The Last Ride

By author of Brow Tines and Backstrap

The Story of a Dog Named Copper

Copper in his prime. (Chantal Honeycutt photo)

The hot summer sun beat down as we climbed into Dad’s old pickup. Like most, that Saturday called for the short drive over to Nana and Pappa’s house. The 2-mile trek was one I’d made many times. The asphalt on that back-country road was well-acquainted with my bike tires. But that day, I was riding with Dad.

About halfway there, an old raggedy cooler on the side of the road caught my eye. It was red. The lid was white. It was closed and sat on the roadside just behind the elementary school I attended as a child.

Most times, you wouldn’t think twice about trash on the road. But something in my 13-year-old mind triggered and it went into overdrive as we drove past. I looked over at Dad and asked him if we could turn around and see what was in the cooler. He agreed, and we whipped it around right there in the middle of the road and drove back.

We climbed out of the truck and slowly walked up to the cooler. A flip of the lid revealed two small pups panting in the summer heat. One a cream-colored, short-haired runt with copper ears. The other a chocolate-brown, long-haired ball of fur. I immediately locked eyes with the copper-colored sprite. And that was that.

We found another home for the long-haired pup, but the little guy was ours. We named him Copper. And the next 13 years past by before I knew they were gone.

How could you not take an abandoned pup like this home? (Chantal Honeycutt photo)

A lot happened during that time. Mostly life. But Copper was always there. I grew up with him. He wasn’t a hunting dog. Just a buddy. But a dang good one. One of the best.

The honeysuckle patch on the hillside. That was his go-to late-afternoon hangout as a pup and on into his later years. Of course, I’d go sit with him. That was our spot. That is, when he wasn’t in the back of the truck. Copper loved truck rides more than any other dog I’ve ever seen. He was happiest with his ears flapping and tongue hanging out over the railing on the truck bed. We went on a lot of those rides.

Most of those rides ended up at my great grandfather’s farm a few miles down the road. I grew up hunting there. And Copper and I took many walks along the creek bottom, looking for sheds and embarking on other adventures. I think it was his second favorite place.

But, as I grew up, those truck rides became less frequent. I moved away, went to college, and moved to South Carolina to go to work for the National Wild Turkey Federation. Copper remained at my childhood home with my parents. It wasn’t just my home. It was his, too. I couldn’t take him away from all that he’d known — including my family — his family. And even though it was the right thing, I felt as if I’d somehow abandoned him.

And so, the truck rides declined some more.

I eventually moved back home when Realtree offered me a job as the associate editor and deer hunting editor of Realtree.com. I eagerly accepted for many reasons, but I’d be lying if I said seeing my family — and Copper — wasn’t one of them.

We had several good years after that. Some of the best. Truly good times. But, months passed, and Copper and I got older. Time got to him quicker than it did me. We occasionally went on truck rides when I visited my family, and we drove the same roads we always did — a left out of the driveway. Then a right. Another right. A left. All to get to the big, long creek bottom he and I loved so much.

We took other routes, of course. His least favorite of which was to the vet. He had a true hatred for that place — not because they did him wrong. They were always great with him. He just hated going to the doctor. And I can’t say that I ever blamed him. Ironic enough, he could tell when we were going, and those were the only times he ever refused to get in the truck.

To say this dog loved truck rides is an extreme understatement. (Josh Honeycutt photo)

Last year was a rough one for Copper and company. Cancer entered the picture and it wasn’t long before it’d spread. He went downhill fast and we struggled with what to do. We took him on truck rides as often as we could. But they became harder and harder on him.

You could tell he still wanted to go, though. As an old man, he’d wobble over to the truck and lay down at the tailgate. We knew what that meant. So, we’d either pick him up and lay him on a bed of blankets in the truck bed, or we’d back up to the hillside and let him walk along a ramp himself. I knew Copper was a somewhat proud dog. He never told me that, of course, but I could sense it. Just as he could sense things with me.

As the weeks and months went on, he started showing more advanced symptoms of true illness. We struggled with what to do. We’d ask ourselves that gut-wrenching question — is he ready to go? Couldn’t ask the poor mutt, obviously. But we could tell he was too stubborn to let go just yet. So, we kept going on truck rides.

It wasn’t but a short time later that it finally became clear that Copper was ready to leave this place. He couldn’t walk. He wouldn’t eat. Wasn’t able to relieve himself. No light in his eyes. The life had left him. He was a shell of what he used to be. Just a sick dog. But our sick dog.

The morning we finally made the decision to do what no one ever wants to do was one of the toughest moments of our lives. We made the call to the vet. They were coming the next day.

We spent most of the day with Copper. Rubbing him. Petting him. Feeding him all the good stuff he loved to eat. And then, we went on one last truck ride.

I backed my truck up to the hillside so he could climb in. In his old age, I’d pack and place him into the truck, just as I’d packed him home when we welcomed him into the family. But, this time, instead of packing him, I used the ramp so he could walk into the truck. I wanted him to have that one last small victory. Allowing him to enjoy what he loved most and keep his dignity while doing it. That might sound insignificant to some. But it was important to me. It was important to Copper.

Copper's last ride. (Chantal Honeycutt photo)We piled a mound of blankets in the bed of the truck and made him a soft, cushiony place to sit. And then we pulled out. We went slow this last time so as to not jar his brittle bones. Blinkers on, easing down the road, we started along that path he knew all too well.

We passed by the volunteer fire department. Then the elementary school. Then where we found Copper as a pup. We finally turned onto his favorite road — where the creek bottom was.

Looking in the rear-view mirror, we could see his ears flapping in the wind and his nose laid up on the railing. We finally drove down the creek bluff hill, crossed the bridge and eased into the barn lot where I’d dropped the tailgate so many times and let him run.

This time, we just dropped the tailgate. My hand on his chest, his heartrate skyrocketed as the tailgate fell — no doubt thinking of all the times he’d leaped out of the truck in an effort to get to the bubbling water. After a few minutes, I guess he’d had enough excitement for his old body and quickly calmed down — probably realizing this trip there would be no running. There would be no swimming. There would be no adventure.

The family setting in the truck bed around him, we all sat in silence and stared off into the bottom. No one broke it. No one dared interrupt whatever happy thoughts that fluttered in Copper’s mind as he scanned back and forth.

Then, he laid his head down. And we went back home.

Waiting for the veterinarian to get to our place was an agonizing time. It felt like hours. It was only minutes.

We continued to sit around Copper as we waited. I think he knew what was happening. And I think he was okay with it.

But then, the old fella stood up, shook for a moment, and slowly began walking toward the truck. One step at a time, he walked past the truck. Laid down behind the tailgate. And looked up at us. I dropped the tailgate, but instead of wagging his tail, he dropped his head instead. I think it was his way of telling us it was time to go. It was his way of telling us that he’d been on his last ride . . .

There's something to be said for a man, his dog, and a truck ride. I couldn't help but take a ride the other day and ride the roads that Copper and I learned together. (Josh Honeycutt)

To say that I shed a tear for that dog would be the truth. And, whether a good thing or bad, I was saddened more by the loss of my buddy than most funerals I’ve been to. Call it terrible of me. Call it a testament to the loyalty and value of a good dog. Nonetheless, it is what it is. And I’m not sorry for it.

It’s never easy losing a pet. Never has been. Never will be. It doesn’t matter what type of pet they are. Duck dog. Bird dog. Shed dog. Squirrel dog. Cattle dog. Or, just a companion. They’re all family. And they’re all part of our lives. It’s a sad thing that they age so much quicker than ourselves. We know there will be a last ride with each one of them. But that never stops us from bringing home that new puppy. It never stops us from establishing that new friendship. It never stops us from seeking that special bond between man and man’s best friend.

We’ll all have a last ride. It’s interesting how Copper’s life, and death — what most who never met him would deem an insignificant thing — reminded me how brief and fragile life is. We all have a higher purpose. A purpose to serve others. And I’m thankful that Copper’s was to serve, and love, our family.

Several months have passed since then. The other day, I drove back by where we found Copper. I stopped right there in the middle of the road and looked at the spot where the cooler sat. Where that bright-eyed, copper-eared pup panted in the hot summer sun. Where someone else’s egregious act became one my life’s biggest blessings.

As I hit the gas and continued on, I looked back in my rear-view mirror at where we found him. And while he’s a part of our past now, he’ll never be forgotten.

And I’ll never forget our last ride.

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