As I drove north on Highway 101, the old sound of the ocean beckoned me to take Ray to the beach a final time before putting him down.
I carried my dog out to the sand. He stood awkwardly for a few seconds and then eased his way down. He sniffed the air a bit, barely wagged his tail, and looked very, very tired. I walked over to a nearby piece of driftwood and pulled a camera from my pea coat pocket.
On January 8, 2010 I euthanized the best friend I’ve ever had—Ray, my old shepherd mutt—an emaciated stray found roaming Highway 101 by a teaching colleague in 1998.
Nineteen ninety eight also marked the year I began writing after so many years of procrastination. Before Ray entered my life, I wanted to become a writer but had no literary voice, no passionate subject, and no idea what it would take to execute a writing life.
Ray, named after Raymond Carver, led me to all these things, and I suspect stories of dogs helping out writers in one way or another are legion. Some of them even became bestsellers and popular movies.
In our 12 years together, Ray virtually never left my side. We traveled the Alaska Highway, Canada, Lewis and Clark and Oregon Trails, Redwoods, Wallowas, Olympic Peninsula, High Desert, Cascades, Columbia Gorge, and the Oregon Coast. I like to think we set some kind of record by visiting every city, county, state and federal beach park on the Oregon Coast.
Nestucca Spit in Bob Straub State Park was our favorite beach; we rambled it over a thousand times during my ten-year residency as caretaker of the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge near Pacific City. We must have walked a thousand miles together on the spit, refuge and local Coast Range clearcuts and saw bears, deer, elk, bobcats, coyotes, seals, sea lions, spawning salmon, eccentric humans and even a cougar.
When I reflect upon on all that I’ve written since 1998, Ray appears as a sidekick about 70 percent of the time, including serving as an important character in my last three non fiction books. There would be no Nestucca Spit Press without him.
For many writers, writing begins with conversations, ones you have with others, ones aloud with yourself, ones you overhear, and ones with documents and ancient texts.
My conversations began with Ray during our explorations of Oregon. They were not with the dog but they only happened in his presence. Without Ray, I would have never discovered my love for Oregon, its unique conservation legacy. I would have never held conversations about what Oregon meant to me, which I believe created a unique writing style that captures this feeling. My dog got me up in the morning with his staccato grunts and out into my small corner of the world. That got me talking.
It took a minute to frame the shot and then I pressed the self timer on my old Canon. Ten seconds later, the camera photographed Ray and me, on the beach for the last time. An hour later, after receiving an injection at the veterinarian’s, he gave me a final look as I held him. He was neither scared nor confused. I began a conversation with him.
He was gone and instantly, my mind went to my favorite sentence John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, the greatest dog book in American literature: “I wonder why we think the thoughts and emotions of animals are simple?”