Gus is a Shih Tzu - Pomeranian. And though he’s small, the robust energy and industriousness of his Asian and European ancestors somehow combine to make him livelier and more athletic than his build would suggest. The little fellow and I have been co-adventurers every night of his life since he was old enough to participate. It’s come to the point that he can’t miss a day and neither can I, and a missed evening leaves both of us restless and mopey. I attribute a large portion of whatever success I’ve achieved to this nightly ritual, as it has been the only reliable method I’ve found of sorting out problems and making decisions. It might be the fresh air or it might be the exercise or it might be the dog himself. I find that when I’m going somewhere my mind automatically scans for the presence of a dog and looks forward to seeing the animal as much as the people. There is a field called Animal-assisted Therapy for people like me, but I think I get my sessions for free every evening. It works no matter where we go, but an extended hike through a natural area does even more for our souls than an urban stroll.
Last year we lived on a hill that was sliced in two by a creek and many years of erosion. This creek is the namesake of what is now a city park. But the creek eventually cut so deep that the park is very much separated from the city and to hike its trails is to enjoy the illusion of a day in the mountains. This was a favorite place of ours. We dipped into the park most evenings and made deeper excursions on weekends or when there was more time. Over the year Gus and I mastered the trail system. I led the way and he stayed behind off his leash, stopping at the good smells until I was far enough ahead for him to sprint and catch up. I would go there to decompress after a day of studying and I think he was on the opposite schedule, going there to study after a day of decompressing. My thoughts of law and life, I imagine, still linger among those trees and I miss going there.
But this year we live out of town near a large lake. We are up on a hill and a few of our windows have a nice view of it. There is a train track separating us from the lake on this side and the lake from the mountains on the other side. It’s not the same track, but they are used so regularly that it gives the impression of an old-fashioned electric train set, and when I daydream out my office window it’s like watching the train go around and around. Such is the frequency at which it passes. It’s quiet out here except for the trains, but their regular visits somehow contribute to the peacefulness, and their regularity assures us that things are running smoothly.
So now the dog and I cross the tracks to walk along the shore of the lake. Past the marina it is still fairly wild and undeveloped and there are no paths and once we saw a snake. We jump from rock to rock, over driftwood, and through bushes. Gus stops for a swim on hot days. One day I stopped for a swim. But no matter how deep I went, Gus paddled out to catch up. I had to put his leash on and anchor it under a big rock so he could only watch from the shore. This eventually made us both sad so we settled on wading in the shallow parts. The vet was surprised such a small dog could get a parasite. Only adventurous dogs get those.
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A drive east out of my home town of Medicine Hat, about 20 minutes past nothing at all, and about 20 minutes before Saskatchewan where the nothingness is exaggerated even further, there is a hard right turn up the steepest hill around. It’s not actually very steep, but to its surroundings it’s a mountain. Large trucks have to get a head start - charging at the bottom and dying out exhausted towards the top - and everyone’s gears have to get a little lower. Once up this hill, the road flattens out but not quite completely, though it looks like it does. But it’s an illusion. And in an automatic vehicle, the gas pedal tells the truth. Drivers have to compress it lower than they’re used to. There are no shoulders on this highway and it looks like any other prairie road, drifting past farms and cows and fields. But it takes more work to drive on it. And these familiar prairie sights gradually take on a greener, livelier, and more luscious look. It’s like driving towards to the source of life.
Another 20 minutes on this road is a gradual climb up the highest altitude anywhere on the prairies. At the end of the road is Cypress Hills interprovincial park. It lies on the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan and it’s the only area on the prairies that wasn’t scraped away by glaciers. It looks as though all the glaciers ran into each other there and pushed together everything they were pushing and piled their loads on top of each other and then died. And it seems like they stashed their loads underneath what was already there, like a bump under a rug. The hills retain an outer layer of ancient forests and overlook beautiful lakes - perhaps the decomposing bodies of those long-dead glaciers.
This has always been a favorite place of mine and our family has been visiting it regularly my whole life. Day trips, scout camps, work retreats, dates, ski trips, family vacations, church activities, adventure races, parties. All found an ideal setting in those hills. My dad even took me and my brother camping with two other boys who we were never very close with. I don’t remember how the arrangement was made, but I think we loved the place so much that we figured we would bring whoever was available.
I had taken Harry there a few times before this summer. Once was in the winter when I forgot the park gets twice as much snow as the city. He had fallen asleep in the car and I realized my mistake and turned around and headed home before he could wake up. The other times he was too young to appreciate it. But this summer I took him once by myself and once with the whole family.
We didn’t have a video camera when I was growing up, but my dad sometimes borrowed one from work. He’d pop in a VHS and prop the camera on his shoulder and ask us to do things we didn’t want to do. Our family video vault contains a lot of footage of grumpy little boys telling the camera to go away. But sometimes we would be in the mood to show off, and I now recognize the tone of my dad’s voice that he would use to tell us how great we are at spinning in circles or how funny our jokes are. It’s the same tone I now use to tell Harry how interesting the rocks and sticks are that he shows me. We now have a GoPro camera that’s about the size of two ice cubes, and I bet that tone is captured for another generation. There is one memorable scene on an old family VHS of my brother and I playing on a playground and walking down a path in Cypress Hills, wearing neon sweatpants and sweatshirts, singing the Ninja Turtles theme song. This summer we took some footage of Harry playing on that playground and walking on that path and it probably caught me laughing at his jokes and being impressed by his ability to stand at the top of the playground.
The hills were formed by millions of years of erosion and sedimentary deposition. And an archeological dig near the townsite revealed human inhabitation of the hills for more than 8,500 years. Families have been a part of those hills for thousands of years, and I think this summer we preserved them for another generation.
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We called my Grandpa on my dad’s side Bump. I’m not sure why. There is probably a story behind it, but I have enjoyed not knowing it and am happy that that was his name and that’s just the way it is. He died when I was quite young and I have fewer memories of him than I’d like. They’re all good memories - getting slurpees, birdwatching, going to parks, finding him in his den listening to classical music - and if I had been capable of realizing it, I’m sure he was a man I would have tried to model myself after. All the pictures of him show a humble man who didn’t think much of himself but was thought of a great deal by other people.
In his retirement years he undertook an ambitious project. He assembled a library of books he had read that made an impression on him and wrote a page about each of them. In the introduction he mentions, “I have been engaged in this project for the past two years and it has brought me enormous pleasure.” It brought him so much pleasure that he expanded it into two volumes and over a thousand books. He titled it, “A Legacy of Books: Favorites and Influential Reading,” and printed copies for each of his children and their families. The notes are spiral-bound and typewritten and on the inside cover is a picture of the author behind the typewriter, the work in progress. When he died the collection passed into the hands (or onto the basement shelves) of my aunt. A couple years ago she passed on a copy of Bump’s notes to me and my brother and asked us if we would like any of the books. We each took a big helping but didn’t even make a dent in the collection. Since then I have periodically browsed “A Legacy of Books,” reading his notes on titles I recognize.
This summer we visited my aunt and uncle who house Bump’s library. They again encouraged me to take some books, which I did, and I spent every evening looking through the collection after everyone else had gone to bed. And in the quiet of the night I felt I was alone with Bump. I felt a deep connection as I noticed he had many books that I had in my collection already and many others I had been wanting to add. The books a person reads say a lot about that person, but the ones they deliberately choose to pass on to their families say even more. I think the project was more a way for him to share the joy and satisfaction the books brought him, but I couldn’t help but feel I was being taught by a great mentor as I perused the shelves that inspired him.
I recently started reading “A Legacy of Books” from the beginning and realized his notes say more about himself and his life at the time he acquired the book than they say about the book. For example, in his note about “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” he relates this episode: “I soon came to the spider incident (p.13-16) and before I got to the end of the first paragraph I decided to read the piece aloud to the assembled family (most members of our family have an unaccountable and unwarrantable fear of spiders). I was soon convulsed with laughter and as the others caught the infection I had difficulty resuming the reading, having to remove my glasses and mop my streaming eyes. Elspeth [his wife, Nana to me] managed to take a picture of me in my laughing mode and I have included a copy of it in the book.” I have no idea what the book is about, but this detail is enough to convince me to find it, if only for “the spider incident” and the photographic evidence of its effect on Bump.
His notes are filled with these kinds of anecdotes and they combine to provide a kind of autobiography rich in personality. And so his book selection and the notes introduce me to him and connect me with him in two ways at once. The more I learn of him the more I see of myself and my origins, and I find myself, along with the books, as another legacy of a great man.
Volume two ends with a more structured piece of autobiography, apparently added by request. It is titled “My Nine Lives” and gives an account of nine segments of Bumps life. It begins with “My Life as a Boy,” includes “My Life as a Husband and Father,” “My Life as a Minister,” “My Life as a Journalist,” and ends with “My Life as a Senior Citizen.” The account of this ninth life is only four lines long. The fourth line ends at the bottom of the page and the last sentence ends at the end of the line. I don’t know if this is intentional or coincidental or if it continues on another page missing from my copy. It is an abrupt way to end and leaves me searching for more. I suppose this is symbolic of a life sadly cut short. Volume two was supposed to be one of various forthcoming supplements, but it ends with the brief account of Bump’s last life. I have often wished I had had more time with him. But he lives on in the books he left behind and the beautiful stories he told about them, and I’m left with a permanent friend and role model.