Another Round at the Say When: Reservation Dogs
A journalist moves to the small town of McDermitt, on the Oregon-Nevada line, to learn about why the high school football team never wins, and about the townsfolk who cheer them on, no matter what.
One in a series.
The roosters are still crowing as Lorraine fires up yellow school bus №113, ready for yet another semester of making her tribal reservation rounds, picking up kids, keeping an eye out for the stray animals that need taking in.
It’s the first day of classes at the McDermitt Unified School District, here on the Oregon-Nevada line and, at age 73, the veteran driver moves a little slower every year.
“Am I ready for this?” she asks, before answering her own question.
For years, Lorraine has driven a 40-mile loop around the McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Reservation, located just outside of town. She collects her children along rural tarmac where cows and horses throw up roadblocks along a vista of set-back homesteads and the abandoned cars and houses that comprise a life of rural poverty.
Every time she stops and a child climbs on board, the gray-haired grandmother of 11 issues the same sing-song greeting.
The sleepy-eyed kids are quiet. In the afternoon, this same bus, with these same students, will become a raucous, sugar-fueled energy party.
Through it all, Lorraine is scanning the surrounding high desert, because she’s here to collect more than just her little ones. She also seeks out the strays — the neglected dogs and cats that probably wouldn’t otherwise survive for long out here.
In America’s small towns, on its farms and ranches, life can be cheap for former pets and feral litters of kittens and puppies left on their own.
The long arm of PETA and the Humane Society often doesn’t reach this far out, and frustrated folks around McDermitt have run down dogs on the road, and shot them on sight if they wander onto their properties.
It can also be tough on the Rez.
Lorraine can’t remember how many animals she has rescued over the years. Right now, she has four dogs at home, two of them former Rez dogs. There’s Tater, Mac, Shuggie and Tickie, who hops around on three legs.
There’s also a passel of cats of all colors and sizes she just can’t see go hungry.
“Hell, she’s got a herd of 20 or 30 cats out back,” Lorraine’s stalwart husband, Junior, says one morning over coffee in a living room were big dogs clamor over one another like restless convicts in the prison yard.
“I do not,” Lorraine says. “There’s only maybe 15.”
“That’s why they call ya the Cat Lady.”
There are so many cats that Lorraine can’t give names to them all. She just counts as she lays out their food, “1,2,3…I know when somebody’s missing,” she says.
Lorraine tells her animal stories like a woman her age might brag about grandkids.
Take Tater, for instance.
One day on her morning route about three years back, a cute little girl named Amari climbed aboard the bus with an announcement.
“I got a new puppy!” she said.
A few days later, however, Amari was in tears.
“My Daddy doesn’t like my puppy,” she confessed to the bus driver. “He says he’s going to put him out in the trash.”
Lorraine didn’t take the girl seriously, but the next day she announced that the deed had been done: her new puppy was gone.
“Amari,” she promised, “I will get that dog.”
She headed home that afternoon to find her husband on the couch.
“C’mon Junior,” she said. “Let’s get in the pickup.”
“Where we goin’?”
“Out to the reservation.”
“What we doin’ out there?”
“We’re goin’ puppy-huntin’.”
They scoured the roads near Amari’s house, checking around trash cans, and finally heard a puppy’s cries from an old shed. His eyes were barely open.
Lorraine took the dog home. She sat in her chair in the living room, the tiny figure lying in her lap like a newborn, cooing as she fed it with an eye-dropper, a home remedy concoction of egg yolks, plain yogurt and canned milk.
They named him Tater, she says, because he looked like a little potato.
“I told Junior, ‘Look at those little stumpy legs. I think he’s a Yorkie.”
Today, Tater is big old mixed breed large enough to devour a whole bag of potatoes in one sitting.
“Look at our Yorkie now!” Lorraine says with pride.
It’s alway been like this — Lorraine saving her strays.
There have been lambs, calves, chickens, birds, even a baby badger.
In the 1960s, she and her girlfriends secretly fed scraps to a dozen strays that had collected behind the town gas station, until county officials rode in on a truck one day and shot every last one of them.
That taught her to be vigilant. Not everybody cares for the downtrodden like she does.
Her heart goes out to little varmints like Tickie.
She spotted the dog day after day on the Rez and swore he was Tater’s brother. Sure enough, the owner had found the dog as a puppy in the same shed where she found Tater. The two belonged together, she reasoned.
One day, she stopped at his house and just outright asked for the dog.
When he hesitated, Lorraine told him, “Jordan, you got 11 dogs as it is. You can afford to give one away.”
When she got the dog home, she found so many ticks that she and Junior stopped counting. Then Tickie began chasing cars and one day got walloped. After a week of the dog dragging his front left leg, they took him to the vets for a $100 amputation.
“Tickie still chases cars,” Junior says. “But now he’s not fast enough to catch ‘em.”
For 26 years, Lorraine worked as the postmistress in town, so she heard about all the animals that needed saving. Like the ten chocolate lab puppies somebody found in the old abandoned White Horse saloon in town.
That was 14 years ago and Lorraine’s son still has one of those dogs. Another adopter says her lab comes into the shower with her.
Pets are like family, Lorraine says.
Mac once belonged to a motel owner in town, used to dance for him in the front office. After the man had a stroke, his wife told the manager to either give the dog away or shoot him.
Everybody knew about Lorraine so the manager went to the post office with Mac.
“Well, I’ve already got enough dogs … Oh, OK.”
Somebody found Shuggie as a puppy inside the old jailhouse, a 100-year-old abandoned stone structure next to the post office. She says it took Shuggie three years to emerge from her shell.
“She was abused wasn’t she?” Lorraine says to the dog, which wags its tail at the sound of its name. “But she’s not abused anymore, is she?”
Lorraine spends hundreds each month on animal food, along with the “treats.”
The cats get canned tuna and ground up bits of an unlit cigar in their meal when she fears they have worms. You know, smoke’ em out.
And those dogs?
“I give ’em baloney sandwiches at night, without the mustard, of course, and sometimes spaghetti,” Lorraine says. “People tell me, you can’t feed dogs like that, but right after they’re done with their snacks they all run right over to their beds like ‘OK, we’re ready to go to sleep now,’ and off they go.”
As he drinks his morning coffee, Junior feeds the four dogs Keebler shortbread sandies cookies from the package.
“Junior, don’t you dare feed ’em my Fig Newtons,” Lorraine protests.
“They don’t like your Fig Newtons,” Junior answers.
Then he tosses one of the figs to Tickie, the three-legged dog.
Lorraine also has a soft spot for the children along her bus route.
She knows everyone by name, knows which houses and parents are theirs.
She coos from her driver’s seat as she passes a mother taking memento photographs of her children at the bus stop on the first day of school.
But Lorraine is worried at what she encounters on this morning.
Stop after stop, where, students are usually waiting, she finds no one.
“I guess his mother is taking him to school today,” she says. “Or not.”
Or: “Her mother works at the tribal clinic. Maybe she’ll take her in today.”
Or: “No one’s coming out. Usually, four of them get on here, and five this year, with the new kindergartner.”
She looks into her rear-view mirror at a dozen or so riders.
“I guess nobody’s coming to school this year,” she says to the kids.
She gets no response. Her audience is either too shy or too sleepy.
She slows for a cow ambling along the roadside.
At the next stop, she announces, “This little girl is just starting school. She’s a kindergartener.
“Good morning!” she says. “I like the way Mommy did your hair.”
At the last stop, the bus driver sighs.
On a bus that holds 84, there are just 29 students. (And no stray dogs.).
“There’s no young people anymore,” she says. “Our little town is dying. When I was young, this was a hoppin’ and boppin’ kind of place. It’s sad, really.”
Talking about her animals returns the smile to her face, all those creatures come and gone, adopted to live out good lives until the end — like the dogs Ringer and Ruff, Nicky and Molly, not to mention those darned cats smart enough to turn the house’s front door handle to let themselves in.
As her bus rolls on, Lorraine tells about the day she learned that a clinic on the reservation was offering free spaying and neutering.
“Well, I came home and loaded up the station wagon with cats to take ’em back out to the Rez to get fixed,” she says. “That car was just a meowing machine, cats in the back seats and trunk, cats in cardboard boxes and metal containers.”
She laughs at the memory, adding, “One escaped, but I managed to catch it.”
During its procedure at the clinic, a kitten broken away and climbed up in the building rafters. And there were three grown men with nets trying to catch that thing.
Lorraine summed up the entire episode.
“If we aren’t just the biggest joke of a little town, then I don’t know what.”
I like hanging around with Lorraine and Junior. And I’ve done my best to pal up with the boys, Mac and Shuggie, Tater and Tickie.
But each afternoon when I walk past their house, the dogs run out and bark at me like I’m still some stranger, or passing pickup — even the three-legged one.
The cats stick to themselves.
John M. Glionna is a writer and freelance journalist based in Sin City.