This summer, the bestselling travel author is deep in the Georgia Caucasus, with family in tow. This is part of a series: For other instalments, click here.
For two days, we plodded upward, following a well-worn horse trail into thinning air. As our small party picked through a world of jumbled rock and fresh snow, my mind kept returning to the ever-nearing end of our journey. Ahead, on the other side of Atsunta Pass, lay Georgia's fabled and remote Tusheti region. In less than a week, we would reach the medieval village of Omalo, marking the conclusion of our family's two-month horse-packing journey.
Rather than dreaming of fresh food, cold beer and clean sheets, it was the loss of freedom and simplicity that filled my thoughts. No longer would we rise with the sun, stop and set camp when we grew tired. No longer would we be attuned to the slightest changes in sky and wind. No longer would the stars be our nighttime ceiling, or clear river pools our baths.
But there was another concern on my mind as well: What would we do with Rocky, the Caucasian sheep dog that adopted our family as her flock and travelled with us for more than 200 kilometres, crossing 11 high mountain passes?
During the three weeks we had been together, Rocky had defended us, day and night, against other dogs, drunk passersby and shadows in the night. She trotted happily ahead of us on the trail, and slept nestled among us during breaks. I am certain she would have died before allowing harm come to any one of us.
While we could easily sell our packhorse, selling (or giving away) Rocky just didn't seem right. Even if we did find a kindhearted owner, how could we ever stop Rocky from following us? Nor could we bring her home. With clipped ears and tail, a ferocious snarl and the habit of barking at everything that moved, she would never fit in to a small Canadian ski town. The problem of Rocky's future seemed insoluble, and remained a constant thorn in my consciousness.
After reaching the frigid summit of Atsunta, and gulping down a quick lunch of bread, cheese and honey, we began our descent toward the green valleys below. As warm air rushed up to greet us, I noticed a white dot on the distant path. Rocky was straying unusually far ahead. An hour later, we met an elderly shepherd striding after his flock. For 61 years, Giorgi had brought his sheep to this valley; a migration of one month each spring, and the same each fall. His only shelter during summer was a hut built from sod bricks, with a blue tarp for the roof.
Giorgi leaned on his long staff and stared at our group, his creased and sun-darkened face covered with white stubble. He was amazed to discover young boys in our backpacks, and tickled them into a frenzy of laughter. His next words froze us.
"I know that dog," Giorgi stated with certainty upon spotting Rocky bounding across the grasslands. She came from Chesho, he claimed, a village a five-day walk away, lying just 20 kilometres from our final destination. "The owner has been looking everywhere for her."
In a land riddled with sheepdogs, it seemed probable that Giorgi suffered from a case of mistaken identity. Still, a flame of hope had been lit.
Days later, as angry storm clouds swept down the valley, we encountered a lone horseman escaping the drizzle under a big boulder. He also said he recognized Rocky. But he was far more concerned with making sure no one in our party was carrying pork or pork products in our packs. No pigs live in Tusheti, he explained, for they cannot cross the passes leading in. And whenever pork entered Tusheti, it rained. Satisfied that we were not the cause of the storm, he raced off, in search of the pork-smuggling perpetrators.
When we at last arrived below the ancient defensive towers of Chesho, it was dusk. As we set camp in a large meadow beside the river, Rocky suddenly bolted uphill, toward homes perched above. Almost immediately she was lost from sight. Was this the last time we would see her?
Minutes later, she was back, with a stooped man in tow.
Murtaz Murtazshuli was near tears when we shook his hand. He had owned Rocky for as long as he could remember. She was the smartest dog in all of Georgia, he claimed. She had taken care of his young colts each spring. And if there were no baby horses to tend, she took care of any children she could find. Her name was Mejoge, meaning "the herder."
Making Rocky's return even more astounding was the fact Murtaz's only son, Levan, had returned to his father's home that very morning, for the first time in nine years, on vacation from a job in Long Island, N.Y.
Levan and Murtaz asked repeatedly if we wanted to be paid for returning the dog. Had we paid someone for her? Were we truly willing to leave her behind? Neither could believe that she had travelled so far. They had last seen her months before, while guiding Polish geologists in a snowstorm. When the guides and horses were forced to turn back, she stayed with the Poles to ensure their safety, and was never seen again. How she ever reached the southern provinces was anyone's guess.
Of course we were thrilled that Rocky had found her home, and we reassured the men that we were happy to leave her. Inwardly, I wondered at what miracle had brought Rocky to our family, in that barren camp in the wilds of Pshavi, hundreds of kilometres away. She could not possibly have known our small group was headed toward her Tushetian homeland, but why else would she have chosen to attach herself to us? Joining a group of strangers, all agreed, was unusual behaviour for a sheep dog.
"My father is as happy as a child for the first time in decades," Levan beamed. Murtaz disappeared, and then returned with a plastic soda bottle.
"60 degree cha cha," he beamed (meaning home distilled firewater of roughly 60 per cent alcohol). Murtaz filled a carved tur horn to the rim and forced me to drain it time and again. Before I stumbled back to our camp, he handed over both the bottle and the ancient horn as tokens of his thanks.
Special to The Globe and Mail