When Jay and I bought our first house, we agreed to take a dog that his ex and her husband had raised from a puppy. They were giving up an aborted attempt to homestead and had no place to keep him. As the dog had saved my stepson from drowning in a creek, and was depicted as a highly responsible animal, we accepted him without reservation.
‘Beast’ was aptly named. His ancestry was uncertain: he had the size and shagginess of a St. Bernard, and the head and markings of a husky. But his sense of pack responsibility was all timber wolf. In the forested land where he spent his early years, he had been trained to patrol the boundaries of his owner’s territory.
I remember when he was dropped off, his former master showed him the front property line, walking him up and down it. “Beast, guard!” was the command.
And Beast took the order seriously. How seriously, we were about to find out. His stay with us lasted for about six hair-tearing months, and then, in complete exasperation and with the neighbors threatening lawsuits, we found him a home in a rural area with people who had an apple orchard that needed guarding.
On the Saturday morning when this transition was in process, I was waiting for the new owners to pick him up when the phone rings. But it isn’t the new owners, it’s my Mom.
We started with the usual catch-up on family. And then Mom asks, “How’s Beast?”
At least, that’s what I THOUGHT I heard her say. Given the circumstances, it seemed perfectly in context, as I had spoken to her briefly a couple days earlier about the grief this dog was causing us.
As I later found, to my great mortification, what she had actually said was, ‘How’s Jay?”
Out the window, I can see my husband rounding up the mutt from our front yard. Beast had once again jumped over our 6-foot board fence in his desire to patrol our entire property line.
So you can understand the exasperation in my reply. “Oh, I am getting RID of him!”
My mom seemed unduly surprised. “Why? What has he done?”
“What HASN’T he done?” I exploded. “Like right now the place stinks, because yesterday, AGAIN, he prevented the garbage men from picking up the trash!”
Mom was baffled. “Why would he do that?”
“Oh, he thinks it’s valuable, because it’s ours. He thinks anything we’ve ever owned has to be guarded. Ever since we got this house, he has paced up and down the property line, looking menacing. The mailman gave us a notice the other day saying we’d have to get our mail at the post office, because he’s afraid to deliver it.”
My mother is used to dealing with nutty people; she was custodian of her two schizophrenic nephews. Which might explain why her mind immediately jumped to conclusions about Jay’s sanity. “I had no idea he was so disturbed. Can you get him help?”
“I’ve already tried everything I know!” Says I. “I can keep him under control in the daytime. But at night, he just works the window latch and slips out again. And if you tie him up, he just chews through the rope!”
At this point, you would have expected my mother to realize that we were on totally different topics, but the shock apparently prevented her from putting two and two together. As for me, I am oblivious—as I can be, when I’m on a roll and there is a sympathetic ear.
“The final straw happened the other day! A girl came by riding a bicycle, and he cleared the six-foot fence in one bound and took off after her, barking and nipping at her heels!” I exclaimed. “And she was only twelve!”
There was a silence on the line. Then Mom said, “Are you going to file for divorce?”
“Divorce?!” It was my turn to be shocked. “Why would we get a divorce over Beast? Jay is as weary of his antics as I am!”
Today I was at Tap Plastics, a local company that retails all kinds of plastic materials. And as usual, I found myself telling stories to the young clerk. You see, she didn’t remember Bob Whitehead, the deceased owner of Tap Plastics, and there were some memories about Bob that were worth sharing.
I spent over a week getting to know Bob very well, in the way that you get to know others in your party in the wilderness. Bob was one of a group that approached me to provide pack llamas for their four-stage expedition down the John Muir Trail.
Up until then, we had never really taken people out in a commercial sense. We’d just packed a lot so we could sell pack-trained llamas. Of course, we usually took some of the kid’s friends, or our friends, or people to whom we had sold a pack llama. But we’d toyed with the idea of outfitting. Then this group asked if we could field enough llamas to take twelve people on an eight-day trip from Tuolumne Meadows to Devil’s Postpile. And due to the season, Yosemite National Park (where we would be for the first three days) required us to pack feed for the animals as well as the people.
I added it up and came to needing 12 animals. Which we had, if we added in all the two-year-olds (with lighter loads due to their age). The problem was, we didn’t have 12 packsaddles. We had exactly 4.
I had always wanted to try a flexible, weatherproof saddle made of polycarbonate plastic. So I came up with a design featuring a pair of curved strips bolted together in a kind of wishbone shape, two sets connected by lightweight aluminum bars, front and back like the traditional mule sawbuck. Every point where anything connected to anything else, we added a D-ring to the bolt. I was weary of packsaddles with no decent lash-points.
The saddle worked. The top of the wishbone kept the load off the llamas’ prominent vertebrae, and it fitted all size animals snugly because it flexed, but was still stiff enough to stay in place without sliding around under their bellies. But oh my, what we didn’t know about working with plastics. Our saddle corners were sharp enough to cut yourself on; the polycarbonate had heat bubbles where we bent it, the places where we drilled holes for the bolts were all developing ‘star fractures’, and we needed to work with a lighter gauge. Kind providence sent Bob Whitehead, the man who knew more about the stuff than anyone else, to watch our prototype in use for eight solid days and tell us how to better construct the design. What are the odds of that?
Thanks to Bob, our next version of those saddles lasted us 12 years.
But that wasn’t what I was telling this young lady about. My story of Bob Whitehead is one of kindness and consideration.
You see, in Yosemite and other popular backcountry trails much plagued with bears, hikers are supposed to pack their food in these bear-proof plastic canisters. And one of our company had the brilliant idea that he could make his own using 4” diameter PVC pipe and screw-on caps. At the trailhead he proudly produced a bunch of these things to be packed onto the llamas.
The problem was, they wouldn’t pack. For three days, the slippery things worked their way out from under every possible strapping arrangement to go bounding down the hill for somebody to retrieve. Then a pair of panniers became empty (the group ate 40 pounds of supplies every day), so we used them to carry the miserable ‘cylinders of doom’ (as we took to calling them when the inventor could not hear).
The failure of his clever plan began to wear on the pipe-bearer. Bob was an encourager by nature, and he set out to find some use for those sections so that bringing them would not be a complete waste of time. On a layover day at Thousand Island Lake (where we saw a bear-proof canister lying in ten feet of crystal-clear water, but that’s another story) Bob finally found something they were good for: washing socks.
To discover this for yourself, all you need is an 18” section of 4” pipe, a pipe cap for the bottom, some detergent, and some really dirty heavy socks. fill the pipe half-way with water, add the soap, and plunge each sock up and down several times, and wring out the water. Repeat once for each day the socks have been worn. Rinse in the same fashion. Lay out on rocks to dry in the sun.
Bob washed all the socks for all twelve of us. At the time, it was something we joked about, because Bob made it so funny we couldn’t help it.
I have my useful, functional saddles to remember Bob Whitehead by. But when I think of him, the first picture that springs to mind is Bob—who was probably the wealthiest person on that trip—on his knees above Thousand-Island Lake, following his master’s example and caring for his friends’ filthy feet.