They met over a glass of local craft beer one weekend at a rodeo in Pagosa Springs, a ranch town on the San Luis River. She was a nurse practitioner living in Alamosa. He was an agronomist working with farmers in the San Luis Valley who were growing crops of hops they sold to the craft breweries that had sprung up all over Colorado. It wasn’t long before he was spending most nights at her small house, and within six months, he had given up his rented trailer home and they moved in together. They were married a year after they met.
Like many outsiders who settled in southern Colorado, they shared a love of the outdoors, specifically, the wild outdoors which could be found in abundance all around their small town. To the east were the Sangre de Cristo mountains. To the west was the Rio Grande National Forest and the South San Juan Wilderness, a gigantic unmapped expanse with peaks over 10,000 feet high, several of them over 12,000 feet. It was an ideal place to wander, which is what they loved to do—setting out on foot into the woods with no plan other than to return to their car on Sunday so they both could be ready to go to work on Monday.
They knew heading into the boonies with no plan wasn’t the best idea in the world. It was possible to get injured—break a leg, or even worse, your back—but they carried a GPS, so in reality, they always knew where they were, even when they were purposefully “lost.”
They scored a long weekend with one of those deals where Memorial Day falls on a Thursday, so everybody takes off Friday, too. They got up early and decided they would park the car as far down one of the old logging roads as they could go and take off from there. They couldn’t recall if they had ever driven down that particular logging road before. They didn’t keep records, and that was part of the fun of it. Not knowing where you were going demanded that you not really know where you were starting from.
They set up camp on the first night in an area of the mountains neither of them had been before. The next morning, they had a quick breakfast and kept going, even deeper into the woods. It was mid-afternoon on Friday by the time they came upon the cottage. When they first spied it through the trees, neither of them was surprised. They’d come across old logging shacks in the mountains before. Most of them were in one state of collapse or another, although they had found a couple that looked like they had been fixed up and been made at least habitable by hunters and local guys who sometimes went up into the mountains to cut down dead trees for firewood.
They stopped at the top of a small hill above a small valley, and from that vantage point they could see that this one was different. It wasn’t a log cabin, like most of the loggers’ shacks. It was old, and weathered, but they could see that it had been built of sawn lumber. Rather than a metal flue from a wood stove sticking through the roof, it had a stone chimney. It was in good enough shape that it looked like it might be occupied, so he removed his binoculars from the top of his pack and they sat down on the hill to have a look.
The place was half hidden by weeds and brush, but he could see there was a small front porch. One of the windows on the front was shuttered, but the other was open and had glass in it. He passed the binoculars to her. She peered through them carefully. She lowered the binoculars from her eyes and passed them back to him.
“Have a look at the right end of the porch. There are two animals lying in the sun. I can’t tell what they are.”
He put them to his eyes and looked again. “They’re not coyotes. One of them is black and pretty big, like a Labrador, and the other is much smaller…kind of off-white. They look like dogs, but I don’t see any collars on them. Maybe they belong to somebody who’s camping there.”
She looked again. “You’re right, they’re dogs,” she said, the binoculars to her eyes. The black one’s coat was matted and crusted with mud and grass, and the other one’s fur was bald in spots. “The little one is missing half his ear, and they look like they’re starving. If they belong to somebody, they’re not taking care of them.”
She passed him the binoculars. “Yeah, I see what you mean. They’re skinny as hell. Looks like they haven’t eaten in days.” He put the binoculars back in his pack and zipped it up. “C’mon. Let’s go down and have a look.”
They climbed down the hill, and as they got closer to the cottage, they got out their pack hatchets and cut their way through the weeds and bushes. By the time they reached the porch, the dogs were gone.
The door was open, so they walked in. The back windows were covered with wood shutters, and when they opened them to let some light into the place, they could see it was a mess. Part of the floor had rotted out in one corner, but somehow the roof was in fairly good shape. There was a makeshift kitchen counter with an old enamel bowl sunk into it for a sink. When they opened the back window they could see a small stream trickling down a rocky hillside, probably from a spring higher up.
It looked like the dogs had made a nest under the counter by pushing leaves and twigs aside, creating a pocket against the wall of the cottage. There were bones of small animals scattered around the room, and here and there were bits of fur and what looked like the feet of rabbits and squirrels.
“I think they’ve been living in here,” she said, pushing a pile of freshly chewed bones with the toe of her boot. “Look at this. It’s fur from a rabbit that wasn’t killed very long ago.”
He kicked another piece of bone. “This one is part of a skull. They chewed through the bone to get to the brain to eat it.”
Just then they heard a splash from behind the cottage. Through the window, they watched as the two dogs crossed the little stream and disappeared into some tall grass.
Then they saw a pair of eyes peeking through the grass at the edge of the trickling stream. Another pair of eyes appeared next to it, and then the muzzles of the two dogs poked through the grass to the water and began to drink. She unslung her pack, accidentally knocking an old tin can from a shelf on the wall. It clattered to the floor.
Startled, the dogs scampered into the tall grass. From the window they could see them running into the trees behind the cottage.
They decided to set up camp for the night in the cottage. He went out and cut some pine boughs and tied them together and used them as a broom to sweep out the leaves and sticks and bones that covered the floor. They got out their sleeping pads and bags and laid them out and gathered firewood and cleaned out the stone fireplace and built a fire. She got out their cooking gear and boiled some water and added three packages of ramen noodles to the pot along with the flavor packs and stirred it all together.
“Do you think they’ll eat this?” she asked, blowing on the noodles to cool them.
“Only one way to find out,” he said, taking the pot from her. They carried it outside and put it down a short distance from the rear window where they could keep an eye on it and went back inside.
The sun had gone down and it was getting dark by the time they saw the dogs again at the edge of the trees, watching. They could smell the food, but they weren’t moving in to eat it yet.
“I’ve got an idea,” she said. “We’ve got some freeze dried chicken. I’ll boil it up and add it to the noodles. They won’t be able to resist that.” She did it, and they carried it in a cup to the pot and added it to the noodles.
They had their headlamps on and were lying in their sleeping bags reading paperbacks they had brought along when they heard the sound of the metal pot turning over. Both of them switched off their headlamps and crept carefully from their bags and tiptoed to the rear window. They could just barely make out the shapes of the dogs as they gobbled down the noodles and chicken, pushing their muzzles into the metal pot looking for more.
There were still two days left in the long weekend, so the next morning, they decided they would hike out to a store and get some dog food and hike back to the cottage and spend another night. Maybe they could lure the dogs out from the woods with the food.
They had left their sleeping bags and most of the rest of their stuff behind, so they made it back to the cottage by late afternoon. They each carried a five-pound bag of dry dog food in their empty packs, along with some cans of wet food and a package of disposable pie tins. They filled two tins with dry food and put them in the same place they left the noodles the night before.
This time the dogs came out of the woods before dark, and they got a better look at them. They weren’t mangy and neither was limping or showing other signs of being injured, but they were definitely malnourished. They stood back from the window in the shadows inside the cottage as the dogs gobbled down the food. When they were finished, the black dog looked up, straight at the window.
“He knows we’re here,” she whispered. “Do you think we can catch them? They can’t stay up here. In a few months it will be freezing at this altitude, and by October, there will be a foot of snow on the ground. They’ll never make it.”
“We’ll leave the food out and take it from there,” he said. “Maybe we’ll come back next weekend and see how they’re doing.”
“Maybe? How about definitely,” she said, planting a kiss on his cheek.
So that’s what they did, the next weekend and the weekend after that. It was obvious the dogs were eating the food they left for them each weekend. Every last crumb of dry dog food was gone by the time they returned to what they had come to call “the dog cottage.” By the Fourth of July, both dogs were looking healthier. It was later that month they noticed the change in the black dog. She had a belly, and it wasn’t from eating well.
“I think she’s pregnant,” she said. They were holding hands and watching the dogs through the rear window of the cottage. “I want to try luring them with some wet food in the morning. Do you think it will work?”
“Only one way to find out,” he replied, grinning. The phrase was becoming their mantra with the dogs. They turned from the window and began fixing their own dinner. They had added things to the cottage since the first time they hiked in. They had packed in an empty five gallon plastic bottle so they could fill it from the spring and use the sink to wash up their pots and pans and utensils. They carried in a lantern and several bottles of white gas so they had better light at night. And they had swapped out their individual sleeping pads for a double air mattress and a rather large double sleeping bag. They left all of their stuff in the cottage from week to week, keeping the door open so the dogs could come and go as they pleased. They could tell nobody else had discovered the cottage. All of their stuff was undisturbed when they returned each Saturday, except for the nest the dogs had made from their sleeping bags while they were gone.
In the morning, the trick with the wet food worked. The dogs crept slowly from the woods and stood there eating the wet food as they sat on a rock only a few feet away. It went on like that the next time they hiked to the cottage as the dogs got more used to them. But that’s all they would do: come out of the woods to eat and look at them warily and then disappear until the next time they put out food.
It was early September and starting to get cold when they returned to the cottage one Saturday and found a litter of four tiny puppies right in the middle of their sleeping bag. The black dog was peering out at them from under the counter. She growled as they knelt next to the sleeping bag and reached out to pet the puppies, but she didn’t come at them aggressively. She had apparently made peace with these two humans who had moved into the dog cottage.
That night they used one of their individual sleeping bags to make a nest under the counter and carried the puppies over and put them down on it. The mother watched them and then crept over to the nest and lay down with her puppies and they began to feed. Two of them were spotted, brown and white, and the other two were black with cream-colored feet. They hadn’t opened their eyes yet and looked like tiny balls of multi-hued cotton.
They looked for the male that evening when they took the tins of food outside to feed him, but he didn’t show himself. The next morning, the food was gone, but he wasn’t anywhere to be seen. They kept looking for him that morning, but they had to leave by noon to make it back to their car before dark. They left the mother in her nest with her puppies and put out the dry food and reluctantly hiked out.
With the birth of the puppies, they couldn’t wait for the next weekend, so both of them took a half day on Wednesday and they hiked in to the cottage. This time, arriving just at dusk, they found both dogs on the nest with the puppies. As they walked through the door, the male growled loudly, showing his teeth. They dragged the double bag and mattress further from the dogs’ nest and made a fire outside to heat up their supper. That night, they saw the male leave the nest, but the next morning he was back.
“What are we going to do?” he asked as they heated up a quick breakfast of instant eggs and made toast-on-a-stick over the fire. “We can’t leave these puppies up here. They’ll die of exposure when the snows come.”
“Let’s bring leashes and some bacon on Saturday,” she said. “I’m going to pet those dogs this weekend before we leave. I swear.”
Saturday, they arose extra early and reached the cottage by noon. Both dogs were inside. She had the bacon out of her pack when she walked through the door. The dogs could smell it. They were both salivating. She sat down on the floor blocking the door with her body and held out a strip of bacon. The female walked over and took it from her hand. She gently stroked the top of her head as the dog chewed the bacon. She held out another strip and called to the male. “C’mon boy. I’m not going to hurt you.” He lowered his head and made his way across the room and stopped a couple of feet away. She fed the strip of bacon to the female and produced another and held it out to the male. He couldn’t resist. He moved forward and took it from her, retreating a couple of feet to chew it up. Quickly she held out another strip and this time he took it and just stood there waiting for another.
She talked in a low, reassuring voice as she fed both dogs. “It’s okay. Everything’s going to be all right. You’ll see.” Finally she held a strip of bacon in her fist and presented the back of her hand to the male dog. He sniffed her fingers and then gently licked them until she opened her hand and let him have the bacon.
“They belonged to somebody, definitely,” he said. “I don’t know how they got up here, but they’re going down with us tomorrow. I can feel it.”
“Me, too,” she said, as she stroked the neck of the male. And right then she felt the female rub against her, nuzzling her side as she walked back to rejoin her puppies.
It was cold that night, so they made a fire in the fireplace and cooked a one-pot supper of pasta and a meat sauce they had brought in a plastic bag. The male dog had left at dusk, but by the time it got dark, he was back and curled up under the counter with the female and the pups. This time, they closed the door to the cottage completely, and everyone spent the whole night inside.
In the morning, they cooked two pans of bacon, ate one, and after they had packed their backpacks and were ready to go, they used part of the other pan of bacon to lure the dogs close enough to slip loops of leashes over their heads. Using the rest of the bacon as treats, each of them led a dog on a leash outside and walked around the cabin to get them used to the leashes.
“They’ve done this before,” he said.
“We’ve been coming up here feeding them all summer. They trust us by now.”
“I think you’re right. It feels good, doesn’t it? I hope the puppies are ready for the sling,” he said, referring to a cloth sling usually used to carry human babies.
“I already tried it with them last night when you were out getting firewood,” she said, smiling proudly.
“Sneaky,” he replied.
They went back into the cottage and put on their backpacks, and she gathered the four puppies into the sling. As they headed out through the woods back to civilization, she reached out and took his hand.
“I could get used to this,” she said.
“I’m definitely getting that impression,” he replied, squeezing her hand and giving her a smile. The dogs walked along with them without complaint all the way back to the car.
He had spent his afternoons during the month of August fencing in the yard at the house, so they were ready for the dogs when they returned that afternoon. They had made a pallet out of a couple of old blankets for the dogs in a corner of the breakfast room, and when she removed the puppies from the sling and put them down, the female laid down and the puppies fed contentedly.
It was a hard decision to give the puppies away, but the little house in Alamosa wasn’t big enough for them and six dogs. So that winter, they found good homes for the four puppies and took the two adult dogs on long walks in the snow. The house was cozy and comfortable as the winds howled outside.
It was late April, the annual mud season, but it was sunny and warm on the afternoon he told her he had a surprise he wanted to show her. With the adult dogs on their leashes and wearing rubber boots, they got in the pickup and headed west, turning down a dirt road when they were about ten miles out of town. They drove through a thickly wooded area for a couple of miles and then followed a small stream until they reached a clearing where he pulled to a stop alongside a large pile of cinder blocks and a stack of four-by-fours and two-by-sixes and other lumber.
“Whose place is this?” she asked, looking around. One of the 12,000-foot peaks was visible in the distance, and the stream wandered invitingly through the clearing. Several rolls of galvanized chain link fence could be seen on the far side of the stack of lumber.
“It’s ours. I used my bonus for a down payment. It’s five acres total, and two hundred yards of stream.”
He took her hand. “I’m thinking about building us a dog cottage that’ll be big enough for people, too. Are you game?”
The dogs had their heads sticking between the front seats. Their coats were shiny and their eyes were bright and they were panting, eager to get out of the car and run.
“I think all four of us are game,” she said. She opened the door and stepped out, her boots sinking into the Colorado spring mud. The dogs jumped out and sprinted across the clearing, wagging their tails and splashing through the icy stream.