The dog who wanted to fly

Heroes are often underdogs.

Their stories invariably begin with them narrowly escaping an untimely and inglorious death, to grow strong and survive desperate perils, triumphing against impossible odds. But almost as invariably, like in a revenge of the tricked fate, their stories do not have happy endings. Their only reward was to become immortal, remembered in the sky as stars and constellations, and in endless storytelling by humans wishing to emulate them.

The hero of this story was destined to reach the highest possible goals, and true to the myth, he was indeed born not only an underdog, but an actual dog.

His birth and his puppyhood are not recorded, but they were probably as unremarkable as for any puppy born a street dog in Turkey.

Fate has a famous sense of humor though, and this specific dog ended up, by birth or wandering, on the sides of a mountain that mortals know as Babadağ, the Father Mountain.

Bellerophon slays the Chimera

According to ancient mythology, millennia before the birth of our dog, another hero ended there. Bellerophon, who slayed the monstrous Chimera riding the flying horse Pegasus, died and was buried on the side of the Babadağ.

It might be that his energy still permeates the mountain, because the wish to fly attracted aerial sportsmen there and the nearly 3,000 m high peak became a paragliding heaven. Every year hundreds of BASE jumpers, hang gliders, skydivers and paragliders from dozens of countries gather for the Ölüdeniz International Air Games, and every day tourists from all over the world fly over the blue lagoon that made the place famous, strapped to tandem paraglider pilots.

But when the story of our street dog began, only a few passionate pilots ventured up the mountain on the dangerous, unpaved road. It began during one of these early morning jeep trips, when one of the pilots asked the driver to stop.

He heard someone desperately crying for help.

The cries came from an ancient Lycian domed water cistern. It was filled with rainwater, and a stray dog, possibly trying to drink from there, had fallen in it and was about to drown. Not without difficulty, they managed to pull the exhausted animal out of what had almost become his grave. The pilot who had heard him said that his paws were bleeding, his claws worn in the futile effort of climbing the wall.

They completed their trip, while the injured dog stayed with the jeep driver. We can only imagine the impression on his mind when he saw his saviors, one by one, unfurling giant colored wings to fly away like angels.

Once down the mountain, the lucky mongrel was reunited with the pilot who saved him. Like many paragliding pilots, he was a keen biker and he named the dog Harley.

Harley was fed and nursed but, true to his name, he was a free spirit and as soon as he felt well enough he escaped back to his territory, presumably staying away from archaeological wells.

It could have been the end of a nice, common story of friendship, but Harley was not a common dog.

Every day, when the pilots’ jeeps passed by the Lycian cistern, Harley was there, waiting. He hitch hiked up the mountain, usually with his favorite pilot. And he stayed there, every day, all day, watching the colorful gliders taking off one by one. He was a very good boy: he ran with them during take-off, he played with tourists and was rewarded with treats and cuddles, but he always knew when the last jeep was going down the mountain, and he was regularly given a lift back.

It probably didn’t take long for the pilots to notice the melancholy in Harley’s eyes.

Dreamers recognize each other, and for all the festive barks at take-off, the pilots saw Harley’s sadness every time that one of them flew away, and he did not.

People who made their living taking tourists to the sky could not be indifferent to a friend’s wish to fly. They had to do something.

And one day, when Harley hopped into the jeep like every day, he must have felt that the mood was different. He was given more attention and more cuddles than usual, but only when they were on the take-off platform, and someone harnessed him into a custom made vest, he must have realized. Those who saw it said that he became crazed with joy, yelping in excitement.

It was before internet times and before viral videos, but fortunately a grainy miniDV video exists, and it shows an excited but disciplined Harley taking off on the lap of the pilot who had saved his life. The flight was long and smooth, and the story goes that Harley was quietly happy, as the good boy he was, wagging his tail all the time. When they finally landed on the beach and he was freed from the harness, he ran to the jeep to return to the mountain top.

But he did not fly again.

Heroes’ stories rarely have happy endings, and Harley must have been under a mythological curse. After his triumph over the Chimera, Bellerophon became arrogant and decided to fly with Pegasus up to Mount Olympus to take the place of the gods.

Unimpressed, the mighty Zeus punished him sending a single horse fly. When it stung Pegasus, Bellerophon was unhorsed and fell to his ruin.

In the case of Harley, it was not a horse fly but a baby goat. Pilots had always been suspicious of his insistence to live free in the mountain wilderness, and some very alarmed shepherds had warned them that feral dogs were a danger to their herds.

It is said that Harley was caught, how to say, red fanged attacking a baby goat, and the shepherd did not hesitate. Unlike Bellerophon, who died miserable, blinded and crippled in the fall, Harley went in a blaze of glory, dying a sudden but mercifully instantaneous death.

His story lived on, and quite fittingly I was told it by one of the pilots, during my first flight over the Babadağ. Little I knew that day that it would be only the first of many.

When I returned to Ölüdeniz, over the years, I learned more details of Harley’s story. I went to the Lycian cistern, I talked with the pilot who had saved, nursed and flown him, and finally I obtained a copy of the fabled video.

Many things happened later but today I found it forgotten in an old computer folder, and I had no other choice than writing this story, the story of a dog who wanted to fly.

Thanks to Yiğit who told me Harley’s story, to Abu who saved, named and flew with him, to Cloud 9 Beach Bar for the video and to Ölüdeniz flying community for existing.

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Photojournalist and writer, traveler, biker, based in Genoa, Italy.

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Piero Castellano

Piero Castellano

Photojournalist and writer, traveler, biker, based in Genoa, Italy.

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