When my dog, Utah, unexpectedly passed away in May 2017, I literally felt like a piece of me had disappeared. Vanished. It was a kind of pain I’d never endured before. The kind of pain I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. In an effort to cope, I created a video tribute in his honor (click here to watch it). For 6 months, this video served as a way for me to release the feelings of grief that would consume me on a regular basis. It allowed me to surrender to the pain, crying until I was depleted of tears. And although this helped me survive those tough times, I kept feeling the need to do something more. Something that would fill that void for the rest of my life. That something turned out to be a tattoo. But, not just any tattoo. Not just a beautiful portrait of his handsome face on my back. This tattoo would literally make Utah a part of my life again…a part of me. That specific part of me that I lost when he left. This tattoo would have his ashes in it so that he would be a part of me forever.
When I discovered that I can put my dog’s ashes in a tattoo, my eyes lit up as if I was given the chance to be with my sweet Utah again. I immediately knew this was something I HAD to do. So I paid a visit to my friend, Sam, over at American Tattoo in Vista, CA. He explained the surprisingly simple, yet amazing, process… You bring in the ashes of your beloved pet, the tattoo artist mixes them into the ink, and then they tattoo you as they normally would. That’s it! The one interesting fact, though, is that the ashes are put into the black ink only. And this is simply because ashes turn black when they get wet. Makes sense.
It had been about 17 years since I had gotten a tattoo, so I didn’t have a clear recollection of how painful it is. But I figured it couldn’t be as painful as the sorrow I had been feeling for the last 6 months. With the outline of the tattoo on my back, the ashes in the ink ready to go, I sat on the bench, hands clasped in anticipation of the first poke. “Here we go,” Sam said. Deep breath. OUCH!! My eyes immediately bulged out of my face, my knuckles white, my breath stalled…”how long is this going to take?!” I thought. I began doubting myself. I wasn’t sure I could endure that kind of intense pain for hours. But I didn’t have a choice. I was committed. I HAD to do this…for me and for Utah.
Looking for a distraction, I turned to Utah’s tribute video. Being the most powerful video I’ve ever seen, I knew it would help take my mind off the burning torture that was taking place on my back. With my phone in my hands, clasped so tight it felt like I could break it in half, I pushed play. The second his song began to play and I saw his face smiling at me, I began to feel relief. I sang along in my head, narrowing my vision in on every detail. His squinting eyes, his piglet nose, his adorable little freckles, his infectious smile…I was happy. For the first time, I felt happy while watching that video. I felt like he was back in my life. For the first time, I didn’t cry while watching that video. For the first time, the pain of that needle in my back was bearable. He was being put back into my soul, and I could feel it.
As the tattoo progressed, I fell more and more in love with it. He was coming to life! My excitement grew to impatience as I couldn’t wait to see the final result. After a long 3 hours, it was over. Not just the tattoo, but the grief I had been feeling from that part of me that was missing. That part of me was gone. It had been filled. Utah was now as much a part of me as he ever was. And I cherished the fact that he would remain that way forever. It’s as if the pain I endured while getting the tattoo was the grand finale, the finish line of my journey along the path of grief. Now that he’s a part of me, I don’t feel that he’s gone. He’s with me, always and forever, and I’m eternally grateful for that.
If you’re thinking about getting a tattoo, whether it includes your dog’s ashes or not, stop by and see my friend, Sam, over at American Tattoo in Vista, CA. He’ll take great care of you 🙂
Me and my girls, Skyy & Rain, embarked on our Mission MINT (Morning In New Territory) journey in September 2017 with the goal of exploring and photographing 10 dog-friendly locations in San Diego during the first few hours of the day. And with the purpose of: strengthening my photography skills by experimenting with unfamiliar lighting, equipment, and/or shooting techniques, as well as engaging the three of us in mental and physical activity. This month’s Mission MINT adventure took place at one of the few places in San Diego where you can enjoy a 360 degree view…Double Peak Park in San Marcos. As the highest peak in North County San Diego, Double Peak Park offers something for everyone to enjoy.
MISSION MINT 2 : Double Peak Park, San Marcos
I checked the weather report the night before to see if the sun would make an appearance that morning. It confirmed it would be cloudy, but I was determined to embark on our adventure anyways. I had heard about Double Peak Park and it’s magnificent 360 degree views from a few friends of mine, so my curiosity wouldn’t let me delay going any longer. Me and the girls woke up bright and early at 5:00am to ensure we got there in time to see the sunrise. What I thought would be a 45 minute drive only took 30 minutes…funny how there’s actually a time when there’s no traffic.
We arrived at 5:35am. Needless to say, we had a decent amount of time before the sun was expected to come up. While waiting for the sun, cars upon cars starting showing up. I was quite surprised to see at least 7 cars and a few people on foot eager and ready for their sunrise hikes. High school kids still wearing their pajamas, local home owners walking their dogs, and a few who preferred to relax in their warm car with their morning coffee.
The 200-acre area itself is pretty cool in that you can choose to hike around for hours or drive straight to the top to relax and enjoy the view. At the top of the hill is an amphitheater, restrooms, a playground, viewing areas, and picnic tables…perfect for a quick family trip, a romantic spot for couples, or an easily accessible location for seniors to enjoy. There’s 4.7 miles of trails that run up and down the hills, around the bends, and through secret brush areas. And there’s plenty of great little nooks to take a break and soak in the view.
Whether sunrise or sunset, you get them both at Double Peak Park. Even on a cloudy day like the one we had, the views are breathtaking and a must-see for any local San Diegan or tourist. We will definitely be returning to this cool spot, hopefully with some sunshine to play with 🙂
- Location: Double Peak Park, San Marcos
- Location Type: Trail, Paved Road
- Time: 6:00am – 7:45am
- Lighting: Mostly Cloudy
- Equipment: Canon 5D Mark lll, Canon 50m F1.4
CONCLUSION: Despite the lack of an actual sunrise, you can still make the best of the adventure. Mother Nature will do whatever she wants, and just because she doesn’t give you exactly what you’re looking for, that’s no reason to not enjoy the moment and find other ways to achieve you’re goal.
Join the adventure…follow #MissionMINT on Instagram @alipetersonphoto
As a professional photographer, it’s important to seek creative opportunities and invest the time and energy into personal passion projects. Doing so can:
- enhance your knowledge of your craft
- provide a fresh perspective that translates into new ideas
- push you to challenge yourself, which promotes growth
- fulfill your need to express yourself creatively
Not to mention, in the case of this personal project, it also provides an excellent excuse to get out in the fresh air and enjoy some quality time and exercise with my pups 🙂 So, what’s the project?
MINT : Mornings In New Territory
Goal: Explore and photograph 10 dog-friendly locations in San Diego during the first few hours of the day.
- Explore new locations in San Diego
- Strengthen my photography skills by experimenting with unfamiliar lighting, equipment, and/or shooting techniques.
- Engage myself and my dogs in mental and physical activity
Rules & Guidelines:
- The location must be somewhere in San Diego that I’ve never been to before
- I’m only allowed to bring and use my 50mm lens
- Shooting must be done within 2 hours of sunrise.
- The location must be outside (it can be a trail, park, beach, etc)
MISSION MINT 1 : Santa Margarita Trail, Fallbrook
To kick off the Mission, I decided to head somewhere not too far from home, yet still uncharted territory. So, I packed our bags and headed to the Santa Margarita Trail in Fallbrook. Or so I thought…
I’m not sure where we went wrong, but we definitely did NOT end up where we intended on going. Instead, we found a random trail that was about 1/2 mile long, running through a hilly neighborhood. Despite the fact that it wasn’t the “correct” location, we walked the path anyways. It’s all about the adventure, right?
The morning light was beautiful! Especially given how the last few weeks started off with a thick layer of overcast pretty much every single day. Naturally, I was quite delighted to see actual sun rays peaking through the clouds. Me and the girls took some photos along the trail. There wasn’t much of anything exciting, but the were a few spots that provided a decent photo opp.
A little discouraged, but not completely deflated, we drove off after walking the entire 1 mile roundtrip (not quite enough for me to consider it a workout, but at least it was a bit of exercise). I decided to just head home because I knew we at least got a few good shots from the trail. Not more than a couple minutes into the drive home, I realized I had taken a wrong turn and had no idea where I was. Full disclaimer – I’m REALLY good at getting lost!
Before I was able to get too frustrated with myself for getting lost, we came across a bridge. And where there’s a bridge, there’s likely to be water! And then I saw it…a sweet, little river nestled away behind some brush. It was calling our names! I immediately found a spot to park, got the girls out of the car, and headed towards the water. It took a minute for us to find a way, but we did. And when we got there, it was glorious!
If there’s one thing I LOVE, it’s water. It’s literally my favorite thing on Earth. So, you can imagine my excitement when I saw this river. The girls were, of course, equally excited. I through off my shoes, grabbed my camera, and we all jumped in. It was heaven. They had so much fun splashing around, and I was loving the morning light peaking through the trees, reflecting on the water, and feeling the wet sand between my toes. I couldn’t believe we found this secret little gem.
- Location: Unknown (somewhere near the Santa Margarita Trail, Fallbrook)
- Location Type: Trail, Riverbed
- Time: 6:15am – 8:00am
- Lighting: Partly Cloudy
- Equipment: Canon 5D Mark lll, Canon 50m F1.4
- Notes: Shooting backlit through the trees works as expected. The morning light tends to give a magenta or red hue – not the typical yellowish tone of images with afternoon warmth. I may have slightly overcompensated for this in post-production.
CONCLUSION: When something doesn’t go as planned, keep your chin up and stay positive because you never know what might be waiting for you just around the corner 😉
Don’t miss an adventure…follow #MissionMINT on Instagram
I spent the last few days holding my boy while he made his way into the stars. Although unexpected, he went as he should have, warm in his bed with his family by his side. He took a piece of my heart with him, leaving me without words. But for him, I will try to be strong. I will do my best to remember his joyous life and everything he’s taught me instead of consuming my mind with sad thoughts. I will forever miss my buddy, my sweet pea, my Utah.
I complied a short video piece to celebrate his life and share who he was. This creative outlet also usually helps me attempt to get rid of some of the sad thoughts that consume my mind in these kind of situations. In doing this, I can reflect on what Utah’s purpose was, what he taught me, and why his life ended when and how it did.
At the age of 9, I feel his life was cut short. But, I wouldn’t have changed the way he passed. Two days before, we took him to the ER because he wasn’t acting like himself. He seemed lethargic…dragging his nails when he walked, laying in beds that he normally didn’t lay in, not caring to bark at the mailman…just not being Utah. So we didn’t hesitate for a minute before deciding to take him to the ER. After a quick examination, it was absolutely clear to the doctor that he had Hemangiosarcoma. This extremely common tumor found in dogs had developed on Utah’s spleen and ruptured. Once ruptured, internal bleeding occurs, and it’s pretty much a death sentence.
We were given the option to do invasive surgery to remove the spleen, attempt to remove the contaminated blood, and hope it doesn’t come back. But the odds of that succeeding are slim to none, and even then he’d likely only survive for another 3-6 months. Our other option was to let it take his life. We opted for the latter. With a window of 1-4 days, we decided it’d be best for Utah to go home so he can die comfortably with his family by his side.
He grew weaker by the hour, struggling with every little move. His eyes began to tell me that he knew what was happening to him (the image here is the last one I took of him, just hours before he passed).
We hunkered down for nearly 3 days, just trying to make sure he was comfortable. The lights were kept low, the Lavender oil was diffusing, the soothing sound of the rain creeped in through the window, the fireplace crackling, and “Planet Earth” playing softly on tv…it was as relaxed as it could be. We took our turns snuggling with him, knowing it would be our last time. And then, he went peacefully to sleep and let go.
The anticipation of knowing that your dog is going to die doesn’t make it any easier when it happens. I can say that I’m grateful we did know and that we were able to send him off peacefully. And that makes me happy for him. My heart aches when I think of all the things I love about him…his smile and the way his eyes got squinty when he smiled real big, his giant head that was way too big for his body when he was a pup, his soft fur, the way his ears flopped in the wind during car rides, the noises he made in his sleep, how he’s the only one in the house that never snored, the way he’d clench his butt cheeks when he knew I was going to pinch them, how much he loved his ball, how he could swim for hours, how excited he got about doing anything outside, and how he could always make me smile no matter what.
But, I need to be strong and choose to take what he’s given me and move forward. He’s taught me about being grateful, that things could be worse, to enjoy the little things in life, and that you shouldn’t take anyone you love for granted because you never know when their last day will come.