“It feels really good to be home.”“ … I’m pretty high.” “ … Yeah.”
We came to Crested Butte slowly: flying from Houston to Denver, driving from Denver to Gunnison in a 200-mile series of switchbacks and grades that take you over the Continental Divide and through the Gunnison National Forest, then north from the town of Gunnison in a gradual curve up to Crested Butte, nestled at the foot of the mountain the shares its name. The mountain makes itself known in glimpses and gradual turns, appearing and then disappearing behind closer peaks before ultimately reappearing in a view that swallows your front and right sides as you close in. This is maybe the best way to come to a mountain, which is a place to reflect not on permanence, but on a pace and scale of change we can’t comprehend. Days seem long to us, years enough to define our lives, but this mountain and its brothers and sisters were formed millions of years ago.
It seems appropriate that we left the mountain quickly, then. Something like that, something whose size and grandeur and prominence seem to fool your eye, something that recalibrates every notion you’ve ever had of history—maybe there’s no sense in lingering. A quick departure’s as good as any other to the mountain. At any rate, that’s how I’m starting to think of our 30 hours in its shadow: just one more coming and going.
After spending a wonderful Sunday morning in town, we rested throughout the afternoon, which would turn out to be one of the things that helped us survive the night ahead. Sometime around 6 p.m. that day (an hour behind our friends in Texas), we found out that that tentative arrangement our housesitter/niece had struck with our dog, Sadie, had been declared by the dog to be null and void. Maybe it was the scattered thunderstorms that added to Sadie’s sense of fear and panic, or just the fact that Tracy and I had already been gone for a day and she didn’t know when we were coming back. This is, after all, a dog that was abandoned multiple times by owners who kept returning her to the Humane Society (one of them adopted her with a clean bill of health and returned her with heartworms), and while her separation anxiety has mellowed considerably in the 10 months we’ve had her, she’s still not wild about our being gone for long periods of time.
Whatever it was, Sunday night—just 24 hours after we’d arrived at Crested Butte—our housesitter got in touch to let us know that Sadie had decided to go what could charitably be called ballistic and keep her (the housesitter) pretty well penned in the rear half of our house. This was not great news to get, and we didn’t like the idea of our niece, who is very sweet and wonderful, having to contend with an unstable blockhead of a dog getting bitey because she thinks her parents have disappeared. Tracy and I worked out what seemed like the best possible alternative: Sadie would stay the night at the house by herself, and in the morning, our niece’s moms would take her either to our vet for boarding or, if the vet didn’t have any openings, to their barn for the week, where she’d be safe but also removed from people.
The plan was for our niece’s moms to come over in an attempt to execute a kind of pincer move in which one would enter the front door while the other would come in through the back, distracting Sadie enough so that they could throw down some food and our niece could scram. However, Sadie, being just smart enough to cause herself serious harm, ran out the back door. The yard’s gate was shut, of course, but she ran around to the far side of the house and did something she’d never done there, something we didn’t even realize was possible: she squeezed through a narrow gap between the chain-link fence and the house’s brick, and she was gone.
She wasn’t wearing her collar or tags, because we never make her wear them around the house. (We didn’t make Emma wear hers, either.) So when Sadie ran away and fled deeper into our neighborhood, she did so without ID.
While this was happening, I’d gone to town to get pizza. Tracy and I were emotionally drained (we thought), and we just wanted to eat a pie and smoke the joints my sister- and brother-in-law had left behind for us. We were a couple slices in when we started getting text messages about what had happened. We had to communicate through text message because, at the time, we didn’t have cell service in Crested Butte: a recent lightning storm had taken out an AT&T tower that blacked out the entire area. So at this point—around 9 p.m.—we decided to move up our timetable and leave immediately. We were already planning every dark thing we’d have to do: make posters, put them up, send out local alerts, hope, pray. Flights out of Gunnison were prohibitively expensive, and besides, we’d rented the car in Denver anyway, so we found tickets for a flight leaving around 6:30 Monday morning and started to pack. My father-in-law insisted on buying our tickets home—“Dogs are family members,” he said—and he stood in the room with us while we received fragmented updates and collected our things. He just wanted to be there. We shook and worried and felt every imaginable thing: regret, sadness, anger, fear, instability. We got in the car and drove away around 10 p.m., the mountain behind us, already impossible to see.
After a brief stop in Gunnison to refuel at a combination gas station and bar, where we partook in a conversation among slightly inebriated bros about the acting prowess of Jonah Hill, we lit out. AT&T service had been restored by then, so our friends kept in touch with us as we drove and updated us on the search for Sadie: she’d been spotted, she got away again, on and on. I didn’t want to think about it. My father-in-law had asked what kind of caffeine I’d be drinking to make the nighttime drive, but I barely needed the soda we stopped and bought at the gas station. Adrenaline had the muscles in my face and arms pulled taut, my heart moving at a clip.
After a couple hours or so on the road—it’s hard to remember—our friends told us that Sadie had come home. They’d left the gate open as an invitation while they were out circling the neighborhood, and when they returned to check our house, they found her in our back yard. They shut the gate and were able to shoo her into the house like a bull going through a chute, after which they locked everything down again. Everything felt surreal. We hadn’t been there for any of this, so hearing about it through calls and texts only added to the feelings of impotence and fear. Knowing she was home again, I felt myself start to relax just a little. “I wouldn’t have been able to handle it,” I said to Tracy as we drove, not wanting to define what “it” might entail. We held hands most of the drive.
We made it to Denver around 2:30 a.m., an hour that’s neither late night or early morning. We did the only thing we could think to do that would let us rest while also filling a little time before we went to the airport: we went to IHOP. An IHOP after midnight is a fascinating and occasionally horrible place, but since we were only a few hours away from the start of the work week, the customer base was limited to us and a nearby table of three very drunk women (two of whom turned out to be mother and daughter) whose subjects of discourse ranged from “drama” to “not having no beef with her.” Our server, Michael, was an angel who gave us refills in to-go cups, and I tipped him around 50 percent.
After a meal and some welcome downtime, we drove to the airport around 4 a.m., where we returned the car and started the day. At this point, we’d both been awake for about 20 hours, and aside from a short nap Tracy had taken Sunday afternoon, we hadn’t rested. (Besides, whatever benefits that nap had bestowed were eradicated in the stress of the ensuing evening.) I felt nauseous with exhaustion, and I entered a kind of fugue state at the gate while we waited for our flight to board. I entered a light sleep almost immediately upon seating; I didn’t even make it until takeoff. I slept for an hour or so, about half the length of the flight to Dallas.
We went to Dallas because we had a layover at DFW for a couple of hours before the final leg of the trip home. DFW is one of the busiest airports in the world and one of the worst places man has yet created, a kind of architectural and logistical defiance of the belief that anything in life can be good or worth experiencing. It is hot and crowded and low-ceilinged, ringed by a tram line and unforgivingly bright. Tracy and I made our way to a Pappasito’s for a 10:30 a.m. lunch that wasn’t bad but whose price was out of proportion with all sense of honesty and virtue.
Taking a tip from the flight attendant who’d sat next to us in the jump seat on our first ride of the day—Kelly, a cute nerd who bonded with Tracy over Doctor Who—I decided to double-check the gate information for our flight home. That’s when I noticed something that had escaped my and Tracy’s notice the night before (we were, again, under a fair amount of stress): the tickets were taking us to Hobby Airport, but we’d originally flown out of, and left our car at, George Bush/IAH. We were going to the wrong place.
This news created a kind of crack in our spirits. Fixing it wouldn’t be impossible—worst case, we’d take a cab from one airport to the other so we could get our car—but it just felt like one too many things to have happen. I realized why we’d been so confused by all the signage, too: we were flying American, and they had two flights headed to Houston leaving within five minutes of each other but going to different airports.
Tracy was able to get the gate agent to move us to the IAH-bound flight by explaining our situation with no small amount of emotion. The woman was the platonic ideal of an airport employee: at once both helpful and emotionally detached. She reminded us that our bags couldn’t be switched to the different flight, but we figured that was (relatively) a minor inconvenience. We’d just drive down to Hobby and get them, then head home. Out of the way, but not too bad.
The flight out of Dallas was awful, a kind of confirmation of our hatred of the airport and our experience there. We taxied for 18-20 minutes before leaving, and the AC never kicked on. We departed around 12:30 p.m., which meant I’d been wearing the same shirt for around 27 hours. I could smell my own sweat and funk rising in waves, feel the heat under my arm whenever I moved it. Tracy, seated between two people and acutely aware of how trapped she was/we were, had a panic attack and took 1mg of clonazepam and just shut her eyes and held on. She was glass-eyed for a couple hours.
We landed so hard my book fell out of my hands, and we taxied for another 10 minutes, but we were home. We were strung out, wrinkled, groaning, not able to totally stand up straight, but on the ground in Houston. We made our way to the shuttle to the parking lot, which is when Tracy got the text that our bags had been lost. (Dallas, it seems, had found one last way to make itself known.) My only reaction to this news was logistical: now we could drive straight home instead of going by the other airport first. I was tired past any kind of feeling or response.
We made it home around 3 p.m., or about 16 hours after I’d locked the car doors and started driving out of Crested Butte. We hadn’t gone to bed, or showered, or had anything resembling a balanced meal.
Sadie started barking angrily when she heard our car pull up, but when Tracy called out “Sadie Lou!” she stopped, then began scrabbling around, knowing we were home. We didn’t even bring our backpacks in with us at first. We just came in and got on the couch and hugged her, told her that we were home, that everything was OK. It’s easy for me to forget what being abandoned so many times as a puppy did to her. She’s always a little concerned that she’ll be left again.
Our house looked normal, with no sign of any of the chaos we’d heard about from the night before. It was dreamlike to be home. The rest of Monday was disorientingly quiet compared with what we’d just been through, and after one of the best showers of my life, I fell asleep a couple times sitting with the cats. (It should be noted that, throughout all this, the cats showed no investment in the situation or any of its possible outcomes.) Tracy volunteered to stay up until the delivery service came by with our luggage, which they finally did after midnight. I went to bed around 10 p.m., and when I lay down, it hit me: I hadn’t been to bed, in any bed, in two nights. The night before was just driving and waiting, driving and waiting. But we were home now. I was asleep in minutes.
The next day, Tuesday, seemed to evaporate instead of pass. We didn’t get out of bed until 11 a.m., after which Tracy went back to bed for a few hours. I know I did things—watched videos, played a game, read—but I don’t remember much of it, or in what order it happened. It took us 24 hours just to recuperate to some kind of baseline, but we’re both still tired. The weekend was, it would be best to say, an instructive one. But I feel better now, or at least more whole. Driving that night, all I could think about was my dog in the dark, scared, alone, not knowing where I was. Come home, I told her. Come home. I’m coming home tomorrow to see you. You have to come home. She spent the day sleeping next to me, curled against my leg. As I write this, she’s sitting at my feet, chewing her bone, occasionally stopping to look around to make sure we’re all here, and we are.