Highway Haiku # 11
Restrooms ahead; signs we love
And signs that we dread
In the flatlands of eastern Washington — before the westbound traveler gets to the far more magnificent half of the state (it’s like Montana that way) — someone has decided to label the crops.
“Crop names in fence lines next 14 miles,” read the sign on Interstate 90, somewhere west of Moses Lake and east of a town named George, Washington.
It’s like a picture book for kids: Here is the field corn, here is the wheat. You don’t even have to turn the page, just your head: On your left, potatoes; on your right, peppermint. Here is a field of grapes (wrathless variety). Here is some Timothy. (It’s a kind of hay.)
Darned if they hadn’t made the farmland interactive.
I liked this idea.
For one thing, it was a nice break from the steady diet of warning signs the traveler encounters (Dangerous Crosswinds, Watch for Ice, Curves Ahead) and all the signs that brusquely dictate behavior (Stay in Lane, No Passing, Right Lane Must Exit), and all the billboards, shouting about everything from the red hot evils of abortion to the icy cool joys of a Dairy Queen Blizzard.
With the crop signs, there was no hard sell, no spin, no hype, no deception, no hidden agenda or ulterior motive – just a word or two, in modestly-sized lettering, stating what was sprouting up behind the fence:
I liked the conciseness of it. I liked how definite the signs were, how final and inarguable. I liked most of all the fact that they had nothing else to say.
Just like Charley, Ace was showing some signs of sickness in Spokane.
I sensed something was wrong as we neared town. He was getting up and rearranging himself every two minutes. In my rearview mirror — generally aimed so that I may keep an eye on him, as opposed to the traffic behind me – I saw he had that alarmed look in his eyes he sometimes gets, or at least that I sometimes think I see: “Something is wrong and I can’t tell you what.”
Reaching into the backseat, I felt a nose, both warm and dry. I turned the radio off. He was breathing normally, but with a lot of sighs – not those long, seemingly content ones, but more abrupt snorts, the canine equivalent of harrumphs.
Dogs don’t have built-in “malfunction indicators” that flash red, like the annoying one on my car’s dashboard. Being stoic sorts, they don’t always send us a blatant signal when something’s amiss. Ace will run to me and offer up a paw if a burr gets stuck in it, but generally subtle clues are all there is to go on when your dog starts ailing.
While dogs are amazingly adept at taking care of themselves — somehow savvy enough to know the importance of stretching one’s muscles, the colon-clearing effects of munching on some grass and, unlike many a human, when it’s time to get out of the sun — their diagnostic system is, bottom line, us.
Dog owners fall into one of four categories when it comes to how tuned in they are to their pets’ health and well-being: oblivious, attuned, overly attuned, or hopelessly obsessed.
With Ace, I fall somewhere between overly attuned and obsessed. When it comes to maintaining my car, or myself, I border on oblivious. My car gets few baths, its fluids are checked only rarely. In honor of its five years of service, I occasionally give it a gentle pat on the dashboard, but not so hard as to make the crack that extends across the windshield branch out any further. As far as that light – my car’s blinking plea for help – I ignore it.
I entered Spokane with all three of the things I depend on seeming iffy. My car’s malfunction indicator light was flashing – maybe crying wolf again, maybe not. The sole not-maxed-out credit card in my wallet was reaching its limit. And my dog was pacing restlessly in the back seat.
Charley’s problem, 50 years earlier, surfaced in rural Idaho (which is almost redundant) when Steinbeck rented a cabin for the night from a man who, he’d learn, had some concerns about his son. The teenager wanted to leave Idaho to pursue a career in hairdressing: “Not barbering — hairdressing — for women,” Steinbeck quotes the father as saying. “Now maybe you see why I got worries.”
The teenage boy, a sensitive sort, had entered Steinbeck’s cabin earlier, wearing gray flannel slacks, two-tone shoes, a polka-dotted ascot and a blazer – not exactly the traditional garb of rural Idaho. A good case could be made this character, too, was likely pulled more from stereotype than from reality. The boy explained how he wanted to leave the state, move to New York and pursue his hairdressing career. He invited Steinbeck to join him and his disdainful dad for dinner.
Over navy beans and ham, the conflict between father and son replayed itself, and Steinbeck, as he describes it, supported the son’s career choice: “I tell you that a clever, thoughtful, ambitious hairdresser wields a power beyond the comprehension of most men,” he explained.
That night, Charley woke up whining. The dog’s abdomen was distended, he was unable to urinate, and his nose and ears were hot. Steinbeck contemplated fashioning a catheter out of some plastic tubing he kept in Rocinante for siphoning gas. Fortunately, for Charley and for readers, he didn’t pursue that. He decided instead to give Charley some of his Seconal, hoping it would relax the dog’s tensed-up insides and let things flow. The first half pill did nothing, so he gave him a whole one. Charley fell asleep on the bed, then fell off it, tried to get up, and stumbled. He went outside briefly, but without results, then came back in and immediately fell asleep again.
The next morning, Steinbeck said goodbye to his hosts and rushed Charley to Spokane to see a veterinarian – worrying both about the dog’s original condition and whether he had overdosed him with sleeping pills. The vet gruffly diagnosed Charley as an old dog who probably had a cold. “Old dogs get aches and pains. That’s just the way it is,” he told Steinbeck.
“So do old men,” the author responded. “That doesn’t keep them from doing something about it.”
On Steinbeck’s insistence, the vet eventually agreed to give Charley a pill to help flush out his kidneys. Steinbeck managed to quickly diagnose that the veterinarian was an alcoholic, unhappy in his job, and a cold sort who seemed to have little compassion for his patients. Not that Steinbeck was one for coddling dogs. Prone to gruffness himself, he was critical of dog owners who pampered their pets to the point they became like neurotic humans (which also is almost redundant):
“… I yield to no one in my distaste for the self-styled dog-lover, the kind who heaps up his frustrations and makes a dog carry them around. Such a dog-lover talks baby talk to mature and thoughtful animals, and attributes his own sloppy characteristics to them until the dog becomes in his mind an alter ego. Such people, it seems to me, in what they imagine to be kindness, are capable of inflicting long and lasting tortures on an animal, denying it any of its natural desires and fulfillments until a dog of weak character breaks down and becomes the fat, asthmatic, befurred bundle of neuroses.”
In Spokane, my befurred alter ego turned out to have a bad case of diarrhea. It didn’t take a vet to tell me that. Stopping at a Motel 6, he spent a good hour pooping.
Dog owners, some of us anyway, can get quite transfixed by our pets’ feces. On one hand it makes sense. There are a limited number of ways to monitor your dog’s health – chief among them the coldness of the nose, the clearness of the eyes, the heartiness of the appetite, and the regularity and integrity of the bowel movement.
We casually converse with fellow dog owners about our dog’s droppings in a way we never would our own. That probably has a lot to do with how familiar we are with them – much more so than the passing acquaintance we have with those we produce. The responsible ones among us pick up the piles our dogs leave once or twice a day, which reminds me of the old joke, or maybe it was a Jerry Seinfeld observation – the one about aliens monitoring earth who, upon seeing humans following dogs with bags in hand, rushing to collect their droppings, determine that, on this planet, dogs must be in charge.
The aliens would be at least partly right. You’ve got to wonder whether – back when God is said to have given man dominion over animals – man was aware this would become part of the deal. The irony of it all moved me to draw a cartoon – something I do about as well as I sing. I drew it while parked at a rest area where, then promptly crumpled it up and tossed it on the floor of my backseat, with all my other garbage. Months later, I retrieved it.
Just as there is no species we manipulate more than dogs, there’s no species we’ve more become manservant to. We’ll go to pretty great lengths for many of the animals we have dominion over, like thoroughbred race horses, panda bears in zoos and prize bulls with highly sought after semen. But none do we regularly go so far for as dog, whether it’s a Westminster winner or a neutered mutt with no resume to speak of.
For our own sick dog, we’ll break the bank, assuming we have a bank to break, which I don’t, which is why, giving bobblehead Jesus another pat on the head, I stopped in Spokane hoping whatever was ailing Ace would go away with a good night’s rest.
The next day, on my way to Seattle, I was asking myself the same question Steinbeck did – was this trip taking too much of a toll on Ace? Should we stop and visit a vet? His nose had turned cold again. His eyes were clear. But he was still restless and in need of frequent stops.
I called my friends we were headed to visit and suggested that maybe they didn’t want us as house guests. I was worried Ace might mess their home, or contaminate their dogs. They told me to come on over.
The first thing I noticed walking through the door – once their two bull terriers approved our entry — was their spotless, cream-colored wall-to-wall carpeting
My friend Marilyn is a nurturing type. We needed a nurturing type.
We’d only been at her home a few minutes when she served Ace a bowl of cottage cheese to soothe his roiling insides, and started boiling the rice she planned to give him for dinner.
Marilyn and I worked together 30 years ago at a newspaper in Kentucky. She had a different husband then, but the same breed of dog she has now – bull terriers, two in fact.
Ace took to Marilyn and her husband Carl immediately. He took longer to size up their dogs, Ivy and Browser. With their huge and sloping, football-shaped heads, their triangular eyes and their muscle bound forms, bull terriers are among the more unusual looking breeds. Only once did Ace run into one in Baltimore, and when he did, he approached it slowly, almost as if he wasn’t sure it was a member of his species.
Bull terriers are a loving and clownish breed, even though the motives of the humans who fashioned them weren’t directed that way at all.
In the early 1800’s, watching fights between bulldogs and bulls was a popular spectator activity. Fans could satisfy their basest instincts and get their vicarious thrills all while observing the carnage from a safe distance — much like with today’s reality TV shows.
“Blood sport” aficionados decided to create a dog that would have the bulldog’s tenacity, but be a little more fleet of foot. They crossed the bulldog with the Old English Terrier, mixed in a little Spanish Pointer, and came up with what they thought would be a relentless fighting machine – part Army tank, part ballistic missile.
They soon found that the bull terriers – not to be confused with Staffordshire bull terriers or others that fall under the pit bull type — were not all that into fighting (not that any dog truly is; it’s us humans who instill that in them). Instead, the breed would go on to become a popular accessory to noblemen, to earn its keep on farms and estates as a herder, watchdog and ratter, and eventually become, more than anything else, a loyal companion and reliable provider of comic relief.
In one way of looking at it, bull terriers got the last laugh
Ace, after a night’s rest, finally began to respond to Ivy’s efforts to get him to play. They chose to let loose in the formal living room, where she’d run up to Ace, jump on him, then scurry away, somehow managing, while traveling at high speeds, to slide her whole muscular body under the sofa, before repeating the process.
There’s nothing Ace likes better than something that hides from him – perhaps we’re all that way – and he’d wait patiently for Ivy to reappear, at which time he’d softly bite her legs or try to seize her large head in his mouth. Then she’d shoot off again, squirming under the couch until she deemed it time for the next round.
Between the dog antics, I got to meet Seattle. I’d been there several times before, but always in a rush-in, pester-people, get-the-story kind of way. That — a hit and run — is not the correct way to meet a city. Instead, we should be more like dogs. We should fully sniff it out, take our time, forget the schedule and all those other uniquely human notions. We should linger in spots that are linger-worthy, savor the treats we come across and, if the place deserves it, become loyal to it.
The best way to see a city is with humans who know and love it. We were lucky enough to end up in that situation repeatedly during our trip, shacking up with folks who, once they finished showing off their animals like proud parents, wanted to do the same with their city or town.
Based on the sites Carl and Marilyn took Ace and me to see – from dog parks to the Microsoft campus – I left with Seattle high up on my list of livable cities.
John Steinbeck, 50 years earlier, painted a mostly bleak portrait of the Emerald City.
Seattle had been through several of its booms by then — lumber, gold, shipbuilding and Boeing. Decades after he was gone, it would boom again, thanks to Microsoft, Amazon and a slew of other high tech companies that located there. But the Seattle Steinbeck unflatteringly described in 1960 was a tarnished and overdeveloped place, with a downtown that, like many, was rotting as people fled to the suburbs.
“I remembered Seattle as a town sitting on hills beside a matchless harborage — a little city of space and trees and gardens … It is no longer so. The tops of hills are shaved off to make level warrens for the rabbits of the present. The highway’s eight lanes wide cut like glaciers through the uneasy land… Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth … I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.”
Steinbeck’s opinion may have been partly a result of Seattle being a little down when he arrived, or of him being a little down when he arrived. His dog was sick. He was travel weary and lonely. His wife was flying in to meet him, but he had to wait several days for her to get a flight.
He spent three or four days alone in a hotel room near the airport, watching “I Love Lucy” and other TV shows — not the best way to get one’s fingers into the fabric of a city. Once Elaine arrived, they visited the downtown market.
“… I walked in the old part of Seattle, where the fish and crabs and shrimps lay beautifully on white beds of shaved ice and where the washed and shining vegetables were arranged in pictures. I drank clam juice and ate the sharp crab cocktails at stands along the waterfront. It was not much changed — a little more run-down and dingy than it was twenty years ago.”
We visited the thriving downtown market, peeked into the windows of what’s called the first Starbucks, and watched a street performer who plays and juggles guitars, all while hula-hooping. We stopped at Kerry Park in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood, where I took photos of Ace inside a sculpture called “Changing Form,” with the Space Needle in the background. We visited Volunteer Park, where Ace jumped up and poked his head through another sculpture, called “Black Sun,” which resembles a giant donut.
At Marymoor Park we saw a dog park that is what dog parks should be — not some over-landscaped half acre, with artificial turf and fake hills, but 40 natural acres, with a river running through it. More than 100 dogs were romping about at what some call “Doggy Disneyland.”
Seattle, to its credit, started opening dog parks before a lot of cities even began thinking about them. When we rolled through, there were 11.
Fifty years later, I was getting the opposite impression of Steinbeck – and not just because of all the dog parks.To me, Seattle seemed a big city that has handled its growth better than most. Downtown, even amid the sluggish economy, remained vibrant, and at least a few developers seemed to be inclined to hang on to pieces of the past worth preserving, restoring old buildings, rather than leveling and building anew.
I have a theory about states on the edge.
States on the periphery of the U.S. – not just those that hug a coast, but all those that are bordered on at least one side by something other than other American states — are always the strangest, the most delightfully indecipherable, the ones most likely to make your head tilt.
Take Texas. Consider California. And where do things get any weirder than they do in Florida and Arizona?
I base my theory not just on these current travels, but on five previous years of roaming the country as a national correspondent and columnist, often seeking out the offbeat, often just tripping over it. (The latter is more likely to happen, in my experience, in edge states.) What I may lack in statistics to support my argument, I can make up for with one word – Alaska.
In no other state – and Alaska, geographically, is totally on edge — will you find such a collection of searchers, hiders, dreamers, schemers, rebels, outlaws and others marching to their own drumbeat, or maybe just to stay warm.
The U.S. is not like a pizza, where the periphery is the blandest part. It’s quite the opposite. No matter how you slice it, edge states are edgier.
In the edge states, you’re more likely to find those speeding, maybe a little too fast, toward the future, and those hanging on, maybe a little too tightly, to the past.
This is not to say one can’t find perfect examples of normalcy in the edge states, nor to say that sufficient weirdness can’t be found in non-border, non coastal states – Nevada, for example, or even in the heartland. I’m sure even Iowa can get surreal, but it will be a tame kind of surreal — a brief outbreak of surreal — as opposed to the topsy-turvy, gravity-defying, will-it-ever-end brand of altered reality one experiences in an edge state.
Case in point: Oregon.
From its rocky ocean cliffs to its giant Redwoods, Oregon’s coast is one of those American places that diminish you – like the Grand Canyon, like a starry night in a remote desert. They make you realize you are but a tiny and temporary space-holder, tenuously clinging on in this very large and sometimes strange world. There are stretches of Highway 101 in Oregon, as in northern California, where – even before you throw people into the equation – the lay of the land and the angle of the road make you feel not just dwarfed, but as if you are on an alternate plane, one that, without both hands on the steering wheel and a foot hovering above the brake pedal, you could very easily slide off.
When John Steinbeck passed through Oregon, he got a flat tire, then another one. It was nothing but rain, mishaps, and more rain – until he got to the Redwoods, one of those non-official natural wonders. Every man who sees himself as larger than life, every man obsessed with getting rich, every man who thinks the earth is here for him, rather than the other way around, every politician, every blowhard, should be required to spend some time among the Redwoods.
As Steinbeck wrote, they put us in our rightful place:
“Can it be that we do not love to be reminded that we are very young and callow in a world that was old when we came into it? And could there be a strong resistance to the certainty that a living world will continue its stately way when we no longer inhabit it?”
After departing Seattle and spending an uneventful night at a not-quite-stately Motel 6 in Portland, Ace and I headed for the coast, stopping in Cannon Beach, where Ace got his first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.
Over his stomach ailment, he walked gingerly down to the surf, stopping to sniff washed up sea vegetation and to pee on driftwood. Whatever bug he experienced had left him, and ended up in me.
It would be a slow and oft-interrupted jaunt down Oregon’s coast – partly because of its beauty, partly because now it was my stomach that was churning, like foamy waves crashing on mossy green rocks.
Still, I don’t think we overlooked a single overlook. At each one, we stopped, either to stare in awe, take photos, consort with seagulls, or use the bathroom. By early afternoon I started looking for an inexpensive, dog-friendly motel. The Sea Haven Motel, in Rockaway Beach, looked like a possibility – modest from the outside, just six rooms, with a hostel next door. The office door was locked, but I called the phone number posted on it and the manager arrived, putting me in Room 6 and agreeing to waive the $7 dog fee.
After a quick trip to the grocery, where I stocked up on enough chicken noodle soup and ginger ale to last three days – the amount of time Ace seemed to have been afflicted – we entered what turned out to be, for $50 a night, an unbelievably cozy and well equipped little suite. It was the perfect place to be sick, and the perfect weather to be sick in – non-stop rain. For two days, I ate soup, watched log trucks roll by, and read (opting for one of my all time favorites, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” it being a geographically appropriate choice). I hunkered down and mostly slept. Twice, I awakened to take long frothy milk baths with the substance provided in little plastic bottles in the bathroom, and then, ultra-moisturized, sleep some more.
After two days in our cozy cottage, I felt good enough to go, but only as far as Coos Bay.
The next day, driving south down Oregon’s coast on a road lined with evergreens, I was feeling clearer of head and stomach, and I realized that, if I hadn’t passed it, something I wanted to see might be coming up.
While researching Cadillac Mountain in Maine on the Internet, and its reputation for being the first place in the U.S to see the sun rise, I’d seen mention of somewhere in Oregon said to be the last place to see it set.
Not wanting to pull over and fire up my computer to see if I had any Internet access, I called my son and asked him to look it up. Thirty minutes later he called back with the answer – or at least the one he reached through a search engine: Cape Blanco, which as luck would have it, was just ahead.
With no motels in the immediate vicinity, I decided to stop in the next town, Port Orford, get a room, then return to Cape Blanco for the sunset, or what there might be of one given all the rain. As we neared a bridge over the Elk River, it seemed all traffic was pulling off to the side and coming to a stop. People were getting out of their cars and leaning over the bridge’s railing. Was there a mass outbreak of food poisoning? Was a daring river rescue underway? I stopped, because everybody else was. I got out, because everybody else was. I looked down, because everybody else was.
“What are we looking at?” I asked the person next to me.
“Salmon,” the man replied. “They’re spawning.”
I watched for a minute, not quite appreciating the spectacle – though maybe I would have if I was viewing it close up, not high atop a bridge seeing little splashes. Maybe, I thought, you get your entertainment where you can in rural southern Oregon.
Or maybe, when salmon spawn, humans, in some yet to be pinpointed cycle of nature, get a little strange, too.
Although the outlook for a sunset was bleak, I decided to find a room in Port Orford, then drive back north for the sunset. First, though, I stopped at the Paradise Café – never pass up an establishment with “paradise” in its name – for a late breakfast and to gather some intelligence on the small town.
I parked across from a pickup truck, in the back of which sat a wet and bruised golden retriever, his head shaved and several rows of stitches running across his face. He was laying, in the drizzle, atop an oversized tool chest, next to the cab’s back window, which sported a bumper sticker that said, “I’ll Keep My Guns, Freedom & Money, You Can Keep the ‘Change’”
The restaurant was crowded, and – it being a down-home, small-town establishment — all the heads turned to give me a quick once over when I stepped inside. I took a seat at counter, and a cup of coffee was slapped down before me. It was a standard white coffee cup, though I noticed all the regulars seemed to have personalized ones. There was a whole shelf of non-standard coffee cups, of different shapes and colors, each belonging to a regular customer. The idea, I guess, was to make the establishment seem a little more homey and provide clientele with a sense of being unique and, simultaneously, belonging.
Right off the bat I noticed that, as opposed to individual conversations going on at each table – what you’d see at your average Denny’s or Applebee’s — there was instead one big conversation. A customer at the counter might say something, then someone three tables away would respond.
Being a newcomer and a stranger, I didn’t want to jump in, so I struck up a conversation with person at the stool next to me. As it turned out, he was the banged up dog’s owner. Jake, he explained, had fallen out of the back of his moving pickup truck.
Despite that, Jake still rides in the back of the pickup – a practice many animal welfare groups frown upon. But I didn’t bring that up. Nor, having seen his bumper sticker, did I venture anywhere near politics. Instead, we talked about Port Orford, and about Jake, who – though sitting out in the rain, though stitched and battered — was clearly loved, albeit in that rural, non-coddling, unfenced, let a dog be a dog kind of way.
After breakfast, I stopped at Hotel Castaway, which Jake’s owner had mentioned was dog-friendly. The manager was vacuuming a back room, but eventually he came to the counter, and I asked him if they allowed dogs.
“What kind of dog?” he asked.
“A mutt,” I said.
“A mix of what?” he asked.
“Different breeds,” I answered.
“Smoking?” he asked after a long pause.
Pretty sure he wasn’t asking about the dog, I told him a smoking room would be fine, but wasn’t necessary.
“None of our rooms are smoking,” he said.
He quoted me a price of $79, which was over our limit. I headed to a second place that had been mentioned at breakfast. A sign there said “closed,” but the door was unlocked, so I walked in, stood there five minutes and, when no one showed up, went to another motel, two buildings down. It was closed as well.
Back in the car I noticed another motel, the Port Orford Inn, which had a sign saying “pet-friendly,” another one saying “for sale,” and another one saying “for rent.” It looked pretty run down, with the windows of some units boarded up. I pulled into the driveway and, leaving Ace in the car, walked up to two guys loading their car for a fishing trip.
“Do they rent rooms here?” I asked.
“Are you a fisherman?” one of them responded.
“No,” I said, not intending to sound like a smart-ass city boy, but probably doing so anyway. “Is that a requirement?”
They explained that the motel was all but abandoned, and that fishermen stayed there on a semi-squatting basis. They suggested I talk to the live-in handyman who watched over the place, but he couldn’t be found.
One of the fishermen motioned me to follow him to another room. Inside, a man sat on the floor, recovering from a hangover, he explained. Looking up from his crouched position, he said that, for $10, I could share his room, and join him in dining on the fish he planned to catch once he felt a little better. He, and all the other denizens of the down and out inn, had the same strange look in their eyes, one I’d encounter again later in the day – kind of vacant and intense at the same time, if that’s possible.
“If you don’t mind kinking it, you could stay here,” the hung-over fisherman said. “I could use the ten dollars for beer.”
Not knowing what “kinking it” entailed, I didn’t know whether I minded it or not. My guess is he meant something similar to roughing it, but – not being sure, and not wanting to make a commitment to kinking it — I begged off.
Still lacking accommodations, we drove back to Cape Blanco, even though the outlook for a sunset was bleak. We turned off the highway and drove through the fog down the road to the lighthouse, passing some sheep that had spray-painted blue patches on them. The road took us to the end of the continent, or at least the parking lot for the end of the continent.
Amid the mist, remembering what happened at Niagara Falls, I kept Ace on a tight leash as we walked to the edge of what seemed to be a cliff. There was no sun to be seen, and the ocean was all but invisible below. I could see little more than the vague outline of a huge rock. The setting was like something you’d see in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, with two people arguing on the edge of the cliff. What could possibly happen next? While I’d become a little more daring on the road trip, there were still some safety precepts I held dear, like never argue with anyone on the edge of a cliff, or with anyone whose pick up truck sports a bumper sticker about the right to bear arms. I gave Ace a hard tug on the leash – the kind that made clear there was no room for discussion – and we headed back to the car.
As the sun went down – I’m assuming that’s what happened, anyway — Ace and I pressed on, driving back through Port Orford, through Humbug Mountain State Park and all the way to Gold Beach, where we got a room at the Sand Dollar Inn. I unpacked a few things, then took Ace for short walk. Two black cats crossed our path.
Back at my room, I encountered my neighbor, standing outside my door. He wore shorts and a black t-shirt with a motorcycle on it. He was the sort who likes to stand very close to the person to whom he is talking. He looked to be in his 40’s. His head was shaved and covered with nicks, not unlike Jake the dog. He sipped from a can of beer and his words were a non-stop stream of consciousness monologue, impossible to interrupt and hard to follow.
“Is that dog blind? You need a shave. I shaved (points to his head). I cut myself five times. Hell’s Angels. Volkswagen bus. Why does the dog look at you when I’m talking? He loves you, man, that’s why. Why’d they try to do it man? Why’d they try to accuse me of rape? Lucky dog, with a cloth around his throat. He loves you. Why’d they try and do it, man? Forty-seven Harley. Volkwagen bus. Like Bonnie and Clyde. Why’d they try to do it, man? I love you, brother. You’re old. Why’d they try and do it, man?”
I looked at Ace. His head was tilted. So, I realized, was mine. I made a few attempts to get his story, but each response put me back into his stream of consciousness, and try as I might I couldn’t navigate it. I nodded and grunted a few times as my neighbor spoke, pretending that I wholeheartedly agreed with whatever it was he was saying. Then, during one of his rare pauses for breath, I told him I needed to do some things, and would come out and smoke a cigarette with him later.
I went into my room, closed the door and locked it as quietly as I could. Deciding this day was over, but keeping my clothes on, I crawled under my covers and called for Ace to hop up next to me.
Thankful to have found a room, and happy not to be kinking it, I waited for sleep, assured that — between Frankenstein dog, ghost motels, day-glow blue sheep, mist-shrouded cliffs, black cats and the scattered thoughts of my nicked skull neighbor — nothing I might dream could be any weirder than the day had already been.
Age: 2 1/2
Breed: Pit bull mix
Encountered: On a sidewalk in Brookings, Oregon
Back story: David Love was bedridden – going through an ugly spell in his bout with liver cancer – when he agreed to baby sit a friend’s dog named Kitty. The first thing the dog did when she arrived was jump up on his bed and lick his face. When Kitty’s owner came back to pick her up a few days later, she saw how taken the two were with each other, and she offered to let Love keep her.
“She’s my motor,” Love explained when, after seeing the dog pull his wheelchair through town, I finally caught up with them. Love broke his leg playing football in school, and lost it later when complications set in. Life went downhill from there, with alcohol and drug addictions, then liver cancer.
Kitty, in addition to powering his wheelchair, also lets him know when a seizure is coming, Love said. Though she received no official training as a service dog, she seems to have taught herself. She won’t let him out of the room – Love lives in a motel — if she senses a seizure is near.
Kitty had pulled Love for about a mile when I stopped the two of them on a corner. He was headed to a drug store for medications, and to check on his homeless friend Buddy, who’s also in a wheelchair, and who sits at a corner with a sign that says “Simple Work. Anything Helps. Hungary. Broke”
I held Kitty’s leash while Love went into a Rite Aid. As he rolled through the parking lot, Kitty watched him until he disappeared through the door.
Then she took a seat, watching the door and refusing to budge until he came out.