There are many people — friends, family, total strangers — who have shaped my travels the past three months, some who have already shown up here and others who need to. But I’ve had some unexpected companions too — of the canine variety.
I, historically, have not been what you’d call a dog lover. I rarely am the first person to pet a dog as it enters the room. (And am rarely the one dogs are drawn to either — they always seem to sense my awkwardness.) But, in Alaska, all this changed. I don’t know why exactly but, dogs and me, we just started to get along.
This is not to say my childhood was devoid of furry friends. There was that week we had a golden retriever that my Mom found under our blueberry bush one morning, shivering. She had gotten spooked by the fourth of July fireworks and swam across our river. I came downstairs blurry-eyed and ran smack into her. I named her “Missy,” fed her cheese, and we were becoming pretty good playmates until her real owners finally came and brought her back to the other side of the river.
There was also that time my Mom and I drove an aggressive (but lovable) pitbull named Saki all the way from Nashville to New Hampshire. We unfortunately had to give him tranquilizers the whole way because, while Saki was fine around women, would jump and devoir any man in sight.
The closest thing I had to a dog growing up though was Goldie, my uncle and aunt’s beautiful mutt with a purple tongue. She also hated men, but loved to lick and go on adventures so that was good enough for me.
But it was in Alaska, and now back in the Lower 48, that I really got the sense of a dog as a companion — as a wonderful creature to share the world with and, in doing so, experience places in a whole new way.
My “gateway” dog was the one and only Luna in Palmer, Alaska. I stayed with her owners, Margaret and Michael, in their amazing cabin in the woods at both the start and end of my stay (and they are two people who, while appearing here now for the first time, really deserve much more mention — and soon — on all the ways they made Alaska for me).
Luna was, I dare say, a better cuddler than most men I’ve known (save a few). She was also a champ hiking partner. I don’t know what it was about that Husky-mix’s goofy little face but, every time she bounded up the mountain and looked back at me, it made me forget the fatigue and push on to reach her. (Only to have her bound away again, then repeat…until we reached the summit).
In Homer, a coastal fishing town, I met Jack and Bear. Jack is a sweet old German yellow lab who, despite his age, loved to roam around the docks while we loaded our oyster cargo and make friends. Bear is a tiny terrier with the breed’s signature killer bark. She’d yip so loud she’d sometimes make herself fall over. I never thought I’d love a terrier until I met her.
But my favorite thing of all was listening to their owner, Mike, on the boat in the morning talk to them. Bear wasn’t just Bear to him; she was “The Blackest Bear.” I’d wake up to him going: “Who’s The Blackest Bear? Are you The Blackest Bear?” And Jack wasn’t just Jack; he was “The Jack.” As in: “Where’s The Jack?” Even at 6am, this was enough to get me out of my bunk smiling (which, if you know me, is a feat).
In Seward, another coastal town on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, I made friends with the harbor dogs Nubber (“Nubby”) and Cinnamon. I met Nubby’s owner, Malcom, on my first night in town at Thorn’s Showcase Lounge, a bar straight out of the 1950s where you could buy a brew and “bucket of but” (halibut) for less than market price. His sailboat needed a new part for the bilge so was hanging around town for a few days and wanted to take Nubby hiking. I joined the pair and later, when Malcom and Nubby left Seward for their cabin in nearby Soldotna, I moved onto their sailboat in the small boats harbor.
That’s where I met Cinnamon — a skittish little Husky girl with light reddish brown fur — and her owner. He had fallen on hard times and was living out of his boat. You could tell that Cinnamon was a big part of keeping him going. They took a long walk every night and one time I ran into them at the top of the dock ramp. I put out my hand and Cinnamon came over and let me gently pet her. “Wow, she doesn’t usually let people do that. She likes you,” he said. I felt honored to be trusted like that by her and, for the rest of my time in the harbor, her owner always gave me a big wave from across the docks. It felt good to be trusted by him too.
On my trip back east from Chicago, I had a whole slew of dog flings: a Rottweiler named Blue at a lake house in Michigan who kept me busy throwing a frisbee; a cat in Canada named Scooter that exhibited many dog-like qualities both of the cuddling and strolling the neighborhood for food and scratches variety; a fur-pile of a puppy named Dobby in Connecticut and his equally rambunctious cousin, Sydney; and an enjoyable night with Maggie at a friend’s house in Massachusetts.
And then, in woodsy Tamworth, New Hampshire, it’s been my aunt and uncle’s Marley or “Mars Bar” as I like to call her. Mars Bar and me have become fast friends. In fact, she put two teeth holes through my favorite blue sweatshirt in a scrappy game of tug-of-war last month and I still like her…so you know this shit’s real.
Marley’s a Rhodesian ridgeback without the ridge. Strong — all muscle in fact, which has made her an excellent running partner. Good cuddler — though not quite on the same playing field as Luna (two words: big spoon). Does a fantastic antelope leap anytime she sees a squirrel (or thinks she sees one) on our trips to the pond that I dare you not to laugh out loud at…
But, most of all, Marley stands by you. You are on the other side of the house and she comes around to find you. She doesn’t like to roam far, not unless you’re coming. And when you’re out together for a night walk, she barks at mysterious shadows to keep whatever it is (a coyote?) away. You feel safe in her world. You, also, have an excellent time.
So this post goes out to all the dogs that have come my way the past four months. Thank you for your barks, for your smiles, for your trust, for your joy at the simplest of things. And it is safe to say to my future dog: you have some darn big paw prints to fill.