In late January 2015, we rushed Copper to a late-night emergency veterinary hospital due to his inability to lie down and apparent pain. They drained a quantity of clear fluid from his belly, where it had been putting pressure on his lungs. They directed us to go to the UGA Small Animal Teaching Hospital, which we did the following morning. It didn’t take them very long to diagnose him. His pericardium had inflated like a balloon, putting so much pressure on his heart that it could not pump effectively, leading to the symptoms we’d seen the previous night. They drained a soda can’s worth of blood from his pericardium, after which they could spot the evidence of a tumor on his right auricle. A hemangiosarcoma, common cause of illness in older large breeds, especially Goldens. They said there were probably tumors throughout his body. He received some medicine intended to prevent his bleeding into his pericardium, which allowed him to go another six weeks filled with walks and extra food and lots of photos (many of which have been lost to hardware failures) before the symptoms recurred, coming on as suddenly as before. On March 11th, 2015, after a long sleepless night of pain for Copper, we took him to the vet and had him put to sleep. It was hard to see him go, lying there on the floor as we held his paw, but it was still far better than seeing him suffer in silence, as we had all morning.
But I write this not to speak of a death, but a life. I have already written of the most significant portion of that life here on this very blog, and that portion of the story will be preserved for a long time in the book we worked half of last year to have printed with all the stories and pictures from our trail journey, and in another book that I will describe at the end of this post. So, here, in his memory, I will try to relay any other stories I can recall about him and whatever facts I can recall about what he was like.
There’s not much we can say for sure about his first three years of life, but much can be inferred. We don’t know who weaned him or trained him, but they certainly worked hard at it, for he was perfectly obedient when he came to us. We don’t know how they lost him, but we tried our best to find them, so we guess they must have lived far from where we found him or else set him loose on purpose. We don’t even know that he was certainly three years old; that was just the vet’s best guess.
For some time he ran the woods near our lake house with the neighborhood dogs Harley, Miles, and a stray beagle we called Buddy. He was skittish and avoided my dad when he called, but he came right over when my mom called. From this, we guessed that he either had bad experiences with men or good experiences with women, but it may have just been luck. He was fully grown and muscular, but thin as a rail, practically starving. Possibly he lived on whatever he could catch and whatever food had been left out for weeks. With some coaxing, my parents brought him into the lake house and fed him. The first I’d heard of him was from a call from my dad while I was at Georgia Tech in 2005. He described the dog to me, noting that he could not wrap his thumb and forefinger completely around his front leg. He also noted that he would not eat or enter the house unless explicitly asked, and this I later witnessed. In other words, don’t ask me how to teach a dog to hike with you; Copper was already the perfect trail dog right from the day we first met. Anyway, I didn’t think too much of this occurrence at the time. I was busy and figured that the dog belonged to someone living nearby or that at least we would find the owner. Goldens are a valuable breed after all.
Well, they brought him home from the lake, to keep until his owners spotted him on one of the many advertisements they put out online, and when no one turned up, he just kind of fell into a new life with us.
I liked him, of course, but I didn’t fall in love with him right off the bat. I was usually at school and he was usually at home. Occasionally, I would come home and take him for a walk, but always on a leash. Despite his usual perfect obedience, he was still very energetic when young. He could keep up with the other dogs and enjoyed running with them, even if he didn’t always know why they were running. He was just being social.
He had his flaws, of course, even discounting the massive amounts of shedding. He was absolutely terrified of thunderstorms and gunfire. Once we took him on a trip to South Georgia to an event where some of my relatives fired two different Civil War-era artillery pieces, and even though we left him in the back of the car parked a thousand yards down the road, we came back to find him cowering underneath the steering column, in a smaller space than we believed he could fit. Many stormy nights I’ve spent dragging him into bed with me and pinning him down to stop him pacing back and forth or scratching on doors. You’ll recall the way he tore up the floor of my hammock bug net one stormy night in Vermont. Once we left him in the house alone on a stormy night and came back to find the dining room door broken open and a several hundred pound bookshelf pulled several feet away from the wall. With fear comes incredible strength apparently.
But when he was young, occasionally he would act out from joy rather than fear. Once, I took him to the park for a long walk and kept him on a leash the whole time and he was perfect the whole time until we returned to the van to go him. I opened the hatch for him, then unlatched the leash to give him freedom to jump in, but instead, he immediately bolted and ran a thousand years to jump up on a woman walking with her kids. She wasn’t the type of woman to enjoy the affections of an energetic dog and berated me roundly for allowing it to happen. I thought for a moment I was going to get sued over it. Copper didn’t get any affection from me that evening.
In his later years, it was exactly this youthful exuberance that he found most annoying in other dogs. One summer, he stayed with me for a few days in a house my then-girlfriend was sharing with two others, one of whom had adopted a pug puppy. That puppy wanted nothing more than to play with Copper, and Copper wanted nothing less. He’d lie down for a nap, and that puppy would come and pounce on him, and he’d just get up and move to another room. Just last year, he was being repeatedly harassed by my sister’s boyfriend’s dog until he got so fed up with it, he fought back, tearing a chunk out of the other dog’s ear. I don’t know if he taught a lesson that day, but I know that he got the larger portion of the apartment to himself the rest of the weekend.
I sometimes reckon that Copper would have led quite a sheltered life if it weren’t for the outings I took him on—especially, of course, the one incredible journey he took as described in this blog. I expect he would have taken quite well to domestic life. After all, one of his favorite activities was to lie on the cool tile floor behind the kitchen table, letting the air from the nearby vent waft over him. When called from this station, he would take his time standing up and getting moving, even if it was for supper or a walk that he was being called. It wasn’t for no reason that he lost some twenty pounds on our long hike. His chill attitude had left him with some extra pounds to lose.
Yet, whenever he made the two-hour car ride to the lake, he was always eager to jump out of the vehicle in a puff of flying fur and run straight to the lake to wade into the lake. It was his real happy place. It was where we found him after all. And that is why, in the summer of 2015, as soon as the weather was warm enough to put the pontoon in the water, we took his cremated remains to the lakeshore and scattered them into the shallows, then carried the remainder to the channel and poured them in from the bow of the boat where he always stood on our boat trips.
Now, two years later, all we have left of him is our memories, the photos, videos, and the fine layer of fur still coating most of the upholstered surfaces inside our vehicles—that stuff is impossible to remove. So, let’s take a moment to raise a mental toast to a dog beloved of every person he met, the world’s worst guard dog, the best friend of all mankind. Everyone deserves to have his last words recorded, but Copper’s end was to fall asleep slowly and peacefully, on the vet’s floor by my said, holding my hand. The last thoughts he had to record were ones of pain, so it was for the best that he could have such peace in the end. Nonetheless, I’ll let him have the final words here, as recorded on his last night on Earth. He did not sleep that night because of the pain, but that’s not what he wanted to say at that final hour:
As best as I can tell, he said “Thanks for the ride, friend.”
If you have any special memories of Copper, please leave a comment.
It was our intention—mine and my mom’s—that Copper’s memory should survive his brief lifespan by quite a bit. One day in 2015, she told me, “I’m going to write a children’s book about Copper’s Appalachian Trail journey, based on your blog. I’m going to need a lot of help from you to make it correct.”
And we did it. She wrote it, and I edited every draft of it. It took a year and a half of writing before she published it. Here it is:
It is a heavily abridged account of Copper’s trip on the Appalachian Trail as told from his perspective. It’s a tale of adversity, friendship, and growth, and I must admit, if you’ve read this blog, you will readily notice that it is heavily fictionalized. Yet, all of the events that transpire in the story are inspired by real life events. So many families have already read the first printing of this book, and kids absolutely eat it up, but adults have given it quite good reviews as well. I especially love the incomparable cartoon illustrations by family friend Nathaniel Hinton:
If you have read this book and enjoyed, please let me know in the comments.