Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Into the Woods, A Tribute

By Cherie Newton

One of the excursions students in the classes on our California campus participate in is a trip to Muir Woods National Monument. It's always a highlight of their training. Alumna Cherie Newton wrote the following tribute after her experience at Muir Woods when she was training with her current guide, Kim. She is pictured with Kim's puppy raisers at graduation.

Cherie, Kim, and Kim's puppy raisers
The morning is sunny, clear and bright. There is a light crisp breeze that whispers of a crystal fresh day, perfect for our pending venture. The last to leave, I stand in the doorway to our now vacant, eerily silent lounge. After a short pause I pick up the handle to my Guide Dog’s harness and give her the Foreword command. Obediently she starts out and I can feel her every move through our physical link. We break out into the sun’s welcome golden warmth, weaving confidently and effortlessly as one through the ever-changing, ever-present obstacle course.

At one point my partner stops and I reach out to see what she is trying to show me. A traffic cone, so intensely orange that I imagine that I can feel its vibrant color, has been intentionally placed in our path. “Good girl!” I praise as I scratch her velvety pointed Shepherd ears. The sun has seeped into her dense sable coat and my fingers momentarily luxuriate in the feel of silky sun-drenched fur. I heel her through the narrow gap and once on the other side, we confidently resume our route.

The sidewalk we’re walking along curves lightly to the right as it slopes slightly upwards. Predictably my guide comes to a halt on the level. From previous experiences, I know that we have come to the infamous overhead clearance obstacle; the final hurtle our sadistically imaginative instructors have devised to test us. Just beyond waits the bus that will take us on to our last adventure as a class.

In the bus, we glide seemingly effortlessly along the sinuous black ribbon of asphalt that winds, dips, rises and flows over the rolling landscape. I suspect that the instructor at the wheel is mightily amused as he accelerates up each hill and then lets the vehicle’s momentum drop it dramatically over the crest, plunging into the sloping terrain. The thrill-seeker in me rewards him with whoops of laughter. My guide snoozes contentedly at my feet as she swishes back and forth to the rhythm of the swaying bus despite my best efforts to anchor her with my feet. It’s very clear that this big gentle dog and I were meant to be together. While we were destined to share hundreds of bus and rail rides, nothing would ever quite live up to this current free-wheeling adventure.

Once we arrive at our destination, we all set off along wide, smoothly paved trails through the towering redwoods. The very atmosphere seems to change as we move into the shadows pierced here and there by brilliant streaming bands of sunlight. No one feels it yet, but those of us who have been there before know that the subtle but powerful magic will strike when we are least expecting it.

The dogs are up and energized. They somehow know that they are on a light-duty holiday devoid of curbs, traffic lights and city streets teeming with moving vehicles. They feel their handlers’ buoyant playful spirits and revel in the pure joy of being. Both canine paws and human feet are light, fleet and carefree. The race is on to see who can out power-walk who. The field spreads out as brightly colored laughter rings through the ancient wood.

Somewhere near the middle of the pack I walk in easy harmony with my guide. Her pull is strong and sure and her concentration is complete. Our bond strengthens as our awareness of each other sharpens. I feel her jaunty pace as we coordinate our strides. We slip along, listening to the laughing banter of those around us. We are one with the group, but we are also free, apart in our own little universe.

Ahead, the faint chuckling and gurgling of water slowly seeps into our dawning awareness. We round a bend and its music surges then quickly fades into a faint teasing rippling murmur that follows us, challenging us to seek its source.

The path levels out as furry paws and sneaker-clad feet leave the concrete to thump a hollow tattoo on the weathered boards of a bridge spanning the sparkling crystal stream; the vibrant beating heart of this majestic forest.

One of the instructors accompanying us calls a halt. Obediently we all stop and line up against the time-worn wooden rails of the bridge. Even our guides sit or lay down without encouragement.

“A moment of silent reverence please,” our leader requests. No one stirs; everyone is perfectly still as ancient forces work their timeless magic on human and canine alike. Modern civilization, with all of its hustle, bustle, noise and stress fades immeasurable light years far away for a few all too short very special moments.

I open my senses and all earthly thoughts that constantly careen through my head vanish, whisked away on the rushing waters rolling below. The wind whispers gently in the lofty tops of the mighty redwoods. This place, like no other on this precious sparkling blue jewel we call Earth, makes me realize how much nature and her powerful forces have to offer if only we would open ourselves up more often to receive her magically elusive gifts.

I reach down to caress my guide’s proud regal head. I feel the erectness of her large pointed ears as they alertly listen, swiveling to catch even the slightest sound. At my touch she tilts her loving dark almond-eyes up to mine before pressing her head comfortingly against my thigh. Her bushy tail thumps once-twice-thrice on the weathered warn boards beneath our feet. I stroke her thick soft fur. I feel our bond strengthen, as I know she does, and our earlier training difficulties recede into the distant murky past. Silently I send up thanks for this magnificent loving and loyal companion that Guide Dogs has so carefully partnered me with. Our pairing is a perfect match for my life now, as was the first match with my retired, beloved German Shepherd, Robey, eight and a half years earlier.

A quiet word brings us back to reality. We turn back the way we came and start our trek back. Gone is the bright exuberant laughter and hurried pace. In its place there is calm serenity, peaceful coexistence and reverent appreciation. With a reluctance I cannot explain, I too pick up Kim’s harness handle and give her a hushed foreword command. With quiet ease we move out among the others. Even if I never have the awesome privilege of returning here, I know that a tiny piece of this magical sacred sanctuary will live on deep within my being forever.


  1. This is a very interesting blog and so i like to visit your blog again and again. Keep it up.


  2. mmmmmmm, the Redwoods... If there were to be one specific part of training in San Rafael to be worthy of tribute, this one gets my vote! Having felt that I had lost the ability to get out on the trails after my vision loss took a huge toll on me. While I had been told during my home interview that guides love to go for hikes, I still get tickled at how much my girl seems to love it! While there can be huge challenges on the trail, my guide needs challenge to remain balanced. It seems that she is great at multi-tasking! Hawks, off-leash dogs, gurgling streams, oh my??? Not really, more like OH-YEAH! Also, she seems to love those giant trees as much as I. Everyone should be so lucky as we; able to visit such enchanting woods as those containing these majestic giants whenever the need arises. While there are many things to love about the Pacific coast, for me there is nothing better than a giant forest which ends at the sea!

    Happy trails,

    Seth & Bamboo

  3. I am so grateful for this post. I had to skep Muir Woods when I was there for training recently and I still am sad that I couldn't go. This post was so beautifully written that I feel almost like I experienced it myself. Thank you so much for sharing this! The descriptions were amazing, touching on all five senses and even a few more. I felt time, space and the unknown, right along with every other sense. Bravo!