Sam stands before the door watching every move. From inside the house under the light in the hallway, she studies me as I gather firewood from behind the writing shed and old newspaper from the garage, and arrange them in the fire pit. It takes several matches and some adjustments of the kindling before the fire catches; small sticks ignite first then the bark of one larger log. The glass of the storm door is the only thing between Sam and the suburban wilderness of our backyard. Her eyes follow me and then she turns to the flames that are now throwing shaky shadows on the small southwest corner of the yard. What could he be doing out there? And why is doing it without me? I place the foam camping pad on the hard patio concrete next to the pit and add a second sleeping bag on top for comfort. The bag I will sleep in is made for colder temperatures and I hope it will be sufficient for a night in the low 50s. I stretch it out, kneel to unzip it, and look to Sam, whose nose is now against the door, her breath fogging the glass.
There will be no walk tonight. Instead, Sam and I will spend the night together under the twisting clouds of a dark October sky with the moon and the stars giving all they have to shine through. We will rest next to the fire under the magnolia tree in a celebratory sleep, for this is the end of our season of meditative walks. Of course, walking Sam will not end. We will walk together many more times in the coming day and for years ahead, I hope. But I am back to teaching now, the sabbatical over, and nearly four months have passed since Sam and I began what I had hoped would be many contemplative hikes, long ones and short. What these walks have been will stay with me always. But documenting them will be no longer. It is time. Not because I have reached some predetermined number of walks, or that I am weary of the introspection or hyper-observation, or that Sam is aging or that I am, although we both are in our own ways, but rather because it is time for these days, these special swathes of togetherness to be memories.
We have skunks in the neighborhood. Two of our previous dogs have been sprayed. Both doused in tomato juice, a home remedy that only partially dissipates the stench. When I return to the back door to get Sam, Leslie reminds me of this.
“I don’t want both of you stinking up the place,” she laughs.
I assure her that skunks will stay away from our scent and remind her how they dislike fire. I am making this up, of course, but it is a way to allay her fears.
“And you’re going to keep the fire going all night?” she asks. “Sparks fly, you know?”
I assure her we will not be set ablaze.
Leslie is not really worried about these things, I believe, for she knows they are unlikely events. Instead, it’s my relative sanity she questions. Leslie is uncertain of why I want to do this when there is a perfectly good bed in the house. But then she catches herself, is reminded of her days camping years ago, of trips out west, and her love of nature. She knows it’s the beauty of sleeping in the openness, on the ground, in the breeze of a wilder night, even if wild is only the leafy suburbs. We both know our backyard with its property fence and its two-car garage and its vegetable garden and its lawn furniture is not the Australian outback. And Sam, well, she’s a dog. What dog does not like the outdoors on an early autumn night?
When Sam and I walk, we are like metronomes. I have found our slow steps to be the countermelody to a world that moves far too fast. When we step off, it takes time to remove my foot from the accelerator, to relax my mind, but Sam shows me the way. She is only in the moment, and so, I try to fall into her pace and soon long-forgotten songs arrive in my head, lost lyrics come to me, I witness how the leaves turn in the breeze, and notice the shadows of the sun. But tonight, it’s not about the walk or the rhythm or the pace or what I am reminded of, it’s about the comfort of night and how today’s fading sun and the night’s rising moon bring day’s end, the end of summer, and the end of one chapter in the book of Sam and me.
With Sam on her leash, we walk to our sleeping space. Sam eyes the fire, the outdoor bed, and then me.
“It’s just the two of us tonight, girl.”
A dog barks in the distance and night birds begin their songs. I always wondered what birds sing at night in the Midwest. Robins? Whip-poor-wills? It’s a chatty song—chirp, tweet, chirp—continuous, over and over.
“It’s not the Rockies or the New Mexico desert, but it’s pretty good.” I’m whispering now. Darkness does that.
My son, Casey has camped at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, bundled in subfreezing temperatures. He has slept near glacier lakes and snow-capped mountains. Just a few days ago, he sent me photos of his hike near Mount Baker. His brother has slept on the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan, the woods of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and I have slept in the deep forests of the Allegheny Mountains and the bluffs along the Mississippi River. This night is none of these. And it’s not about comparisons. This night is its own adventure; it carries its own wonder.
I double-up on Sam’s leash, locking it to a second and securing it to a leg of the heavy fire pit. It’s not that I’m worried that will Sam run off. The yard is fenced. But there are the skunks and that I don’t need. The length of the leash will now allow Sam to move around but not too far.
I pat Sam on the head. “See, you can stay right here with me,” I say, my voice remaining quiet. I open the sleeping bag and show Sam the spot where she can rest. “Doesn’t that look perfect?”
Sam sniffs the soft fleece inside the bag, sits, and stretches out her front legs.
From the south, through the trees, I hear the rumble of a train and the bark of another dog. Lights from a passing car flash across the propane grill. The splash of the bright beam startles Sam. She lifts her head and lets out a soft growl.
“It’s okay,” I say and massage her front paw. There’s a rustle in the hostas along the fence and Sam growls a second time. “It’s okay.” Skunk? I wonder. I listen and watch. The train passes, the barking dog quiets, the fuss along the fence is gone. The night now quiets to a new level. Only the night birds continue their songs.
I slip into the bag, fold the pillow in half and rest my head. Sam moves closer and places her head on my right arm. I put my left across her body and scratch her back. Light from the fire dances on her face. The smell of wood smoke is all around.
Van Gogh wrote that he often believed that “night was more alive and more richly colored than the day.” He shared this in one of his many letters to his brother, Theo. Van Gogh was referring to his work when he wrote this, about how he was sleeping during the day so he could paint at night when the shadings were more vivid. But it would be hard not to believe that the artist wasn’t also considering what night can do to our higher consciousness, the part of our brain that ruminates over deeper thoughts—the purpose of life, our values, the right way to live. How could night not have informed his art? If we accept the night, and especially night in the outdoors, we, like Van Gogh, cannot dismiss its power. Darkness feeds the seeds of rich contemplation. How else could Van Gogh have given us The Starry Night?
And so, as the flames of the fire dwindle to embers, and the light in the upstairs window of the house next door is no more, and as Leslie turns off the kitchen lamp before bed, it is the night sky above me that awakens. Black clouds float across midnight blue. For a moment, a star flickers and then disappears, and then another does the same. It is now that the world softens and I can’t help think about the wonder of it all. Not only what I see and hear on this October night, but what the walks with Sam have given me and what they will give me again—time to think, time to feel lonely, time to mourn those I’ve lost, time to celebrate those I cherish, time to absorb nature, time to wander, time to consider my health, time to meditate, time to pray, time to witness the love of a dog. And what have they given Sam? If you believe dogs act only on instinct, then our hikes were about no more than sniffing out new smells, finding new places to pee, and simple exercise. But I’m not one of those. There must be more. I’ve seen it on every walk, every time. It’s hard to define but it’s there. Dog and man, man and dog, in step with each another.
Sam is heavy against me now. Her eyes are closed. I, too, have begun to fall asleep. And in short time, I am in a dream, flying above open fields of gold, tall stocks of barley below. On the horizon against the vanishing sun is the silhouette of a gull. How I am able to take flight alongside that bird is of no matter, for it is only an illogical vision that could never be. It would be nice to remain here in the dream, rising higher and higher, but instead, I awaken to raindrops on my cheek and forehead. Tiny ones. Soft ones. But they are no reason to rush to shelter. No reason to dash away. No reason is leave this night and no reason to wake Sam. No reason at all.