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Phoenix: Out of the Ashes

Once in a while I trap myself into believing I can pursue an idyllic ending to a phase or event in my life, giving it a finality. Some would say "closure". I fall into that trap easily: and even if I detect part-way through my actions that I am being a moron for feeling the need to follow through, I plug ahead anyway.

This is what happened in a story that began in 1998, and ended last fall, November 7, 2016 (My 52nd birthday).

In 1999 I visited a famous animal sanctuary in the canyons of Utah. This visit was not as a visitor, nor as a veterinarian, as was the case on two previous visits, the last in 1998. I was taking a course on how to start a non-profit animal shelter. It was here that the seed for Witty Kitties inc. had been planted, and where I was to get much fertilizer for future growth.

On my second day at the Sanctuary I met Phoenix, a powder-puff Chinese crested dog who had been returned recently. I don't recall his original situation, but do know that he had been returned more than once due to aggression shown toward one half of the partnership in the home, meaning he bonded with one person and attacked the spouse.

As is often the case, I immediately applied for Phoenix. One of the founders of the facility was familiar with me because on a previous visit I had removed the eye, and gave a probable diagnosis of lymphoma, to a favorite cat who actually had a house named after him. I was not concerned about not having a license in the state because I had the false belief that if I was not getting paid to do veterinary work I did not need a license. (Ignorant bliss.) Because of that I don't think I was vetted (ha! pun!) much as an applicant for adopting a pet.

Without consideration for my then 5 year old son Joseph (Jojo) and my husband at the time Al, who by the way was extremely tolerant of my animal obsessions, I went forward with my plan. I adored Phoenix. He was mostly quiet, a nice cuddler, and enjoyed hiking with me in the evening. I was staying in a cabin on the sanctuary property and loved the absolute silence that surrounded me during the night. I think I may have been a tiny bit scared to, not of any realistic fears most woman who are alone have, just those imagined images I carry from my childhood, like ghosts, walking ventriloquist dummies and "man in the mirror". (My siblings know what I'm talking about!)

Phoenix and I got along great, and I flew him home with me to Iowa. After a rough introduction to our family dog Buster, a bull in a china shop regardless where he was, life started out fine with Phoenix for the first several weeks. Unfortunately, he did start becoming progressively more aggressive towards people who were not me. He was always anxious, and never seemed to know how to "be".

This is the portion of the story where I go out on a limb and admit to being very unqualified for having a dog like Phoenix. With my perfect hindsight I know now what I should have done and not done to make life more comfortable for everyone in the household. I know more about desensitization with exposures that start out tiny and get progressively longer and more significant. I know about various types of positive enforcement. Trouble was that I didn't back then. We had Phoenix for two years before I came to decide to put him down. At the time I had never met an animal rescuer who would take in a troubled dog, the groups who have foster homes with trained persons. I feared if I took him back to the original sanctuary he would just end up going in and out of homes like he had been. I feel guilt about my decision, cried my eyes out that night, but know today it was done with limited knowledge of the possibilities.

Now that I have made that confession I will go on with the story, which does have a point.

I had Phoenix privately cremated and kept his ashes in a pretty tin on the shelf. When my first husband and I parted and I moved, Phoenix moved with me. Once again I kept him on the shelf. I told him (as in, I spoke to Phoenix in the canister) that I was sorry and that I would return his ashes to Utah someday. I took comfort in knowing it was a promise I would keep.

Fast forward to 2016, during which I visited the tin, and silently spoke to Phoenix and repeated my promise each time.

My sister Anya, my husband Torben, and I decided to make a trip to Utah to visit Joseph, who had spent several months there doing land restoration and hiking, and living in the dirt and being all nature-like and stuff. My only objective, besides seeing Joseph, was to deliver Phoenix "home", and I had the perfect spot chosen, Angels Landing in Zion National Park. Angel's Landing is a site I had visited the year before meeting Phoenix while on a different trip to the sanctuary. The first time I had tried to hike to the top of this extraordinary landmark, a plateau 1,500-feet above ground that could be reached by hiking a trail with over 70 hairpin turns,and walking along a narrow ridge near the top, I got about 90% of the way up before realizing I was over a thousand feet above ground with a narrow band of land to walk on and absolutely nothing but a vertical drop on each side of me. In my memory it was only about a ten foot wide width of rock and I was feeling like I was about to fly over the edge. I was hiking alone during an off-season so only saw a hand full of people up there. One woman from Germany who asked if I was having trouble (hint: I was sitting on the ground breathing hard, talking to myself) was wearing very impractical shoes for hiking just strutted out to the middle of the strip of rock and said "See? There is nothing to it." before continuing on up the steeper and steeper climb.

At the time I had never felt anything like this before, hyperventilation, urge to cry, panic. I was having a panic attack, or at least on the verge. After getting myself together, I asked if I was having fun. No. Did I up til then? Yes. Did I think I had a good hike in already? Yea, pretty much. I thought about Al and Joseph and how lame it would be if I flung myself over the side with no reason at all. I decided to turn around, and told myself "Someday I am kicking this climb's ass."

I was driven. Did it matter that in 2014 the hike's reputation lead to the magazine Outside naming Angels Landing one of the deadliest trails in the world? No way! Did I think it was a bad omen that when I opened my luggage at our motel on the recent to find airport security had looked inside Phoenix's container and the ziploc without closing them well, and so I had a lot of Phoenix dust and chunks in my suitcase? No! I was doing that hike no matter what, and I would do it on my birthday!

On the day of the hike I was psyched. Joseph, who is much more fit than I, set out at a fast walk, doing the first of the 70+ hairpin turns in a hurry. The incline isn't too bad at this time, just a night slightly strenuous walk. As we got high and higher I saw people coming down. I analyzed each face, looking for evidence of a harrowing experience that was ahead of me. I saw none.

Joseph was experience at rock climbing, and was very comfortable as the amount of land we were walking on got narrower and narrower, and the slope on each side of us went from a fast slide to straight down. I felt myself getting a bit nervous as I neared the site where I had my panic attack so long ago. It did not help that we came to a sign stressing the importance of care on the last portion of the climb since 7 people had died hiking it since they began keeping track decades ago. Just beyond the sign was The Spot. I stopped there and looked at all the people coming and going. It was very populated in comparison to when I was there previously. No one looked terrified. Was I remembering a scarier image than what was real?

No way. By now Torben had caught up with us and the three of us continued on. I was brave. Yes indeed, or so I kept telling myself. As we passed The Spot I looked ahead and saw something that freaked me out: I was looking at a narrow spine of rock going up and up, steeper and steeper. I could see the absolute drop on each side, and saw that one slip was a guaranteed drop to death. Fortunatley for me the park had made the hike safer sometime between my first visit and now and placed heavy chain on the most treacherous parts. Those chain became my absolute best friends ever!

We proceeded on, my heart began racing. I watched as Jojo casually walked on a particularly scary slope without using his hands and the chains. My breathing became rapid. I looked at my feet, which were only two feet from the edge of the cliff, which was over 1000 feet down. I sat down and began to cry. I couldn't breath, but still cried. Jojo called "Mom, you alright?" I responded "Yea..." Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

At that moment I looked up and saw something I never believed I would see in my life, a California Condor flying wild! I somehow managed to say "Caffonia Conor!" and pointed to the sky. It was amazing! It was miraculous! It was a sign! I had to keep freaking going!

I told Jojo he needed to keep urging me on, which he had already started doing. "Mom, you can do this." and "You got this." He was awesome. I also started talking out loud to myself. I don't mean the mild murmuring and quiet self talk I do so often, but loud utterances of "I can do this!" "I am doing this!" I was loud enough to annoy.....even me! But I kept doing it anyway.

A little bit on we saw a second condor. The were enormous! They both landed within throwing distance from me! I was lucky enough to be near one of the few trees up there and hugged it tight as I took a video of one taking flight from the cliff ledge. I was inspired.

I continued the hike, and loved those chains that kept me from flying off the cliffs myself. I chanted. Joseph urged me on, and finally, I was at the top. I h ad done it! I was at the top of Angel's Landing! Finally!

The plateau at the top is really not an enormous span of land. There were about a dozen of us up there. Some sat right at the ledge. Some, like me, sat right in the center. The spectacular 360 degree view may have been lost on me since I was not willing to concentrate on just how I we were. I was just relishing the moment. I couldn't stop smiling.

After about 10 minutes, I scooted (literally, on my butt) to a tiny, crunchy, half-dead bush a few feet closer to the ledge. I took Phoenix's tin out of Torben's backpack (Torben reunited with us at top, thank God.) and had a few last words with him. I opened the tin, then the ziploc. I poured the contents out and wished Phoenix well as a small breezed took them away (OK, I shooed some off the side of the cliff too). I then looked at the name written on the ziploc bag, something I had never done, even in the hotel. The name on the bag was "Rocky".

I calmly thought to myself. What fucking irony! For some reason it felt OK to me. I know Phoenix wasn't really listening to me all those years. I know his spirit wasn't in that tin. What was important to me was that my wanting to deliver Phoenix to the top of Angel's Landing was motivation. Believing his ashes were in the container was enough. The reality of the situation and that for 15 years I had been talking to the ashes of a dog I had never met was somehow a perfect way to end what I had hoped would be the idyllic made-for-movies moment of closure I had tried to make it. Life is just too weird to care too much.

(An aside: Where was my sister Anya in all this? She chose to do a smaller hike due to not feeling well. She found out later at a doctor's visit she had suffered a minor heart attack during the hike. Seems more than one amazing thing was happening that day.)

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