[ Another repost, from 2003. ]
Some stories touch you even when they have no clear ending.
I was recently on a week’s vacation to California. I got to see a lot of people and visited a number of places I’ve loved—old good places where I sojourned for a while with dear friends. Sadly, I also said a number of goodbyes. One was to my good buddy Chardonnay, who happens to be a Golden Retriever currently engaged in dying.
Chardy used to come for runs with me and my constant canine companions Ranger the Valiant Warrior and Tito the Mighty Hunter. We romped through the marrow of the world together, carousing along clear streams and across pristine meadows, digging for wily ground squirrels and surprising skittish shore birds. Chardy loved the water more than anything, spending a good bit of his time there and regarding the rest of us as if we were a bit daft for not jumping in with him.
I lay my friend Ranger to rest a year or so back, and Tito’s gone off to live in a far land, so I was looking forward to visiting those creeks and meadows with Chardy.
Chardy was there, but he was dying. He hadn’t eaten more than a bite or two in weeks, and my once all-too-bouncy buddy was a bag of bones. Hugging him was like grasping a collection of fur-covered angles and edges. I coaxed his owner to come out with him along Convict Creek, a clear stream with a grassy verge, and Chardy was lively and happy for the twenty minutes or so we strolled. Even after a year’s absence, there was no doubt that he remembered me, and remembered this. He romped in the water for the last time in his life and, I guess, enjoyed a short vacation from dying—a last gift from his visiting friend.
Other friends, Jim and Esther, two coal black Percheron draft horses, who were co-workers and companions from my hayride and sleighride days, had died the previous month, old Esther following her partner Jim by only a week.
So here I was at the end of a week of ups and downs, motoring south along California’s Highway 395. To my right was the huge rise of the Sierra Nevada range. To my left was the broad Owens Valley, backdropped by the distant White Mountains.
As I drove south, absently thinking of this and that and nothing in particular, a tiny dot appeared on the side of the road ahead. Fading in and out at first like some kind of on-again, off-again mirage in the early morning heat of this high desert locale, the thing finally resolved itself into a lanky dog, trotting along the side of the highway, headed north.
From fifty yards away I could see his ribs, and his coat was a mottled, muddy color that might have been color or might have been dirt. But he was moving at that trot that a human distance runner would immediately recognize, a gait from which all superfluous motion and wasted energy has been smoothed out by long practice—a gait that says clearly that this one has traveled a considerable distance.
He was a big ol’ boy, with a hound’s floppy ears and skinny tail, but with a little more chest and head than a hound, and maybe a bit more leg.
I’m a sucker for a story, especially a dog’s story, and I instantly wanted to know his. I looped around on the highway and went back for it, stopping some distance in front of him so as to meet him as he came on.
He came to a halt about twenty yards from me and looked around, thinking about it, then cut off the road into the nearby pasture. I looped around again and got out the only food I had with me, a bagel left over from breakfast. He didn’t even look at the bagel—this time he left the road even faster, and when I pursued him, he outdistanced me in a long lope.
The third loop, I stopped well in front of him and put the bagel and a dish of water on the ground where he’d find it easily. Then I made a fourth loop and parked to watch from some distance away.
He stopped about five feet short of it, and swept his nose back and forth low to the ground, testing the scent off my offering suspiciously. I laughed out loud as he began to eat it. He lapped up about half the water, only about a cupful, then went back to his ground-eating trot.
I was about eight miles out of the town of Bishop, and there was a Jack in the Box there. I went back and got three Jumbo Jacks without the green stuff, and a larger container of water. I came back as fast as I could, but it was still a good twenty minutes before I returned to the stretch of highway where I’d seen him. Though I made three loops along about two miles of highway, I never saw another sign of him.
He was obviously on some kind of quest. If I know dogs, and if any of the stories you hear are true, he’s gotten lost or misplaced a distance from home, and he’s going back to find his beloved person.
Maybe that person was only a few miles from where I saw him, and he arrived home in Bishop in only half a day. Maybe it was Reno or Lake Tahoe though, and he had another good week of travel to go. But maybe it’s Montana, and he has more than a month on the road ahead of him. Whatever it is, I wish him well.
The last thing I did before giving up the search was to stop and pick up the water bowl I’d left on the side of the road. To my surprise, I discovered that the Owens River runs under the road only about thirty yards north of there. I walked back to it and looked up and down the banks. There was no sign of Travelin’ Dog, but… thick cottonwoods and brush line the banks, and a footsore dog could easily hide there after a cool soak. A roadwise traveler might even curl up in the tall soft grass, napping and martialing his energy—safe from would-be human saviors who might think they had a dog’s best interests at heart, but who would casually interrupt his quest forever, so that he’d be kept apart for the rest of his life from the thing he most wanted.
I like to think that, by the time you read this, Travelin’ Dog is curled up somewhere even safer, warm and dry and loved, and his belly filled with more than a well-wisher’s meager bagel.
I guess the moral of all this is that we’re all on the road, moving between mysterious beginnings and unknown ends, and the thing that makes worthwhile all the miles we have to travel is the love we have for the people—both two-legged and four—in our lives, or perhaps the thought that somewhere up ahead, just a few miles distant, we will find that person who matters to us more than any other.
I think it’s a reminder too, though, that when we see someone on the road, honestly and ardently questing, maybe it’s our duty, as fellow questing hearts, to help them along their way.