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A Man, a Dog, and a Great American Road Trip

Moonrise Over New Mexico

By: Peter Zheutlin

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On a mild, rainy night in the Spring of 2018, I patted the mattress of the bed in the dog-friendly inn where Albie and I were spending the night in Bennington, Vermont. Albie is the soulful yellow Lab and Golden Retriever mix our family had adopted six years before, when I was 58 and he was, our vet surmised, about three. Albie hopped up on the bed and lay his head in the crook of my arm. As I had every night during during the road trip with my dog, I gently stroked his head, told him where we were, where we would be going tomorrow, and what a good guy he was. This night I told him we would, after nearly six weeks on the road, be going home tomorrow. And I told him I loved him.

He looked at me with his deep, dark brown eyes, rolled slightly on his side to rest his body against mine and sighed. I knew he didn’t understand. What mattered was the sound of my voice, that he was safe and sound, and that we were together.

The safe and sound part is important. Albie had been picked up as a thin and frightened stray, a lost soul, on a country road in rural Louisiana in February of 2012, and impounded at a shelter where nearly nine of every ten dogs are “euthanized,” a bland euphemism for “killed in a gas chamber.” Against all odds, Albie survived for five months until we found him online and vowed, without ever laying eyes on him, to set his world right. 

That night in Bennington we had nearly 9,000 miles behind us and just a couple of hundred more to go. We had watched snow showers sweep across the Grand Canyon and bison walking along the road in Yellowstone. We’d driven by massive stockyards in the Texas panhandle and through endless orange groves in California’s Central Valley. We’d driven through sun-splashed corridors of wild rhododendrons and dogwoods blooming along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and along remnants of old Route 66 in New Mexico and Arizona. We’d stood on the spot where the great explorer Meriwether Lewis took his life along the Natchez Trace in Tennessee, in front of the hardware store in Tupelo, Mississippi where Elvis’s mother bought his first guitar (for $7.90) and walked up and down the streets that shaped the conscience of Woody Guthrie in Okemah, Oklahoma.

Why did we go?

In 1960, as he was approaching the beginning of his seventh decade, the writer John Steinbeck hit the road with his French poodle Charley. Steinbeck was the acclaimed author of some of the greatest works ever penned by an American writer—Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden to name just a few. But in the twilight of his life he “discovered that I did not know my own country…I was writing of something I did not know about.”

So, he mounted a small camper on the back of a pick-up truck, called the rig Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse, and, with Charley as his wing man, spent three months driving from his Long Island home to his native California and back. 

Steinbeck’s wanderings produced a widely beloved book, Travels with Charley, which I first read nearly a half century ago. During the summer of 2017, at age 63, I reread that very same copy of Travels with Charley, yellowed with age, barely intact, and held together with Scotch tape. The fuse was lit. I would soon have a Medicare card in my wallet and Albie was now about nine and slowed by arthritis. We had arrived on the cusp of old age together. It was time, I thought, for these two aging gentlemen to have what might be a last great road adventure together.

Taking a long road trip with a dog means thinking differently about travel, and I wondered from the outset if it was fair to take Albie away from home—away from my wife Judy and our two other rescue dogs, Salina and Jamba. Would he enjoy the trip? Was it asking too much of him to spend so much time in the car? Could I keep him entertained? Need tips for traveling with your dog, read this?

Albie proved to be a compliant and happy traveler, even if I couldn’t explain any of it to him. But about two weeks into the trip I had an epiphany. We’d driven all the way from Massachusetts to Santa Fe, and all that time I thought we were on this trip together. That night, in Santa Fe, I realized I was mistaken. We were actually on separate trips…together.

“He may have known we were no longer home, but he had no idea how far we'd traveled or why, or if we were ever going back.”

Our hotel was up in the foothills not far from downtown, with a direct view of the Sangre de Christo Mountains, which run north-south along Santa Fe’s eastern flank. Just before bed I took Albie out to give him one more opportunity to relieve himself before settling down for the night.

Outside there was a barely perceptible, faint white glow behind the mountains across the valley to our east. I wondered if the moon was about to rise. If so, it was bound to be a spectacular sight in the clear night sky. Gradually the glow grew brighter and brighter and expanded until a slim line of solid white appeared above the ridge line.

The moonrise was utterly breathtaking in its silent beauty. It felt as if we were inside the works of an intricate watch, only the watch was our solar system. Here we were, just Albie and me, watching the rotation of the Earth reveal a breathtaking moonrise, a miracle of the Universe unfolding right before us.

Except Albie was completely oblivious to this astronomical spectacle. As much as I wished he could share this exquisite, almost spiritual moment with me, he could neither appreciate the visual beauty of the moonrise nor grasp the basic cosmology required to understand the gradual appearance of a white sphere in the night sky. Without that knowledge, what to me was a moment of sublime, transcendent beauty was for Albie a non-event. As I watched in awe as the moon hung itself in the night sky, Albie turned and faced the other direction, utterly disinterested in the spectacle unfolding behind him.

As much as he was a true and loving and uncomplaining travel companion, and as much as I will always treasure the memory of our adventure together, he simply wasn’t capable of sharing some of what made the trip such a joy for me. It’s not a fault, it’s a limitation, one dogs make up for in myriad ways. But we won’t, not now and not two years from now, look at each other and say, “remember that night in Santa Fe? Wasn’t it amazing?”

Albie had been happy wherever we’d been to pose for pictures—at Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo and in front of the Route 66 mural in Tucumcari, for example—but he had no way of knowing why I’d chosen those spots, or why ten Cadillac cars were sticking up out of the Texas plain. He didn’t know why Woody Guthrie mattered to me, why Elvis mattered to the people in Tupelo, or what distinguished Asheville from Nashville. He may have known we were no longer home, but he had no idea how far we’d traveled or why, or if we were ever going back. In short, there was a limit to what Albie and I could share. This didn’t make him an inadequate travel companion in any way. I loved being with him, but we were not, alas, having the same experience. I was, in some ways, traveling alone but not quite alone. Just as Albie was unable to share much of what I was experiencing, I was unable to share much of what he was experiencing and how he was experiencing it, and we couldn’t talk about it. 

The next day, we woke for our morning walk just as the sun was rising in nearly the exact spot where the moon had risen the night before. The moon still hung high in the deep blue sky to the west. Here we were, man and dog standing on planet Earth with the sun rising over the mountains to the east and the moon still in transit across the sky to the west. As I got lost deeper and deeper in the profundity of my own thoughts and in the cosmic grandeur of it all, I looked over at Albie. He was squatting over a carefully selected sage brush. I will never forget the road trip with my dog.

This essay is adapted from Peter Zheutlin’s wonderful new book, The Dog Went Over the Mountain: Travels with Albie, An American Journey (Pegasus Books, 2019).


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By: Peter Zheutlin
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