The campfire looked the same as most other campfires, the familiar rotation of s’mores, smoke, staring at the flames, and stories carrying us deep into the star-soaked night.
These stories were different, though.
The words were coming from veterans of wars that spanned decades. Some of these stories hadn’t been told before, but here, now, there was a climate of safety and trust, created by a few days shared with horses and rivers and silence.
Stories that needed the space to breathe.
Stories that hung in the mountain air, suspended by the million points of shining light above them.
Those stories are still there, floating around that campsite by the river.
And that’s where they will stay.
Like many campfires, this one had a dog laying a few feet from the flames in her own reverie. She kept to herself, and while she wasn’t unfriendly, she wasn’t exactly friendly either. I’d reached for her a couple of times and she’d bristled, a gentle warning that approaching her was on her terms.
So I left her alone, and she left me alone.
A slow lull found us staring at the flames again and someone asked if I’d brought my guitar. I went to my truck and pulled the 1969 Gibson B-25 from her case and made my way back to the campfire, where I sat back down and started telling my own story.
This story was about a dog, a letter I wrote to her the day she died, and a song I’d written about her years before without even knowing it was about her. I hadn’t known she had cancer back then, but she was lying there at my feet as I wrote the words he says the cancer took her sudden, but her spirit keeps her near.
She lasted longer than the doctors said she would. And her spirit does still keep her near.
So I started playing ‘The Table’ for the veterans and for me and for her.
And just before I sang that line in the song, that dog on the opposite side of the fire got up.
She took slow, deliberate steps around the ring of river rocks.
She stopped at my feet.
And she lay down across my boots, where I could feel her heart beating through skin and leather and years, seven years to the day when I wrote a letter to a best friend who had just died.
Eyes around the campfire that had seen the horrors of war and the triumphs of victory and the heartache of loss started to glisten.
They knew what they were seeing.
I closed my own and tried to keep playing and singing, which I think I did. I don’t remember much about those few minutes.
I only remember that heartbeat.
And when I played the last chord, the dog got up and completed the circle back to where she’d been before. She lay down, sighed, and drifted back into her reverie.
And sometimes, those still images etched like photograph moments in my memory send me back into my own.