at Satan’s feet, I have no doubt.

Somehow I got the wood stacked, without killing any dogs. I can still see out of both (gritty) eyes. I gave up and handed out beef neck bones. That’s the equivalent of sitting a toddler down in front of the TV. I’m gonna have a beer before I attempt to do anything else today.

I hate puppies.

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Garlic Dill Mood Swings

It all happened so fast.

One moment I was my regular self, basically easy-going but cyclically emo and tense. It was knowable – annoyingly predictable. The next thing I knew, I had to make pickles. Garlic dill pickles, with all the cucumbers I harvested from a few days ago, using a recipe that would require SAT level math skills, and they had to be created that minute. One more moment and all the cukes would simultaneously turn to slimy mush and all would be irreparably lost.

Welcome to menopause. Apparently, it’s all about pickles.

Sterilizing the jars and following the steps involved in canning (something I’d never done until this week) was as suddenly impossible and unreachably insurmountable as the project was necessary. I needed help.

I yelled for Tom. He had all manner of Important Chores and Tasks to accomplish but I insisted that he drop everything to assist in the pickle project. I was great company: irritable, sarcastic and touchy. The answer to every reasonable question he asked me was an exasperated “I don’t know.” Let’s face it – I didn’t even know why I had to make pickles at that precise moment. He jettisoned his evening’s plans. He dropped everything. He helped. He cracked stupid jokes. He ignored my evil side eye. He ignored the heavy sighs and gritted teeth. He just sterilized jars and kept up a running commentary.

I had to make the brine. I did a test run last week (refrigerator pickles, not canned), and the brine was way too salty. Ok, cut the salt in half, no problem, right? But I quadrupled the recipe. So that means to cut the salt in half, you have to double it… right? Yeah… but my brain exploded because… did I quadruple the recipe? How many cups of water did I just put in? Wait, did I add the vinegar once or twice? Menopause is well known to cause forgetfulness and issues with concentration and focus but like holy shit: I JUST DID THAT 5 SECONDS AGO AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT I DID.

The pickles are seasoned with garlic, dill flowers, hot red pepper, whole allspice and mixed peppercorns, in a vinegar and salt brine. How bad could they be? The cucumbers are organic, grown in the greenhouse where I earn my keep. Rationally I can rest assured that they will be fine. But rationality, rather like my periods, seems to be a thing of the past.

Buckle up, I’m telling myself. This is going to last as long as it lasts and be about as much fun as a roller coaster ride: as much fun as I choose to make it. I can white knuckle it through and be pissed I bought the ticket, or pray, sit in the front row, and throw my hands up in the air. Either way we’re riding it out. Self-awareness, a sense of humor, and a barf bag are probably the tools I need to make it through.

Pickles. Apparently that’s what menopause it all about.

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The Devil In A Day

3 a.m. is, in my book, last night. 3 a.m. is reachable by staying up late. It belongs to the night. 4 a.m., however, is this morning. It’s a respectable time to get up and start your day, if you’re some sort of pre-dawn psychopath or have a plane to catch. To hike the Devil in a Day, I got up at 3 a.m., and was in the car, driving across two counties, to meet a stranger named Dave, to hike the most challenging trail in the Catskills in its entirety, in one day, by 4 a.m.

The Devil’s Path is often backpacked over 2 or 3 days. It’s renowned as one of the most challenging hiking trails in the Catskills if not the northeast. It’s long (we’ll discuss the mileage below) and strenuous (rock scrambles, and a metric ton of elevation change, or in layman’s terms – you walk way up and way down a bunch of mountains). The other 2 most challenging day hikes in the Catskills are the Escarpment trail (also roughly 24 miles long with plenty of up and down) and The Nine – a combined bushwack and trailed hike that is in that 20+ mile range… as long as you don’t get lost. Having completed the Escarpment trail, solo, and done The Nine in style (see The Twelve), I have been jonesing to complete the trifecta and hike the Devil in a Day. Finally, it sure looked like my day had come.

6:45 a.m. on the first ledge on Indian Head (the chin)

What sort of hiker does this? A surprising number give it a shot; an even more surprising number complete it. Why? I can only guess at others’ motivations and aspirations, but for me it is a healthy dollop of vanity and bragging rights, along with sheer curiosity: am I really up to it? Being female and fifty-three years old, battling hot flashes and gerd by night and working as a farmhand by day, I don’t exactly have a hardcore athlete’s lifestyle. I don’t “train” for efforts like these; I just live a rather rough and tumble lifestyle and hope that my innate fitness, willingness to undergo pain for no good reason, and sheer ill temperedness are sufficient to get me over the humps… literally and figuratively.

I did some preparing, once we set the date. I loaded my already heavy Search and Rescue pack with dumbbells, and walked the dogs every day wearing that pack for 2 weeks. I “prehydrated” as best I could the day before. I dropped off 3.5 gallons of water in a secret spot under a bridge along our route (and then giggled delightedly about “water under the bridge” for the rest of the day). I reread my notes from The Twelve and prepped my food accordingly. I bought energy gels, shot bloks, and builder’s bars. I was as ready as possible.

Let’s be utterly frank here: it’s not exactly fun. Exhilarating, yes. Thrilling, in a way. But it’s all a little too uncomfortable and takes too long to feel much like fun to me. I know the trail well and have hiked every step of it previously – but in small, manageable chunks. I knew exactly what I was signing up for. One of the dominant emotions I experienced for much of the day was dread. Type 2 fun, for sure.

Dave turned out to be a perfect companion. Perfect is high praise coming from me, but he really was perfect in almost every way. His one downfall? He didn’t curse, which made me very nervous. I tried valiantly to censor the f bombs that kept trying to explode out of my mouth. The second half of the hike probably singed his ears less than the first. And full confession: he is not a complete stranger. We met briefly at a CPAC meeting a month or so ago. Our connection is via a close friend of mine: Dave is her Lieutenant. Hiking with a NYSDEC ranger, albeit off duty, gave me a dose of confidence – I was definitely with an experienced and capable hiker. Dave is a true aficionado of Type 2 fun, doing long hikes like these regularly. He is also over 6 feet tall and I think 5.5 ft of that is legs. I worried that I would drive him bananas with my 5’2” pace.

Dave by the cave, west side of Twin

The worry ended up being unwarranted. We kept pace beautifully, and I think despite my banal chatter interspersed with expletives, I think we got along famously. Dave is kind and patient and prefers IPAs. I’ll hike with him any time.

For those of you detail-oriented readers:

The Devil’s Path is an historic hiking trail that starts at the Prediger Road trail head in the town of Hunter, NY and winds its way up and over 4 Catskill High Peaks in its eastern half. It crosses Route 214 at Notch Lake and then continues past the Devil’s Acre lean to, Geiger Point and Diamond Notch Falls before heading up and over West Kill and St. Ann’s Mountains. The walk out is along a gorgeous stream that separates St. Ann’s from the dauntingly impressive east face of North Dome.

Total mileage? Depends who you ask. Internet resources state anywhere from 22 and change to 26 miles. I think it was a bit more, but my phone died at the summit of St. Ann’s, indicating 25 miles at that point. Elevation gain is also a moving target with estimates from 7 to 14 thousand feet offered as the definitive statistic. I tend to glaze over at numbers like these but after finishing I can’t help but wonder what I did at a granular level.

Based on my info, Dave and I maintained a steady 2 mph pace for the whole shebang. We really never flagged. I almost lost it ascending Plateau and needed to stop and rest for a couple of minutes (felt dangerously close to puking – was it the energy gel or just pushing too hard?), and Dave was a little slower than me ascending from Notch Lake to the Devil’s Acre lean to. But overall, we had no trouble staying together and staying with what felt like a quick pace to me. Despite that, we took 14 hours to complete the hike.

I drank one liter of water with a Nuun tablet, and about 3 or 4 liters of plain water. I ate one peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich, one plain old clif bar, one builder’s bar, and 2 energy gels. And I did partake in Dave’s caramel M&Ms.

Because we were hiking right through my buddy’s area (she is the ranger for the whole Devil’s Path), we arranged to meet up at the midway point. Our plan fell through, so my husband took up those reins. He waited for Dave and me in the Notch Lake Parking Area with Ben and Jerry’s slices (yes, the peanut butter ones!). I was able to get a text to him in time to request that he also bring me my hiking poles, as I’d forgotten them at home. Tom worried that I might be tired or feeling low after the descent of Plateau (definitely my least favorite part of the journey) so he brought Peeka (my favorite dog) along for the ride. Seeing Peeka in the car definitely cheered me, although Tom’s kindness, support, and generosity cheered me just as much.

What I learned from finally bagging this elusive addition to my Catskills list:

  1. Every ascent is hard. They don’t really get any easier or less sweaty no matter how many you do in a day.
  2. Every descent is hard. Hiking poles are totally worth it for the descents. I’ll bet my knees would hate me less today if I used poles for the whole hike.
  3. Strong quads make the toe jamming on descents less of an issue. The prep by hiking with the extra heavy pack achieved that.
  4. The walk out after the last peak is always interminable, no matter how far it is or how long your hike. The combination of nettles encroaching upon the trail and the sudden appearance of mosquitoes made my final mile a triathlon of walking, yelling, and slapping. Not a fan.
  5. Despite moving quickly, I reveled in the glory of being atop some of my favorite Catskill peaks. The scent of the balsams is intoxicating. The views jaw-dropping. The sun-dappled trail and the tiny birds (Bicknell’s thrushes? Who knows!) so charming, I almost forgot the task at hand several times, immersed in the beauty.

And now it’s done. We did it. Box checked off. I’m grateful to Dave for offering to do this hike with me, when Christine mentioned my interest in it to him. I’m equally grateful to Chris for putting it out there. And I’m grateful to Tom, my 3 a.m. coffee and toast partner, ice cream and doggo hero of the day. Tom asked me what’s next and I told him I was all set. This was the goal and it’s done. Once he caught his breath after laughing his head off at that, I admitted, well, I might do some of the other hikes again, after my knees forgive me.

Windy on Orchid Point, Photo by David Pachan
On Twin’s false summit.
Buck Ridge Lookout. Photo by David Pachan
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