Albert Lea, Minnesota to Gillette, Wyoming (with a detour to Mount Rushmore). 697.7 miles. 10 hours 24 minutes on the road. 155 songs.
Today was a long day on the road. Great scenery, but a lot of miles, and a lot of time to get lost in my thoughts. Lucky for me, I’m not traveling by myself. I’m traveling with Hugo.
Hugo’s my dog.
* * *
You’ve met Hugo before, unless you want to break my heart and tell me you don’t remember. In fact, you’ve met the whole pack back in my post, “Woof“. Libby, our grand old dame pit bull mix was with My Bride as a puppy, before I entered the picture. Fenway, aka Nubby, is a mutt we rescued before we got married. And Hugo came along in the fall of 2012, a brand-spankin’ new goldendoodle pup. I love all three of those dogs, but there’s a different relationship with each one. Libby is aloof, and while she is respectful and well-mannered, she’s generally distant (unless you have food), and this means her love must be earned. Affection from Libby, when it comes, comes straight from the heart. It’s a gift she bestows on those she trusts. I’m honored and grateful to have earned that trust.
Nubby, on the other hand, enjoys human contact the way your or I enjoy oxygen. She must be held and petted or she’ll fall all to pieces, and there are times when you’re grateful not to have to work too hard for some attention at the end of the day. She’s a sweet, delicate soul needing constant reassurance that it’s okay for Nubby to be Nubby. If you’re petting her head, you are God, and that’s heady stuff. What’s not to love?
Hugo is adorable, and a dope, and a rascal, and even at age 3 1/2, a puppy. Hugo will aggravate you to the last myelin sheath of your final nerve, and then cock his head and bat his eyelashes (dammit, the dog has actual eyelashes), and dare you not to fall in love with him. And I do. Every time.
Just as I love each of those dogs, with each the relationship is different. Hugo and I have always been close. Hugo loves My Bride, and she him, but it’s me that he watches baseball with while My Bride is quilting, his head usually on my knee, if he’s not in my lap entirely. When I sit down to write, he camps out at my feet (just as he’s doing right now). Maybe it’s because we’re both simultaneously extremely clever and complete fools, but we resonate with each other. As Joe Maddon might put it, we vibrate on the same frequency.
The morning My Bride and I first discussed me leaving, before we talked about the timing or any of the details, she quietly said, “You should take Hugo.” I’ll always be grateful to her for that.
* * *
Dogs complicate everything. It wasn’t enough that I was trying to find a place to live and a job from across the country. With Hugo, I immediately had to rule out buying a condo in favor of a townhouse; we needed a yard, a fenced-in one ideally. Work needed to be close enough to race the dog’s bladder back to the house, which ruled out the 12-hour shift work nursing sometimes entails. Dogs are expensive (their medical emergencies, in particular, are expensive), and they need time and attention. They’re not an accessory. They’re family, and need to be treated as such.
Even more complicated would be this road trip. I’d already decided on hiring movers to truck my stuff, and driving myself out once the weather was warm enough to avoid snow. Adding the dog changed things entirely.* Gone was the leisurely motor tour with the uncertain itinerary, and the time to stop and smell the tourist traps. Hugo is not your typical head-out-the-window, “Yay, it’s time to go for a ride!” pooch (that would be Libby). Hugo, at best, has been indifferent to car rides. If I open windows, he shies away from them, unless it’s the driver’s side window, in which case he wants to stand in my lap (all 63 pounds of him) and check out the scenery. I had no idea how he’d manage in the car for hours at a time. No idea how many days on the road he could tolerate. And no idea how he’d behave in hotels along the way, or even if I could find enough that allowed happy-go-lucky heffalumps.
But there was never a question of not bringing him. I needed this dog, of all dogs, to stay in my life, and I like to think that he needed me, too. Dogs are important to us. I used to think that dogs are important because of the unconditional love they give us, but that’s just a benefit. That’s not what a dog is for. The purpose of a dog is to give us something to love. To keep our hearts directed outward when we have no humans available, and sometimes even when we do. I was losing My Bride, and The Knucklehead would be on the other side of the continent. I needed something in the house with me to love and care for. To stay in practice. To keep from folding in on myself.
I needed my Hugo.
* * *
I did some research and found out that dog-friendly hotels are a lot more plentiful than I thought. Olympia was roughly 44 hours away, so I figured five days of driving 9-hour shifts would minimize days on the road while leaving in enough time to take long breaks during the day if needed. The AAA guide gave me the tip of packing his meals in baggies instead of wrestling with a big bag of food. “You should give him Benadryl so he sleeps in the car!” suggested Everyone, but no thanks – the last thing I needed was the dog wide awake and raring to go in hotel rooms at night, precisely my experience with the young Knucklehead after a day in the car. Come to think of it, a car trip was always nap time for my kid, so maybe it would have the same effect on the dog. Medicating I’d hold off until I knew what the situation was.
I drive a 2010 Honda Fit, which is no one’s choice for a cross-country trip, but it’s the car I’ve got, so that’s that (“No buying a new car while you’re applying for a mortgage,” I was told, so that was out even if I wanted to.). Fortunately, my car has three things going for it: it’s a tough little bastard, it’s great on gas, and the rear seats fold down. So I took some blankets and made Hugo a little nest in the back, with plenty of room left for the stuff I was carrying, and the dog’s favorite toys handy. Some more stuff is stowed on the floor of the front passenger seat, but the seat itself remained empty if Hugo wanted to move forward for a while.
And it turns out that Hugo is the perfect road trip companion.
He was very confused after the first hour on the road when we hadn’t arrived either at the vet’s or Dunkin’ Donuts (his usual destinations), but the comfort of his toys and the familiar-smelling blankets might have done the trick. I kept talking to him, and by the end of the day we’d settled into a pattern. He’d sleep in the back for a few hours, then move up front and put his head in my lap for a while. I’d scratch his ears and sing to him whatever was on my iPod at the time, and then he’d sit up next to me and look out the windshield while I scratched his chest. Then back for a nap. Repeat. We stopped every 2-3 hours (rest stops always have grass), and I’d take him for a walk and let him relieve himself (a roll of plastic bags always in my cargo shorts). Then he goes back in the car with the windows open while I run inside to pee, maybe grab a quick bite, and fill up his portable water dish. Then Hugo comes back out for a drink, and we both hit the road again.
In the hotels at night, Hugo has been making himself at home. It seems that as long as I’m with him and he has his toys, that’s enough. I fill his bowl for dinner (repeat in the morning for breakfast), and I found that the ice bucket makes a dandy water bowl. I take him out enough times to ensure the hotel carpets stay clean, and that Hugo (and I) can burn off a little energy walking/playing outside.
It hasn’t been perfect. Hugo likes to bark at night when we’re under attack, and by “under attack” I mean the night staff slipping the bill under the door. He is not a fan of Chicago traffic, or air brakes on semis anywhere. But he sleeps contentedly beside me at night, he’s eating, drinking, and pooping regularly, and doesn’t cry, shake or salivate (signs of stress in dogs). It’s kind of nice that he wanders up to the front seat with me now and then, as if to check in on me. It’s something The Knucklehead would do.
* * *
Hugo has no idea what’s awaiting him in Olympia, and I wish I could tell him about our new home. But I’ll have three weeks before I start my new job, so we’ll both have time to acclimate before I go to work. I’m hoping when the movers arrive the familiarity of our stuff will help him settle in. But in the meantime, I’m looking forward to exploring my new neighborhood with Hugo. The Pacific Northwest is famously dog-friendly, and that’s going to give me no excuse to stay indoors all day. In particular, I can’t wait to take our first trip together to Mt. Ranier.
There’s some melancholy and loss involved in this move, but there’s great excitement ahead of me, too. I’m staring a new life in a place where I feel like I belong. I’m George Bailey, finally busting out of Bedford Falls.
It’s good not to have to do that alone. It’s good to have a friend along for the ride.
*And, no, I didn’t for a second think of flying Hugo out west. No dog of mine travels in the belly of a plane, not even if they’d let me fly there alongside him.