Wildness does not go away because we bring it indoors. This is especially true of animals. Tom had two Malamutes, Neshka and Ashi, named for Eskimo heroes he had read about. He lived with them in a one room cabin up Coal Creek Canyon. The cabin was part of a string of sagging structures lining the old railroad tracks that one old cantankerous woman managed for her income. She cursed out a story of shooting a bear from her porch while looking me up and down like I was a piece of dressed meat. When the dogs weren’t keeping Tom warm in his hut he would clip them to the clothes line in back that served as a run.

Tom was of slight build and less than medium size. The dogs were basically bigger than he was. No matter, he was the master and would hurl them onto the floor gripping their neck and growling at them during times when they needed reminding he was their top dog.

His brother was dying in Florida and he needed someone to care for the pack while he was gone. I had spent many evenings with Tom, choking on the wood smoke in the little cabin while we discussed archaeology, anthropology, and life in general in the wild west. I went home with him one afternoon to pick them up.

Some Malamutes can seem almost like other dogs, friendly, happy, wanting to play and basically being good campers around the kids. Not Neshka who was the lead between these two brothers. He seemed more wolf than dog to me and had a cunning and wily look about him. Ashi was mild and followed Neshka who I did not trust.

I had business in New Mexico and Tom and I talked of my taking them with me that next week. I custom fit a piece of heavy wire mesh to the rollbar of the landcruiser. This would serve well as a cage for the two in the back of the truck. We packed up and headed out of Boulder for the Land of Enchantment.

Our first stop was up the forest road at the southern base of Kenosha Pass where I let them run. After a time I whistled and back they ran and off we went once more. The day grew old as we drove onto the Taos Plateau and got to San Antonio Mountain in northern New Mexico. It would be dark within an hour or so and this wild place would be a good romping ground for them before we pushed on to Albuquerque.

The Taos Plateau is a vast and treeless high plain area that was formed by volcanic flows. A veneer of soil has formed on the old basalt flows that supports cactus and some grass. The landscape is bleak and breathtaking in its vastness. A perfect place to let the dogs run. And run they did until I felt a twinge and whistled them back in. They ran up to me and Neshka came right up with head lowered looking intently at me with yellow eyes. I praised them for coming and let them run again. This time they took off like the wind. I had never seen them run like this. I suddenly started at how far they quickly had gone and began whistling once more. Their forms were now faint in the fading light and then gone with only the whisper of the wind swirling about me.

I stayed out there till way after dark but never saw them again. This was long before cell phones, not that they work here even now. My family was expecting me. I drove home and my brother vowed he would return with me. We got back to the spot before dawn.

This area is part of the region frequented by the Basque sheepherders out of Spain. I had seen one’s camp the day before. We parked the truck where I had released the dogs and hiked to the area of the herd. We spoke to the shepherd in Spanish, asking if he had seen El Lobos (the wolves). He had not and we got his assurance that he would not shoot the dogs on sight if they weren’t harassing the sheep.

We hiked back over and as we got closer I could see the silhouette of a dog under the truck. It was Ashi who trembled and would not leave my side at that point. Two knobs of hills rise above the plain nearby and we headed over to them. Clambering to the top of the southern one, I spied Neshka on the far side at the bottom of the hill. He looked at me, I looked at him. I called to him and he turned and ran disappearing into the distance.

We never found Neshka. Tom and I returned with Ashi to camp one night a week later on a protected ledge that formed below the knob. We had a fire and told stories long into the starry night while gazing at the lights of Taos some 40 miles away while Ashi trembled at our sides. Tom’s cantankerous old landlady told him he should never have trusted such a fool of a friend as me but Tom never blamed or faulted me in any way. Neshka was mostly wolf and that area of northern New Mexico is home to bands of wild dogs even now. We felt sure he had roamed as a king and there may very well be other Malamutes in the canyons and hills in that region that look a lot like Neshka!

(For another story about Tom, please see the first post of this blog, “Under the Eternal Sky”)

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