Chapter 7

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Highway Haiku # 7

 

When a dog’s the one

You fall for, the honeymoon

Is never over

 

Having a plan and having a dog don’t always go hand in hand.

Sometimes you have to pull your dog your way; once in a while you should let him pull you his. If there’s not some give and take, if it’s just one of you yanking the other around, all the time, you have work to do – either when it comes to training him, or in restraining the mini-dictator that might be inside you.

Spend any amount of time dog-and-people-watching and you’ll see people who seem slaves to their dogs, who have been utterly steamrolled by their canine’s cuteness, who – and this is especially true with tiny dogs — let them get away with just about anything.

You’ll also see dogs that seem slaves to their people, marching in perfect lockstep alongside their human because they are fearful of doing otherwise, dogs whose owners are so domineering that their spirit, their independence, their dog-ness, has nearly been vanquished. They’ve lived with so many restrictions, under such a constant barrage of orders and scoldings, that when they are let off the leash and told to “go play,” they almost do not remember how.

Happily, there are many that seem to have it right, those human-canine pairs who seem to have worked out a balance. It involves compromise, arguments, often treats, sometimes yelling, but mostly letting go of the tendency, in both species, toward stubbornness. I’d argue that it involves some reasoning – verbal and non-verbal — and not just on the part of the human. We, being ultimately responsible for what our dogs do, have to have the upper hand, but the key is to exercise that authority without repressing a dog’s spirit, without turning them into totally submissive creatures whose sole purpose in life is to please their so-called masters. For a dog, it means making some concessions, suppressing some instincts. For a human, it means being in charge without being a jerk about it.

Sometimes, you’ll see dogs and humans who seem to be in that perfect synch. They are the ones who both appear happy. They are the ones who go nearly everywhere together. They are the ones more likely to be able to carry out a plan — assuming rule-spouting bureaucrats, screaming children, rabbits in need of chasing or other obstacles don’t get in way.

Ace and I had a plan as we reached Niagara Falls, and an opportunity to succeed where John Steinbeck and Charley failed.

In addition to my numerous digital wares, and my far more intriguing (in my opinion) dog, I had one other advantage over the author. I, in a rare case of thinking ahead, had brought Ace’s paperwork along on the trip. While it would mean straying again from his 50-year-old path, we didn’t hesitate to attempt what Steinbeck and Charley were unable to accomplish – cross into Canada and take a shortcut through Ontario.

Steinbeck, once seeing Niagara Falls from the U.S. side, had hoped to scoot into and across southern Ontario, re-entering the U.S. in Michigan. But, at the border crossing, Canadian officials warned him that, while he and Charley were welcome in Canada, he might have some problems getting his poodle back into the U.S.

Steinbeck lacked papers documenting that Charley was vaccinated against rabies, and — 1960 being pre-email, pre-fax — getting sent an instant copy wasn’t a possibility. His only choice, other than waiting on the U.S. Mail, would have been to drive back into America and get Charley re-vaccinated.

Instead, he turned around before officially entering Canada, but even that proved problematic. For a few moments, the author of “Travels with Charley, In Search of America,” was in limbo between two countries.

When he arrived back at the entrance to the U.S., even though he’d been gone only a few minutes – even though it was 41 years before terrorist attacks would transform our border-guarding practices from a state of vigilance to a state of hyper-vigilance – he was asked to step out of his vehicle and show Charley’s papers.

“He hasn’t been away,” Steinbeck said

“But you are coming from Canada,” the U.S. border officials said.

“I have not been in Canada.”

He was asked to step into the office, where the border guard checked and determined the man and dog never entered Canada. But the guard found something else to scold Steinbeck about. A phone number had been scribbled on his passport, and defacing a passport is illegal.

Satisfied that he had something legitimate, though miniscule, to chastise the traveler about, having issued that kind of reminder government authorities seem to like delivering – in effect, “We are big and you are small … we’re in charge here” — the agent let him proceed back into his country or origin.

“I guess this is why I hate governments, all governments,” Steinbeck wrote. “It is always the rule, the fine print, carried out by fine-print men. There’s nothing to fight, no wall to hammer with frustrated fists.”

Ace and I experienced a minimum of frustration in making our crossing.

SONY DSCWe drove across the Rainbow Bridge. Not to be confused with the mythical one, this one — while also a stopover between two supposed planes of existence — spans the Niagara River, which separates the countries. It was built near the site of the Honeymoon Bridge, which collapsed in 1938 when the waters it crossed got too icy, damaging its foundation.

When I pulled to a stop at the gate into Canada, I was worried that, with all the baggage I was toting, someone might feel the need to search what was inside and atop my car. Instead, I only had to answer a few questions.

“What’s the purpose of your trip? What’s all that in your car? Are you carrying any firearms? Do you have any tobacco?”

The Canadian border agent seemed satisfied with my answers: “Business and pleasure.” “Camping gear.” “I have no guns.” “I’m down to my last six cigarettes.”

After staring at the magnetic sign advertising my website on my driver’s side car door, he asked about it.

“What’s ohmidog?”

“It’s a website about dogs,” I explained. “Right now, I’m traveling across the country with my dog, like John Steinbeck did, and writing about it.”

It was one of those sentences that, halfway through it, given the audience reaction, you realize there was no need to start. His face had a blank an unenthusiastic look.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “What do you sell on your website?”

“Nothing really,” I answered.

“Do you breed dogs?”

“No.”

“Then what kind of company is it?”

“I’m not sure it’s a company,” I said. “It’s just a website with news and useful information about dogs.”

“How many dogs do you have in there?”

“In the car you mean? Just one.”

“I still don’t get it,” he repeated, handing me back my passport and signaling me to pass.

Once we found an $18 parking space, we walked over to the falls, where, as he has done at other spots of scenic beauty, Ace upstaged the tourist attraction.

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A dozen times, tourists stopped us to take pictures. Some asked to pose with him and handed me their cameras.

SONY DSCOne volunteered to take a picture of the two of us together, with the falls in the background, as if we were honeymooners.

A Japanese man, clearly wanting to ask about Ace but not a speaker of English, simply gave me a gigantic smile and a prolonged thumbs-up.

And at least 30 asked the eternal question: “What kind of dog is that?”

Although the sun wasn’t in the right place, I tried to get some photos of Ace with the falls in the background. The edge of the falls, on the Canadian side, is blocked off by a railing. There’s a stone wall, about two feet high, with iron rails, a couple of feet high, running above it. The stone wall was wide enough for Ace to get up on and sit, so I had him do so — right next to the sign that said “Danger.”

I had taken a few shots when a gaggle of tourists stopped, one of them with a little girl who just couldn’t stop squealing at Ace — squeals of delight, but very high-pitched and loud. Ace isn’t a fan of the squeal. If he hears one in the distance, he wants to go check it out. If one is right in his face, he’s inclined to flee.

As I was holding on to his leash, putting my camera away, and – through the squeals — answering questions about my dog, Ace, seeking to get some space between him and the loud child, jumped over the rail.

There was grass on the other side, about 10 feet of it before the sheer drop off. He walked toward the edge, to the point that I was leaning over the rail, with both myself and the six-foot leash fully stretched out. I called and pulled him back, trying to remain calm inside because I think when I’m calm inside, he is too. When he came back to the fence, I told him to jump back over and he did.

Fortunately, no authorities saw the incident and I didn’t get the scolding I probably deserved. Then again, neither do all those people who seem not to give a second thought to holding their young children over the rail to give them a better view.

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We wandered around a little more, viewing the falls from other vantage points, and enjoying a rainbow that rose up over the casinos, arched over the river like a cast fishing line and terminated in the roiling water.

Back in the safety of my parked car, happy I hadn’t lost my dog to the roaring natural wonder, I gave silent thanks that the only Rainbow Bridge either of us met up with that day was the real one, and for the day I met him at Baltimore’s animal shelter, and for every day in between.

I reprimanded myself for letting my attention get diverted and, sitting in my parking space, seeking to get my money’s worth out of it, I opted for a picnic inside the safety of my car, unwrapping the ham sandwiches my aunt had sent me off with that morning.

I ate one of them. You can guess who got the other.

***

We’d spent the night before in Amherst, outside Buffalo, after taking two days to get across New York state from Saugerties.

One night, we stayed at another Motel 6 in Syracuse, or Rochester, or one of those steely grey towns, stopping mainly for the purpose of giving Ace a bath before he visited some relatives he’d never met. He jumped right into the bathtub, and sat patiently as I used the ice bucket to soak him down. He looked near bliss as I scrubbed him vigorously with an oatmeal-based flea and tick shampoo, especially when I got to that part of his back that, when I rub it at the right rhythm with the right amount of force, always makes his mouth stretch out into what, to human eyes, seems a smile. I dried him off, using every flimsy white towel in the room and sent him to lie in front of the heater.

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The next day, we found the house of my uncle, son No. 2 of the tax-collecting fireman. My father’s brother and his wife, while dog lovers, are not believers in the whole idea of them living in the house. Their children’s visiting dogs, and even their own dog, when they had one, were rarely permitted inside.

In 1960, that was the norm. There were 26 million dogs being kept as pets in America then, and the majority of them lived outside. Today, there are three times as many dogs — more than 78 million – and only a scant minority are full-time outdoor dwellers.

Inviting dogs indoors, though it didn’t happen all at once, would – probably more than anything else in their history — change dog’s place in society.

It happened slowly and subtly, almost as if it was a conspiracy, quietly choreographed by canines. Once they got a paw in the door, they made their way from porch and basement to the living room, to up on the couch, and eventually to the bedroom, as long as they slept on the floor at the foot of the bed.

Fifty years later, we’re a nation spending billions on gourmet dog food, doggie day care, dog strollers, dog nannies, dog treadmills, dog birthday parties, dog tranquilizers, dog psychiatrists, dog spas, dog health insurance and dog couture — all part of a massive and ever-growing industry catering to our need to cater to our dogs, in life and death, sickness and health.

And that foot of the bed rule? We’ve relaxed a bit on it, too: 50 percent of Americans with dogs now share their beds with them, some recent surveys say.

While there are still holdouts, like my uncle, the world, and America particularly, has become a different place for dogs. There are dog parks in most cities of any size. In some cities, dogs outnumber children. There are dogs in 46.3 percent of America homes, and we are spending more on them every year — $51 billion in 2011, twice as much as in the year 2000.

When Steinbeck traveled around the country with Charley, it was unusual to see dogs on the road. Today, about a fourth of us take them along on vacations.

There are more dog friendly restaurants, and hotels — from your basic Motel 6’s and Red Roof Inns, virtually all of which accept dogs and charge no extra fee; to your slightly more upscale La Quintas, most of which accept dogs; to ritzy luxury hotels that offer doggie spa services and keep a licensed doggie masseuse on staff.

Are we going overboard? Absolutely. Is that perilous? Maybe. It causes me no consternation that the status of dog has risen to heights unprecedented, or that the dog-human bond has become stronger than ever. But when the pampering reaches levels that no longer allow a dog to be a dog, when we start inflicting them with our bad habits, when the doggie wardrobe fills an entire closet, or when a dog spends half his life in a designer handbag, we’re guilty – again — of turning them into something they’re not.

When it comes to what humanesque privileges and luxuries a dog should enjoy, I fall somewhere between Paris Hilton and Uncle Eugene, which is a pretty wide range.

With the temperatures still above freezing, I figured one night as a real dog wouldn’t hurt Ace. I laid his blanket near the back door of my uncle’s house, and he had a spacious, well-manicured, fenced backyard at his disposal. He seemed to enjoy everything about being outside – except for the fact that the people were inside. He’d sit at the window and gaze in forlornly, especially when he sensed food was being served.

Only twice during the night did I hear him whine – and in a way I’d never heard him whine before. Usually he will emit a two syllable sound, when he’s upset or gets impatient. Something like “ruh-ROOOO.” On this night, he came up with a four syllable one, something like “ruh-REEE-RAAA-rooo.”

The next morning, when I stepped outside, he was the most charged up I’ve seen him since our trip began. I think a night in the fresh air, as opposed to a Motel 6 smoking room, did him good.

After visiting the falls, it took less than four hours to drive across the rest of Ontario, and it was under 200 miles, as opposed to the seven hours and more than 400 miles it would have taken had we stayed in the U.S., veering south, then west, then north again. That meant bypassing Chicago entirely. Steinbeck, after being warned away from Canada, had ended up there, placing Charley in a kennel and flying his wife in for a few nights at the Ambassador Hotel. Today, Ambassador rooms run as high as $309 a night, and the hotel’s pet policy allows dogs, if they are small ones. Between my large dog, my small budget and my lack of anyone with whom to rendezvous, I saw no reason to include it on what I had of an itinerary.

The scenery, once we got outside of Niagara Falls, wasn’t much different than what Pennsylvania and Ohio would have offered — a lot of the same flat land and fast food franchises. The only real differences were the money and the metric system.  I stopped for some 99-cent gas, even though I knew it was that much per liter. It cost just as much to fill my tank, but it still felt good to get gasoline that cost less than a dollar per unit.

Other than the gasoline, we contributed little to Canada’s economy. I would have liked to have spent a night in Ontario, soaking in some local color, but I didn’t. I had some blogging to do, and I feared big roaming charges if I got on my phone or my computer while outside the U.S.  I’m sure there are good reasons for roaming fees; I just don’t like the name. The word “fees” should just not be attached to a concept like “roaming.”

In Sarnia, we pulled up to the U.S. entry gate just as the sun was going down. There was no search, no grilling. I flashed my passport. The agent took a peek at Ace and asked only if I’d purchased anything in Canada.

“Just these cigarettes,” I replied, holding up a pack of a brand called Next that I’d picked up at the gas station.

We stopped for the night right there, in Port Huron, and took off the next morning for the other side of Michigan, where we’d reserved a space on the high speed ferry from Muskegon to Milwaukee. Driving all the way around Lake Michigan would have been 275 miles and taken five hours. The ferry, while pricey — $92 for my car, another $85 for me – took only half that long, and, after so many Interstate miles, it seemed a far more romantic mode of transport.

***

Unlike some of our earlier ferry rides, Ace wasn’t allowed to get out and roam on the high speed ferry.

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Dogs can stay in the car, or make the trip in one of the kennels in the bowels of the boat. I figured – dogs, like humans, often preferring the security of the familiar — he’d be happier in the back of the car.

Over the previous five months, it, more than any other place, had served as home. It was where Ace was most comfortable, even though it was packed with luggage, boxes and camping supplies, and even though the slightest shifting of its bungee-corded contents – like when I’d venture ever-so-slightly off the road and be jarred back to life by rumble strips — seemed to cause him great eye-darting consternation.

I cracked all the windows about three inches, and a friendly ferry steward, after coming up to meet him, promised to check on him during the trip.

I went up to the enclosed seating area, fired up my computer and promptly fell asleep. Twice I woke up and snuck down to see him. Both times, I saw the ferry steward by my car, consoling Ace through the cracks in the window. I suspect she might have passed a few treats his way.

They ended up falling in love, as is often the case with females and Ace.

Ace would fall in love — and not the one-sided kind, either — probably close to 100 times during our trip. Often, but not always, it would involve treats. Generally, he would show his feelings first with a full body lean, then by sitting squarely on the foot of his intended, as if to say “don’t ever leave me.” It is a gesture both sincere and, given his 130 pounds, effective. I, on our journey, would rack up far less impressive numbers in that department.

In retrospect, there were a few feet I should have sat on.

SONY DSCOnce the big ferry docked, I got back in my car. Ace was happy to see me, but seemed more concerned about where his newfound flame was. We spotted her as we pulled off. I waved. Ace sat down and watched out the back window until she went out of sight. Then he stayed in that position ten minutes more, just in case she was to magically reappear.

I told him he needed to get over it.

I am one of those people who converses with their dog, though not a whole lot, and generally not in public – except to yell “No!” or “Get away from that!” or “Get over here, don’t make me tell you again!” I rarely speak to him in that annoying high-pitched, baby-talk way common among men and women whose nests have otherwise emptied – at least not when other people are around. And when I do, privately, tell him how good, and handsome, and sweet, and wonderful, he is, it is generally in a calm and rational tone.

Whether he understands it or not, he seems to appreciate that. He normally looks in my eyes when I talk to him, almost as if he is hearing me out, which I think is amazingly polite considering he doesn’t understand most of the words I’m uttering. On the outskirts of Milwaukee, though, his back was turned to me and he was still looking out the back window for the ferry steward as I explained to him that, in this rambling stage of our lives, we shouldn’t be getting too attached to anyone, because we will just be moving on.

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I wondered if it bothered him – the way I kept introducing him to all these new people only to leave them behind. First, I’d moved out of Baltimore and taken him away from all his friends. Now, we were meeting new people daily. He’d form new attachments – some rising to the foot-sitting level – only to see the object of his new found loyalty vanish out the back window, another love lost, as we moved on to the next state.

Despite all the similarities between my dog and me, we remain a little different in this area. And, just maybe, in this case, it’s another example of how there’s much more I can learn from him than he could ever learn from me.

 

ROADSIDE ENCOUNTER:

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Name: Next

Breed: Canadian cigarettes

Encountered: At a gas station in Brantford, Ontario

Back story: When I asked for cigarettes – Canadian law requires them to be kept out of view – the cashier opened a big drawer, full of brands I’d never heard of. I asked for an inexpensive one. She suggested “Next.” I paid in American and got change in Canadian. On the box was a government-required warning — one of several hard-hitting ones featured on all cigarette packs there — showing a cigarette burned most of the way down, with its ash hanging on in a very limp manner. Alongside the image was a written reminder that cigarettes can make you impotent.

 

 

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