I’ve been putting off writing this one for a while. Maybe it’s the blinking cursor or my tear-strewn cheeks, but this will be the most difficult post I ever write. On June 14th Nina was laid to rest in our backyard. Her body was failing from cancer. She was between 14 and 16 years old.
Nina was diagnosed with cancer just 5 weeks earlier. We didn’t know what kind, but the vet said it wasn’t good. I dropped everything to be with her as much as humanly possible.
We made it a point to go out and camp with her doggie friends. Then the next week I had a press trip in Frisco. Nina was invited of course – she literally went everywhere. And we travel nearly every weekend.
Nina always loved mountain towns. She hadn’t been doing that great and we were concerned, but she particularly loved Frisco and it was close to home so we decided to go. That day she had an amazing time.
She wadded in her favorite creek. She went on a gentle car ride. She even went on a short hike – she hadn’t been able to walk more than a block for weeks. We capped the day off with a dog-friendly restaurant and Nina got her first-ever restaurant meal – a delicious sausage.
Then the next day, she kept collapsing. She would walk. Sway and collapse. Painting and drooling we knew that something was wrong. So we left for home. She didn’t improve and two days later we put her down in her favorite spot in our yard.
If you’ve followed the blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably seen Nina. She’s all over. Chances are if I mention a dog-friendly hike, Nina has done it at least once.
I got her when I was 22 and just a lost soul in the world. I had just moved to Denver and I didn’t know anyone. I needed a friend, an excuse to step outside of my comfort zone, and a buddy to explore with. That was 12 years ago.
I remember that early summer day in 2009 when I spotted her. “Nina” the tag read. “Mixed breed. 3 – 5 years old. Rescued from the kill list at Denver Municipal Animal Shelter. Little is known about Nina’s past. She loves to go on walks and play with tennis balls.”
This letter is for Nina. Or Noodles. Or Schmoo. Or Dooge. Or Waffles. Or Woofles. Or the many other names we lovingly called you throughout the years.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
The vivid image of you curled up in the back of that kennel, nose tucked into your tail. You lifted your head up when I passed, and your eyes just looked so defeated. You were always a bit of an introvert and the noises of the shelter must have just been overwhelming for you.
“Let’s walk Nina,” I told my (now ex) boyfriend. He was visiting. I still had 2 months on my own before he would move in with us.
The rest was history. It was almost as if the universe brought us together. You needed a second lease on life and I didn’t know it at the time, but I needed out of a bad relationship and to learn how to step into my own power.
It would be 4 more years before either of those things happened, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have had plenty of adventures along the way.
You came home and you were elated. A little too skinny, kinda shy, and immediately defensive of your new forever home.
It took many years to get your weight to a healthy level – we tried everything.
And we often pondered what had happened to you. It looked like you had an embedded collar, you had an uncanny ability to find snacks in the street, and you never ran off. Our best guess was that you were abused, had puppies (according to the vet), then thrown into the street until the authorities found you.
But when we met, we changed that. I wanted to give you the best life I possibly could. For me, that meant we were destined to see the world. We went everywhere together.
- Road trips – you’ve been to 10 states.
- And your favorite – hiking
I remember our second camping trip. We were in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and the rangers at the visitors center were talking about a dog that put a bear in a tree. I began asking about the dog, and soon realized it was you. You were always defending home.
After I got left at the bottom of the Gunnison by that shit boyfriend, I rushed back to congratulate you on your pretty phenomenal achievement. A 50-pound lab-whatever mix puts a 600-pound bear in a tree.
Every year we would make the 16-hour drive to Lake Tahoe for Christmas. My parents are not dog people, but they loved you. You’d spend all day laying at my dad’s feet in his office and then come romp around in the snow.
Snow was your favorite thing. You’d roll and roll and roll some more. Elated to find even the toughest piece of ice on an August day in the alpine. The snow brought you so much joy. I even learned to tolerate it just to see you romp and play.
You’d follow me on the craziest of snowshoeing adventures, well into your twilight years. Just scooping up snow and munching as we walked trying to find ourselves.
You’d trudge through snow chest-deep like a champion. I remember one time, we were in the Gore Range and I bit off more than I could chew. We were a little lost and you followed me for hours while we searched for the trail. You were 12 years old.
In 2014, we finally ditched the abusive boyfriend. Suddenly, it was just you, me, and the world again.
Things were scary. I was struggling to keep the lights on. The garbage disposal broke and I couldn’t afford to fix it.
So I hosed off dirty dishes in the yard for a month as I slowly saved for a new disposal. You loved eating the scraps of food, no matter how hard I tried to keep you away from them.
But we never stopped adventuring when we could. I remember when we decided to go backpacking for the first time. For me, it was a hobby I swore I’d never try again, but John – your forever dad – wanted to give it a go, so I went hesitantly.
But you loved it. You got the zoomies so hard you vomited up all of your breakfast. You had found your ultimate calling – hiking.
Nina, you achieved some of the most incredibly jaw-dropping feats on the trail. Even just two months before you passed, you still hiked 8 miles. When I’d tell people that you were between 14 and 16 and you could still hike 8 to 10 miles, people are still shocked.
We hiked anywhere and everywhere. Across the desert. In the mountains. Over the plains. You loved it. Your favorite was “long walk” – or backpacking – in the Gore Range.
It was your happy place.
When I picture you over the Rainbow Bridge – I see you nestled in a field of flowers. Sniffing the mountain air.
You’ve hiked nearly every trail in the Gore Range. You’ve backpacked over 130 miles of the Colorado Trail. You’ve stood on top of 5 mountain summits and you didn’t start trying to gain high points until you were 10.
You loved hiking so damn much, you have literally walked your paws off. I remember coming out of segment 4 of the Colorado Trail and you were wobbling like a baby deer.
Your paws got cuts and you chewed all the skin off. We grumbled about camping next to a road that night, but when we realized you couldn’t walk the next morning, we were grateful for it.
Whenever I’m on the trail, I can see your little trail tail, curled up bouncing along. I can hear your collar jingle. I can almost call out to you – “Nina, stay close.” And you’d slow down to walk beside us.
I remember when I hurt my knees. We were alone, 5 miles from the car when suddenly my knees just locked up. It was difficult for me to move and we hadn’t seen anyone all day. You sensed something was wrong. We stopped a lot so I could manage the pain.
But instead of being out front, you started walking behind me to make sure that I was safe.
You always had my back. If we were sitting in a group, you’d always have your back to the circle, keeping an eye on our 6 for trouble. It made you terribly unphotogenic, but we always knew that we would be safe.
I can keep going. The memories never end. But honestly, I get overwhelmed with grief.
I miss you, Nina. Every day my heart aches with the loss.
My house is empty. The tent feels lonely. Our camper just isn’t the same. Our lives feel less meaningful.
People I don’t even know have cried over your passing.
You are always such a special part of my life. You were strong. You were compassionate. You are perfect.
I’ve never known pain like this before and it’s a testament to just how much I love you.
Right now I feel lost. Like I don’t have a purpose. My purpose has always been to give you the best life possible. Because you deserved it. I wanted to show you all of the amazing places, let you have all the sniffs and snuggles (even when you didn’t want them) and just show you what it meant to be loved.
I’ve always felt like I never had what it took to be a mom. Like I just wasn’t born with that mothering instinct. I didn’t want kids for the longest time.
But what I failed to realize is that I had those qualities. I was just giving it my all for you.
And maybe you knew. Maybe you sensed that it was time for my life to change. That I needed to move on to the next phase.
Perhaps you felt that your body couldn’t move the way it used to. You couldn’t go like before even though you wanted nothing more than to trot down the trail with me.
So maybe it was your last gift to let go. You loved me so much you let go so that I could realize that I was ready for the next chapter.
I love you more than words Nina. I’d give anything to scratch your ears and tell you it’s time to go camping.
Until we meet on the trail again.