Highway Haiku # 1
Sit, stay, heel … Conform …
Behave … The land of the free?
The home of the brave?
Roads, like words, can be bold or bland, prudent or perilous, inspiring or insipid, fun or functional.
The choice of which ones to use – though we’ve evolved into a species inclined to turn to a computerized thesaurus or trip-planning app for the quick and safe answers – remains ours to make, even though we don’t act like it much anymore.
When it comes to roads, computers generally direct us to the fastest available route, the Interstate, which, much like the Internet, will be lined with billboards and flashing signs and filled with souls in a hurry. There will be enough cattle chute-type chaos to ensure that, even if you didn’t feel part of a prodded herd when you got on it, you definitely will by the time you exit.
Or, you can take a chance, defy the machine, and go down a road just because you like the looks of it — a less-taken one that dazzles instead of frazzles, one with sharp curves and surprise dips, freshly picked cantaloupes and lopsided sheds. This road, be warned, may dead end, or get you hopelessly off course, or land you behind a painfully slow-moving Amish buggy. But in taking it, in addition to maybe getting a cantaloupe, you’ve grown.
This is some more advice, learned from dogs: Don’t be afraid to get lost.
We don’t follow our noses so much anymore. Unlike those who pioneered this great but increasingly grumbling land, we’ve grown comfortable, or at least made comfort our goal. Once viewed as a rootless breed, Americans have settled into secure-feeling routines, less inclined to veer off in new directions and — especially since the economy got a bad case of the shakes — more fearful of the life, or even the day, unplotted.
We strive for safe. Even our language reflects it. We’ve adopted an overly cautious vernacular that allows us to tiptoe safely around a subject without ever getting to the meat of it. Our words — meant to be free and romping and have at least some gentle bite – have become leashed and muzzled.
Look at the trendy words of our time – all those mind-numbingly fuzzy ones that we use because they sound modern, even though they either have no generally understood meaning or, worse yet, too many meanings. I’m talking about computer-inspired words, like “networking” and “partnering,” touchy-feely ones, like “reaching out,” and words that sound precise and clear even though they’re not, like “transparency” and “reinvention.”
In 2010, I found myself in need of the latter.
Amid the continuing shrinkage and decline of newspapers, I, like thousands of other aging baby boomer reporters, found myself, though it was at least partly through choice, without a job. Or should I say “displaced?”
Whether we were victims of technology, the decline of reading, the shrinking American attention span, or just plain corporate greed and stupidity is a question I’ll leave to others. In any event, there we were – idealistic (or formerly idealistic), workaholic (or formerly workaholic) gripe-prone (still) souls who had lost what was, though few would likely admit it, at least not to their spouses, our one true love.
While looking for jobs and watching our “buy-out” money dwindle – the lucky ones among us were paid to depart, a concept sort of the opposite of prostitution – we tried to figure out our new identities.
I’d left newspaper journalism in 2008 to write a book. Only when it was finished did it fully hit me that, my previous occupation behind me, I didn’t know what I was anymore. “Author,” having written only one book, seemed a presumptuous tag. Yes, I was a blogger, but who isn’t? I was best known as Ace’s “dad,” but that didn’t pay the bills, either. I began feeling more insignificant with each passing day, as if I was disappearing. Worse yet, should a cure ever be found for Vanishing Identity Syndrome, I, not having health insurance anymore, would be unable to get treatment.
The direction I took next – which was south and then west and then back again — can be blamed on all those feelings, and three more specific things: A pact I’d made with Ace, inspiration from John Steinbeck, and the Amish Electric Heater.
Those, when you come right down to it, were the forces that led us to be sitting on a non-functioning 30-foot sailboat, tied to a pier in a branch of a hard-to-pronounce river (Patapsco), watching the sun go down while slurping my 100th (that’s an estimate) bowl of just-add-boiling-water noodles.
We were around the bend – only about a mile, if one had a boat that actually traversed water — from Fort McHenry, the 1812 bombardment of which served as inspiration for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” We were taking a week, after three months on the road, to figure out what to do next.
Of all the places we had stayed and would stay on our journey, the boat was not Ace’s favorite. It took a big, well-timed leap for him to get on it. Because of his size, it was hard for him to navigate once aboard, especially when it came to going down the steep, ladder-like stairs to the cabin. But he seemed to love it once he got himself settled, generally outside, with his paws and or head dangling over the bow, or stern, or some such section of boat. That is where I liked it best, too; bobbing in the breeze, minus motor, sail, or forward progress of any sort; pondering the arcs of Baltimore’s Hanover Street Bridge, and all the tangled, noodle-like tethers of modern day life.
Ruminating while Ramen-eating (it’s a skill I have mastered, if you don’t count dribbles down the chin), I was still second-guessing myself (another skill I have mastered) – specifically, the decision I’d all but reached by then to continue rambling, with dog, for at least a few months more.
The original idea was hardly original.
We’d put our belongings in storage, move out of our rented rowhouse and hit the road for at least three months, ala John Steinbeck and Charley, with the modern day advantage, or burden, of being able to blog daily about our adventures. Unlike my literary idol, we’d mostly be looking for dog stories along the way.
There was never enough dog in “Travels with Charley” for my taste. For Steinbeck, Charley was an afterthought, a last-minute addition to the trip.
The French poodle was taken along to appease his wife Elaine, who was against her husband taking the trip, and worried about his health and safety.
Charley, in addition to the security he provided, turned out to be the perfect icebreaker as Steinbeck circumnavigated the country, seeking to reconnect with the common man he once wrote so eloquently about and take the pulse of an America he felt he had lost touch with.
Our trips might have had some similar motivations. Like him, I’ve always been more intrigued by, and comfortable with, those struggling with life than those building empires. Like him, I was 57. Like him, maybe, I was worried about age creeping up on me if I sat still too long. Like him, too – though his impressive body of work makes mine look like wimpy doodles, scrawled on crumbly yellowed newsprint – I was wondering if I was washed up. But my mission was different, and so was my budget.
All our traveling would be done on a shoestring. My goal was to live as cheaply on the move as I did in still life, getting by on the $1,200 a month I’d been spending on rent and utilities. Between unemployment compensation and withdrawals from my 401K, I was able to fund the journey while keeping the credit card companies – I am forever in their debt — at bay. In the first three months, even though gasoline regularly guzzled half our budget, we’d meet our goal. We’d prove that one — at least one who has a cute dog, a tent, a frugal streak and finds not too much shame in mooching — could live as cheaply on the road as in a home.
After three months, as we made our way back to Baltimore, I was leaning toward continuing into what I’d tentatively planned as phase two: taking another three months to retrace the route, more or less, that Steinbeck and Charley took. We’d start from his former home in Sag Harbor, N.Y, on the same day he left 50 years earlier, and end up wherever we ended up.
There were still some nagging doubts – the credit card debt, the lack of health insurance, my vanishing nest egg, and my biggest qualm of all: Why was I doing my old job, or at least the parts of it I always liked best — wandering and writing — without getting paid for it? Was it because I loved it too much to leave it? Was it an exercise in vanity? Or was I simply, after so many years of conditioning, continuing to roll over, even though nobody was asking me to: Here’s your story, where’s my treat?
I wondered, in less self-absorbed moments, if Ace was enjoying the trip as much as me. Was it too much of a strain on him? Was he spending too much time in the car? Was I exploiting him? Did he miss his routine?
Back in Baltimore, Ace remembered everything as if he’d only been gone a day. When we made our first stop at his old park, he saw in the distance a man on a motorized chair, being followed down the sidewalk by a very fat dog. It was Stan, a park regular who had always seemed intent on making all the dogs in Riverside Park as rotund as his pit bull mix, Louie. Stan always wore his mechanic’s uniform, with his name on his shirt, and every day he’d go through a jumbo bag of discount dog treats, tossing them to Ace and the other dogs that inevitably gathered, while simultaneously offering political commentary to any humans around. Then he’d trudge home, Louie waddling behind him.
Over the years, Stan and Louie’s pace had slowed. Both grew fatter yet. Stan fell victim to back problems and other health issues. But Stan and Louie kept going to the park, twice a day. The commitment to walking one’s dog was not one Stan took lightly — even after his legs declined to get him there. Though Stan was now getting around the park on a motorized scooter, Ace recognized him from 100 yards away. He took off (for we, as usual, were violating leash laws), all but screeching to a halt in front of him, taking a seat and waiting for his treat. Stan, whose face brightened up almost as much as Ace’s, reached into his bag and provided several.
Ace was the same way with every familiar human face he’d see. He’d stop, sniff the air, gaze into distance, and then, overcome with a glow of recognition, joyfully bolt toward them. He remembered all his dog friends, too, and the particular games he was prone to playing with each – with Cooper, nibbling at her legs; with Darcy, sticking her entire Boston terrier head in his mouth, with Soju, a Great Dane, squaring off and engaging in something much like sumo wrestling.
Watching how happy he was made me wonder if I was doing right by him, and if I was doing right by me. I missed my friends, too, and having an anchor, and the sense of belonging somewhere. Had I been wrong to leave my job, to cast off and drag my dog to parts unknown? Was I simply refusing to grow up, neglecting the responsibilities that come with being a bordering-on-senior citizen in America? Was I fighting getting old, and, if so, is there anything wrong with that?
While I’d been applying for two jobs a week, as the unemployment office insisted, only one offer had come my way in six months. It was a position editing textbooks about cybersecurity — cybersecurity being a big and growing field, given that nearly everything we and our government do now is done on computer networks, and given that those systems are far from failsafe. Technology, while it taketh jobs away, also giveth some. But picturing myself doing that gave me a headache. Given the choice between it and limbo, I’d chosen limbo, then proceeded to second guess the decision.
On the boat, despite its carefree ambience, I’d worked my way up to triple and quadruple guessing. As Ace dozed in the cabin below, I looked for a sign in the three un-scooped noodles that clung to the bottom of my foam bowl. Perhaps they would spell things out for me. The only letters I could detect were G-U-S.: Get Urself Settled? Go U.S.? Grow Up, Stupid?
Finding them ambiguous, I sucked them down and settled into a lounging position on the back of the boat. I had just about dozed off when there was a tremendous flapping noise, which couldn’t have come from the sail, because the boat didn’t have one. A breeze fanned my face. I opened my eyes to see, about two feet from me, an egret that had landed on the edge of the boat. For about 30 seconds, neither of us moving, we stared at each other. When I reached for my camera, he took off. With just a few awkward flaps of his mighty wings, he found a graceful rhythm and climbed higher into the sky, reaching a point where, with his wings outstretched, he seemed able to glide effortlessly.
I took it as a sign. Then again, I was looking for signs, preferably ones that would tell me exactly what I wanted to hear: Why nest when you can soar? Why be enshrouded in a cubicle when there’s a whole country out there? Why go down the same worn path with your dog everyday when the two of you can carve some new ones?
About that time, Ace’s head popped up from the cabin below. He struggled up the ladder, placing his big paws on the narrow steps one after the other. With a final thrust, he landed with a clunk on deck. He climbed up next to me, put his head in my lap and offered up a paw.
That could only mean he concurred. Or maybe he just wanted to get off the boat.
Whatever the case, it was decided: Like Stan, like Steinbeck, like dogs, we would keep rolling.
The boat was named Grendel, and it belonged to a friend of mine who, when I first met him, lived on it.
He lived on it not in a rich guy on a yacht sailing from exotic port to exotic port kind of way. But in a penny-pinching, poor guy on a small sailboat that because its motor didn’t work hadn’t left the dock for three years kind of way.
Despite that, his lifestyle impressed me. He didn’t romanticize it, but I did. I saw him as separate from the herd. So much so that whenever I introduced him to another friend, I would say, “This is Arnie, he lives on a boat.” I could have said this is Arnie, he wrote a book. Or this is Arnie, he once hung out with beatniks in Greenwich Village. Or this Arnold Sherman (his full name). Instead it was always, “This is Arnie … Helivesonaboat.”
Being a poor planner, I didn’t call Arnie until we entered the city limits of Baltimore. No longer having a home there, I wasn’t sure what Ace and I would be doing for shelter. After some small talk – because I was not being transparent at all — I managed to get Arnie to ask me what I had called in hopes of him asking me: “Do you want to stay on my boat?”
He had moved off it and into an apartment by then, and he warned me the boat, which he had up for sale, was a mess, having become sort of a floating toolbox. It needed a good sprucing up, and there was a repair or two he wanted to accomplish. I offered to help out, bringing Ace along to make sure he was going to be able to get on and off the boat.
By the time I arrived, Arnie had the 30-foot sailboat all tidied up, and after showing me the ropes (there were a lot of ropes) he asked me to assist him in installing something called a cleat and stanchion. He: “Hand me that wrench that’s behind the bulkhead.” Me: “What’s a bulkhead?” He: “Turn that screw to the aft.” Me: What’s aft?”
Grendel was docked at Nick’s, a marina and seafood restaurant in south Baltimore, not far from my former house. As marinas go, it was not high faluting, not one of those gleaming Inner Harbor affairs where you see lots of blazers and captain’s hats. It was more working class, with crusty Dumpsters and feral cats and a good number of liveaboards – people who, due to divorce, economic trouble, or just plain lifestyle choice, opted to reside in floating quarters.
I could relate, both to the necessity and the appeal. Having to walk a few hundred yards to the marina restrooms – the boat’s bathroom wasn’t functioning – was a small price to pay for the soothing feeling that being aboard gave me. The first thing we did, Ace and I, was check out the three beds, Goldilocks style, deciding we were most wowed by the one in the bow, the only one we could both fit in.
On our first evening, I opened up a can of Alpo Prime Cuts for Ace, and a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli for me (his looked better) and we sat outside and ate while watching the sunset. At night, we were rocked gently to sleep, lulled by the sounds of sloshing water, mast lines ringing in the wind and all the assorted mystery creaks and groans that old boats, like old men, emit.
Walking up and down the docks, among boats neglected and pampered, I noticed their names weren’t anywhere near as simple as Spot or Max or Baxter or Bailey. Instead, boat names seem to reflect the innermost desires, disappointments, hopes and fears of their owners. There was one called “Insatiable,” one called “Anomaly,” one named “Caveat,” and one named “Therapy.” Another was dubbed “Life’s Good.”
It struck me that, otherwise, a boat is a lot like a dog – we groom it, fuel it, pamper it and try to keep all its parts functioning. It, in exchange, brings us peace and entertains us, helps us relax, keeps our blood pressure low (at least when it’s working properly) and our sense of adventure alive. Boat people, like dog people, take great pride in showing off their baby, and can sometimes get obsessive about it — obsessions, like doubts, not always being all bad. Whatever advantages lay in staying on an even keel, I sometimes think we all need something to go overboard about
With me, it’s Ace — too fine a dog to keep to myself; from his bow to his stern a marvel. He deserved to see the world. The world deserved to see him. Besides, we’d made a pact. It stemmed from my first book, which looked at the outrageous lengths to which humans sometimes go to keep their dogs around, even after death, particularly the newest and most technologically advanced option – cloning them.
I talked to a lot of people who had lost beloved pets, grieved long and deeply, held fancy funerals or built elaborate memorials and, in various fashions, made efforts to bring a semblance of their animal back — stuffed, freeze-dried or in the form of a genetic duplicate, built from a single cell in a South Korean laboratory.
It got me to thinking. Why do we wait until death knocks to fully celebrate our dogs, and our humans? Why do we hold on so much more tightly when it’s time to let go? How much of our grief is guilt related? Why do we fail, and me especially, to appreciate the other beings we have in life – dogs, parents, friends, spouses, aunts, uncles – until they’re gone? Not that doing so would necessarily blunt the pain of their loss, but maybe there would be some comfort in knowing you’ve made the most of your time together.
Although he started life as a wanderer, although he’s always eager to hop in the back of the Jeep, there’s no reason to believe Ace had a deep inner desire to see America. He didn’t really get a vote. But, as I’d decided at the outset of our trip, and re-decided aboard Grendel, that was what we’d do. That was how we’d celebrate our short – and however long it turns out to be will be too short — time together.
I may not always live my life to its fullest, but my dog, for a while anyway, was going to.
Bidding Grendel farewell, Ace and I followed back roads up into Pennsylvania, where, in what would lead to the first of dozens of road-triggered memories, we got caught behind a horse-drawn buggy that slowed our speed to 10 miles per hour. I was waiting for a chance to pass, but in no real hurry. That was a pact I’d made with me, when it came to the trip – to not be in a rush, no matter what. The driver of the black BMW that roared up behind me clearly felt differently. He was tailgating and veering into the other lane to the extent that I decided to wait and let him pass us both before I went around.
Listening to the relaxing clip-clop of hooves on pavement, my mind went back to experiences I’ve had with the Amish, a population that most of us — as we do with certain types of dogs, as we do with drivers of certain makes of cars – are quick to stereotype: Pit bulls? They all have violent streaks; it’s in their blood. BMW drivers? They are always in a hurry, so they can make more money, and buy more things. And the Amish? They are peaceful, quiet, backward, inbred, bearded, shy and, of course, always master craftsmen.
It was a particular Amish craft – or at least an alleged one – that played a role in leaving my old career and landing us on the road: My last flickering hopes for the newspaper industry were snuffed out, in effect, by the Amish electric fireplace, which, as you might guess, wasn’t really too Amish at all.
Thumbing through the newspaper at my desk one morning, I saw an ad for it – one of those full-page ads disguised to look like an actual newspaper story with a big headline. This one read, “Amish man’s new miracle idea helps home heat bills hit rock bottom.” Under that, in smaller print, it explained that the “miracle heaters” were being “given away free” – with a limit of two per household — with orders for “real Amish fireplace mantles.” Those, according to even smaller print, cost $298 per mantle.
Having spent some time with the Amish while working on stories, having toiled to pry some quotes consisting of more than three words out of those quiet people, and knowing that electricity was among the modern-day conveniences those old order ones shunned, I spewed a little coffee on the piles of paperwork in my cubicle. The Amish electric fireplace? Talk about your glowing contradictions.
I recognized the outfit – not Amish at all — that was marketing it. At other newspapers, I had written about some of their other “miracle” products. Usually, they take out full page ads to announce some “amazing breakthrough.” Maybe it’s a cure for back pain, or collector plates, or full sheets of uncut money, or “Vatican-authorized” memorial prayer cards, or 25 freshly minted state quarters for $20. (You do the math.) Of course, these – as many a state attorney general has noted — are not out and out scams. But they teeter on the very edge of scamhood, while taking advantage of the bottomless gullibility of our species.
Amish craftsmen came up with the idea, or so the ad implied. They hand crafted the wheeled wooden cabinets, into which non-Amish laborers placed Chinese-made electric heaters. The ad showed allegedly Amish woodworkers in photos (which Amish generally don’t permit) along with photos of a horse-drawn buggy toting an Amish electric fireplace to who knows where. Another photo showed an allegedly Amish carpenter shaking hands with a man in a business suit, ostensibly the moment the deal was clinched to produce the “Heat Surge Roll-n-Glow Amish Fireplace”
To me, the story had it all – humor, a curious blending of cultures, and that emperor’s-new-clothes quality that always managed to get me hooked. It had a serious side as well, in that it could be argued, and was, that the venture, or at least the marketing strategy, was exploiting the Amish. “It was kind of a concern to me how the advertisement is. I didn’t feel the very best about it,” one Amish carpenter in Ohio told me. (The Amish are as prone to understating as the company marketing the heaters is to overstating.)
I fully realized that, in pursuing the story, I was going out on a limb, or at least a fake glowing log. There was a time when newspapers, most of them, wouldn’t hesitate to take on one of their own advertisers if the cause was just. I put the story together knowing those days might be gone. I guess I was testing to see if my fears were true, to see how much backbone, if any, we had left. The story cleared my immediate editors, but at the managing editor level it was killed. Not too much explanation was given to me other than he didn’t like it, and thought it was “gotcha journalism.” Perhaps he thought the story wasn’t important enough to be worth losing a big advertising contract.
To me, even though it wasn’t the story of the decade, seeing it rejected served as a last straw – proof that, somewhere along the way, we’d been neutered, possibly by ourselves. Once, working for a newspaper was like hanging out with Superman. But it had become — amid all the doubt and desperation, all the new technology and financial constraints, all the footballs you wanted to kick being pulled away at the last moment — sort of like being Charlie Brown
It was then I made the decision to leave my job, at least once I, unlike Charlie Brown, found something soft on which to land. And that, in part, is what led me, two years later, to be stuck behind this particular Amish buggy, which, having had my fill of hypnotic hoof beats, I finally zipped past on our way to the Lancaster area.
We were on our way to meet a dog-loving friend who, like me, has a bit of animal welfare activist hidden inside. The plan was to engage in some ever-so-slight deception to get an up close look at another product the Amish, in their ongoing efforts to make a living with without compromising their principles, have taken to creating and selling in large numbers.
In addition to picnic tables, rocking chairs, birdfeeders, wagon wheels and butter churns, the Amish produce dogs.
In the previous 10 years, they’d produced a lot of them — in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio, and often under conditions that can only be described as horrendous: dogs living in, and seldom leaving, stacked cages with wire floors; sometimes lacking such basics as food and water and decent hygiene; being bred relentlessly and subjected to poor and makeshift veterinary care, including do-it-yourself euthanasia, like a hose attached to a car tailpipe, to cull the weak and sickly.
I’ve always been puzzled by the disparity — how a seemingly peaceful people who see the outside world as immoral could be breeding and raising dogs under often barbaric conditions. My last visit to Amish country had been in 2006, when a disturbed non-Amish gunman entered a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines and fired 18 shots, killing five Amish schoolchildren and then himself. What a group of the young victim’s parents did after that stunned me and the world. They went the home of the killer to offer condolences to his widow, and tell her all was forgiven.
I ask myself a lot of questions when I drive, which might be why I like to drive. As for this one — how can a group rise to such heights of grace, and yet sink to such depths of cruelty? — the answer was within the question. They are a group, made up of individuals, just like Mormons and Catholics, BMW drivers and pit bulls. Being Amish doesn’t ensure angelic behavior anymore than being a pit bull ensures violence.
Cultural differences are part of it. There are places in America where dogs are not held in as high a status as others, like Indian reservations, where strays commonly roam freely amid an atmosphere of benign and sometimes not-so-benign neglect. There are those who say the Amish, too, view dogs more as livestock. While that may vary from farm to farm and home to home, it’s clear that many of them do view dogs as moneymakers.
Amish breeding operations had by the early 2000s started getting more attention — from animal welfare groups, the news media, and state officials. Pennsylvania, which once had vied with Missouri as the “puppy mill capitol” of the U.S., had passed a progressive new dog law in 2008 that, in stages, was increasing restrictions and leading to crackdowns on the larger scale breeding operations.
We were headed to an Amish kennel that had been repeatedly cited for violations – from feces not cleaned up, to dangerously rough and sharp edges in its pens, to worming syringes being used as chew toys. The owner had pleaded guilty to 14 counts of dog law violations in 2009, including failure to keep the kennel in a “sanitary and humane” condition, refusing entry to inspectors and selling underage puppies.
Pretending to be in search of a puppy, I called him to inquire about an ad for “American Bulldogs” that had ended up on the Internet, though, being Amish, the breeder probably hadn’t placed it there himself. I left a message – some old order Amish do have phones, though often they are located outside the house – and he called back within minutes.
He was out of town, but he told me to drop by his farm, where his children would show us the pups. If I saw one I liked, he said, I could pay them and take the pup with me, and he’d send me the paperwork later. “Do you have the money now?” he asked. He said that the bulldog pups were listed at $875, though there were two runts he was willing to let go for $650. “I don’t think that they are sick, it’s just that sometimes you get runts.”
A honk of the horn brought the children out of their farmhouse — or at least five of the nine he has — and they showed us the bulldog pups. I asked the breeder’s youngest son which dog was the best. “You mean the nicest?” he asked, picking up one of the runts. “This one.”
When we asked if they had other dogs, they mentioned a recently born litter of blue heeler-border collie mixes. Four children walked back to a building in the woods, each returning with two pups in their arms. They pointed to an adjoining pen — beyond a blue heeler who had lost a leg in a mowing accident – to show me the mother of the pups, sitting atop a dog house.
The children seemed happy to show off the dogs, and they handled them mostly gingerly. Both pups and kids were adorable, inbred as they might have been, and the operation, at least that part of it that’s visible from the road, didn’t seem too awful. Then again, it’s not what it used to be. After its enactment, Pennsylvania’s new dog law had led to a drop in the number of larger scale “puppy mills” — from 300 to, by then, around 100. Many left the business, or, like the one we were visiting, scaled down their operations to avoid the new regulations.
The only solid conclusion I would reach from the visit is that the Amish, for all their low-keyed quietness, can be pretty persistent salesmen. At least this one was. The father called me before we had gotten a mile away from his farm, and, in the following three days, 15 more times.
I was still getting – but not answering — calls from him as Ace and I spent a few days in Philadelphia, drove up to New York, and headed across Long Island to a town called Sag Harbor to find the final resting place of a poodle named Charley.
Breed: Terrier mix
Encountered: On the docks at Nick’s Fish House and marina in Baltimore
Backstory: Chopper made the transition from desert dog to boat dog several years ago — relocating from Kingman, Arizona to Baltimore, where he now lives aboard a yacht called the Lucy Maru. It was being restored by Travis Guthrie, a boat builder, and Magdalena Sudnik, an artist. Maggie was painting a mural out west, part of an art project on Route 66, when Chopper, as he would be named, came running up from out of nowhere. They’ve been together ever since.
Every day, Chopper — he’s one of at least half a dozen dogs living at the marina — runs off the boat, down the pier and into the parking lot at Nick’s to play some ball. When he dives into the water to retrieve it, he becomes a different dog. His fine white coat, once drenched, all but disappears, revealing a dog with black spots. Once he dries off, he’s solid white again.
During my time at the marina, Travis and Maggie, who’d recently married, could be seen toiling on the Lucy Maru just about every day. Their plan was to finish the restoration and sail off, with Chopper, into the sunset.