The birthday gift

Monday was my 48th birthday. Usually it is either snowing or sleeting by now; November is typically kind of a miserable month for a birthday (except for its proximity to Thanksgiving). But the weather here in upstate New York has been unseasonably warm and sunny, so I took a hike with my dog, Hannah, up Pilot Knob, a trail overlooking Lake George that I hadn’t been on in ages.

I’d forgotten the steepness of the trail, uphill for almost 2 miles right from the parking lot. It’s quite rocky, too, and a bit slippery from all the foot traffic it gets. Plus there are several series of stone steps, seemingly helpful to humans, but tricky for an older labrador to navigate. I had to boost her up them in some spots, and support her weight going back down so she didn’t tumble forwards.

But it was a beautiful day, and we made it up finally. At the top there is a wide open, grassy area with a gazebo overlooking the lake. People stop and rest here, have lunch, take in the view, and then either head back down or continue onto another trail that leads to a small waterfall.

I elected to stop and sit with Hannah under some birch trees. The gazebo was occupied by a couple and their two dogs, quite friendly; but Hannah is much more of a people-dog than a dog’s dog. So she rolled in the grass and relaxed while I took some pictures, then sat with my face to the afternoon sun.

I had taken the day off of work, and was so grateful to have done so, to be able to enjoy the amazing weather and have a little adventure on my birthday. I had been feeling a little melancholy earlier; everything is so strange now with COVID, you can’t necessarily just get together with friends anymore. And it was a Monday, not a day when people are often free to go on a random hike. So I’d been feeling a little down to be on my own.

Hannah taking a breather.

Heading outside, though, into nature, almost always makes me feel better. It’s where I’m happiest, surrounded by the trees, sky, water, and wind, with the ground under my two feet. Exercise, too, some physical activity gets the endorphins flowing back into my brain. Having Hannah to share my treks with also keeps me feeling connected.

Although we ended up having a great day and she got a nice swim in Lake George afterward, it troubled me to see her struggling during the hike. She is is 12 years old, and her body can’t keep up with the energy of her mind now, or what she wants to still do. She tires much more quickly, and her legs are not as strong or flexible as they used to be.

It made me realize again one day she won’t be able to go at all, and I know that will be a sad, hard time for her.

I’ve thought of getting a puppy or younger dog, at times. But I don’t really think Hannah would enjoy it. I’ve seen other friends get puppies with their older dogs, and often it becomes more of a struggle for the older dog, interrupting their lives when they are used to peace and quiet. Puppies always want to play, or pester, and Hannah would not appreciate that, I feel.

My cats, too, are not fans of strange dogs and would probably make the poor thing’s life pretty miserable. Hannah and my other dog, Gordie, who passed away in 2018, are the only ones they’ve ever known and accepted.

So out of respect and love for Hannah and the cats, regardless of my wanting a future hiking companion, I will probably not get another dog for a very long time. Unless one stumbles across my path, or shows up on the doorstep randomly; but even then I can’t say it would be okay for one to stay. I just can’t help thinking how sad Hannah would be if I took another dog out on an adventure and she couldn’t go along. I think that would break her heart, and probably mine.

Catching a stick in Lake George.

Fortunately, there are plenty of scenic trails around where I live, for either walking or hiking, suitable for a dog (and for a person, when that time comes) heading into their golden years. There are many pretty places Hannah and I can go that are flat or relatively easy compared to the trek up Pilot Knob. Still, I hope we have some time left to enjoy more challenging trips.

And thankfully Hannah was actually fine the next day, a little stiff but still ready to play ball in the yard at home (me, too).

I’ve learned through the loss of many beloved pets over the years never to take them for granted and to make the most of the time I have with them. This birthday trip brought that notion home to me again, made me think as we sat on top of the mountain of all the other animals I’ve lived my life with, and how much companionship and joy they brought me. I hope I will have more in my life in the years to come, their unconditional love is one of the best gifts, birthday or otherwise, that a person can ever get.