Chapter 5

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Highway Haiku # 5

 

In your mix I see –

Remotely – a tiny trace

 Of Don Quixote

 

Was I in Vermont, or was I in New Hampshire?

I’ve always gotten the two states confused.  In those children’s puzzles  – the cardboard or wooden kind where you slap in the states — Vermont and New Hampshire would always be the last I tried to jam into place. Invariably, my first attempt would be wrong, because one state is the backwards image of the other. For some reason which one was east and which one was west never registered in my brain as a child, and as an adult I now pay the price: NEGDD, or New England Geographical Deficit Disorder.

Adding to my puzzlement was the fact that, with visits scheduled (backwards) in both states, I would be going through one to the other, then back to the first one, then through the second one again.

Sitting at a wobbly desk in a cheap but comfortable motel room, I pondered the question – what state am I in? The TV news was on, but not providing the answer. My laptop computer was two feet away, and there was probably a telephone book in a drawer that would establish my whereabouts. Yet I was trying to figure it out on my own. If I gritted my teeth and squinted my eyes and forced the gears in my brain to churn away, I was sure it would come to me, allowing me to globally position myself, but more importantly assuring me that such hazy moments are conquerable without having to plug anything in or boot anything up.

Ace, meanwhile, there in New Vermontshire, was churning away, too, though sound asleep on the bed. Caught up in a dream, he was making high-pitched sounds, like “Whmmmph, whmmmph,” and all four paws were twitching.

“Chasing rabbits” is the traditional explanation for that sleep behavior in a dog, but, in Ace’s case, I don’t think so. He’d never shown much interested in squirrels or rabbits or other commonplace varmints while awake, so I doubt he’d be pursuing them in his sleep.

More likely, he was being a hero, rushing to save someone from some dreaded something. For that, wimpy as he can be about some things, is a distinct part of his persona. At dog parks, he seems to fancy himself the marshal, patrolling the grounds to ensure that, among the canines, everyone’s behaving appropriately. If he sees the frolicking or playful growling of two dogs growing too intense, he’ll run over, hackles raised, and pin down the dog he sees as the aggressor. If he hears a yelp, he’s on his way. If one dog might be so bold as to hump another one, he’s there immediately, his barrel of a chest puffed out like John Wayne, the hair on his spine standing at attention: “Now we’ll have none of that, partner.”

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If he hears a high-pitched human sound that could be interpreted as plaintive, his ears perk up and he casts a look in that direction, then at me, as if to say, “OK, let’s roll.” He has bravely gone to the aid of many dogs and humans who were in absolutely no need of being rescued. Maybe he’s seen too many TV police shows.

I often wonder if there is some Don Quixote in my dog – whether he is under the delusion he is some sort of canine knight whose mission is to help the needy, ward off evil monsters and keep the peace. Then again, maybe he does all those things, only in ways more subtle than swordplay.

Then too, it might be that he is a hero who simply hasn’t met up with opportunities to be heroic. Without those, heroes can’t shine. Clark Kent remains Clark Kent. Maybe that’s what happens in Ace’s dreams – situations emerge for him to display his heroic behavior and he, though snoring, rises to the occasion.

What I would give to be able to enter a doggie dream, to know what’s going on in there. My suspicion is they involve more than what most people, oversimplifying the species, imagine – far more, I’d guess, than the chased rabbits, cornered cats and floating T-bone steaks we see in cartoons.

What’s behind the “whmmph, whmmph?” Might it be, as with us humans, a million different things, sprouted from our subconscious to take forms monstrous and mystical, soaring and soul-freeing, preposterous and psychedelic? Do dogs dream in colors they can’t see while awake? Can they fly? Who are the bogeymen in dog dreams? Are their dreams based on guilt, too much chili for dinner and desires unfulfilled?

Might they, in their sleep, be living out suppressed urges? Crossing streets they’ve been told not to cross? Chewing forbidden slippers? Leaping fences? Tilting at windmills?

Dogs – though it’s not in their genetic composition, not in their wolfish origins – can and have learned to suppress their urges. Like us, they’re not born that way. Like us, they start off as hungry and squirming bundles of instinct, but get harangued and rewarded, swatted and stroked until they toe the line.

When I place his bowl of food in front of him, I always make Ace sit and wait a few seconds. This is something dog owners do to teach discipline and patience, to de-fuse the feeding frenzy (though it likely has the opposite effect), to remind their dog who’s in charge of the pack: “Wait, wait, waaaiiiitttt  … OK!”

It makes us proud to see our dogs defy instinct and show such restraint, all as a result of our tutelage. But I think we do it mostly for ourselves. There is a look dogs get when they are waiting for the “OK!” Their eyes get big and hopeful and they sit perfectly still, staring at you as if you are the whole world. It makes us feel needed, and powerful.

Truth be told, I’m probably better at controlling my dog than I am at controlling myself. (Try putting a bowl of food in front of me and telling me to wait.) Truth be further told, in a world grown increasingly out of our control, an obedient dog — unlike the weather, traffic conditions, teenagers and other unpredictable things — makes us feel we have at least some grip on life.

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Like dogs, we start life figuring out the purpose of our various appendages, and move on to learning the crucial business of learning to go the bathroom in the right place. Through trial and error, reward and punishment, boundaries and restrictions, we learn the rules: Don’t talk with your mouth full. No TV until you do your homework. Elbows off the table (I’ve never understood that one.) In school, there’s more conditioning, until the point that we, finally unleashed, start darting about and blowing off some steam. Then we proceed to find new leashes: marriage, jobs, children, credit cards. We work for 40 years or so – in jobs we love, tolerate or hate – burying enough bones to ensure we can end up living in a nice facility, with even more rules.

While following the accepted route, while toiling overtime, while thinking if we make enough money the rest doesn’t matter, we rarely stop to assess the void. We may have a dream – whmmph, whmmph — of breaking out and finding a more fulfilling, rewarding, shining way of life – but, with bills to pay and obligations to meet, we let it stay just that, a dream.

Sometimes, while wide awake, a few of us – like the couple you’ll be reading about in a few minutes — take a chance and jump the fence. They are heroes. I’m not. As for Ace, time will tell.

One of books I brought along on my travels, you’ve probably figured out by now, was Don Quixote, the tale of a common villager who fancies himself a knight errant, and upon a steed named Rocinante goes about honoring maidens, slaying giants and seeking glory.

I was getting through it slowly, only about a chapter a week, because most of my nights were taken up by blogging – both about our travels, and for my dog news website, ohmidog! On the latter, I try to post two to three items a day about happenings in the world of dogs. Sometimes they are inspiring stories about dogs being rescued; more often, they are stories about dogs rescuing us; fairly regularly, they are enraging stories about animal abuse.

It’s an old-fashioned website, not big on bells and whistles and flashing things. It has a distinct animal welfare slant. It attempts, presumptuous as it may be, to be a voice for dogs. And while it’s sprinkled here and there with the cute and fluffy, it’s intended to be mostly hard-hitting, address the important issues, and delve deeper into the mysteries of the dog-human bond. It has a thing for the underdog, and is more likely to celebrate the mutt than tout the purebred. It’s not about dog shows, but about what dogs show us.

Were one to objectively compare the amount of time I put into it (a ton) with the monetary profits I reap from it (none), they would conclude that – like Ace’s dreamtime heroics, like the dashing steed Don Quixote envisioned he was mounting every time he climbed aboard his mule – it is a delusion.

My blog, like my dog, requires regular feeding, and allows me to both stay informed and active. Like my dog, it – or so goes the plan — will accompany me into old age, assuring me that I have at least some purpose. On the other hand, blogs aren’t like dogs at all. Blogs don’t lower blood pressure, as dogs do. They tend to raise it, whether you are reading one, writing one, or sifting through the often volatile remarks of commenters looking to start a fight. The blog doesn’t always come when I call it, sometimes disappearing into Internet limbo. It never wants to curl up in my lap. It responds only to orders issued in a language, called html, that I don’t understand, and don’t really want to. I have a blog mostly because technology dictates it – at least in the case of less than famous writers who want to keep writing. The Internet, much like a giant dog pound, is where unwanted, disobedient, lost, abandoned or not especially sought after scribes end up.

Still, I like to think that, by exploring the magic of dogs, by reporting on atrocities that they confront, I am somehow helping the species, and the world. In my view, the better it treats its dogs, the better a place it will become for all. I guess my dog, sacked out on the motel room bed – his paws a flutter, as if on an invisible treadmill — wasn’t the only Quixote-like mammal in the room.

I ask myself, at night, when I take off my rumpled armor —  stained not with the blood of vanquished villains, but with sour cream and fire sauce, dripped from the bottom of a Taco Bell Burrito Supreme I should have pulled over to eat – am I just clinging to a dream? Is the dream still there? And how silly is my current quest, when the only damsels in distress I’m likely to encounter are Great Danes, Chihuahuas or pit bulls – and when, even then, my mission is not actually to rescue them, only to write about it?

I’m no knight, merely a scribe, perhaps a jester, a juggler of words. But when it comes to dogs, there are a lot of human heroes out there, all across the country, doing the real work of saving dogs, including a couple we planned to visit right there in the great state of …

***

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New Hampshire! That’s where we were. Lancaster, to be exact.  Once figuring that out, and after one of those free continental breakfasts that stick to your ribs for a good four minutes, we hit the road.

We pulled out of our downtown motel, passed through a red covered bridge and rode three miles down a ribbon of black highway, cutting through rolling green pastures that stretched all the way to the snow-capped mountains in the distance.

This, I thought to myself, is what Rainbow Bridge would look like – if it really existed.

Most pet lovers know the story of Rainbow Bridge. It’s a comforting ode, promulgated by pet cemeteries and the burgeoning pet-mourning industry. It helps us cope with dog death, and the loneliness that follows. Maybe, too, it eases our guilt about the millions of dogs euthanized in the U.S. every year.

It goes like this. I will paraphrase it, so that none of the three authors who claim to have written it sue me:

When a beloved pet dies, he or she goes to Rainbow Bridge, and romps together with other departed pets in the meadows. There, their illnesses and infirmities disappear and they are young and healthy again. While happy and well cared for, your dog – frolicking though he might be — is deeply missing you, until the day comes that he spots you in the distance. (You, too, have croaked in this scenario.) Your dog breaks away from the group and runs to you at full speed. There is hugging and licking and a joyous reunion, after which you cross Rainbow Bridge, destined to be together forever.

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It’s another delusion that soothes us, even if we don’t entirely buy it. I don’t currently entirely believe in God, for instance, yet I carry a bobblehead Jesus in my cup holder. (Long story. We’ll get to it in Montana.) Delusions, it seems, can both propel us and get us stuck, can both open doors and seal them, can both lead us to greatness and allow us to live with the not-so-great things about ourselves and the world that we don’t do enough to change.

If Rainbow Bridge did exist, it would probably look a lot like the next two stops on our itinerary — Rolling Dog Farm in New Hampshire and Dog Mountain in Vermont, both of which, in their own separate ways, are about as close as one can come to Rainbow Bridge on Earth and are, to me, a lot more inspiring.

Rolling Dog Farm, a sanctuary for blind, deaf and disabled animals, was formerly known as Rolling Dog Ranch and used to be based in Ovando, Montana. During a stint as a visiting professor at the University of Montana, in 2007, I’d visited and left with enough inspiration to last me the rest of the calendar year. In 2010, it had relocated to the outskirts of Lancaster.

It was one of the few stops on our trip that I actually planned, so that we could say hello to its owners, Steve Smith and Alayne Marker, and reunite with some of the dogs I’d met back then.

The first familiar dog face I noticed was Soba, an irrepressible collie mix who had tweaked my heartstrings three years earlier. Soba was one of two pups that came to Rolling Dog from a humane society in Iowa. Both were born to a mother who, while pregnant, got distemper. As a result, some of her pups were born with the neurological disorder known as cerebellar hypoplasia.

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Soba, like her sister, Noodle, takes a long time to get where she’s going. It’s as if each of her legs has a mind of its own. They flop, flail and wobble, but she never gives up. Eventually, through sheer persistence, she gets where she wants to be.

Nearby, in a sprawling backyard divided into a series of large fenced pens, was Travis – looking fatter and perkier than the last time I saw him. Travis was found abandoned and tied to door of a veterinary clinic in Spokane. He would be diagnosed with a muscular disease – one that had gone untreated for so long his jaw fused shut, making it impossible for him to eat and drink. For months after taking him in, Steve and Alayne fed him through a tube surgically inserted into his stomach. One day, though, his tongue emerged out of a small opening on one side of his mouth. Steve and Alayne found that, if they pureed his food in a blender, he was able to lap some up. Travis gained weight, and grew more lively. Once helpless and hopeless, or at least viewed that way, he’s now as playful as can be. He does have one bad habit, though Steve and Alayne look at it more as a fun trick. He’ll go to his water bowl, suck in what he can, then approach a visitor and, like an elephant, spray it all over them.

Patti, another familiar face in an adjoining pen, pressed her nose to the fence as if she were watching, though she couldn’t have been. She has no eyes, having lost them both after being attacked with what was suspected to be either a shovel or axe. She’s a big, sweet and trusting old girl, though you wonder how that’s possible after going through what she did, at the hands of a human. Sometimes I wonder if dogs have more humanity than humans. How did Patti manage to harbor anything but hatred for a species that treated her with such cruelty?

It’s all too common a story, the sort that nobody wants to read, though I’ve been passing them along as part of the mix on my website for three years now, under the thinking that if these instances stay in the shadows, if we don’t get mad, the abuse of animals will continue to be, if not tolerated, at least conveniently overlooked.

They don’t all have happy endings. They don’t always have a feel good side, but often, as they unravel, a hopeful note emerges. This is how it usually goes: Somebody commits an abusive act so despicable that, hearing of it, I lose all faith in man. Then, people like Steve and Alayne come along — or the tens of thousands of others involved in fighting for dogs and helping to put their shattered lives back together – and I get it back. Amid that continuing cycle – lost faith in humans, renewed faith in humans – sits the true inspiration, and maybe the biggest heroes of all: the dogs. They exhibit a stoicism that we can rarely match, a determination that is awe-inspiring, a level of forgiveness that puts ours to shame, and a grace that we can only marvel at.

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Steve and Alayne both worked for Boeing in Seattle, he in the communications department, she as a lawyer. But they shared a long-term dream to someday open an animal sanctuary for blind, deaf and disabled horses and dogs. One day, they decided to stop waiting for it.

Leaving their careers behind, they bought a 160-acre ranch in Ovando in 2000 and named it after the way their own dogs celebrated in the grass when they first arrived — Rolling Dog Ranch.

First, they took in a blind horse nobody wanted. Seven years later, it would be home to 80 animals — 40 dogs, 30 horses, 10 cats. The animals come from humane societies, animal shelters and rescue groups across the country – and Rolling Dog takes them in not so much with the idea of finding them homes, but to give them a place to live out the rest of their lives. In almost every case, they are animals that would otherwise be euthanized.

In 2010, they transported all the animals — ten horses, all but two of them blind; 35 dogs with assorted disabilities, and five cats — to a new home, bringing along five tons of Montana hay so that the horses could make a gradual transition to New Hampshire hay and grass. Altogether, it took 17 trips.

The sanctuary is funded entirely by contributions. Steve and Alayne share their home with the dogs, and care for the animals with help from a small staff of volunteers. Some of the animals have disabilities that resulted from abuse; most have problems that are congenital, or were caused by illness.

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Before leaving, I met Spinner, a large white dog that looks like a shepherd mix. She is blind and deaf. When Rolling Dog took her in from a humane society in Spokane, Steve and Alayne were struck by her eyes – completely white, like tiny cue balls. Visits to a vet determined she had a rare condition known as restrictive strabithmus. Her eyeballs point to the back of her head.

Surgery was unable to correct the condition, but Spinner still gets around, navigating solely by her nose. Her name came from how she behaved when let outside – running gleefully in small, tight circles, with her nose pointed skyward.

As with all the animals there – Cash the blind quarter horse, Birdie the Lab with muscular dystrophy, Briggs the blind and wobbly beagle, to name just a few – watching Spinner at play is a daily reminder of what Rolling Dog Farm is all about, Marker says: “Changing the perception out there that disabled animals can’t be happy.

“These animals may have disabilities, but they don’t consider themselves handicapped. They just want to get on with life and enjoy themselves.”

***

One state over, Dog Mountain is a paradise for, monument to, and celebration of dog – the dream of an artist who, overcoming his own disabilities, constructed on a verdant Vermont hillside a studio, a gallery, a dog park and a dog chapel, and extended an open invitation to dogs and humans to come celebrate the magic of the species.

By the time we dropped by, fall’s foliage was beginning to fade, and sadness had cast a shadow over Dog Mountain. After all Stephen Huneck had survived in life, including a coma that temporarily took away his ability to walk, he was brought down by a flagging economy. He killed himself to keep his dream alive.

His studio, in a giant red barn, now sits empty and silent, with stacks of uncarved, uncut wood leaning against the walls, draped with spider webs.

But the gallery he built was open for business. The dog park he created alongside a pond in a meadow was peppered with romping canines. And, perhaps his greatest inspiration, the Dog Chapel, had a steady flow of visitors.

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Huneck, whose joyful odes to dogs were carved, sculpted and stamped on woodblock prints, shot himself amid a depression triggered by a recession, and in hopes of seeing the value of his work increase, thereby ensuring Dog Mountain’s continued survival.

The sagging economy had, starting in 2008, slowed sales of his art, brought the threat of foreclosure, forced him to close down some of his galleries and eventually — in what was hardest for him — lay off almost all of his 15 employees. “Our employees were sort of like family,” his widow, Gwen, explained to me when Ace and I visited. “Stephen blamed himself.”

Two days later after letting his employees go, Huneck, who was being treated for depression, shot himself in his car, parked outside his psychiatrist’s office in Littleton, New Hampshire. He was 60. In a press release after his death, in January of 2010, Gwen wrote, “Stephen feared losing Dog Mountain and our home. On Tuesday, he had to lay off most of our employees. This hurt Stephen deeply. He cared about them and felt responsible for their welfare.”

Huneck, who was dyslexic, grew up in the Boston area in what he described as a turbulent home. He left home at 17 “with 33 cents in his pocket,” his wife said. After attending Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, where he met Gwen, Huneck became an antiques dealer. Through repairing furniture, he taught himself how to carve. In 1984, one of his original carvings caught the eye of a New York dealer, and he was soon making art full time.

In 1994, Huneck fell down a flight of stairs and was in a coma for two months. When he came out of it, he had Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome, and doctors were not optimistic. He had to relearn how to walk, how to sign his name. But he went back to work, finishing a series of woodcut prints based on his dog Sally. The first woodcut he carved was “Life Is a Ball” celebrating his new found second chance at life.

After his recovery, Huneck continued producing dog-inspired works of art, and, by 2000, Dog Mountain was a multi-million dollar business. He published a series of children’s books, and opened galleries across the country.

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His near-death experience also inspired him to build the Dog Chapel, a hand-made replica of 19th Century New England church, designed as a place where people can celebrate the spiritual bond they have with their dogs, past and present. He started it in 1997, finished it in 2000. Admission is free. Leashes are not required. Huneck called the chapel “the largest artwork of my life and my most personal.”

A sign outside the chapel states: “All Creeds, All Breeds, No Dogmas Allowed.”

The chapel has four pews, with carvings of dogs at the end of each, and stained glass windows that feature winged dogs (a recurring image in his work). The interior walls are covered with post-it notes, left by visitors. Originally there was one “Remembrance Wall,” where pet owners could memorialize their pets. Now all the walls are covered with them. People who couldn’t make the trip could email their remembrances and Huneck would post them on the church walls.

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Gwen Huneck is trying to keep his dream alive. After his death, she told me, “there was a real outpouring from people who realized how much Stephen and Dog Mountain meant to them.” By the time we visited, Dog Mountain had been able to hire back eight employees, but it was still struggling to stay afloat.

At the gallery, dogs are welcome, and Gwen encourages those coming in to take their dogs off their leashes. Ace accepted the invitation, greeted Gwen’s three dogs — two Labrador retrievers, Daisy and Salvador Doggie, and a golden retriever named Molly — then settled down on the floor amid a collection of Huneck’s work.

Many have described that work as whimsical — carved Dachshund lamps, prints of dogs with wings, Dalmatian benches and the like — but delightful as each individual piece is, Stephen Huneck’s body of work, and his life, went far deeper than whimsy, striking a chord with many.

Two years after his death, like the bark of a dog in an empty canyon, it still resonates.

 

ROADSIDE ENCOUNTER

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Steve Smith and Patti

Name: Patti

Age: About 10

Breed: Shepherd mix

Encountered: At Rolling Dog Farm in New Hamsphire

Backstory: Patti came to Rolling Dog Farm — back when it was still in Montana — from Spokane Animal Control, where she was scheduled to be euthanized. An employee felt sorry for her, checked her out of the facility the day before she was to be put down, and tried to find her a home. When Patti arrived at Rolling Dog in 2003, one of her eyes was missing, and the other was solid white. A scar ran across her forehead from one eye to the other, and suspicions were that she had been struck with an axe, hatchet or shovel. Her second eye was removed and her lids sewn shut. Patti would go on to spend eight happy years at Rolling Dog. After our visit, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer called hemangiosarcoma. She died Nov. 20, 2011, while lying under a fleece blanket. “She showed us,” Steve Smith said, “how animals are immensely capable of forgiving — if not forgetting — what people have done to them.”

 

 

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