A new friend

by jenkb

I awoke that first morning in a sea of white, and went immediately outside to see what the world looked like on the side of a mountain in Montana in the waning days of the year. A bit of sun played around the edges of the winter cloud cover. The air was cold, but not painfully so – perhaps the cliché about the tolerability of dry heat also applies to dry cold as well.

When I opened the door, all I could see was evergreen trees and the peaks across the valley poking up over their dark green tops. I turned around to see what was behind the house: more trees, and more mountain, reaching ever upward. I spun around and set off down the driveway toward the road.

I knew there were neighbors down the road – Dr. G, an internist at the small hospital in Libby, and her German husband, a math professor who commuted two hours to Missoula to teach courses at the University of Montana. Our house and theirs were the only two dwellings on the mountain. When he wasn’t teaching, the Professor took care of their house and horses, and spent long afternoons working equations I could not fathom in the library of their large, Alpine-style home. The Professor plowed the road in his ancient Suburban, and had kindly turned on the heat in the house for us before we arrived. Dr. G had left a plate of Christmas cookies on the blindingly orange countertop. Five years later, when my father-in-law was ready to sell the house and we badly wanted to buy it, Dr. G and the Professor would finance it for us. Two years after that, when I found myself abruptly back in Indiana without warning, they would buy it from us.

I started down the road at its intersection with the driveway, where longer-lived tire tracks than my own cut through the drifts. Over the course of several winters, I would come to realize that snow tells a tale of the mountain that’s hidden the rest of the year; it reveals the intensely, almost manically nomadic nature of deer, and records the passage of other animals. A few feet off the road, I noticed a swirl of competing animal tracks. One was unmistakably from a rabbit, with its twin pairs of indentations, one elongated, one shorter. Those tracks were interspersed with a set of larger, clawless, two-lobed mammal tracks: a bobcat. A skirmish had occurred here.

But what happened? Did the rabbit escape? Or did the bobcat get a much-needed winter meal? There was no answer. The snow doesn’t always finish the story.

It was against this backdrop that, a few steps later, I looked up the road and perceived an enormous black creature lying watchfully on the snow, apparently unmoved by the cold. My heart took flight. Bear? I looked again more closely. Bears hibernate, my rational brain interjected.  And they don’t make a habit of reclining on snow-packed roads.

I stood very still, trying to determine the animal’s identity. We faced off that way for a moment, neither of us flinching. Then the beast lifted its thick, brontosauran tail and began beating it against the ground, sending bits of snow flying with every thump, then then roused the rest of its sofa-sized bulk off the snow and loped down the road toward me.

My new acquaintance was, of course, a dog, an enormous black dog with a globe-sized head and jowls that dangled off it like Scarlett O’Hara’s draperies. “You must be Neptune,” I said as he approached. We had heard about the Professor’s dog, a middle-aged Newfoundland. Neptune licked my hand in assent with his beef-sized tongue, and we continued down the road together. I was happy to make a friend so quickly.

The life of dogs was different on the mountain, and so were their relationships with their human companions. Neptune – and his successor, another affectionate behemoth named Donar – retained much more independence than their urban counterparts. With the exception of nighttime, when the mountain became unreasonably dangerous for domestic dogs, their owners trusted their judgment about where they wished to spend their time and when. My own dogs would come to enjoy the same privileges when they were on the mountain.

Both Newfies always understood that we were their friends, and they would sometimes show up unannounced in our living room, having stuffed themselves through whatever door we’d left cracked to catch the summer breeze. If we were present, they might pause before the pantry door and stare plaintively at us, silently urging us to bring out the box of dog biscuits we stored there. Then perhaps they would position their heads under our fingers for a scratch. Or we might simply walk into the room and find Donar’s massive bulk stretched across the couch, legs and tail dangling off, unable to find purchase on the worn leather.

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Visiting Newfie relaxing on unfortunate carpet.

Nobody minded. This was the mountain, and they were like neighbor kids, moving from house to house as they pleased. If we didn’t want company, we could simply close the door; they didn’t know how to knock. Otherwise, they would hang out with us until the sound of Dr. G’s voice wafted thinly through the window, at which point the Newfie in question would slide lazily off the couch, pause to pick up his biscuit, and waddle off toward home.  This arrangement became much more complicated when I acquired Thomas, a neurotic Border Collie-Siberian Husky mix, and began bringing him to Montana with me. But we all managed to coexist, largely because of the companionable character of the Newfoundlands, the peacemakers of the mountain.