Worth his weight in “cerda”

Raindrops tapped gently on my improvised cocoon. Inside I held the sides of the double-wide hammock together with one arm, giving no concern. The skies were clear to the north and east. Over two months living in the mountains taught me rain emanated from this direction.

I continued reading, engrossed as “The Checklist Manifesto” had reached a climax – walking through the famed Hudson River landing by Captain “Sully” Sullenberger and crew. The rain gently melted away in as soft a manner it had appeared. Though I couldn’t see outside but for a view straight up through the trees and into the mountain sky, I knew Toby was near. The gruff yellow lab had become my constant companion during the last few months.

What began as a convenient mutual exchange had resulted in a true bond. I’d offer a few bites of a meal, then make sure he witnessed me putting some meat into my hiking back before setting off. It was more than enough to convince Toby to come along in exchange for his service as an early-warning system for bears and guerrillas. Both are a non-zero possibility of encounter in the Andes Mountains of southern Colombia. My conversations with locals had left me convinced that bears were far less predictable in an encounter, thought this was hardly a positive. Discovery upon stumbling into a hidden coca plot had but one logical end, one I fervently sought to avoid.

I’d initially sighed and grumbled over the extra effort. Traveling in a foreign country, I’m reminded daily of the comfort provided by weapons of self-defense. It’s far less a feeling of elevated danger than one of diminished capability. In the states I’ve twice been of the gifting side of citizen’s arrests, neither of which I’d had attempted unarmed. With reluctance, I spent time with Toby, whose initial brusque nature had nearly convinced me to take my chances alone. For the first month, I found him to be the scariest thing on the mountain – a terrifying growl and train-blast bark had woken me a number of times in my first few weeks. Each time I witnessed out the massive north wall window the raised hair and aggressive stance of this yellow beast. It seemed his nights were spent terrorizing everything that moved on the mountain, and I’d sit silently and watch.

Nonetheless, Toby proved to be a true politician – I threw a little pork his way, and soon enough he was mine. Each night at dusk he arrived for a bite, and each night I obliged. The rains – gentle but often sustained – pushed me toward more generosity, and one night I opened the door and coaxed him inside out of a downpour. He’s been with me every night since, quietly curled on the rug until I climb the loft to my bed.

Once I’m out of his sight, I can hear him move to the couch, where I find him each morning. If he wakes first and feels I’m being sluggish, I’ll hear a plaintive, barely perceptive whine, which means he’s patiently waiting at the door to go wreck $h%t. If I’m the first to rise, I peek over the loft and see a cinnamon roll of fur silently shedding, quietly snoring, loudly farting. As I climb down the ladder, he wakes and offers a groggy, staring inquisition which asks “just a few more minutes?”. I’m in no rush for him to leave my company these days, and quietly move about the cabin in the dark.

Twice he’s paid me back. On our initial hike, up a seemingly endless switchback trail, we came upon a blind corner. Back then, Toby took the lead. At a blind switch, his loose jog froze into a stance prepping for danger. I’d kept an eye on him and noticed. Something had caught his attention, and it was something Toby wasn’t keen on announcing his presence too. His typical “kill first, ask questions later” mode was unsettlingly absent, and not a hair moved but for a few rising as he sank, almost imperceptibly slow, into a crouch.

I heard something growl, a sound so low and surrounding it felt inches away, though it must have come from at least sixty yards up the trail. Toby was still as a statue.

I looked over the side of the trail – at least five hundred feet of vertical descent to safety at a slope of over sixty degrees. Again I cursed the lack of a firearm and my heart sank momentarily before stepping back up. If this is how it goes, this is how it goes. Slowly as I dared, I removed my pack and drew out the plastic bag of pork I’d brought along for Toby, planning to dump it in the road and slide over the edge.

I looked down at rocks and trees, realizing a slide would be the best and least likely option. More probable was a chaotic tumble, sure to bash me to bits. I sadistically contemplated the horror of waiting, paralyzed and broken, as a bear slowly moved in for a snack. I shook the moment, quietly set down my pack, and started moving.

Just then Toby broke forward with a series of barks. But not to attack, nor warn. It was an easy gallop. He disappeared briefly, then came back into sight and met me on the trail. The pork was waiting, and he accepted payment.

On we went, side by side.

Nearly two months later we were again in the mountains, this time as friends. The rain subsided, my book finished, and I closed my eyes. A beautiful sunset was a mere forty-five minutes away, and I had no intention of missing it. I began to drift away.

Then, an explosion of violent sound. Toby was upset about something just deeper into the trees. We were more remote now, far off any trail and just a few hundred yards from where I’d come upon “The Old Road” – a man-made trench which ran the entire mountain ridge. A bit over six feet deep and about a yard wide, I’d been told it was the original indigenous interstate, later co-opted by smugglers and ne’erdowells.

Toby was fifteen yards to the east, further up the mountain and deeper into the brush and trees. I could see him, facing north, alternating between deafening barks and bone-chilling growls. I also saw him turn back to me every few seconds, as if to say “I’m stalling, start moving”.

I quickly threw my shoes back on – mine is an Asian hammock – and packed up without seeing what I was doing. My eyes were fixed on Toby, who kept it up, nearly five minutes now. Occasionally I’d break my sight to Toby and probe the underbrush with my eye to no avail.

Finally, I was reading, and gave a low whistle. Toby met me by my walking stick I’d jabbed in the soft ground to use as a coat rack, and we slowly started making our way down. Every few steps I paused and looked over my shoulder. Every few steps Toby would turn and assess the incline.

Within ten minutes the incline flattened and we were again in the upper pasture, through which we’d traversed on the way up. Toby chased skinny dairy cows around pine trees, through patches of wildflowers. We crossed the swampy pass back to the trail, and conveniently arrived back at the cabin just prior to sunset.

I set to making supper. Toby made himself at home. The air fryer “dinged” and the end of a kilo of hamburgessa was ready. We sat on the patio and watched the mountains fade into blackness as the lights of the valley came on below. I had a thought.

That’s twice now the boy has raised an alarm, and neither time have I seen anything threatening.

I’m just going on his word, errr “bark”, as it were.

I looked down. Toby was sprawled at my feet like a French model, a belly full of burger and an equatorial smile plastered across his maw like he’d just secured a donation from the

I think he made the whole thing up.

Boy, now he really starting to sound like a politician!


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