From the shade of her checkpoint, Taylor Haston looked out at the infamous salt flats of the Atacama Deserts. The terrain was difficult enough, but with the unrelenting sun there were no options to take shade and Haston’s responsibility was to make sure that the some 150 competitors racing in 250-km Atacama Crossing got through her checkpoint safely.
Haston, an emergency doctor from Augusta, Georgia, was on the lookout for the next group of competitors to arrive, when she spotted a little bleach blonde dog running alongside a group of four competitors from Japan. As the competitors stopped to go through the mandatory checks, Haston learned that the little dog had been with them for awhile, joining their foursome as they passed through the tiny town of Toconao.
“She looked fierce in the distance and when she arrived at the checkpoint she proved immediately that she was in charge,” Haston said. “While trying to make sure all of the competitors were okay medically and that they were making sure to take the correct amount of water with them for the next leg of the race, I couldn’t help but worry about this perfectly sculpted scruffy dog.”
In between competitors, Haston made a makeshift bowl using her trauma shears and a plastic water bottle and from her personal stash of food, found a package of tuna. She tried to get the little dog to eat and drink some water, but the dog seemed more interested in running. The checkpoint soon got busy again and Haston turned her attention to the competitors who were mid-way through a week-long ultra marathon. When she had a moment to look back at the dog, Haston realized that the dog was no longer there. The tuna was left untouched.
“I thought for sure she was out in the salt flats and I would never see her again,” Haston said. “I worried she would die out there to be quite honest. This was an extremely difficult stage, and she did not drink barely any water and did not eat anything. I thought that was the last time I would see that spunky and fluffy pup. I thought about her the rest of the day. She clearly had already snagged a little piece of my heart.”
But Haston was wrong and she would see the dog again. In fact, the dog became a part of the race, joining the competitors, volunteers and medical team at camp and then heading out with the course team and the competitors the next day.
“She did not want to miss anything,” Haston said. “That first day I met her she probably ran over half the stage and she is only about 25-30 lbs. I think she set off to run the next day and ran about half the stage that day as well before being picked up by volunteers and brought back to camp in a car.”
At night, while Haston worked with her fellow doctors in the medical tent, the dog, which Haston would later name Lucha, stayed close by.
“I’d like to think that Lucha was attached to me so that is why she hung out at the medical tent so much, but it could have also been because that is where a cluster of people usually were,” Haston said. “We were looking at blisters and taking care of patients and there she was, just sitting in the sand, waiting. I’m still not sure what she was waiting for, but she just sat stoic and sweet. She never begged for food, although I think everyone, even the competitors who have very little food with them during the race shared their food with her.”
During the stages Haston was kept busy at her checkpoints and when she arrived back at camp each night she was thrilled to see that Lucha was there waiting.
“She was so loyal in a sense, although to what she was loyal to at this point I wasn’t sure,” Haston said. “Now though, it seems to be quite clear.”
But as the race headed into its final stage, Haston would be given one more scare. The evening prior to the final 10-km stage (competitors at this point would have raced 240 km), the course team went out to set the course with Lucha in tow and Haston tending to the competitors’ medical needs. Lucha returned to camp that night, seemingly ready to take on the final stage of the run the next morning.
“I had already gone to San Pedro earlier in the morning before the stage started to go to veterinarian’s office to talk about the possibility of adopting a dog,” Haston said. “I wasn’t given much hope that it would be possible and I felt a bit hopeless. We went to the finish line in the center square of San Pedro and awaited the competitors. The last competitors arrived and Lucha never showed up. I was heartbroken.”
Haston asked around to see if something had happened to Lucha, but she confirmed that Lucha had left with the other competitors that morning. Haston walked back to the hotel, searching for Lucha.
“I saw probably 40 other stray dogs on my short walk back through town to the hotel but never saw her,” Haston said. “I continued looking, but was feeling a bit hopeless. The next day people started to leave San Pedro, but I had always planned to stay in San Pedro for two more days.”
Haston went to meet a friend who had been a competitor in the race and as they started walking down the main street in search of some lunch, Haston looked down and saw Lucha at her feet.
“I looked down and literally at my feet was this fluffy, scruffy pretty little lady just sitting there, facing my direction and looking up at me. I stopped in my tracks immediately,” Haston said. “I knew immediately this was her. I bent down and started petting her, and we just froze in the street.”
Her friend asked her what she wanted to do.
“I was only able to mutter, ‘I can’t leave her’ through my big tears that were rolling down my face from under my sunglasses,” Haston said. “I think he was in disbelief that I was actually crying, but at that point he knew I was serious about trying to adopt her. It really did feel like it was fate that we were reunited right there on the street.”
With Lucha in tow, they went to a nearby market and Haston made a makeshift collar and leash using a girl’s headband, a woven belt and a carabineer that Haston already had on her.
“There was no way at this point, that I wasn’t going to do everything I could to try and get this little girl home with me in the U.S.,” Haston said.
The process to come from Chile back to Haston’s home in Gerogia wasn’t easy, taking about six months. And as she waited, Haston had one more thing to do – give Lucha a name. During the Atacama Crossing, volunteers and fellow competitors had picked out names for her, from Salty and Sandy to Marley (with Lucha’s matted dreads) and Alma. But in the end, three Chilean women who helped Haston with the adoption process helped her find a name.
“Luchar is a verb in Spanish that means ‘to fight’,” Haston said. “Lucha means ‘the fight, tough and preserving’, which is very fitting for her given that she has had a tough life as a presumed stray dog in the world’s driest desert. Lucha seemed perfect and the Chilean women agreed. Her middle name is Atacama because this is where she is from – the Atacama Desert is the root of her soul. Lucha Atacama Haston, my daughter.”
By Melanie Ho