I teased the book cover last time. I told you how I saw it and wept because it was perfect. I am not expecting you to have the same reaction, but know that this cover is deeply special to me. The model is someone who played a big role in my life and who totally embodied the spirit of HALF WILD.
If we were friends prior to 2016, you know this boy. Maybe you squealed “KODAMAN!” when you saw him on the cover. He was the kind of guy to elicit exuberant, convivial reactions like that. And you would know why he is perfect for the cover of this book. At the very least, he makes sense because dogs are totally half wild. Fluffy little carnivores living with us in the grand tradition of companionship and symbiosis that began in the Upper Paleolithic, they are goofy and fierce, powerful and playful. They have lessons to share, and they dedicate their lives to bodily demonstrating the ridiculousness of joy and open-hearted love.
Let me tell you about Koda.
My brother Dave adopted Koda from the Boulder Humane Society sometime around 2006. They said he was a shepherd lab mix, but those pound-puppy breed assignments are a total crapshoot. I preferred to think of him as half polar bear, half mountain goat.
I was working at an all-natural dog and cat food store downtown. Dave brought this lanky five-month-old into the store, all paws and bright white fur and mismatched eyes, and I thought that is the craziest looking dog I have ever seen in my life. My dad would later joke that he’d been “designed by committee.”
Koda joined Dave’s wolf pack, which already included a majestic Siberian husky named Zeus. Zeus lived up to his namesake in enormity, regal stature, and general greatness. Compared to him Koda was a misfit and a weirdo and I liked him a lot.
More integral to the narrative of the time, however, was that I did not like my brother. Our bad blood was petty, but potent and as the older sibling with a job and a car, he held most of the power. I was just a messy college sophomore with a drug-dealing boyfriend and a penchant for PBR tallboys, and I schemed to offset a bit of that power by stealing his dog. With strategically-placed pocket bacon and lots of walks, it didn’t take long for Koda to figure out I was the kind of human he wanted to hang with. But he was still Dave’s dog.
When Dave got a job offer out of state, he faced a challenge. One big dog was one thing, but two created a situation that many landlords would not tolerate. I came home from class to find the backyard wolf pack one fluffy white weirdo short. Dave had returned my friend to the Humane Society.
I was furious.
I mustered up the impulsive courage to call the pound and ask about him. Maybe if he was still there I could find a way to scrounge up the $97 adoption fee and bring him home. He wasn’t. Some other family had snapped him up right away, obviously.
I wondered what would happen if his new family brought him in to my store. What if they asked me to fit him for a harness or tried to buy lower quality food for him? I fantasized about grabbing him by the scruff and making a run for Mexico as a righteous dog-thieving fugitive, but a few weeks later, the Humane Society called. Koda was back! My sweet, mild-mannered, even-tempered pup had gone to his new home and raised hell. He’d snarled at children, destroyed furniture, acted a fool just enough to be returned, once again, to me. I went and picked him up that night and it was one of the best and most foolish choices I have ever made.
His adoption papers came with a note from the Garden City, KS Humane Society that said, “He loves to be brushed!” I learned later – as my world became coated in white fur – that this was a coded message. It became a ritual to subject him to do-it-yourself dog washes. He stood calmly pouting, patiently waiting for the cow trachea I’d buy him as a treat after the bath. He was a good boy.
Koda became involved in every aspect of my life, including my job at the store. He spent four days a week in dog heaven, surrounded by food, toys, treats, and friends. He got so fat on biscuits from shoppers that we had to put up a sign asking them not to feed the store dog. Still, he sat patiently staring at people at the checkout until the mystical power of his unbroken eye contact compelled their hand to the cookie jar.
I came home from class one night and he was gone. No one had seen him for hours. We had a doggy door and a low fence and he could be anywhere. I assembled multiple squadrons to hunt for the great white runaway and we searched from Chautauqua to Valmont over the course of a few hours to no avail. I went home, deflated and heartbroken, weeping into a beer on the couch. And I heard the doggie door flap open and the padding of gleeful paws across the kitchen linoleum. Koda, the ghost, turned the corner and ran to me like nothing had happened. He licked tears off my cheeks and eagerly sniffed the can of IPA in my hand.
I buried my head in his neck scruff and continued to cry, now in relief. I detected the unmistakeable aromas of keg beer and cigarettes in his fur. I stared at him, puzzled, and he wriggled from my grasp and made a bee line for his water bowl, gulping thirstily for at least a minute. Then the doggy door flapped open again. I leapt from the couch and threw open the door to find him already halfway over the fence. I called his name and he loped back to me, like I’d killed his buzz. He wanted to go back to the party. I confirmed this months later when I brought him to a barbecue at a house known for keggers and a couple of the guys greeted him like an old friend. “Bro, this is that dog that loves Keystone! If you’ve got any foam in your cup, give it to him, he loves it!”
Over the course of my tenure at the University of Colorado, Koda was a staple at classes, parties, and picnics. He spent weekends hiking the ridges of the Flatirons, splashing in the icy glacier runoff of Boulder Creek, loitering at outdoor brunch tables. Together, we road tripped across the country a hundred times. He would curl up in the back of my 4Runner and snooze until we stopped or until I drove over the highway rumble strip just to wake him up.
As I entered the working world, he was my roommate and top priority. Having him dictated where I lived, who I lived with, how long I commuted, how late I could stay out. He was a grounding force in a time when I could have easily lost touch with reality. Coming home to him was always the highlight of my day, and something I talk about a little in my story called Homesick, which made it into the book.
He taught me about responsibility. Caring about him helped me learn how to care about myself. Working at the store instilled a deep respect for the power of nutrition, and I refused to feed him anything other than high quality organic food. Eventually, I was compelled to question my own Taco Bell tendencies, too. He was a furry shoulder to cry on when I felt lonely and miserable after too many nights of drinking, and he would roll over and sigh and let me. We must have walked a thousand miles together.
The spirit of HALF WILD
When it became time to say goodbye after eleven years and eleven months together, I understood the gifts that he gave me by living, and the gift he gave me by leaving. Responsibility and love in life. Freedom and gratitude in death.
I could not deny his pleading, mismatched eyes asking is this it? on the cover of a book that explores that same question. While he’s chasing the big squirrel in the sky, it feels good to honor his legacy with the cover of a book about a time when he was very, very present.
The book will be out soon. Early June, most likely. I can’t wait for you to read it.