Fol­low­ing an alarm­ing dis­cov­ery, Tickle Tummy Hill Road gets re­named

Outdoor Life - - NEWS - BY JOE ARTERBURN

Around the time I turned 10, I learned to drive Dad’s stick-shift Ford pickup on gravel roads around our Ne­braska farm. As each of my three boys neared that age, I taught them to drive on the same roads, first in my au­to­matic Ford pickup.

Later, they grad­u­ated to their grand­fa­ther’s red stick-shift Toy­ota pickup, the floor­boards so rusted out you could see gravel zip­ping un­der­neath. A kid should know how to drive a stick shift, I fig­ured, and there wasn’t much they could do to hurt that old Toy­ota.

It was usu­ally hunt­ing sea­son when we were back at the farm, and some­times we’d take a mid­day break for lunch and park on the hill by the shop, and the boys would take turns driv­ing the quads on dirt roads. I’d sit on the tail­gate, watch­ing the plume as they sped along and then the big cloud of dust they kicked up cut­ting cook­ies in a wheat­stub­ble field they thought was well out of my sight. It was out of sight; the dust wasn’t.

On a road near the farm, there’s a sharp hill that, when you go over it fast enough, gives you that bot­tom-drop feel­ing in your stom­ach. We called it Tickle Tummy Hill.

One deer sea­son—hunter was 14; Jack, 12; Sam, 9—we were driv­ing west on Tickle Tummy Road. About a mile from the name­sake hill, the two-track passes a hand­ful of cedars along a sec­tion line. One of the boys spot­ted a col­or­ful blan­ket as we ap­proached the cedars. It was be­tween two trees, and there was an ob­vi­ous lump un­der it. Way out of place. The clos­est home was a mile and a half to the north; the next clos­est, a lot far­ther than that.

With an un­easy feel­ing, we stopped, know­ing we couldn’t just drive by.

We ap­proached the quilted blan­ket. I lifted a cor­ner, ap­pre­hen­sive, hold­ing my breath. Un­der­neath lay a dead black Lab.

No col­lar, but you could see where a col­lar had been worn. No ob­vi­ous wounds or cause of death. Wait, a splat of blood on her mouth. She’d been dead a while; pheas­ant sea­son opened two weeks ear­lier and a lot of hunters drive these back roads. She might have been ly­ing there since the opener.

It seemed sac­ri­le­gious to poke around too much, but we spec­u­lated on what had hap­pened. Heart at­tack? Ac­ci­dent? She was ma­ture, but not old. No gray­ing around the muz­zle. The blood in­di­cated pos­si­ble in­jury, but we didn’t dis­turb her by flip­ping her over to in­ves­ti­gate.

What­ever the case, some­one had cared for this dog. And they didn’t ex­pect her to die out here. They must not have had a shovel to dig a grave, but they found a special place as a fi­nal rest­ing spot. Or maybe she ex­pired right here, pheas­ants flush­ing from un­der the cedars. They cov­ered her with a nice blan­ket, prob­a­bly her fa­vorite. At least that was some­thing. We had a shovel, but it seemed more fit­ting to leave her as we had found her.

Over the course of the deer sea­son, we drove by the cedars a time or two, usu­ally with my boys at the wheel of their grand­fa­ther’s Toy­ota. With each pas­sage, we’d look for the blan­ket; it was al­ways there. We didn’t stop. We knew what it hid.

The fol­low­ing sea­son, there was no trace of the blan­ket or the dog. We think about her now and then, and men­tion her once in a while when we pass, now with the boys at the wheel of their own pick­ups. In her me­mory, we now call this western ex­ten­sion of Tickle Tummy Hill Road Dead-dog Road. Some peo­ple might think we are be­ing ir­rev­er­ent, but it’s our way of memo­ri­al­iz­ing not only a beloved dog, but also a rite of pas­sage—an­other gen­er­a­tion of Arter­burns leav­ing our own place-names on the back roads of western Ne­braska.

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