What do you do with all of the freedom in the world?
You run. You run as fast as you can, away from your people, but then you run back, because, well, they’re your people. Then you run by them so they can see just how fast you are.
This scene continues the entire time we, my dog and I, walk back into our woods. Not land we personally own, mind you. Land we know. Predictable paths leading to fields or hills or drop-offs mapped plainly into our minds from years of hiking, hunting and exploring. That familiarity is how it becomes personalized as “our woods.” That place with so many silent memories it has no choice but to render some degree of ownership.
This is not a story about hiking and camping with a dog. This is a story about hiking and camping with this dog.
This burdensome, badly-wired, yet completely lovable dog. This dog that is so much trouble, you look at him and think, “Any other family—what would have become of you?”
Which is exactly how we end up in the woods together. This dog—constantly on edge, the smallest provocation setting off the most disproportionate reaction—the one place he can relax is in these remote, wooded settings.
To some degree, I can relate.
If merely walking down paths through trees can change this dog’s demeanor such that it actually changes his physical appearance—and it does—shouldn’t we try an entire night together out here?
From where we turned off of the paved road, it’s a three mile drive to the barrier that blocks further vehicle traffic. At that point we hopped out of the truck. I popped a beer and, while I took my first few swallows, Buster drank in his first few moments of total freedom. No leads. No fences. No restraints. Go wherever you want to go at whatever speed you choose. Primarily, he chooses “fast.”
Meanwhile, I, like a biped draught animal, donned a pack that is far heavier than it should be for a hike like this, reminding myself to pack lighter next time, then set off after the dog, beer in hand. I’ll think about that particular bottle of beer the next morning as I’m undoing the preparations of this excursion, remembering that somehow beer always tastes a little better in the forest. Blame it on growing up sneaking drinks around campfires, I suppose.
Within 15 minutes the blaze orange vest velcroed to Buster’s chest is lost in a field of goldenrod and high grasses. He’s only been out here off-lead a couple times, so he is tentative about my trust in him. Will I grab him and drag him back? Surely he’s not completely free to be? But, of course, he is.
What he isn’t, is barking. Barking. That is the defining characteristic of this dog. When he was less than two, I was getting tattooed. While working on me, my artist and good friend John was visited by one of his biker buddies. This one, a giant burly fellow from West Virginia. We talked motorcycles and tattoos and guns and eventually dogs. “Why in God’s name would you have a coonhound as a pet,” he exclaimed, genuinely perplexed at the notion. “Those things are only good for treeing ‘coons and who even does that anymore?”
Not me. No raccoons needed over here. And this particular coonhound? Goodness, not even your standard-level nuisance, regardless of a dog-lover acquaintance’s acceptance of his persistent voice as “a classic.” Classic. This dog can bark a headache into you without effort. That’s not classic. That’s defective.
This all started when a litter of coonhound puppies landed at a nearby humane society. My wife, Angela, was quick to point to our Alice—an aloof coonhound mix, peacefully sleeping on her dog bed. “Look, we could have five of her,” she said. And she’s right. Except, it turns out there are not four more aloof coonhounds on planet Earth. Not that I knew as much at the time.
The next day I was engaged with our son Jacob’s Cub Scout group when Angela decided she was going to check out the puppies. “Check out.” You know, just in case one would work out well at our house. What are the odds she’d actually bring one home? Of course, I know that means we’re getting a puppy. That woman has never met a puppy she wouldn’t bring home.
Later that evening my phone rings. It’s Angela.
“I’m bringing one home. The black and tan one,” she said.
“Who’s doing all that barking,” I ask?
“The black and tan one.”
“Angela, do not bring that barking dog home. I’m serious. Not that one.”
But there are problems with the connection and the line drops. I think, “Wait—she thinks I was just kidding around!” Frantically, I try to reconnect. She cannot bring a puppy that is already that vocal to this house. It will only get worse. But her cell phone is dead. She cannot be reached. And she brings this barking dog into our home and into our lives. And he barks. And he doesn’t stop that first stretch of barking for a solid year. Completely inconsolable.
We had to find ways to try to soothe him. Exercise worked best of all. So we walked. And when he was old enough to endure it, we ran. We logged hundreds of miles jogging through these suburban streets. And we hiked. And, now, we’ll see if camping works, too.
In these woods Buster sprints ahead of me, now nearing nine years of age and not showing signs of it at all. He darts out of sight and I’m reminded of a similar scene playing out when I was a teenager. Walking in the woods a man’s dog bolted away through the trees. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll lose your dog,” I asked?
“He knows what he’s doing. He’ll come back.”
And so he did. Likewise, so does Buster. As fast and far as he goes, he continuously doubles back to make sure he can see me.
Me. Because that’s who he knows he can trust. After all of this time, this skittish weirdo understands that he doesn’t have to take charge as long as I’m around. He trusts Angela and Jacob, too. But primarily—and tonight exclusively—he trusts me. This screwed up dog. This dog that couldn’t manage to be with anyone else outside of our family. This dog has learned not just to be able to function (well enough) as a member of our family, he’s found peace in our presence. That’s why we’re out here, having hiked far back into the middle of nowhere under these clear, beautiful skies. Tent pitched. Firewood gathered. Starting on our supper, now well after dark.
Tonight will not be a simple, carefree overnight experience. It never is with this dog. But we’ll awaken early. He’ll crash through the woods like a puppy, morning sunlight dimpling his muzzle while I make our campsite disappear. Then we’ll start the hour-long trek back to the truck.
Up and down the road. In and out of the woods. There will be nothing more happy than this old dog, reinvigorated and still free.
At one point during our return hike I will get nervous, even as I recall that dog in the woods from forever ago. Eventually, losing enough faith, I’ll yell out. “B! Let’s go!”
Nothing. Again and still nothing.
But our journey will be close enough to the end that I’ll actually see the front lines of our truck. With another half dozen steps I’ll see Buster, standing there waiting for a ride home.
We’ll drive out that dirt road, over ruts and around jutting rocks. And I’ll be reminded, as I always am when leaving this area, that I seem to drive out a little slower than I drive in.
(Originally published in “Everyday Ordinary No One”)