As soon as the autumn sun fell behind the mountain, the air turned cold, and I knew I was in trouble. My dog Sojo and I had left Boston later than planned, and we hit Vermont’s Jamaica State Park in the fading light.
It was our annual pilgrimage. Every October, my husband Bruce and I would go to Vermont to celebrate our birthdays and our anniversary. Most years, I’d leave ahead of Bruce, taking Sojo with me to keep me company.
About two-thirds of the way there, I’d break up our three-hour drive by hiking with Sojo to the top of Little Ball Mountain, a 40-minute jog up a steep trail that peels off to the right a few miles down the rushing West River.
We’d done it many times, Sojo and I, and though it was late, I knew the trail well enough to think we had ample time to get up and back before the sun set.
What I hadn’t counted on was taking a wrong turn just after leaving the top. A half-hour down the trail, I realized my mistake. By then it was too late to retrace my steps and find the right trail in the quickly disappearing light. I quelled my anxiety and considered my options. With nothing to keep me warm overnight, I knew I had to get down somehow—and quickly.
“Sojo,” I called. “Take us home.” A good distance ahead, she stopped and turned, running back toward me, then past me, up the trail we’d just come down. That, I knew, wouldn’t work. We’d have to find a new way down, one we’d never taken before.
“No,” I called. “Wrong way.” She stopped, confused. I pointed ahead and began walking forward. “This way. Take us home—now.”
She turned and sped past me up the trail, without hesitation, a black furry Border Collie mix, all four white paws scurrying ahead, doing what she was born to do. At each of the three forks we passed, she stopped to make sure I was with her, then took off one way and not the other, until we ended up at the lot where my car was parked, barely visible in the twilight.
“Yay, Sojo!” I cried, hugging her to me.
“Good girl! Well done!” She grinned and wagged her tail, as if it was nothing, then jumped happily in the backseat for the last 30-minute stint to our home.
Following Sojo’s lead was the wisest thing I could have done in that moment, and as I have gradually come to realize, in any moment that really matters in life.
- Lost interest in your job? Watch a dog go about the job of making you happy with renewed pleasure each morning.
- Angry at a friend or spouse? Watch just how quickly and fully a dog forgives.
- Bored to tears with the same ol’ same ol’? Watch a dog jump for joy every time you throw him the same ball—again and again and again.
- Feeling tired? Watch a dog have the good sense to take a quick nap, then be ready to go on a moment’s notice.
- Sick of the same food for lunch? Watch a dog gratefully gobble up the same food morning and night, day after day—and with relish, no less!
- Stumped and confused? Watch a dog dig for hours until she unearths that confounding bone.
- Unable to express what you’re truly feeling? Watch a dog grin, wag her tail, jump up, bark, cower, look guilty, hold up a paw beseechingly, slink away, or stare lovingly into your eyes.
And people wonder if dogs are sentient beings!
Well, I can you tell you this: After 14 years with Sojo, it strikes me she was the more sentient one in the partnership, always leading me home whenever I felt lost.
This past week, Bruce and I along with our dear friend Scott helped Sojo find her way home. After spending a pitch-perfect July body-surfing in the ocean, swimming in the pool, catching Frisbees, and leading me home from the town dock each evening, Sojo was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
It came as a terrible shock, her vitality so palpable only a few days earlier. Then again, it also made complete sense: so like her to grab all the joy she could while here, to keep up a cheerful front, and not to complain even when the pain got so bad she couldn’t eat.
So that’s why, after taking a few days to say our goodbyes, we who love her most let her go—knowing the mornings won’t be as bright, the nights as cozy, nor the days as friendly with Sojo no longer by our sides. As she went, I imagined her spirit soaring toward the heavens with a quick backward glance to say her goodbyes before snatching a Frisbee out of the sky and taking off for home.
I sure hope we get to see her there, because I know we will never stop missing her here.