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Ay, Chihuahuas!

Essay by Hal Walter

Mountain Life – February 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

YOU KNOW SOMETHING’S UP when your wife drives into the driveway after dark, and then knocks at the door. In this case I opened the door and found her standing beneath the porch lights with a pint- sized Chihuahua in each hand.

“I found them out on the road over by Bear Basin Ranch. I couldn’t leave them out there.”

Well, of course she couldn’t. Only a rather pathetic soul could do that.

We brought the tiny dogs inside and let them loose in the utility room, where they skittered around on the linoleum tiles with their overlong toenails. They were not overly anxious and seemed perfectly content to call this new place home for the time being.

While we set about bringing our son and a couple armloads of groceries from the car, our rat terrier “Ted” whined in excitement at the possibility of two new girlfriends who made him look like a big dog.

We prepared and ate a rushed dinner as we made the usual calls. Between the repetitive telling of the story to each person we called, we tried to reason why these little dogs would have been loose without collars on such a lonely stretch of rural road. The obvious answer was that someone had probably just abandoned them. But these apparently purebred dogs appeared to be older — in fact one was gray in the face and nearly toothless — and also they appeared very well fed and cared for despite the long toenails. In most cases dogs dumped out around here are younger mutts of larger breeds, and generally half- starved.

The first phone call was to the sheriff’s department, where nobody had reported any Chihuahuas missing. However, the dispatch officer did have a number for a local animal rescue volunteer. She also had no report of missing Chihuahuas but offered to help get the word out that they had been found.

We called our far- flung neighbors asking if anybody knew anyone who might be missing dogs like this, or if anyone had holiday visitors who might have lost a pair of Chihuahuas. But nobody had. A couple of people we called mused that perhaps someone had died and relatives had abandoned them. Most everyone remarked about how uncommon a breed this was for this area.

And for good reasons. I myself was astonished that these dogs had lasted for any length of time outside in this neighborhood, especially after dark. If they made it through an afternoon without catching the eye of a red- tailed hawk or the pair of bald eagles that’s been wintering in the area, surely they were pressing their luck after sunset when the coyotes, bobcats, and owls go prowling. In fact, when I took them out later I feared my cat might munch one of them — he has brought home larger rabbits.

When we went to bed that night, nobody had called to claim the Chihuahuas and they were quietly sleeping in our utility room.

The situation reminded me of how an abandoned dog had once played a major role in shaping my life. Back in 1983 I had just quit my job as a copy editor at The Pueblo Chieftain to start a newspaper in Frisco with Miles F. Porter IV and then- girlfriend Mary Staby. Miles and Mary already owned a weekly newspaper in Copper Mountain and the plan was that we would be partners in the new venture and I would live in the basement of their home in Frisco while we got the paper started. Miles and I had previously worked together at the Northwest Daily Press in Craig and The Colorado Statesman in Denver.

I gave notice at the Chieftain and started moving my belongings to Frisco on my days off. I remember arriving once that May with my ice- shrouded aluminum canoe atop my Landcruiser after a snowy drive over Hoosier Pass.

LIFE WAS EXCITING. During my visits, Miles, Mary and I ate dinners out at nice restaurants and partied in the local bars. We prepared to start the newspaper and took breaks to go running. We drank strong coffee. One morning for breakfast I caught a limit of spawning rainbow trout out of Ten Mile Creek just across the street from the house where I would have lived.

Had I not found the dog.

I was on my way back to Pueblo for another load of stuff and a few final days of work at the Chieftain. On Highway 9 near Guffey I spotted a black and white dog sitting along the road atop a hill. I couldn’t just leave him out there. I stopped my Landcruiser and got out. He ran a short ways away, but when I opened the back of the vehicle he trotted forward and jumped in.

I stopped at the Royal Gorge to see if anyone had reported a missing dog but nobody had. The blue- eyed dog, probably a Border Collie or Australian shepherd, came with me to work at the Chieftain that night and I wondered what to do. I decided to do some more checking around on my next trip to Frisco.

I stopped again at Royal Gorge and also in Guffey on the return trip, certain that I would find the owner of this nice dog. I looked on fence posts for lost- dog signs. And I arrived in Frisco with the dog, who jumped out the front door of the Landcruiser before I could even explain.

“No dogs,” Miles barked immediately in his trademark staccato manner of speech. Though I had absolutely no intention of keeping the dog, this stark proclamation grated on me and spoke volumes of potential strife in my immediate future. This wasn’t about the dog at all. Let’s just say there was something in the tone of Miles’ voice that told me our partnership would not exactly be a democracy.

I went inside my new home, picked up the phone and called Barclay Jameson, then the Chieftain’s managing editor. He said he had not filled my position and that, sure, I could come back to work there if I wanted. I struggled with the decision for the rest of the day.

IN RETROSPECT perhaps I was even more hard- headed than Miles. I moved all my stuff back to Pueblo and ended up keeping the dog and naming him “Frisco” in honor of the entire adventure. Miles and Mary married, and were successful with The Ten Mile Times, eventually selling the paper for what I would guess was a decent profit, and along the way winning a benchmark Colorado Supreme Court case over legal advertising. We’ve remained on friendly terms over the years and I often wonder what would have happened had I not found this dog along the road.

Frisco turned out to be a man’s best friend, though I suppose it could be reasoned that he may have cost me a small fortune in missed opportunity. Sadly, he died of canine leukemia in 1990.

As for the Chihuahuas, nobody ever claimed them. Had they been Australian shepherds or some hardier breed they may have found a permanent home here, but we knew little dogs like this would not cut it on our place, and with our lifestyle. Besides, I still had serious questions about our cat and their safety.

We kept them another night and made some more calls, eventually speaking with the folks at the Cañon City Animal Shelter. They encouraged us to bring them in, noting that they had a waiting list of potential adopters for small dogs. They said Chihuahuas were very popular and that they would find new homes in no time.

While Mary drove the Chihuahuas to Cañon, yet a third Chihuahua, a long- haired version, was found in the same vicinity and picked up by a friend of the Westcliffe dog- rescue volunteer.

We hope all three of the little critters found a nice home, and I wonder if these dogs will have any profound effects on the lives of their new people. Meanwhile, I suppose the mystery of what sort of person left them along a road in the middle of nowhere, and why, will remain unexplained.

Hal Walter maintains a menagery on 35 acres in the Sierra Mojada of Custer County.