My dog, while smart, is not the world’s smartest.

My dog, while big, is not the world’s biggest.

He’s not the world’s bravest, strongest, or fastest; and he’s definitely not the world’s most agile. While he sometimes gets recognized, he’s not a big-time celebrity. He does not dance, surf, ride motorcycles, or solve (to my knowledge) complex mathematical equations. His repertoire of tricks is limited.

He is not the world’s ugliest dog, and he hasn’t yet been proclaimed — though I think he could be a contender — the world’s handsomest. He has not tracked down lost children, pulled old ladies out of fires, or used his detecting skills to keep the world safe from terrorists.

He has rescued no one, unless you count me, and I say that not in sappy way.

I respect your heartstrings and in the pages ahead – even though dog books are notorious for it — I won’t go tugging on them. For one thing, dogs are quite capable of doing that on their own. For another, I’m prone to cynicism, though my dog does his best to paw through that crusty surface and counter those leanings.

Still, it’s not being overly warm and gooey to say every dog anyone brings home – especially a rescued dog – ends up rescuing their human in one way or another, often in a manner very subtle, maybe even unnoticed.

Rescuers are not always heroes; often they’re just beings who ended up in a position to help out. Similarly, while it is often the case for shelter dogs, the rescued — human or canine — are not always on the brink of certain disaster. Although we humans tend to see things that way, they’re not always that dramatic, or black and white.

Ace is a dog of many colors — black and tan and amber and auburn and blond and beige. He’s mostly the color of pumpkin pie. As a thrice confirmed mutt, he is definitely not the world’s “purest” dog. He contains four breeds that we’ll tell you about later, once you get to know us better.

He has won no ribbons or trophies. He has no “distinguished” bloodlines, or at least what those in the “dog fancy” world would see as such. He has no known ties to any Westminster winner, no lengthy kennel club name, and, being a mutt, no easily traceable, family tree. I know this because — in a quest both scientific and spiritual, and maybe a little obsessive — I once investigated his roots.

After an early childhood spent wandering Baltimore’s streets – and, yes, they can be mean – he was picked up by animal control, caged in a shelter and put up for adoption. For the next five years or so, he shared a rowhouse with me.

Lucky dog? Hardly. (I’m not that easy to live with.) It was much more a case of lucky human – so fortunate, in fact, that I decided he deserved something more than what had become our urban routine (and maybe that I did, too).

What followed was a 25,000-mile journey, retracing the route John Steinbeck took across America in “Travels with Charley.”

When Ace and I hit the road in 2010, it was a journey forged partly out of idleness, aimed at countering all the insidious doubts that come with being unemployed. It was in part to pay homage to one of my favorite authors and the trip he took with his poodle 50 years earlier. It was also an attempt to liberate ourselves, to treat my dog and me to some wide open spaces and figure out where in fast-paced, job-short, technology-driven, computer-dependent, early 21st Century America we might fit in.

But most of all it was a celebration of dog — my dog, your dog, nobody’s dog and everybody’s dog — of a species that has reached its highest numbers in history in this country (nearing 80 million) and is enjoying, we can only assume, its highest status ever. Despite all our attempts to pigeonhole, manipulate, humanize and regulate them, dogs remain remarkably unique, incredibly resilient, true to themselves and, without being at all pushy about it, friendly reminders of how much we humans still have to learn, both about them and from them.

Beneath the drooling countenance, behind the goofy antics, lay far more life lessons – from how to stay fascinated and maintain an uncrushed spirit to more practical survival skills, like how to adapt to infirmities, or snare a free meal. How to mooch, without seeming like either parasite or beggar, was a vital and often-exercised talent on our low-budget journey.

If, at times, this book seems to be behaving like a dog, that is intentional. We sought – well, I sought; for Ace it came easy – to be dog-like, both in taking our journey, and in documenting it. Blame any spontaneity, unpredictability, honesty, playfulness, growling or goofiness on that.

Given this book acts like a dog, given it aims to be, like dog, devoid of any pretensions, feel free to treat it that way. Don’t hesitate to dog-ear any pages, assuming the version you’re reading is made of paper. Rather than finding that insulting, we would consider it the highest compliment. Feel free to use the book as door stop, or to prop open a window, as both Ace and I like feeling we are of some use.

In reading this book, no decorum is required; on our journey little was exercised.

We sometimes darted away too quickly; we sometimes lingered too long. We usually failed to send thank you notes to those who took us in. We didn’t always treat the famous author who inspired us with total respect – either in terms of blindly accepting his words as truth or meticulously following his route.

While sniffing along John Steinbeck’s trail, we didn’t hesitate to veer off in a new direction if something sparked our interest, or to go down a road without knowing where we’d end up. Sometimes we were focused, sometimes we meandered. We’d visit some sites of Steinbeck’s past, and (because I was driving) a few sites of mine. Crossing the country, we’d stop in places renowned for their “dog-friendliness,” tour animal shelters, rescues and sanctuaries, and seek out other locations of canine significance, from those that are shining examples of where we’ve done right by dogs to some dismal reminders of where we haven’t.

Our journey — and it pales in comparison with the lengthy trek dogs have made in their evolution from wolf to soul mate – was an inquiry into the levels to which the dog-human bond continues to rise, even just since Steinbeck’s day.

Look at it as a quest for the dog-loving soul of America – inspired by, to pay honor to, and in the company of, my favorite author and my favorite dog.

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