A story of unconditional love & remembrance on the trail
By Andreas A. Keller
Hiking on the trail with George Watton, a Boots ‘n Beer member, taught me three great habits.
First, he greeted every hiker with a cheerful greeting: “It’s a beautiful day for hiking!” That was his way to strike up a conversation with anyone on the trail, and, being a master conversationalist, he found instant commonalities. For me, it often meant a quick break to catch my breath.
Second, in his backpack he carried an endless supply of small Snickers bars that he generously shared with other hikers who may have needed a sugar boost before tackling the next uphill stretch. My backpacking food stash usually has not only the big Snickers bars to turbo charge me on longer hikes, but also small ones for sharing along the way.
Third, stashed in George’s pockets were plenty of dog treats. About every mile he dispensed one of these tasty chews to our two hiking companions, Moxie and Boots. When asked why he was spoiling the dogs, George had a straightforward answer: “I like it and they love it.”
If anyone had a special relationship with dogs, it was George. He fell in love with my young and cuddly Bernese mountain dog, Lady Boots, and even carried her on occasion when she tired on the trail. After George asked his handicapped friend to allow him to take his young boxer, Moxie, on the hiking trails, he had two dogs at his side. He would often race back and forth with them, losing against the powerful Moxie and winning over Boots, who would stop and watch before picking up a stick to lure Moxie back to play. Both dogs loved George. To me, he was a dog whisperer.
What Does A Dog Understand?
On the last day of the year two years ago, as part of the Boots ‘n Beer hiking club, four hikers and two dogs were climbing the Buck Hollow trail in the Shenandoah National Park. Buck Hollow is a strenuous hike, and only George could hike uphill while entertaining us with stories and news or offering up some marching songs. It was no different on this hike until after we reached the Skyland Drive, where we rested as George handed out his signature trail food for the hikers and dogs. Afterwards he led Moxie and Boots across Skyland Drive. They ran ahead up the trail towards Mary’s Rock as we followed.
A couple of minutes into the climb (towards Mary’s Rock) I heard hiking buddy, John Hagarty, asking, “George, are you okay?” I turned and noticed George sinking to his knees with his hands clasped to his chest.
Commands were flying to get nitroglycerin out of the backpack, arrange for help from the nearest ranger station, and secure Moxie while I started CPR. There was no need to secure Moxie. He sat beside Boots a short distance away on the side of the trail. Both watched intently and quietly.
It must have been about 15 or 20 minutes later when Moxie and Boots got up together and slowly moved towards George. They both lay down, one on each side of George’s shoulders, paws outstretched. Then they lowered their heads to the ground between their paws. I looked with incredulity, and disbelief, into their sad brown eyes until I understood what they were telling me. Further CPR would be in vain.
Two years later, a dog remembers his friend
George Wotton was our good friend who infused Boots ’n Beer with his uplifting spirit and charm, his songs, friendship, and camaraderie. He left us all with his motivating encouragement: “Hiking is the best thing I have ever done for myself!”
Every year on the last day of the year, Boots ’n Beer pays a grand salute to this wonderful man by hiking his last trail on the anniversary of his last day. This year, with 20 hikers stretched over the Buck Hollow trail, we all waited for each other before crossing Skyland Drive. In George’s memory, his granddaughter handed out small Snickers bars before we headed up to Mary’s Rock.
With Lady Boots in the lead, George’s grandchildren and I walked silently uphill when Boots, with her nose to the ground, moved off the trail and then stopped and sniffed. I realized where she was, exactly at the place she and Moxie were sitting and watching me two years ago. Still with her nose to the ground, she moved towards the trail, walked a circle, and then lay down in the middle of it.
I felt a strong warmth arise within me as Lady Boots lay in the same spot where George had left us. Her asking eyes looked at me for what seemed like a long time until I asked, “Are you missing George?” and comforted her with, “I am missing him too. We all do.”
When I began hiking uphill again she took her regular hiking place right behind me, and I felt her nuzzling my hand. On top of Mary’s Rock, Boots found a mother with two children and enjoyed being petted. The family was from Pennsylvania and wanted to know all about Bernese mountain dogs, as they were thinking of bringing a dog into their family. I am sure Boots made a good impression.
Heading back down the trail, Boots trotted ahead. When she came to George’s place, she sat down in the middle of the trail and stared up the embankment, looking towards the graying sky. As I stopped and waited, the mother with her two children caught up with me and asked, “What’s Boots seeing? Is it a bear?”
“No, bears are hibernating,” I replied. “Boots is remembering my hiking buddy, who was very special to her. He died on the trail two years ago, right where she sits.” The mother made the sign of the cross and said, “Thank you for sharing. I will say a prayer for your friend,” and moved on with her children.
Touched by the generosity of a fellow hiker, I stayed a moment longer and watched Boots looking up to heaven. A dog remembers!