Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #158, published in August 2011. Words by Landon and Mary Monholland. Illustrations by Ashely Swidowski.
I give two excited dogs a whistle. I mimic the whistle of The General Lee from the “Dukes of Hazard”—ya know, the first 12 notes of “Dixie.” That’s the whistle I use to let the dogs know we are going on a bike ride. Gus knows the sound well, and he knows the whistle means the start of great adventure and a chance for him to “do his job.” Dinka, our little Terrier mutt, is still learning, having only been with us for a few months. She follows Gus’s lead and bounds for the door. Gus’s tailless butt wags, causing his whole body to wiggle. “Up up,” I say. I Position myself to help him into the truck, but to my surprise he leaps in without my assistance.
Other than a little more white fur around his muzzle and on his belly, Gus is the picture of a perfect cattle dog, even at 14 years old. Just a year ago, he was still accompanying us twice a week on 10-mile bike rides. A few years before that—and already considered a senior dog—he ran a 30-miler!
Gus was raised in Moab, Utah and now lives in Fruita, Colorado—two mountain bike Meccas chocked full of the best trails in the world. Gus’s resume reads like a mountain bikers’ bucket list. Besides Moab and Fruita he’s ridden: Durango, Sedona, Flagstaff, Crested Butte, the Monarch Crest, Gooseberry, Tahoe, Downieville, the list goes on. He’s run more famous trails with us than probably any dog alive. Of course, Gus isn’t uppity about his accomplishments. He’s just one of those core mountain bike dogs, running for the love of it, and because he considers it his job to stick on his human’s wheels. He’ll move over, if you’re fast enough, but you gotta earn your spot. Dab your foot on a techy downhill and you’ll lose your position. Very few are faster than Gus on pure technical singletrack.
Gus found my wife, Mary, 14 years ago. He was a bundle of fur with ears disproportionately large for his tiny body. She was a teenager working at Moab Cyclery. It was late May, really hot, and poor Gus was near to overheating. She took him home and pleaded with her parents. They relented and Gus’s good life began.
Seven years later I came around, chasing bike dreams and trying to woo the affections of Moab’s most accomplished female rider. I seemed to be doing OK at impressing the girl, throwing myself off of big drops and riding recklessly for her amusement, but her dog didn’t seem to give a hoot about me. His devotion was only to her, unwavering and single-minded. I was amazed at his strength and speed on rides. It was never a question whether Gus would go with us or not. He was always there.
The scene in Moab in the early 2000s was all about hucking. Josh Bender posters hung on bike shop walls, and we looked forward to the first Red Bull Rampage. We roamed the canyons looking for bigger and bigger drops. It wasn’t long before my youth came to an abrupt halt. I found myself with a broken back—not paralyzed, but damn close. Our newlywed year was full of doctor visits and the uncertainty of whether I would ride again. It was during this dark time, while Mary worked to pay the bills, that Gus and I developed our friendship. We spent those winter days together, walking though empty canyons. One day, Gus made a rare slip, 50 feet above the canyon floor. He was hanging by his claws when I caught his collar and heaved him up. It was on that day that he finally accepted me as his pack leader. From that point on, Gus’s single-minded devotion was focused on two people.
It’s hard to believe 14 years have passed since Gus found Mary. As we start the truck and head for the trails, I notice Gus’s cloudy eyes. They lack the spark and sense of passion that had always been there. Arriving at the trailhead it’s nice to see that most of the snow has melted. Dinka is beside herself with excitement. Gus, despite the large protruding bulge in his belly, his labored breathing and the crushing pain, seems as ready as ever. I’m committed to riding in my granny ring if needed, to make sure Gus can keep up. Lately, it has been hard for him. It causes him stress if he feels like he’s letting me down. On this day I want him to know that he’s doing a good job and that we are proud of him. As we ascend the trail Gus passes me to catch up with Dinka and Mary. So much for the granny ring! We speed up and Gus gets that spring back in his step. He’s in his element, carving sweet singletrack, glued to the rear wheels of his favorite pack of humans.
We stop at the top of the climb and to take some family pictures with the Grand Valley below us. Gus is smiling, Dinka is wiggling and sniffing around, off leash—the way dogs are meant to be. I praise both dogs and rub Gus’s big ears. He looks up at me with all the devotion a person could ever hope for. He leans into his mom’s leg and gives her the same look he gave her 14 years ago when he fell in love with her on that blazing hot spring day.
It’s time to head back down. A mile-long descent is before us, one of the best in the Fruita area. I know I should take it easy, but Gus is having none of it. Mary yells at me to hold back, but we don’t. We run, we swoop, we shred the turns, we huck off small ledges together. Back at the truck, he’s worked but happy, which is what we wanted on this day.
For that one mile all was fine, my little mob was out for a ripp and I could almost forget that this is Gus’s last ride. Gus has pancreatitis, a very painful disease that makes his body unable to digest food properly. It’s his second bout with it and this time there is nothing the vet can do. “It’s very, very painful,” Dr. Nancy says. “It will kill him slowly.” We didn’t want him to suffer just because we didn’t want to lose him, so we set up an appointment with the vet. While waiting for the appointed time, we were moping around, bursting into tears every few minutes. This was causing Gus to be visibly stressed. He seemed to be in a lot of pain, not so much because his pancreas was bulging within his belly, but because his people were hurting. I knew Gus was wondering if he had done something wrong. “Is it my fault, what have I done?” We pulled ourselves together and asked “what would Gus want on his last day on earth?” The answer was clear: he would want to go for a bike ride, and that’s what we did.
Later that day Gus slipped from this world peacefully, in our arms, surrounded by as much love as we could give him. It’s been said that a dog is the only animal that loves its master more than it loves itself. There is no finer example of selflessness than Gustifson H. Blakfur. If more humans were like dogs, the world would be a much finer place indeed. Gus, you did a damn good job, your whole life. You protected, you loved, you gave us joy and laughter that cannot be measured. We love you and we always will. Thank You.
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