I’m wearing two pairs of socks and huge hiking boots. Granted, huge hiking boots are the only sort that fit me. I am doing something that is a little too fast to be called trudging, and considerably too slow to be called running. It’s something in between, and it’s the best I can muster.

The Pacific Northwest doesn’t get much snow – at least, not by the standards of someone who grew up in New York State. On the rare winter days when it snows here, it doesn’t usually stick around for long. Today is different – today we have real snow.

Boomer hails from Wenatchee and shares my appreciation for the genuine article. He turned twelve years old last autumn, but that doesn’t stop him from probing the cold powder like a pup. I can’t ignore the fact that he’s aging, though. For one thing, his hearing has begun to deteriorate. Sometimes he doesn’t hear me when I call him. In fact, that’s why I’m on his trail right now. We need to turn around and head home, but he’s oblivious to my shouts. He cruises unswervingly onward into the west.

As much as I don’t really want to be chugging up this snowy hill, I’m conscious of at least two good things about it. The first is that I am, amazingly enough, gaining on my little canine friend. The second is that my wife has joined us on this walk, and she’s watching me. It occurs to me mid-huff, that (puff…) I’m showing off for her. I’m proving that the old buck can still hoof it on the high places. We’re able to share this unspoken fiction because, to her great credit, my wife chooses to see me through the charitable lens of her imagination.

I’ve closed to within five or six feet of Boomer and he still hasn’t heard me coming up behind him. An old memory flickers into focus. I see myself as a young Scout, furtively following my Dad through the woods. He was helping me earn a merit badge that had something to do with tracking. My challenge was to follow him for a specified period of time without being seen or heard.

It was autumn, so the ground was covered with dead leaves and brittle twigs. That didn’t matter. I moved with the quick, decisive stealth of a Mohawk brave. I remember scampering from tree to tree, crouching behind mossy stumps, and going flat in the undergrowth whenever my Dad looked around. It was so exciting to discover this hidden talent of mine!

At the end of the prescribed span of minutes my Dad stopped walking and called off the hunt. As he checked the box next to the tracking requirement in my Scout book, I asked him how I’d done. With the vaguest trace of a smirk he told me that I’d sounded something like a young buffalo. I was pretty sure “Young Buffalo” wasn’t the name of a famous Mohawk brave from days gone by.

But today I’m panting up a snowy hill after a hard-of-hearing dog. Even with my limited aptitude for stealth, Boomer hasn’t yet perked to my crashing footfalls. From pointblank range I shout his name, and he swivels around in shock. His ears go back, and he curls into a submissive pose. This is unprecedented in his experience with me so he isn’t sure what’s going to happen next. He fears it might involve punishment. It doesn’t. I’ve learned lately that his problem isn’t rebellion (well, at least not in this case); his problem is entropy.

I say, “C’mon, let’s go home.” Relieved and chipper he makes for the foot trail that leads toward home. He’s a puppy again for a few more minutes. I let him run a little ways farther before putting his leash back on him.


Crossing the Esopus

Off the beaten paths of my stomping grounds it wasn’t unusual to see the occasional homemade dump. An interesting characteristic of these unsanctioned piles was their power to solicit anonymous contributions.

I once saw a wooden boat hull protruding from a heap of bent aluminum lawn chairs, bald tires, and rusted appliances. Possibly a modest yacht in its prime, now its husk was all that was left.

At the time, I was working for the Town of Ulster Highway Department. Every summer the town hired as many local teenage boys as its budget would allow, and busied their idle hands with two weeks of menial labor. We dubbed ourselves townies.

A dump truck shuttled us to various remote locations where we’d usually be turned loose on a mess of weeds that needed clearing. Our foreman, Bill, was a white-haired Highway Department retiree. His task was to teach us a thing or two about government work.

When we arrived at a worksite, Bill’s instructions were always the same. “Okay now boys, do a little somethin’.” We’d make a good show of it in the cool of the morning, then stop for a break at 10:30. A less enthusiastic effort generally led up to lunch, over which we’d linger for as long as possible. After lunch we’d mostly lean on our shovels and scythes until the truck returned for us around mid-afternoon. Before leaving, Bill would survey the area and say, “Well, it looks a hell of a lot better than it did when we got here.”

The discarded hull appeared on a day when we’d been dropped off near the Esopus Creek. The Esopus begins as a little trout stream, but ends up being sixty-five miles long and averaging forty feet across. It has many personalities. This particular stretch was muddy with frothy suds bobbing here and there. Nonetheless, its shady shore was the perfect place to take our sack lunches. Bill tacitly approved of the idea since we weren’t likely to be seen by passing taxpayers. On our way down the dirt road to the creek we spied the derelict vessel.

With more sweat than we’d shed on the town’s behalf that morning, we managed to haul her down to the water’s edge. I hollered that we should shove off and jump aboard. Everyone yelled, “Aye-aye!” and shoved hard, but only two of us jumped. The others had better sense than to board a boat that had been dragged from a trash heap.

The craft unexpectedly stayed afloat. The Yoo-hoo colored current turned out to be much stronger than it looked. We were quickly in the middle of the creek, drifting downstream. Clearly, the situation called for decisive action.

My accidental co-adventurer was barely an acquaintance. I don’t think I even knew his name, but we skipped the introductions. He had the bow, I had the stern. The back of his head is really all I remember about him.

I ripped a piece of wood from the hull and started paddling. My shipmate chipped in and paddled with his hands. We weren’t about to swallow our pride and turn back. Our cronies – who were now bent over with laughter – had to be shown how much fun they were missing. We aimed for the opposite shore.

Getting across wasn’t easy. The hull filled with water, and was mostly submerged by the time we finally struck land. We sloshed ashore to take stock of the situation.

The beach was a thin strip of sandy clay, walled by a steep, overgrown bank. I decided to climb up and just start walking once I got my bearings. As far as I was concerned, we’d reached the every-man-for-himself stage of our journey.

I scrambled up, hand and foot. It was a slippery, itchy business. I parted the last tangle of bushes and was surprised by the bared teeth of a snarling dog. He changed my mind about hopping the wire fence that separated us.

I slid back down the bank and saw something happening on the other shore. My buddies were putting the finishing touches on a makeshift raft. It involved two droopy inner tubes and a wooden pallet. Since it would hold only two, my fellow castaway and I would have to be rescued one at a time.

I was odd man out for the first return voyage, so I stood at the water’s edge and watched them arm-paddle the fifty-plus feet back to the other side. Not surprisingly, the raft came apart as they reached the shallows.

My friends tried to repair it, but it looked like I’d have to return the same way I’d come. I got busy emptying the sunken hull of as much creekwater as I could, and pushed off. Halfway across, she went down for good and I had to swim for it.

Swimming was never a strong suit of mine, but I knew enough to find a focal point on the shore and flail toward it with all my might. Panic escorted me until I got to where my feet could touch bottom. I splashed and spluttered out of the drink, and fell forward onto dry land. I lay there for a while, flat and thankful.

The rest of the day was ordinary, if a tad soggy. We finished our lunches and went back to hacking weeds. The dump truck rumbled up for us, and Bill pronounced his blessing on our labors.

“Well boys, it looks a hell of a lot better than it did when we got here.”


Shivering Lessons

I was skinny and not very buoyant. Swimming didn’t come naturally to me. I tended to sink, legs first. But breathing was the hardest part, since I battled hay fever and asthma. I had trouble mastering the rotating rhythm of aquatic respiration.

Head swiveled right, inhale through mouth… Face in water, exhale through nose… Head swiveled left, inhale through mouth… Face in water, exhale through nose… Or was it the other way around…

With a perpetually stuffy nose and wheezy lungs, I always ended up out of sync. I was afraid to exhale through my nose because of what might come out along with the air.

My first stint with swimming lessons took place during that summer’s chilliest week. It was dismal, drizzly and breezy. I have more memories of shivering than swimming. Everyday my mother pitied my blue lips and chattering teeth.

My parents enrolled me in swimming lessons to increase my chances of surviving childhood. I had a simpler motive for enduring the embarrassment and hypothermia. I was after the “I-Can-Swim” badge, which was the rec center’s official pass to the deep end of the pool. Frankly, swimming in the deep end didn’t matter as much to me as the status of access.

So I stood like a stick figure on the poolside concrete, shoulders huddled up under my ears, and shivered while I waited my turn to jump in. Once in the pool, the first challenge was to tread water. For me, this meant frantically flinging my limbs every which way while craning my neck to keep my face in the air. Next, I’d try to swim in a straight line from one side to the other without lapsing into the dogpaddle or sinking or getting snot on my cheek. Afterward I’d shiver beside the picnic table, not needing to chew my sandwich because the chattering of my teeth did the job automatically. And so it went, one day after another, all week long.

Naturally, a series of tests loomed at the end of the week. In addition to displaying our command of the various strokes we’d learned, we had to demonstrate our ability to save ourselves in an emergency situation. Wearing clothes over our bathing suits, we were to jump in, sink to the bottom, push off and shoot back up to the surface. Somewhere in the process we were supposed to shed the dead weight of our clothes. Then we’d tread water until the instructor told us to swim to the ladder and climb out.

We were advised to wear “play clothes” because the chlorine in the pool water might fade the colors. My Mom outfitted me in an old terrycloth shirt that I’d all but outgrown. It was literally made from towel fabric. I can only guess that she thought it would go well with the water theme.

The virtue of towels, of course, is that they absorb water. I jumped in the deep end and my shirt was instantly waterlogged. It might as well have been one of those lead vests you wear at the dentist’s office while they’re taking x-rays. It was so heavy that I couldn’t even peel it off as it lugged me to the bottom. Staring up through ten feet of water at the gray sky, the surface seemed impossibly far away.

The instructor pierced the poolwater like a dolphin and pulled me up. I clambered out onto the concrete and showed off my shivering skills, which were unmatched. I was confident that my Mom would consider my effort worth an order of fries from the snack bar.

Needless to say, there was no I-Can-Swim badge for me that year. I felt I could’ve saved myself (eventually…), but the pool staff was trained not to take any chances. I got over it; there was more to life than the deep end.

Swimming lessons fell during a sunnier week the following year. Somehow I met the requirements and got my badge. I went on to survive childhood. I confess, though, that I haven’t completely shaken my fear of getting snot on my cheek.



Red didn’t belong there in the coarse, sticky green. It caught my eye like a gem, nestled down in the grass under the clothesline. It was a little stub of crayon that had most likely fallen from the pocket of a piece of clothing hanging there.

Ironically, large size crayons were made for small size hands. But I never liked these chubby implements very much because it was impossible to render any real detail with them. I preferred the smaller sort; felt-tip markers were even better.

It was obvious that someone had liked this red log though, since both ends were rounded from use. And both edges of the stiff paper wrapper had been peeled back to expose more color.

I reached down to pick it up. My thumb and index finger closed upon it with an accuracy of pressure perfected by at least seven years of experience with the hardness of crayons. But my squeeze met nearly no resistance at all. The crayon yielded in an entirely unexpected way.

It had melted in the summer sun. Until I squeezed it, the stubby cylinder had retained its form. It was a bewildering, delightful and inexplicably gratifying sensation. In that moment I discovered the potential softness of crayons. And I learned that the faraway sun is near enough to change stuff here on earth.

Not many summers later I was with my gang of friends in one of our favorite unsupervised spots. It was nothing more than a few undeveloped acres of hillocks, bracken and small trees set between two neighborhoods and an apartment complex. Its virtue was that grownups had no reason to go there. We, on the other hand, had an excellent reason for being there: Billy Sass had firecrackers and matches. I think he’d gotten them from a cousin who’d been to South Carolina on vacation.

Firecrackers were a rarity in New York since they had to be purchased out of state. Their detonation was an event to be savored. Earlier that day we’d melted a red candle and molded its wax around the firecrackers. The idea was to make the explosion more dramatic. Blowing stuff up was without question the coolest thing that could be done with a firecracker.

Being boys, we all had to get our hands in on the action of arranging the ordnance and supervising the twisting together of fuses. We watched the red match-head scrape along the matchbook’s rough strip, and heard the successful burst of fire. A pungent whiff of sulfur wafted into the air. We watched the fragile cardboard stick move toward the fuse and hoped no breeze would blow it out. We waited for a spray of sparks from the tips of the fuses to signal us to scamper backward from our tight circle.

This particular braid of fuses burned faster than expected. My hand was the last one to pull back from the blast zone. There was a flash, a bang, a sharp sting, and the alarming sight of red. For a gasp’s length I thought the skin had been blown off of my left hand. Fortunately, it was only covered with wax shrapnel.

Red gets my attention. It usually means something important is happening. After a knock on the head I instinctively touch the injured site and check for blood on my fingers. At times I’ve felt the sweet relief of seeing none there. Other times, when my fingers have returned from the site wet and smudged with red, I’ve felt my anxiety level rising sharply. In both instances the pain might be identical, but my degree of concern differs according to the color I see.

At this time of year, along with most Christians, I look toward Golgotha – “the place of the skull” – and force myself to again behold the horror of my Savior stained red. The written accounts of his anguish create vivid, troubling images in my mind. My faith compels me to believe that Jesus had to suffer as he did, but I remain unable to understand why. I wish from my core that it could have been otherwise.

This year I have the opportunity to view a filmmaker’s depiction of the most disturbing, most humbling, and in a sense the most private scene of my faith. By all accounts, his use of red in the film is copious. If I choose to see it, I expect that it will grab my insides and not let go. It will probably never let go. That’s the cinematographer’s intent.

But with or without the movie’s help, I will think about Jesus over these next few weeks, worn and bloody – exposed and vulnerable, his divine covering peeled back. I’ll remember his softness to my distress and anxiety, and I’ll be reminded that God is near enough to change stuff here on earth.


Off Leash

The drizzle has returned. Autumn arrived today without waiting for a proper introduction. This rain is the sort that patiently saturates everything it touches… its misty drops easily penetrating jackets, hats, and hair.

Boomer doesn’t like rain. He’d be back inside on his pillow by now if he weren’t sure we were heading for the Pipeline trail. But getting soaked to the skin is a price he willingly pays for a decent walk.

Once off the street and through the gate to the trail, I remove his leash and let him run. He’s particularly spry today, and launches himself into the scraggly trailside grass. His muscular, ground-hugging gait is comically beautiful. He is propelled by the notion that he can outrun the rain. I call him and he wheels around, coming just close enough to reassure me that he’s not planning to make a break for it. I say, “OK, go ahead” and he takes off again.

My willingness to trust Boomer off leash is a recent development. Since he came to us by way of the Humane Society, I didn’t know what to expect. Frankly, I had serious doubts that he would even stay in our own yard voluntarily! The thought of a dog that would not bolt at the first opportunity was pure fiction to me. I’d never owned a dog trained in the lovely art of obedience.

The first dog I ever met was a hound named Freckles. My parents had adopted her before I was born. She’d been found on the fringe of my grandparents’ farm – a newborn puppy, abandoned and starving. My folks nursed her back to health and she never went hungry again, not even for a few minutes… She was portly from that time on. Her homebody nature most likely had less to do with obedience than appetite, though. She had a strong inner tether to her food bowl.

Next came Buffy, whom we adopted after Freckles had gone to the happy snacking grounds in the sky. She was some sort of Spaniel and Golden Retriever mix – an irresistible little puffball that grew up svelte, pretty, and energetic. Hyper is probably a better word. Her outdoor life was lived at the end of a rope that was attached to a clothesline-style run. If she got loose she got lost. Outta there… See ya… Arrivederci, baby… And then the chase was on, which appeared to please her as much as the escape itself. But at least Buffy had a modicum of respect for automotive technology, which is far more than can be said for Tuck.

When my wife and I were newly married, before our first child was born, I decided we should take a page from my parents’ book and get a dog. Enter “Nantucket of the North”, a purebred “red and white” Siberian Husky. (I should’ve held out for a starving hound dog.)

One of the many important lessons I learned from Tuck was that it is unwise (read: stupid) to own a Husky that hasn’t had obedience training before reaching six months of age unless you also own a yard that resembles the Iditarod dog-sledding course.

Tuck possessed an uncanny knack for breaking or slipping whatever rope, chain, or collar I put on him. He viewed all of creation as his turf, including the paved parts. So, once free, he was prone to carouse the streets, more or less oblivious to the large steel animals speeding back and forth. When a car approached, his thought seemed to be “I’m not sure what that thing is but I know I could kick its butt.” Unfortunately, he was wrong about that.

Needless to say, when we reopened the topic of dog ownership it was with fear and trembling, shamelessly begging for God’s mercy. He heard those prayers and led us to a dog that not only understands English, but also does what he’s told! (Well, most of the time…)

Linguistically gifted as he is, however, I doubt Boomer’s ability to comprehend the fact that outrunning raindrops is usually a fruitless endeavor. So I let him keep trying, full throttle and smiling from one pinned-back ear to the other.

As I watch him dart from grass clump to ditch to fallen branch, I realize a brotherly connection to him. I know what it’s like to be trusted “off leash”. And I suspect that God’s delight in my freedom includes a touch of amusement too. After all, my quirks and antics must make just as hilarious a picture as Boomer trying to outrun the rain.

As a matter of fact, I see myself in the other dogs too. Freckles maintained a tight orbit around her center of security, the kitchen. If I’m honest about it, there have been times when I’ve stuck close to regulated religion for a similar reason: it met my needs. I found food there, and I grew fat there. But there is a difference between obedience and spiritual self-indulgence.

Like Buffy I have felt the pinch of artificial restraint. I’m acquainted with the sense that my life is little more than a length of rope keeping all the good stuff out of reach. Looking back now, I think I better understand the spark in her orange eyes: it meant, “If only I could be out there…”

True, there is a sort of comfort in rules – life’s limits seem predetermined and clear. Legalism promises to alleviate the challenge of learning how to listen, understand, and respond to a living voice. Buffy broke the law of the leash whenever possible. She knew next to nothing about obedience, but she loved being chased, and hearing the sound of voices behind her, calling, “Buffy… Get back here! Hey! Buffy…”

I often wish it were tenable to see life as Tuck did, without borders, boundaries or danger. There is something very appealing about that ideal. But freedom at the expense of truth is not sustainable. More than once I’ve misjudged my own ability to handle the headlights that have come speeding toward me out of the dark.

Boomer traces a wide, leisurely arc back to my side. I didn’t call him this time, but he apparently wants to check in and make sure I’m still paying attention. Somehow he seems to know when I’m daydreaming.

And so I come back to my deep appreciation of this little black-brindled brick of a dog. Like him, I have learned the resonant goodness of hearing and heeding my master’s voice – of understanding his language, and choosing to stay close enough to hear. Like him I occasionally lapse backward into smaller ways of living. But having once experienced what it’s like to run in the divine tension of freedom and obedience nothing else will do.

“’Come and follow me!’ At once they dropped what they were doing and followed him.” Mark’s Gospel Account, 1:17a, 18