Until five years ago, I was an inveterate wanderer, smitten by outdoor adventures into the canyon lands and deserts of the Southwest and all over Mexico. Age has finally caught up with me. Now hobbled by Type 1 diabetes, impaired hearing, and recurring back injuries, my excursions are shorter and fewer in number. My physical world has shrunk, but not my eagerness to explore, which is largely due to a new companion, a feisty, 13-pound Chihuahua/Jack Russell Terrier named Ellie.
With her big-cupped ears flapping in the wind, she loves exploring the Santa Cruz coastline and romping through interior chaparral and woodlands. Through her and because of her, I travel less but ironically see more thanks to Ellie’s astounding sense of smell. She follows her nose, darting back and forth across trails like a Geiger counter, sniffing everything from bark beetles and caterpillars to dog scat and pee to the pant cuffs of passersby we meet along the way. This is her way of getting a story from the smells that animals, especially mammals and insects, release into the environment. Humans have about five million nasal scent receptors, while dogs have from 125 to 300 million, depending on the breed. While a dog’s brain is only one-tenth the size of a human brain, the part that processes smell is 40 times larger than ours.
This became clear to me on a late fall afternoon, when Ellie and I hiked into Nisene Marks State Forest near Aptos. The main trail snakes its way around several fern-laden creeks shaded by second- and third-growth redwood groves and then climbs up a steep wooded canyon to a plateau, where we followed several animal trails. Coming back as the sunlight began to dim, I momentarily got lost until Ellie picked up our scent. I quickly realized that with her keen sense of smell, she could retrace our tracks despite the fact that our scent was fading with each step back in time, due to the gusting winds and presence of new animal smells.
Several weeks later, I walked her at Natural Bridges State Beach, world-renowned for its annual migration of monarch butterflies. Tens of thousands of these black and orange butterflies from mid October into early January roost in the park’s eucalyptus grove. Clinging to a shallow canyon gorge, the trees provide shelter from the wind and filter in sunlight to keep the tiny creature’s bodies from freezing. They also flower in winter, giving the butterflies an easily available source of food.
It was quite chilly on the late October afternoon that we visited the grove, and only a few butterflies were flittering about. Paying scant attention, Ellie continually tugged on her harness, anxious to keep moving, except when she spotted some ducks near the milkweed pond, at which point I had to rein her in on the leash. Any movement always spurs her into action.
Ellie is a bundle of energy, spunky and alert — “wickedly smart” in the words of a friend. She loves to explore, fetch balls, and play tug of war, but she demands a lot of attention, which can be a challenge for me. The exercise is essential to both of us. It is the bond of our mutual existence. It allows me, an insulin-dependent diabetic, to burn off glucose and take less insulin. Without our daily hikes, I am convinced, following the old refrain “use it or lose it,” that Ellie would probably get dementia.
Recently, we took a long hike along the beaches bordering the nearby village of Capitola. Ellie pranced along, having a wonderful time, chasing tiny kelp balls blowing across the sand dunes. Periodically, she would stop, run up to me, spin like a top, and race frantically in circles, eager for me to chase her. With cane in hand, I would limp after her. Then, she would stop and allow me to clip the leash onto her harness, and we would jog in the deep sand for several hundred feet. We also did lateral movements, with her pulling the harness hard to make sure that I planted both legs squarely into the sand.
Ellie is my backup physical therapist and trainer when we hike the beaches. She instinctively knows that these short runs help strengthen the muscles in the left thigh, weakened due to atrophy from nerve root damage in the lower back. And she’s elated when I run with her, even a short distance, because the activity involves us as a team.
Later, while half-heartedly chasing shore birds, she found a Western gull near the water unable to fly. Surprisingly, it did not attempt to flee, and Ellie, probably aware that it was either sick or injured, kept her distance. Dogs generally chase birds, which jeopardizes their survival because it forces them to expend vitally needed energy to escape. Was Ellie’s caution, or perhaps concern, unusual? I don’t know, except to say that dogs have a sixth sense. They know whether animals or people are friendly or aggressive, sick or healthy, because they have a vomeronasal organ, which sits above the roof of the mouth along the floor of the nose, that can detect differing chemical or hormonal scents associated with an animal’s or person’s physical or emotional state.
This has happened at home on two occasions, when my blood glucose had quickly dropped without any noticeable physical symptoms like perspiration. Ellie found me sitting in my study chair like a zombie, and put her paws on my left knee and nudged my hand with her nose. She was definitely aware of my confused state, although she probably did not understand its association with my low blood glucose. Her presence motivated me to get up and stagger to the refrigerator for some juice.
On another occasion, the two of us watched the sun set at New Brighton State Beach. It glowed like a brilliant fireball over the dark, muted waters. Ellie was sitting on my lap in a patch of purple blossom ice plant. We watched the rays of luminous light shimmering over the darkening promontory. Then we heard the eucalyptus trees on the bluff above moaning in the whirling wind like a dirge. The sound startled little El, and off my lap she bounded. Her ears pointed upwards; legs taut, ready to spring, I got up, petted her on the head, and said, “Let’s go kid,” and off we went into the dusk.
Experts claim that a dog’s overall vision is poorer than ours, averaging 20/75, but this is not true in all circumstances. Ellie’s vision is much better than mine at dawn or dusk. On our return that evening to the car, I followed her up a side trail potholed with low-lying tree roots and rocks. Having traversed it before, she knew exactly where to walk. Without her, I wonder to this day if I would have made it up.
Over many years, it was wilderness that changed who I was. It got into my nostrils, ran with my sweat, and slowed my mind down to a walk. That is now part of another life, another person. Ellie has taught me an important lesson: Adapt, live for the moment. With her as my guide, I plan to return to nature writing. Not the wanderlust of a young adventurer whose adrenaline rush swept everything past him, but rather moving slowly, deliberately, returning to the same finite places to peer into a whole other world once hidden from my eyes.