She was the dog that was supposed to live forever. However, this was the only command she would disobey.
I found “Z” at the Jackson County Animal Shelter in Phoenix, Oregon. Along with her brothers and sisters, she had been left in a cardboard box along a city curb. It was love at first sight…Wrapped in a pink and white striped knitted blanket, she remained in the back seat of the car on the way back to my home in Ashland, Oregon. That would be the last time she’d ever ride back seat.
She was named after Zoroaster Temple, a tall rock monolith located just east of Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon. Anyone who's looked over the Canyon's edge or trampled down its trails has seen it.
I placed Zoroaster in small metal kennel the first night in her new home, but she cried for hours and hours. I relented, opened the kennel door, and she crawled into bed with me. That was the beginning of a wonderful relationship. From that day forward Z slept, ate, ran, walked, worked, and drove by my side. A leash was a seldom-needed tool (to the chagrin of many) and used only to make others who didn’t know Z feel more comfortable. She was like Velcro to my side.
I worked at Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland at the time and Hal Koerner, the running store’s owner, was a true dog lover. Z came to work with me everyday, even while being potty trained. And while Hal loved dogs, he also loved a clean store. I know Z and I tested his patience more than once with the accidents that would occur while I was busy with customers. This is where I believe Z learned her social skills. Store employees lauded over her and she greeted every patron with a bark and wag of her tail. As I plundered the back storage rooms looking for shoes she would keep the customers distracted up front. We made a good team.
Z and I made the move to Flagstaff together. She helped pack and unpack our belongings and then patiently watched me develop as a running coach, writer and race director. She loved Flagstaff and its people. Before they knew my name or story, people would first come to know me as the guy with that awesome black and white dog.
Water is a rare commodity in this desert mountain town, but Z knew where all the water holes were. When we’d run far into the mountains during the monsoon season she knew which rock on which trail would hold the July rains the best in their nooks and crevasses. She had an uncanny way of randomly disappearing and reappearing soaking wet in even the driest of places. She was a smart one.
Zoroaster logged miles…many, many miles with her father. We criss-crossed the country on foot. From the trails below Mt. Ashland, the high Sierra Nevada mountains of California, the rugged paths of Virginia’s Massanutten Mountains, the red rocks of Sedona, the shores of the Missouri River, to the lofty heights of Flagstaff’s Humphreys Peak. She made her longest journey at this past year’s Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run Training Camp when she covered 30 miles with me from Robinson Flat to Foresthill. She made it look easy.
She was my biggest and loudest cheerleader. She was always disappointed that she wasn’t invited on race day and she’d make that perfectly clear at each aid station and finish line with her disapproving howl, “I wanna come with you Daddy!” Yet she always waited for me.
Anyone who has met Zoroaster and driven with me can attest to this: She was always a front seat dog. Anyone that rode shotgun was guaranteed to get a lap full of Z. She was literally my co-pilot.
I guess the lumps started appearing this past July, but at only six years of age I couldn’t believe the turns that would follow. She ran her last real run on October 21st, 2014…a 10-mile loop on Observatory Mesa (one of her favorites due the number of mucky cattle tanks along the route) and we ran fast. The surgeries and their subsequent recoveries were brutal on Z. Then the limping started, then the swelling, and the whimpering and the inability to lie down comfortably followed. She could no longer join me in bed and so I moved to the floor to be with her. We lost sleep and cried together at night. She spent Christmas Eve at the vet. The deal was sealed a few days later after a visit with a dog oncologist in Phoenix, AZ. I was shown the ultrasound and the tumors that had gained an irremovable hold in her lymph nodes and pressed painfully into her bladder and back. I bought the chemo meds, but decided that my baby girl had endured enough and set them aside unused.
Yesterday, in the early morning hours, I drove Emily, Super Bee and Z to the Schultz Creek Trailhead, one of Z’s favorite runs, and parked the truck. Z got out, smelled the base of a ponderosa and a clump of grass, and then laid down. I coaxed her down the trail a few more feet, but that was all she had. She was done. We drove to the vet, the folks that she had always seen for her regular check-ups and the more recent battle with cancer. You know your dog has left an impression when the receptionist begins to cry and her doctor can’t keep it together. I held Zoroaster in the same pink and white striped knitted blanket I brought her home in back in Ashland six years earlier. I thanked her, told her I was sorry and that I love her, and then watched as she took her last breath. I looked deep into her big wide eyes and watched the light, the light that I loved, leave her body.
Zoroaster will always be my Moment of Zen. She will be with me forever, but my life will be eerily silent and lonely without her. When her cremated remains are returned I’ll stir up a posse of those that enjoyed her company and head to the Dry Hills Lakes or the summit of Mt. Elden, two places that Z frequented a lot, and spread her ashes into the wind. She’ll become a flower, a ponderosa, or just float on forever.
I am grateful for the support I have received during all of this. I thank you all. Friends and family have all come forward to help and, more importantly, to listen, just like you are now. My good buddy, Justin Lutick, told me yesterday that Z has left me in good hands. He’s right.