When Ingrid was a year and a half, I packed her into a car and drove across the county–just her and me, and the far reaching sky. We began in Portland, OR, with an upstate NY destination in mind. I was traveling east to visit family, a three week vacation stretching before me, and I had a singular purpose: to not leave the dog behind. I could have, I suppose, but I wanted to meld my two worlds: my west coast present, my east coast past. I also wanted to explore the possibility that I could travel across the country alone–though I wouldn’t truly be all alone, because when there’s a dog in the car, there is always someone to talk to.
A dog is a good conversation starter, an excuse for someone to approach you with something to say. That summer Ingrid was deep in the “stranger danger” phase of her development, something my husband and I found disconcerting, but a useful advantage when traveling girl-alone on the road. She is an extremely loyal and bonded dog, and I suspect she would fight to the death if called upon to do so–I didn’t love this about her, but it was only one aspect of her total package and so I accepted it.
On the road she wouldn’t let anyone approach the car without sounding off a warning. At a gas station in Wyoming she took on a 12-foot-tall wooden statue of a cowboy, and in a rest stop in Utah she very firmly informed an older gentleman trying to say hello that he had come close enough and there was no reason we couldn’t speak from a distance, thank you very much. This was all behavior I intended to work on, you know, later–when we were no longer one girl and one dog all alone on the road. She made me feel protected, and weirdly, loved, because her intensity was meant for me and me alone. She’d do anything to keep me safe, and I dragged her with me wherever I went–roadside bathrooms (right into the stall), grocery stores (where a dog is always welcome, right?), motel lobbies, everywhere. I was only enforcing the bond and reinforcing the problem: stranger = danger.
Until Nebraska. We were traveling along an endless stretch of I-80, when around dusk I took an exit that promised a gas station. I was maybe 3/4’s empty, but I was tired and needed tea and a break. The exit road was a long one and cut through empty fields. Mine was the only car on the road, even the semi’s had abandoned me. The middle of nowhere, yes, but here was this gas station, built so large several semi trucks and a dozen cars could fill up at the same time. In eerie silence I pumped my gas and then parked my little two door hatchback in front of the brightly lit store. I rolled down the window for Ingrid and got out. A bell chimed as I stepped through the door but the lone man behind the counter didn’t look up from his newspaper. I approached the long counter of stainless steel machines and proceeded to make some tea. As I was finishing up, I tried to snap the plastic lid down but pressed a little too hard, crumpling the styrofoam mug and spilling its contents over just about everything–the counter, the floor, my shoes. Suddenly the man behind the counter was standing before me with a rag, a kind look on his face. “I am so sorry,” I said, but he only waved his hand backwards. “Don’t worry about it. I don’t mind at all.” I helped him mop up the tea and then I fixed myself another cup. He was tall and was wearing a camouflaged baseball hat, a pack of cigarettes tucked into his t-shirt’s front pocket. He glanced out the front window at my car and said “Oregon, huh?”
“I took the family there once on vacation. Pretty country.”
“That your dog?”
He looked back at me. “She like hotdogs?”
But before I could answer he had his hands in the rotisserie and pulled out two greasy links.
We stood in the doorway of the store, the door jammed open, the hotdogs cut into bite-size pieces and placed on a paper plate, Ingrid straining at the end of her leash. The man squatted on the concrete, bending his tall body, and held the plate out for her. Ingrid inhaled the hotdog pieces quickly and then gazed up at him with squinty eyes. Then she did something I’d never seen her do to a stranger before–she stepped forward, tucked her head into the tall man’s lap, and just stood there while he gently caressed her sides, murmuring “good dog, good dog.”
I almost cried.
“You come back again, ya hear?”
“I will,” I said. And I did. One more time on the way back west. Two more hotdogs, and a gentle hand.