Chapter 13

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Highway Haiku # 13

Like your roots can’t rot

That’s how it feels, when living

In a house with wheels

 

Heading to Arizona, John Steinbeck and Charley stopped in the bone-baking heat of the Mojave Desert. He gave Charley some water, and, sitting in the shade of his camper, opened a can of beer for himself. That’s when he spotted two coyotes in the sagebrush.

He slowly reached for his rifle, took aim at one of the coyotes, and turned off the safety.

It wouldn’t be until the decades ahead that coyotes would develop — at least among non-ranchers — a slightly more respectable image, becoming both New Age symbol and recurring theme for most southwestern artwork. In 1960 they were still seen mostly as predators, and their hauntingly plaintive howls were interpreted more as an interruption than nature’s cathartic background music.

Killing one or two, Steinbeck reasoned, as his finger neared the trigger, would be a public service.

But he couldn’t do it. As he steadied his weapon, “the coyote sat down like a dog and its right rear paw came up to scratch the right shoulder.” Steinbeck got into the cab of his camper and drove off – but not before leaving two opened cans of dog food behind for the coyotes.

Passing through Arizona, Steinbeck’s stops were few. He was weary by then – Charley, too – and from all indications he zipped quickly through the state.

We would spend a month there. Arizona – even when it’s 115 degrees – has always captivated me, ever since a baby-sitter saw fit to buy my suburban New York family a subscription to Arizona Highways magazine. Fifty years later, I have some family there, and some history. Arizona is where I took my first full-time job, in Tucson.

I remember my insecurities raging on my cross-country trip to life as a grown-up – the car windows down; my 8-track tape player blaring some Steppenwolf, to pump me up, or some James Taylor, to calm me down; my 1970’s hair flapping into my eyes. Now, I still drive with the windows down, but my music comes from shiny flat discs and, when the wind blows my hair into my eyes, it is usually eyebrow hair.

Ace and I made Tucson our first stop. I drove by the offices of my first newspaper, but didn’t go in. Given 35 years had passed, it was unlikely anybody I knew was still there, and, if there had been, it would have been a shock to see them, and vice versa. Returning to places of my past, while it brings back lost memories and allows me to feel the surge of youth again, also reminds me how far back that past was, confirms that such surges now are both fewer and of lesser voltage, and makes me want to have some do-overs.

I found 1975 right where I left it.

I was 21 and, after more rejection than I care to remember (but do, it was 63 newspapers), I’d finally landed a job after college — to be the night-time police reporter at the Arizona Daily Star. There was a three-month probationary period and, self confidence never having been my strong suit, I decided to live somewhere I wouldn’t have to sign a year-long lease. That’s how I ended up at the Howdy Manor.

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It was old even then, as were all the other little 1940s and 1950s vintage motels that lined Benson Highway, all designed the same way — three rows of adobe-looking cottages, forming a “U ,” with a courtyard in the middle; all with cowboy-sounding names like the Lariat, the Western, the Round Up, the Bucking Bronc.

Once a busy major thoroughfare, Benson Highway had been sent into early retirement when the Interstate opened up and offered travelers a quicker route. For the motels, the client base shifted from tourists to transients.

The Howdy Manor, in 1975, wasn’t nearly as hospitable as its name sounded, but it was close to the newspaper. Its price — $5 a night, if you paid by the week – fit in nicely with my $150 a week starting salary. And it had a kitchenette.

At first, it was a depressing little place, full of people I didn’t think I wanted to meet. Given my shift, I didn’t. I worked 4 p.m. to 1 a.m., spending most of that time at the Tucson Police Department, waiting for crimes to occur. (Now there’s no waiting). The captain was Linda Ronstadt’s brother, and the desk sergeant was a big man with a handlebar mustache who always greeted me the same way when I came in: “Hey Johnny (and nobody called me Johnny). How’s your hammer hangin’?”

I was always a little intimidated by the question, as I was by the whole macho vibe of the police department, and try as I might to come up with an appropriate answer — “Oh, it’s hangin’,” or “quite well, thank you” — I never did.

In the wee hours of the morning, I’d get back to Howdy Manor, double lock my door, turn on my black and white TV and heat up a can of something on the little stove while I watched black and white Perry Mason reruns. Around noon, I would wake up, eat, shower, and, after just a TV show or two, it would be time for work again.

My stay at the Howdy Manor – about two months, before I broke down and moved into a modern, clean, boring apartment — came during one of only two periods in my life that I didn’t have a dog. I probably could have used one. I was, except for work, leading the insular life into which I’m prone to slip.

That, though maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, was why I got into newspaper journalism — to force myself to meet the world, to force myself to meet people. It was probably the best decision I ever made, despite the fact that the industry’s hammer hasn’t been hanging too well for more than a decade now.

The point is the time came, there at the Howdy Manor of the 1970’s, when I got tired of being in my room, and I ventured out and met its other denizens — or at least those who weren’t bigger recluses than I was. I’d end up finding them, and their stories, fascinating. The same was true on the job, which took me, in siren-chasing pursuit, to neighborhoods of every ilk. That is probably when, rather than ignoring and evading oddballs, the down-and-out, the “different-drummer” marchers, I started seeking them. That’s when the seeds Steinbeck’s books planted in my youthful head, began to kick in, and I realized that the common man isn’t really common at all, and that I’d much rather rub elbows with him than polished, smooth-talking guys in business suits.

Passing through Yuma, I’d stopped and checked on the Internet and determined the Howdy Manor still existed. It didn’t have a website, but there were several recent news reports that listed it as either the scene of a crime, or the address of the suspect.

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Benson Highway looked more faded, more battered, but otherwise as it did when I left it. It took three trips up and down the block before I spotted the Howdy Manor sign, one side of which was blown out. I was looking for the plywood cowboy who I recalled stood in front of the motel, waving his cowboy hat in welcome. He’s gone now, replaced by a sandwich board sign, held in place by cinderblocks.

I pulled over and was immediately approached by a young woman who asked me what was wrong. “Nothing,” I answered, “I’m just looking. I used to live here. Thirty-five years ago. It was five dollars a night.”

It’s now $20 a night, she pointed out, or $99 a week. That’s what her brother pays. She pointed me in the direction of the manager, and I knocked on the door. A girl with blue hair and multiple face piercings opened it, and called her mother. When she came to the door, I told her I used to live there, 35 years ago, and that it was only $5 a night. She was unmoved.

“Do you want a room?”

“I’m not sure,” I answered, “but could you give me the name of the owner? I’d like to talk to him”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“To learn more about the history of the place,” I answered.

“Why would you want to do that?”

“So I can write about it.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

Our conversation going in circles, and it dawning on me that maybe she had a point — why would I want to do that? — I thanked her and excused myself.  I’d pulled in thinking about staying a night or two, heating up some beans for dinner in the kitchenette and reliving old times, maybe even finding Perry Mason again, but I wasn’t sure today’s Howdy Manor management was dog friendly, or for that matter, people-friendly.

I got back in my car, circled the driveway, drove back through my own dust, and pulled out.

In 1975, I’d managed to make some friends at the Howdy Manor, to get through my probationary period, to beef up my self-confidence by 22 percent or so, and to fall in love with the desert and Tucson. After three years there, I spent 30 more years at four other newspapers. But, while driving through my own dust, it occurred to me that I was, in a way, right back where I started

Two years after departing the newspaper industry, I continue — stupidly, maybe, for I’m not getting paid — doing the thing I love and know how to do: seek out stories and write them. I continue to occupy, like some kind of squatter, my former occupation. Why would I want to do that?

While I may be more emotionally secure than I was when I moved into the Howdy Manor and waited for my first paycheck, my current financial situation is not. Now, I have no home, no job, no health insurance, no salary. Not even a salaryette. Yet, I’m doing what I think I’m meant to do. I’m pretty sure I’m a writer  I’m pretty sure I’ll keep being one.

I’m pretty sure that’s how my hammer hangs.

***

Having turned the wrong way on Benson Highway, I’d pulled into a trailer court to turn around when a voice called out: “Hey, bro!” I ignored it, but it called out again, “Hey, bro!”

So I rolled to a stop in the driveway next to the Bucking Bronc Motel and Trailer Court, a couple of motels down from the Howdy Manor. Three men and a woman were sitting in front of a trailer enjoying beverages that included beer and vodka. One of them approached my car, with something in his hand.

“I want you to have this,” he said. I was in the process of politely declining when he passed it through my open window. It was a children’s book — “Touch and Feel Wild Animals.”

I hesitated to open it. Just because I’m open to strangers doesn’t mean I’m not wary. Part of me wondered if some illicit narcotics might be hidden between its pages. Seeing my skepticism, he grabbed it back and opened it himself, turning the pages for me and showing how, through the holes in the cardboard, you could touch the fake fur and fake skin and get an idea what each animal — tiger, lion, alligator, polar bear, chimpanzee — feels like.

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He read the first page aloud: “Tiger, tiger, running through the grass, your black-and-orange stripes go quickly past. Tiger, tiger, I can hear you growl, as you get ready to go on the prowl.”

He explained that he saw the ohmidog! magnet, featuring a silhouette of Ace’s head, on my car door and figured I liked animals. I should have the book, he said. I was waiting for him to quote a price. Instead he asked about my dog. I got out and popped open the back door to let Ace out. Ace greeted the man, then went over to see the rest of the gang.

He went first to the only woman, named Sherry, knocking over her bottle of beer as he attempted to snuggle with her. She didn’t mind at all. Then he met Johnny, who said he was a former Marine and Vietnam vet who now sells newspapers to get by. There used to be two daily newspapers in town. He sells copies of the remaining one, the Arizona Daily Star. The newspaper costs 75 cents now, but Johnny sells them for less. My suspicion — pardon my cynicism — is he pays for one paper, then pulls them all out of the vending machine and sells them on the street. Call him an entrepreneur.

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He said he also plays the harmonica, and he asked if I’d like to hear a song. At that point, he grabbed his knapsack and began rooting through it. Ace stuck his nose inside and helped. When you carry your life in a knapsack, things can be hard to find. I asked them if they lived in the trailer court, and they said they just lived “around.”

Eventually Johnny, sitting on the lone plastic chair, pulled a rusty harmonica out of his bag. He began playing songs, none immediately identifiable. All the cinderblocks being taken, I took a seat on the guest rock.

Everyone tapped their feet and did their best to hum along, and one member of the group started howling, coyote-like, leading Ace to look at him with tilted head.

Humans need to learn, if not the howl, at least the head tilt — a dog’s transparent, non-judgmental way of expressing puzzlement. It seems to say: “I don’t immediately get this … I will turn my head slightly to the side and focus even harder to understand and appreciate what I am confronting.”  Instead, when we see something different, we all too often leap to judgment, frown and walk away. We don’t want to solve the puzzle, or appear that we’re interested in solving the puzzle. As adults, our childish curiosity gets crusted over — to the point we can get fearful of something as innocuous as a “touch and feel” children’s book. If we learned the head tilt, and the patience and open-mindedness that accompany it, we’d all be wiser. We’d all be cuter, too.

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When Ace had plunged his entire big head into Johnny’s knapsack, it occurred to me that my dog and my former career of choice had something in common. Both enabled me to be something I’m not – outgoing. Without journalism, I likely would have kept to myself, suppressing my overly inquisitive nature and never learning how endlessly fascinating my fellow humans can be. Without my dog, without him pulling me toward strangers, they’d likely stay strangers. Perhaps Ace — on top of all else he does, in addition to all the other voids he may help fill — also does what my job used to, by allowing me to continue to exercise my curiosity without feeling the least bit self-conscious about it.

Johnny played for about five minutes before the song, or medley of songs, tailed off and he switched from harmonica to vodka bottle. We lingered about half an hour before saying goodbye. The man who had given me the book walked back to the car with Ace and me. That, I figured, was when he was going to bring up the subject of money, and whether I might see fit to pass some his way.

By the time I loaded Ace and the book inside, he hadn’t asked. I started the car, and, though he was standing by my open window, though he had ample opportunity, he still didn’t ask.

All he did was shake my hand and say “Vaya con Dios.”

***

In Arizona we slowed down, for while one can spend too much time contemplating oneself, one can’t spend too much time contemplating the desert.

We stayed a few nights with my father who lives in Scottsdale, a few nights in Gilbert with my brother, whose lumbering yellow lab, Roscoe, still bears a small, nearly unnoticeable dent in his head from the one brief altercation he and Ace had on a previous visit. They get along fine now.

Later, we moved into a temporary place of our own — a camping trailer, anchored at a trailer park named “Petite Acres” in a small town north of Phoenix called Cave Creek.

I’d found the trailer on Craigslist – one of those big pull-it-yourself campers with sides that pop out to make it roomier. I’d talked to the owner weeks before, and, only slightly wary, sent her $650 to rent it for the month. When I pulled into the trailer park and located it, I saw that its pop-outs had been popped back in, and that the trailer was hitched to a truck, and that the truck was moving.

For a moment, I thought I’d caught them in the middle of perpetrating a scam – that, having gotten my rent, they were moving my rental. I got out of the car, with Ace of course, to confront the men in the truck. About then, the landlady pulled in, explaining they weren’t moving the trailer away, just a few feet over, so that I might enjoy my entire concrete slab patio, which half of the trailer had been resting on.

Petite Acres was comprised of about 20 small mobile homes and campers, wedged between a dry river bed and a convenience store – a hidden little enclave of affordability in an area that was otherwise far more upscale. The camper – though it rocked back and forth when Ace jumped from floor to bed, or couch to floor — was a cozy unit, complete with kitchenette, and a dinette where I could sit and look out a little window to see mountains, strutting quail, and, at the end of the lot, a bar that was popular with motorcycle riders. At night, once the bar’s music died down, I could hear the howls of coyotes and watch javelina – ugly beasts I neither wanted to touch nor feel — roam the trailer park in search of garbage.

I arranged a nice seating area on the patio, setting up my camping cot for Ace, but he preferred positioning himself in the dirt at the end of the trailer, where he could be in the shade and view all that transpired at Petite Acres. He was good at staying put, unless my neighbor, Romero, fired up his grill to slow cook some pork.

Tami, my landlady, a fellow writer it turned out, took the time to show me the town and the ropes of RV life. She took me to the Desert Foothills Library to make sure I got a library card, invited me to join her and friends at an American Legion Hall shindig and introduced me to The Buffalo Chip, a bar down the road where, one night a week, customers are invited to ride bulls.

Settling, for a spell, allowed me to get things organized. I found, and reinstalled, my missing dental crown. I bought a baby grill and cooked out a lot. For groceries, we’d head down Carefree Highway.

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It runs from the town of Carefree, just east of Cave Creek, up to Wickenburg. Carefree is a highly upscale community.

As if to live up to its name, it does not assess a property tax. It seems pretty easygoing, too, when it comes to people building mansions on the sides of mountains and under gigantic boulders.

Its street names bespeak mellow as well: Easy Street, Tranquil Trail, Nonchalant Avenue, Nevermind Trail, and Ho-Hum Road.

Carefree Highway, if you’re wondering, as I did, is not named after the 1974 Gordon Lightfoot song. Rather, Lightfoot spotted a sign for the highway on Interstate 17 and was inspired to write the song:

Pickin’ up the pieces of
my sweet shattered dream
I wonder how the old folks are tonight
 

***

It is foolish to stay in one place while in Arizona. There is too much else to see – the Grand Canyon, of course,  Flagstaff and Page, the Navajo and Hopi reservations, and crossing the state line, just up the road a piece in Utah, Best Friends, an animal sanctuary in Kanab.

On our visit to Utah, my Jeep’s malfunction indicator light started flashing again. We made a quick stop in Sedona, partly in hopes its healing vibe would purge both car and occupants of any impurities – but mostly to get lunch. First we stopped to commune with some red rocks, which Ace determined were as fun to pee on as redwoods.

As I was reading some informative plaques, a large group of Japanese tourists descended on us, most of them children, few of whom seemed too enamored with the rocks, but all of whom wanted to meet Ace and have their pictures taken with him. Fifteen minutes of petting and hugging followed.

SONY DSCSomehow, when people are smitten with my dog, and lavish him with affection, it does something for me. I get goose bumps. Whether Ace is working as a therapy dog, or just bonding with a dog-loving stranger, a tingly phenomenon occurs within me, and it’s only partly pride. I’m pretty sure it’s not unhealthy.

It may even be the opposite. There are proven health benefits – such as a lowering of your human blood pressure — in petting a dog. Studies have shown that our levels of the hormone oxytocin, dubbed the love drug, increase simply by having eye contact with our dog. Possibly, there is some holistic payback, too, in just watching your own dog get petted, a vicarious soothing, as if, when you are petting my dog, you are petting me.

I’d put it right up there with having your chakras realigned, which – with a surplus of  practitioners of that and other New Age therapies (at least half of them probably stolen from Indians) — is easy to get accomplished in Sedona.

When I first encountered the word “chakra,” I thought it might be a vegetable, or a hybrid vegetable – a combination of chard and okra, maybe. I haven’t bothered to learn much more about it since then, even though my sister, back in Wisconsin, is a student of the chakra arts. She believes that a hovering hand – well-placed and well-intentioned – can, even though it never touches you, help with what ails you.

I’m not sure I buy it, but I do think we can all benefit from a good realigning now and then, and that simple attention from another person (or dog) can be therapeutic in itself. Mentally and physically, probably the therapy that serves a person best is the one that person believes in most. With me, it’s dogs. Even though once or twice Ace has tugged so hard on his leash that I thought my arm might come out of its socket, he far more often keeps me balanced and centered.

Usually, when he has a definite destination in mind, he just gives me a gentle and prolonged tug, as if to say, “I won’t insist upon it, but I think this direction is wisest.” Most often I overrule, but sometimes I go along, as I did when we stopped at Tlaquepaque. He decided we were going to the Secret Garden, a restaurant located amid the art galleries. In the outside courtyard, five other diners had their dogs with them, all of which sat or lay quietly, some asleep, some wide awake and begging, some with one eye open in case crumbs were to fall. I ordered a Portobello mushroom sandwich (hold the chakra) and the waitress brought Ace out a big bowl of water.

We strolled around the galleries afterwards, and Ace was doted on some more before we got back in the car and headed as far as Flagstaff, where we stopped for the night. The next morning — Ace preferring grass over hot pavement, pebbles, dirt and cacti when it comes to relieving himself – we walked around looking for some.

Seeing some other motel guests who had a dog, and who, judging from the clutter in their room, seemed to have been there a while, I shouted over to them.

“Do you know where I could find some grass around here?”

They couldn’t hear me, due to street traffic, so I shouted again, realizing the second time how the question could be misinterpreted. It wasn’t. They directed me down the road, past four more motels to the Cracker Barrel restaurant.

“Cracker Barrel’s got some good grass,” the mother said.

Ace, happy to see it, spent 10 minutes sniffing and squirting before finding a nice soft spot to lay down on the well-manicured lawn.

***

Between the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), you’d think there were enough national animal welfare organizations in this country to get the job done.

That might be true, were the job not an endless one – were there not such a seemingly limitless supply of people inflicting cruelty on animals in the name of science, farming, entertainment, sport, commerce or because they’re just plain mean.

The big three seemed to have everyone covered — the ASPCA for those middle of the road types, the HSUS for rabble rousers content to work within the system, and, for those activists who preferred instant results, dramatic confrontations and outrageous tactics, PETA.

But, as it turned out, there was room for one more. To many an animal lover, Best Friends seemed to be more action than talk, and more about helping dogs in a hands on kind of way. Their efforts to help dogs during Hurricane Katrina helped propel them to the forefront. When quarterback Michael Vick’s fighting dogs were seized, and some animal welfare groups were agreeing they should all be euthanized, Best Friends was one of a handful that came forward to halt that, and offer to take them in and rehabilitate them

Between good works and good public relations, Best Friends became a force, and its animal sanctuary in Utah is both a showpiece and place where the real work of helping dogs, one at a time, is being done. I’d visited in 2007, toured the grounds and left highly impressed, even though its aura – a combination of both serenity and fervor for the cause –seemed nearly religious in nature.

Once, that’s what it was. Though it seemed to have come out of nowhere, Best Friends’ roots go back to the 1960s when a group of about 25 friends, most of them young Brits, set off on a quest to find life’s meaning and ended up at a Mayan ruin in Yucatan. While dogs were always part of the group, their original focus was helping their fellow man. They formed a church, were known for dressing in black or white, with purple capes, and worked with drug addicts, convicts and the poor — attempting to bring some unconditional love to society’s more loveless factions.

When they bought a small ranch outside of Prescott, Arizona – intending for it to serve as a retreat for humans – it began filling up with unwanted dogs and cats instead, many of them pulled from shelters in Phoenix and Prescott, often just days before they were to be put down. In 1991, the members of the Process Church of the Final Judgment changed their name to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary and became a tax-exempt, nonprofit charity.

The sanctuary is a place where — despite abusive pasts, ill health or handicaps — dogs, cats, birds, horses, pigs and more can be rehabilitated enough to find new homes, or, if not, spend the rest of their days in the tranquil, sun-dappled canyons of southern Utah.

On this visit, I’d signed up, as thousands do each year, to be a volunteer.

SONY DSCI went through orientation with about 10 other first-timers, including an 11-year-old from California named Kenzie who, when offered a trip to the location of her choice by her parents as a birthday present, chose to do volunteer work at Best Friends.

We were equipped with nametags and orange whistles to blow in case of emergency — such as a dog we’re walking getting loose — and were treated to a 10-minute safety video that informed us of the color-coded collar system. Green collars are worn by dogs considered safe and approachable, purple ones by those requiring some caution, and red ones by those dogs that staff only can handle.

First, we were all taken to puppy class. Not that puppies need to learn how to be puppies, but some – like strays never afforded the opportunity — do need to learn socialization, and what a normal home is like. The sessions take place in a room set up like a house, with a refrigerator, dishwasher, microwave and a doorbell. The setting helps increase the chances that the puppies, once adopted, will feel more at home, and decrease the chances of them being returned.

After a lunch of sweet and sour sesame tofu in a dining hall overlooking the canyon, I drew duty at Dulcie’s School of Dance, an octagon-shaped structure whose residents are almost entirely red collars, having misbehaved either before or after their arrival at the sanctuary.

Dulcie’s is occupied by outlaws like Wooley Bear, a 12-year-old border collie mix who is one of Best Friends most prolific biters, a mutt named Billy Brindle, and Boo, a 14-year-old boxer who has spent more than a decade there. I helped serve dinner and washed dog bowls, and later got to take another Dulcie’s resident – a coonhound named Smitty – for a ride in my car around the canyons. Smitty’s job was to serve as role model for the less friendly dogs he was housed with.

SONY DSCSmitty gazed out the window intently as we drove around the grounds. We stopped for a walk at an idyllic little park, nestled on the side of a canyon. When he saw a couple of other dogs in the distance, Smitty began baying, his howls echoing off the canyon walls. By the time I returned him, he and I had agreed we should take another ride the next day.

Best Friends was fine with that. As organized as the place is – or at least the volunteer operation – it seems to operate without oppressively heavy layers of bureaucracy, bossiness and rigid rules.

The motel I’d chosen was not so flexible.

Kanab is by and large a dog-friendly town. About a third of its motels permit dogs, as do most of the restaurants with outdoor dining. You can hardly drive down the main street of the one-stoplight town without seeing someone walking a dog. But, when you’re volunteering, you can’t bring your dog to Best Friends.

I left Ace in my room at a local inn where — judging from the autographed photos on the lobby wall — most of the deceased cowboy stars you’ve heard of, and many you haven’t, once stayed. Kanab was once a popular area to film westerns. I left a note on the door of my room, explaining that there was a dog inside, and that I didn’t need my room cleaned. When I checked on him in the afternoon, all was fine. When I came back in the evening, another note had joined mine. It said: “Do Not Leave Pets In Room Unattended! Our Motel Is Not A Kennel!”

Sure enough, their written rules had specified just that (without the exclamation points), but somehow in my Internet search for a dog-friendly room, bouncing between five or six motel websites, I’d missed it. The next day, I dropped Ace off with a local pet sitter, and went back to Best Friends to spend a few more hours.

Smitty was even more up for the ride this time, jumping up on the front of my car and leaving a scratch that still reminds me of him every time I see it. When I opened the rear door, he threw his front paws up and waited to be hoisted the rest of the way.

After tooling around the canyons, we stopped at Angel’s Rest, the pet cemetery on the grounds of the sanctuary. We sat in the shade of a gazebo and listened to wind chimes. He jumped up on the bench and lay with his paws across my legs. As if out of respect for the setting, he didn’t howl at all this time. Instead, he just gazed into my eyes as I petted him.

After 30 minutes or so, my chakras, and my oxytocins, I’m pretty sure, were right where they were supposed to be.

***

Having a thing for underdogs, I was smitten with the Street of the Little Motels.

Heading back to Phoenix from Kanab, we crossed over the Glen Canyon Dam and into Page, Arizona. I stopped and checked my AAA “Traveling with your Pet” handbook and found a couple of the big motel chains listed. I was heading to one of the pet-friendly ones when I noticed a small sign for the “Street of the Little Motels.”

Following the arrows led me to not one street, but two, all mostly occupied by rows of squat cinderblock structures, all brightly painted, with names like “Debbie’s Hide A Way,” “Bashful Bob’s” and “Lu Lu’s Sleep Ezze Motel.”

I stopped in one, the Red Rock Motel, and asked the proprietor, Dail Hoskins, if dogs were allowed. He said they generally were, but that he liked to meet them first and interview them before making a commitment. So I fetched Ace from the car and walked back in. They hit it off right away.

“I have three rules,” Dail explained. The first was dogs can’t be left unattended in rooms. Though I disagreed in principle, I conceded. I asked him what the second one was. “Dogs aren’t allowed on the bed.” I conceded to that one, too, knowing full well it would be violated. “What’s the third?” I asked. He rubbed the Fu-Manchu mustache that formed a grey horseshoe on his well-tanned face and looked up at the ceiling.

“Can’t remember,” he said.

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With that we closed the deal — $44, including tax. At one of the big motels, I would have easily had to pay in the $70s, and for far blander lodgings. By the time the paperwork was filled out, Ace had grown on Dail even more, and he invited him over to meet his dogs, Marley and Mo. They all hit it off too, and Dail went so far as to offer his fenced backyard to Ace, in the event I wanted to go out.

My unit had its own sand yard, with a grill and a picnic table. Inside was a small kitchen, or perhaps large kitchenette, with a linoleum floor and 1960s-era appliances. It was homey enough that I decided staying a second night was in order. I hit the grocery store, bought two night’s worth of burgers, beans and charcoal and settled in.

Located in Page’s Old Quarter, the Street of the Little Motels is just a couple blocks off the main road through town. The structures were built in the late 1950s, when work was beginning on Glen Canyon Dam. Housing was needed for the thousands of government-hired dam workers coming to then-isolated Manson Mesa, a portion of which had been procured from the Navajo in a trade.

The building of the dam on the Colorado River, completed in 1964, led to the formation of Lake Powell, and turned Page into a booming recreation area. The employee quarters turned into little motels, and business was good – at least until the bigger motels moved in and the economy tanked.

At the time of my visit, Hoskins seemed intent on selling his little motel and leaving Page to start another chapter. He wanted to move to Florida. He’d been in Arizona 10 years, making a modest living, accumulating some good memories and at least one that still haunted him – involving his two previous dogs and a bad day at the dam.

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Glen Canyon Dam, which now provides water and electricity to much of the west, was a controversial project in its day. Opposition to it, and worries about the effects it would have on the ecosystem (was that even a word then?) are seen by some as the beginning of the modern-day environmental movement. Begun in 1956, it took eight years to build.

It took far less time to construct the scenic overlook on the edge of the canyon, about a mile south by road. Having succeeded in harnessing a river and making its flow work for us, the government clearly wanted to show it off. The overlook is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, falling under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. It affords views, on one side, of nature at its finest, and, on the other, of man’s so-called, mostly-cement mastery of it.

Creating the overlook was a simple matter of putting in a parking lot, adding some steps to make the sandstone trail down to the cliff’s edge easier to negotiate, and building a stone wall at the base — to keep tourists from plunging from the top of the sheer canyon walls to the river 400 feet below.

The wall is short enough to look over, but its actual height varies, depending on where the wind blows the sand. It’s about four feet high in most spots, with one tiny section that, for reasons unknown, was originally built shorter than the rest — only about two feet high.

Above the short wall, there’s a steel grate that wasn’t part of the government’s plan. It was added later, covertly bolted and cemented into place in the dark of night. In daytime, if you look closely, you can find two names on it, scrawled with a soldering iron — Cisco and Sadie.

They were Hoskins’ dogs.

Hoskins got them both while living in Idaho, before he moved to Page in 2000. He liked taking Cisco and Sadie to the overlook, and letting them off their leashes to romp among the red rocks. The dogs usually didn’t venture too far away from him, but on a hike in 2001 they suddenly disappeared. He feared the worst, and that’s what had happened.

Likely in pursuit of a varmint, one of the dogs – not realizing what was beyond the short section of wall — leapt over it. The other immediately followed. It all happened in just a few seconds.

Hoskins blamed no one but himself, and watching his face as he retells the story, it’s clear he still lives with the guilt. In the days after losing his dogs, he hired a river outfitter to take him to retrieve their corpses, then gave them a proper burial.

When he called the Park Service to tell them what happened to his dogs, and see if that short section of wall could be built up, he was told that his dogs should have been on leashes. Hoskins later learned that his dogs weren’t the first to plunge over the wall and to their deaths. At least four other dogs had met the same fate.

So began his conspiracy to do something about it.

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He welded together slabs of steel, forming a large grate, about five feet wide and five feet high. And without getting anybody’s approval, he snuck down to the site with a friend, toting the grate, cement, water and tools. Despite heightened security at the dam in the aftermath of 9/11, no one noticed he was there. It took a few hours to install the grate over the short section of wall.

“I did it so it wouldn’t happen to any more dogs … or kids,” he says, though one gets the impression the project also served as both an outlet for his grief and a tribute to his dogs.

Hoskins’ addition to the overlook was taken in stride by the Park Service, if they even noticed it. The government that built the massive dam has attached a sign to the steel grate Hoskins installed, warning that graffiti is “unsightly and illegal.”

“Defacing natural features destroys our heritage,” it says.

***

Back at Petite Acres, I invited my brother, a friend of his and her two Siberian huskies to come up to Cave Creek for a hike. Temperatures run a couple of degrees cooler in Cave Creek, and just down the road from me was Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area, which featured 2,154 acres of desert, trails, and a creek with actual water in it.

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Being a husky in Phoenix, like being a Chihuahua in Alaska, wouldn’t seem to be easy going, but somehow dogs manage to adjust to anything, and Sasha and Kodi, who belonged to my brother’s friend, Sandy, didn’t seem any the worse for wear.

Sandy admits Phoenix might not be an ideal locale for the cold weather breed. She’s reminded of that every winter when she takes them up into the mountains and watches them joyously play in the snow. To me, the fact that she does that shows they’re receiving something much more vital than a climate-appropriate environment.

Watching Siberian huskies frolic in the desert, though I can’t explain exactly how my mind made the leap, got me to thinking about Arizona’s recently passed Senate Bill 1070. It called for turning Arizona’s police officers into immigration officials, requiring them to check the citizenship of anyone they confronted in the course of their duties who might look ethnically questionable, or like they didn’t “belong” there.

It would go on to be passed by the state legislature, contested in court, and partially held up. The law made violating federal immigration laws a state crime, and critics of it fear it could lead to large scale profiling and deportations, as Arizona took into its own hands matters it felt the federal government wasn’t properly addressing.

It reflected the same fear-based logic as local and state pit bulls bans that were then, and still are, being passed by some jurisdictions: If you look like a pit bull, you’re assumed evil. If you look to be from another country, you can be stopped and questioned — no matter how many generations your family has been here, no matter how big a contribution your “type” has made to society.

It struck me as a particularly insulting initiative given Arizona’s heritage — given all but a few pockets of the land were wrested away from the original occupants, given that it was once part of Mexico, given that native Americans and early immigrants provided most of what, to this day, makes Arizona, beyond its breathtaking scenery, interesting. In the long view, there is more than a little irony (and it is best experienced within the confines of an Indian reservation) to this whole business of securing our borders.

Of course, SB 1070 applied to humans, but what if — I wondered in a comparing apples to oranges kind of way — it were applied to the dog kingdom? What if Irish setters, or at least those who lacked the proper paperwork, were shipped back to Ireland; or if all the German shepherds without photo ID’s were deported to Dusseldorf? What if we had ejected from our borders all Afghan hounds (watch out, they could be terrorists), banished all huskies to Siberia, or had been so intolerant as to say “Go back to Rhodesia, you Ridgebacks?”

If everything was required to stay where it originated, we wouldn’t have anywhere near the diversity of dog breeds we have, not to mention hybrids and mutts. Charley, John Steinbeck’s well-traveled poodle, would never have made it out of France. And I would have never gotten my cowboy hat from Guatemala.

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I wanted a cowboy hat when I was five — and a couple of times since then. I have purchased a couple over the years, and never worn them a second day. But drawn in by his dog, Sarah, a pit bull, I bought one anyway from Michael Chazan, a roadside vendor of hand-woven palm leaf hats who’d set up a roadside stand across the street from where I was doing my laundry.

Chazan sets up his roadside haberdashery nearly every day in the parking lot of The Buffalo Chip, that bar where customers ride bulls. While waiting for my clothes to dry, I saw his dog and drove across the street. Michael, once he was done bragging about Sarah, went on to tout his hats, hand made by Guatemalans, and before you know it, I was handing over $40 for a size 7-1/2, with a 4-inch brim.

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It seemed a little loose, but he explained that once he dipped it in water, shook it off, and I wore it for a while, it would magically conform to the shape of my head. He took the hat — according to the signature in the hatband, it was made by somebody named Manuel – and immersed it in the metal tub of water he keeps nearby. He gave it a couple of shakes and popped it back on my head. He said to leave it on for at least 15 minutes.

While he was making a few final adjustments, Michael noticed I was admiring a large purple Harley-Davidson motorcycle parked among others in front of the bar. (Actually, I was admiring the naked woman painted on its fender.)

“Those are Hell’s Angels,” he said.

I laughed, assuming he was joking. While I’d seen thousands of motorcyclists descend on Cave Creek in my brief time there, they were mostly stockbrokers, accountants, lawyers and the like, who transform into bikers on the weekend.

“No, this is the real deal,” he said. “Sonny Barger is in there.”

Ralph Hubert “Sonny” Barger is a founding member of the Hell’s Angels, helping establish the Oakland, California, chapter of the club in 1957. He was a prominent figure in Hunter S. Thompson’s bestselling book, “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.” He’s also mentioned in Tom Wolfe’s best seller, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

Leaving Ace in the car, and hating that he would be missing the opportunity to meet a legend, I walked into the bar, waited for a lull in the conversation Barger was having with a team of Hollywood types, and asked him if I could take his picture.

Barger was gracious, shaking my hand as I apologized to him for not taking off my new cowboy hat. I explained that it had just been dipped in water and was forming to the exact size of my head. He suggested – holding a finger over the hole in his throat, as he must do to talk – that I pose with him, and he ordered a member of the movie crew to take a picture with my camera.

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Now a resident of Cave Creek and an active member of its Hell’s Angels chapter, Barger, by age 72, had packed a lot into his life, including 13 years behind bars — four of those for conspiring to blow up the clubhouse of a rival motorcycle club, the Outlaws, in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1983, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, suspected to be connected to smoking three packs of Camels a day for 30 years, and underwent surgery. He smoked a cigarette, it is said, on his way to the operating room. His vocal cords were removed, but he learned to speak again using the muscles in his throat.

Barger was meeting with representatives from Fox Movies, in town to scout out locations for a film, still in the development stages, based on the autobiography that recounts his once-roaring life. (I hope it turns out better than the photo, which shows him with his eyes closed, looking a little like an upright corpse.)

Back at Petite Acres — having sworn off cigarettes for the rest of the day, having finally removed my perfectly-conforming-to-my-head cowboy hat – I got on the Internet and read more about Barger. I reflected on how tame, by comparison, my own life was, and whether that’s the way I like it. My own motorcycle phase had lasted only about a year, during middle age, and my outings were slow, short, and highly cautious. While I know I have a mild rebellious streak, while the very trip we were on represented a cutting loose of sorts, I don’t think I was born to be wild.

My biggest thrill of the week, after all, had been buying a cowboy hat – not exactly risky behavior, but highly reckless considering Christmas was coming up, and money was short.

My father had proposed – given the fixed, or broken, incomes most of us lived on — no exchange of gifts at all. While tempted, I couldn’t go along with that. Instead, I decided on a semi-selfish approach to Christmas. I would buy a few things I needed or wanted, gently use them, then pass them on – but not my hat — as gifts. That way, I’d avoid having to haul them back to Baltimore, or wherever it was I was eventually going.

SONY DSCSo I broke in the red chiminea — a big clay pot with a smokestack – that I bought for my brother and his partner, seasoning it, if you will, by building several fires in my courtyard. My father and his wife would receive two colorful blankets from a souvenir shop, only slightly covered in dog hair and smelling of smoke, two well-tested coffee mugs, and a bag of coffee – the one I bought, as opposed to the one that, with that purchase, came free.

For two weeks, each evening as the sun went down, we’d sit on our trailer patio with a fire crackling – Ace atop one brightly colored blanket, on the cot, and I snuggled beneath the other — sipping expensive coffee from my temporary mugs and pondering not just the joys of the quiet life, but the pleasure my gifts would bring to their eventual recipients.

***

I like to think I’m highly attuned to my dog, though I know I’m nowhere near as attuned to him as he is to me.

He’s a mind reader, while I know that I — in my attempts to discern his feelings, moods, wants and needs – am mostly guessing.

What I had wondered about most during our seven months of traveling was what – were he able to put it into words — he really thinks of it all. We’d been on the go since the end of May, 2010, rarely staying anywhere for longer than two or three days. We’d traveled over 20,000 miles, during which he had looked up at me hundreds of times with those big brown eyes – so highly expressive.

If only I knew what they were expressing.

If, as I suspect, our dogs reflect our moods, then doing what makes me happiest would make him happiest, I reasoned, especially given the fact that we’d be doing it together. And nothing — other than Ace laying his head on my belly – makes me happier than traveling, writing, seeing new things, and meeting new people.

He was he still leaping into the car excitedly when I asked him, but I wondered if that was because he has come to love the road, or because he wants to finally get the hell home. He seems happy, judging from the way his tail has been the curled position most of the time. But there are times, like when he lays, looking up, with his head on his paws, that I ask myself, is he sad, or is he just lying with his head on his paws?

It couldn’t hurt to ask, and before leaving Cave Creek, I did.

Earlier that month, I’d visited For Goodness Sake, a thrift store in town that donates part of its profits to animal rescue organizations. At a weekend fund-raising event there, I entered a raffle for a session with a local animal communicator, and I won. It would be Ace’s second conversation with an animal communicator – the first having come as part of my investigation into his roots, three years earlier.

That time, sitting on the cement patio behind my rowhouse, an animal communicator from Maryland named Terri Diener rested her hand atop his head and passed along the images she was receiving, what she called snapshots of his past.

He was born into a family with children and other dogs, most of them pit bulls, she said. There was disappointment when, as a puppy, he didn’t look like a pit bull, and more disappointment when he didn’t act the part, either, showing no spirit for fighting. There was a trip to the countryside, an opened car door, perhaps a bit of a push and then lots of walking and scavenging for food, Diener said. Asked if he had an original name, before being dubbed Ace at the shelter, she said, “something like Carper, or Carter.”

Ace, having wandered off, perked up at hearing that, and returned to Diener’s side. I was beginning to almost believe when Diener went on to tell me Ace and I knew each other, and had worked together, in a previous life. I was in the armed services, she said, and Ace was the canine assigned to me.

It’s possible, I guess, and it would explain the instant connection I’d felt upon meeting him. Yet it struck me as too much of a coincidence. I lapsed back into being mostly skeptical, but not so much so that I wasn’t willing, a few years later, to try again.

I met with Debbie Johnstone of Listen 2 Animals in a courtyard behind the Cave Creek thrift store, this time with a specific question in mind: Was Ace enjoying our travels, or would he prefer to be back home and in a routine?

She immediately shared her first impressions: “He’s one happy dog, and he’s very passionate.”

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As Ace took a seat beside her, she continued. “Passionate, energized, that’s the feeling he gives me — that his life is about more than just going through the motions. He finds it joyful to meet new people, go new places, sees new things. He’s not tired, he finds it energizing … He likes doing different and new things … What’s really important to him is being with you.”briefly wondered if she was reading Ace’s mind, or mine.

Unlike Diener, who said she was receiving images from Ace, Johnstone said she was hearing words. Animals, she says, have spoken to her since she was a toddler. At first, she figured everybody could hear them. Growing up in Ohio, she didn’t have pets of her own, but she had long conversations with neighborhood animals, at least until she was 7 years old and her mother told her that, being a big girl now, she should stop doing that.

She’d go on to become a computer programmer, and take a job with a big corporation in Arizona in 1992. As she rose through the ranks, she became responsible for laying people off. By 2000, she was doing that so much of that, she said, it made her physically ill.

So she went back to talking with animals. In 2003, she started her own company, which, in addition to serving as a translator between the human and animal worlds, helps find lost pets, resolves animal-related conflicts, and coaches humans on how to better communicate with their animals.

Johnstone says the messages come to her in different ways. Sometimes she senses it. Other times she might see a picture, experience a taste or smell, or hear a noise. Some of the information is conveyed to her through what she calls “thought drops.” Sometimes she hears words, as if they are actually talking.

Her clients range from people who want to know why their cat stopped using the litter box to those wondering what the old dog thinks of a new dog in the house. Most commonly, her customers are people seeking some guidance in making the decision to put an old, sick animal down. Almost half of her calls are from people whose animals are “getting ready to transition” and want to know how the animal feels about it. More often than not — despite all the human angst — the dog or other animal in question is ready to proceed. “They’re not afraid of death,” she said.

As for Ace’s feelings about the trip, she said, “He takes this very seriously. He really feels this is an assignment, or a job, if you will. He’s sharing a feeling of always moving, moving a lot … moving and freedom.”

She compared how Ace felt about the trip with the feeling she had when she got out of the corporate world and started doing what she really wanted to do. “But still,” she added, “he’s looking forward to the day you get in one place, in a home.”

She shared some miscellaneous information about Ace, too. He likes the color red. The chain link fence around the yard we were sitting in reminded him of his days in the shelter. She saw him as one of a litter of three, who was dropped off at the shelter by someone who didn’t speak English. He has some aching in his left hip joint, but it’s not too painful. He thinks “everybody really, really likes him.” He enjoys eating eggs, and would like to be served them more often. While he enjoys riding in the car, “he would like you to stop more often so he can get out and sniff and stretch. He likes to investigate and see new things.”

When I asked Debbie if Ace would prefer to eat twice a day, as he used to, or once a day, as he had been doing since the trip began, she responded, “He wants to know if there’s a third choice.”

Ace enjoys being a dog, as most dogs do, she said. “If we could feel about ourselves like our animals feel about themselves, we would be very, very free. They’re just pleased about who they are.”

As for the big question, I still didn’t have a clear answer. She seemed to be saying he considered the trip his destiny, his mission, but that he also longed for home. So I asked again: “Does he miss his friends? Would he prefer to be back in Baltimore?

“Where you are,” she said, “that’s home to him.”

Reassuring, warm and fuzzy as that was, I left feeling I hadn’t gotten a definite answer, but with the realization that the reverse of what she said was true as well.

Home is where the dog is.

Ace and I walked to a neighboring restaurant, where I tied him to a post and ordered two egg burritos to go. In the back of the Jeep, I ate the one with hot sauce. He gobbled up the other.

 

ROADSIDE ENCOUNTER

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Name: Jeff Clark and his dog, Haley

Age: Jeff appeared to be around 40, Haley’s but a pup

SONY DSCBreed: Jeff’s a white guy; Haley’s a collie mix

Encountered: At a Chevron station in Flagstaff, Arizona

Back story: Jeff and Haley were headed from their home in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, to Carlsbad, California — a ride of more than 900 miles, 300 of which were behind them.

Jeff took a bicycle built for two and installed a shopping cart over the rear seat for Haley. She rides, leashed, in the cart, with her favorite toy, a blue stuffed cat, dangling from its side. At night, they sleep in RV parks, or alongside the road.

“Everybody says I’m crazy,” said Jeff, who was making the trip for a temporary job, “and I’m going to prove them right.”

 

 

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