This is a guest post by my sister, Columbine Quillen. Last week she lost her white German Shepard Sierra, who was a sweet, happy, loveable member of our family for twelve years. Here she recounts some of their adventures and reflects on life’s big questions. (Plus, everyone loves a good bear story, right?) I hope you enjoy it.
I’m shocked by my melancholy. Perhaps this loss is hitting me so hard because Sierra was such a fixture in our lives — not only a friend and a companion, but a part of the house. A part of the neighborhood. She was often the first face I saw each day poking her head into the bedroom.
I met Sierra because she was (my future husband) Brad’s dog, and Brad had a crush on me the summer of 2002. I was living with my parents in Colorado and running races. I often ran 10 to 15 hard miles in the mountains in the morning and then mountain biked another 20 miles in the afternoon. Sierra had as much energy as I did, so Brad often asked me to take her with me. I didn’t always want to, because Sierra was a bundle of energy who had sharp teeth and didn’t understand acceptable play. But my mom didn’t like me being alone in the backcountry, so I always agreed.
That was the beginning of many miles spent alone with Sierra in the wilderness. One time we climbed a peak in the Sangre de Christos, some of the remotest of the Colorado Rockies, and we went down the wrong drainage. We must have bushwhacked two to three miles of 2,000-3,000 feet of decent. When we were above timberline I could see where we were and which way to go, but when we dropped into the trees I felt scared and exhausted. Sierra seemed to know the way, though, and I kept with her. Eventually we found a small creek which turned out to be a tributary to a creek that was on the hiking trail. Sierra was a phenomenal athlete and sure-footed backcountry mate. I always felt safer when she was with me — except once.
When she was still young, we were running on a steep trail near my hometown. At the top of the climb where the trail levels out, Sierra wandered off into the woods and rustled up a bear! Talk about motivation to run! Sierra looked at me with the most gleeful look, like “Yeah! Look what I just did!” We got out of there as fast as we could, although I don’t think the bear had much interest in us. Some old ranchers told me that bears don’t like people or domesticated dogs, so if they know you are coming they will get out of the way. “Make your dog noisy,” they advised. So I put jingle bobbles on her collar, and we never saw another bear or house cat again.
When I met Sierra, she did not swim. She would only wade out to her knees. This drove Brad crazy. He gave up his promising career at Hewlett Packard to live his dream of creating the greatest database of whitewater river runs in the nation. He had traveled all over the country running whitewater. Being on a river was the most important thing to him, and his dog would not swim! Brad tried to get her to swim by taking her out on a pier on a lake and dropping her off. However, that made her even more timid around water and made Brad seem like a real jerk every time he told the story.
In the summer of 2003 Brad decided to teach me how to whitewater paddle, which to this day is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. We would go out to a lake so that I could practice my strokes and roll. Sierra was not happy when both of us were out in the water. She’d pace the shore barking a pitiful bark that made it sound like we were poking her with hot coals. We kept calling out to her, and finally one day she came in. It was the cutest thing in the world. She was so stressed out, holding her head up high. She swam to our boats and then swam circles around us like a shark. Later, when Brad was teaching me how to surf in a kayaking hole, Sierra became a beautiful river swimmer, using the current to propel her across the water. It was amazing to watch.
The last few years have been challenging. Law school has a special way of beating up and tearing apart the human soul. My father passed away from a heart attack in the middle of the night. My grandmother died. My long-time colleague who I also enjoyed paddling with died of cancer. Another friend who appeared to be perfect health died for no explicable reason at the age of 27.
When these tragedies struck, I was not surrounded by a community of support and nourishment. We had moved to a town away from everyone we knew so I could go to law school. I was taking an over-loaded course schedule while working and couldn’t lean on my friends at school, since they also had no free time and were trying not to buckle under the enormous pressure. Every day I got up and forced myself out the door. But I was depleted by the end of the day. I’d trudge through the door, and Sierra would bound up to greet me. A rock in times of hardship. The greatest listener who ever existed. A place of warmth and reassurance.
Sierra had the gift to make those around her smile and feel good. A few months ago Brad left his bike at the train station, and he asked me if I could pick it up. It’s a couple of miles over to the train station, so Sierra and I walked there. It was a beautiful day, the sun was out, and all of the trees were full with golden and fiery red leaves. On the way back I rode Brad’s bike, and Sierra trotted behind me. Everyone who passed beamed at me, but I knew their smiles weren’t for me. When I glanced behind me, there was Sierra smiling the brightest smile, her ears back, running her old dog teeter totter trot with her jingle bobbles swaying back and forth with each step. The sun beamed down on her, golden leaves raining in the background. What a magical sight to behold.
With all of the loss I’ve experienced in the last few years, I can’t help but ponder life’s big questions. Every culture has stories to explain why we’re here, what we’re supposed to be working toward, and what happens to us when we die. I don’t know which story is right. But I do know that everyone who I’ve been close to has qualities that amaze me. And maybe if I can incorporate more of those qualities into my life on a day to day basis, a little bit of that person can live on.
My father was an amazing storyteller who was gifted at building community. My colleague was an amazing whitewater boater who never said no to a paddle. My 27-year-old friend had a gorgeous smile that she gave away continuously without ever expecting anything in return. Sierra was always ready to go. She had a great vigor for life. She lived life to its fullest and always found something to enjoy, no matter the circumstances. Certainly all of my friends, and my dad, gave more to the world than these simple qualities, but these are some of the things I hope I can embrace in my life and keep shining onto the world because of their inspiration.
To Sierra: Rest in peace. You made me a better person, and for that I will always be thankful.
Columbine Quillen wrote this essay. She and her husband Brad live in Portland, Oregon, and she will graduate from law school this spring.
Photos by Columbine Quillen.