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Tag: journey

Onward, upward, backward, homeward

Get back to where you once belonged

— The Beatles

You can’t go home again

     — Thomas Wolfe

The Beatles had more memorable lyrics — “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da” notwithstanding — but Thomas Wolfe (and here we mean the “Look Homeward Angel” one, not the modern-day, white-suited “Right Stuff” one) is probably best remembered for that one phrase, which also served as the title of one of his fine books.

“You can’t go home again” — meaning, of course, not that you can’t physically return, but that, if and when you do, what was there then isn’t likely to be there now, or how you remembered it isn’t how it is now, or maybe even how it was then, or that time has a way of erasing your past, just as it will one day lay claim to your future.

Whether one can go home again has been a recurring theme of Travels With Ace. In our journey, we’ve revisited the places of my youth — in Houston, in Tucson, in New York, and in Raleigh. (I had a lot of homes, both in my youth and since — 28 in 16 different towns.) Sometimes the reconnection has been strong; sometimes it has been faint. But you can go home again.

And you should.

And I am.

A week from now I’ll be settling into the modest little apartment unit in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in which my parents lived when I entered the world — not with with a bang (though obviously that occured at some point) but with a whimper.

Now, in the denouement of, if not life, at least this blog, it’s back to John: Chapter One, Verse One.

(Note: At 57, I’ve found I prefer my metaphors mixed. So I run them through the blender, on puree, sometimes with an added pinch of Metamucil, ridding them of the hard to digest lumpy bits. They are both tastier and easier to swallow that way.)

In the beginning was the word — and I was born of two wordsmiths. I followed their footsteps into the newspaper industry, put in 35 years or so, then — as newspapers became glimmers of their former selves — jumped ship to write a book, and write these blogs, and find a new identity to replace my old one.

Now, I’ll be stringing them — words, I mean — together in the same room where I once rattled the rails of my crib, documenting the denouement, or the final resolution of the intricacies of my plot, if indeed I have either plot or intricacies.

It will be — at least for a while — the somewhat circular ending of my year on the road with my dog Ace, who has helped me reach the decision.

His herniated disc is still an issue, and the 11 steps down to our temporary apartment in the basement of a mansion, probably isn’t aiding his recovery.

We came here to spend a couple of months close by my mother, and to reconnect with my own roots, much like I sought out Ace’s several years ago.

It was on the way home from one such reconnection, a family reunion, that my mother showed me the house she and my father lived in when I was born. In the window was a “for rent” sign. There was only one step up to enter.

I signed a lease — as is my style, and given my lack of a plot — on a month-to-month basis.

So next week, given my birthplace is unfurnished, it’s back to Baltimore to reclaim my stuff, now nested in a storage unit on Patapsco Avenue.

Then we’ll lug it all back to College Village, a spanking new apartment complex when my mother and father moved in 60 years ago. Now, it’s far less upscale than its surrounding neighborhood, a collection of mostly squat brick units that look like something you’d see on an Army base.

I, having only lived there one year, and it having been my first, have no real memories of it, but it was interesting to see, when I brought her over for a visit, how it triggered some for my mother.

Ace, too, seemed to like it better than the basement. When we dropped by to sign the lease, his tail was up and wagging. He visited the tiny kitchen, then sniffed out the two bedrooms, paying far more attention to the front one. Did my baby smells still linger after 57 years? Only then did he walk up to meet the landlord and his daughter.

Yes, he seemed to be saying, this will do nicely. Only one stair. Lots of sunlight. 

As the landlord ripped the “for rent” sign off the front window, I think my dog and I came to the same conclusion — that one intricacy at least, at last, had been resolved, and that we were home, for now.

Last day on the — ouch! — boat

As much as we’ve enjoyed life on a boat, both Ace and I will disembark with a few bumps and bruises.

Speaking just for myself, I think I’ve bumped almost every body part I have: head (four times), knees (three times), toes (two times), elbows (two times).

For Ace, I think it has been even tougher. He’s fine once he’s settled on the deck, or ensconced in the cabin on a cushion, but — being sneakerless — getting around on the boat’s slippery surface has been more difficult for him.

He has become adept at turning around in tight spaces, climbing up and down the ladder-like stairs to the cabin, and getting on and off the boat by crouching to fit under a railing and then leaping to the pier.

For the most part, he obeyed my commands to “stay on the boat!” when I ventured off to hit the bathroom or bar, but the other day was an exception.

The boat’s owner, Arnold Sherman, had come aboard. I had taken some photos of the boat’s interior and exterior, so he could use them in his attempts to sell my temporary home. After passing them on, we persuaded each other to go to Nick’s, where the boat is docked, for a beer and some of their happy hour, half-priced, fist-sized fried oysters.

“Stay on the boat!” I told Ace. The way the boat is tied, there’s a gap of one to three feet between it and the pier and, given the railing in the way, I worried he might end up in the water if he tried to get off when I wasn’t there — a bad thing because once one falls in the water, there aren’t a lot of ways out.

And at 130 pounds — him, that is — I’m relatively certain I wouldn’t be able to hoist him up.

Arnie and I had walked 100 yards down the pier, turned left and were headed to the gate when a dog head suddenly brushed up against Arnie’s leg. Ace, in total silence, had somehow managed to get off the boat, tippy toe up behind us and nonchalantly fall into step, with a look on his face that said, “Where we goin’, guys?”

I walked him back to the boat, put him in the cabin, gave him a mild reprimand and a pile of treats — mixed message, I know — and put a barrier at the top of the stairs.

Other than that defiant moment, he has adapted, once again, magnificently.

He loves walking along the pier, watching the birds, humans and other goings on, and sitting on the boat’s deck with his head draped over the side.

In the early evenings, he’ll climb up on the deck while I’m writing and position himself in a way he can see all that’s going on at the marina.

When he gets tired of that, or knows it’s almost dinner time, he’ll rearrange himself so he can peek through the entrance to the cabin, watching me — until dinner is served.

His only truly anxious moments were on Sept. 11 when the city saw fit — though it seems somehow wrong to me … a bit too festive and explosive — to have a fireworks display.

We sat in the cabin, his head on my lap, until it was over.

I’ve made sure to take him to nearby Riverside Park everyday, so he can enjoy some time on solid ground and sniff some grass, and yesterday — having some errands to attend to — I dropped him off for doggie day care at the Downtown Dog Resort & Spa, just around the corner.

Five hours later, I picked him up, along with his report card: “Ace was a little shy at first, not knowing any of the dogs. In the afternoon, he loosened up and played with Kallie (a Lab), Coby (a boxer) and Mocha (a pit mix) in the pool. He and Mr. Brown (his favorite playmate) seemed inseparable.”

From there we headed to Ace’s favorite bar, where he got his requisite human attention, and then some.

We stopped and picked up a cheesesteak and fries on the way back to the boat, and he bounded down the stairs to the cabin, not wanting to miss out on that.

As Ace sees it, home is where the cheesesteak is — no matter how cramped and slippery it (and by that I mean the home) might be.

Tomorrow, we’re off to Philadelphia — home of the cheesesteak, home, once, to me. After a couple of days there, we’ll move on to New York, in search of John Steinbeck’s Long Island home. There, in the backyard of a cottage in Sag Harbor, under a willow tree, Charley — the dog he toured America with — is buried.

That will be the starting point for the next few months of our journey, in which we plan to retrace, at least partially, the route Steinbeck and Charley took — starting with three ferry rides to Connecticut, then heading up to the northernmost tip of Maine, then moving west.

You can stay on the boat, or come on along.

Dogs and the fine art of freeloading

It occurs to me – tooling down the highway tends to make things occur to me – that in my current journey, with my dog, across America, mooching off friends and family and, given the opportunity, complete strangers, I am, in ways, taking on the role of dog.

(When things occur to me, there are usually a lot of commas involved.)

Since Ace and I pulled out of Baltimore, two weeks ago, we’ve only spent two nights in motels – thanks to my mother putting me up two nights, and my ex-wife and her husband putting up with me for ten days, a most gracious gesture and an arrangement that barely felt weird at all.

More important, it allowed me to spend some time with my son in his last summer before college, get to know his family dogs, suck in plenty of air conditioning and take part in recreation real and virtual.

We played some Frisbee golf (Wii and real), tennis (real), ping pong (Wii), regular golf (real), made side trips to Memphis, Tupelo and Oxford, and over the weekend gave the dogs baths.

Ace has gotten along famously with both Molly, a two-year-old beagle mix, and Huey, a scruffy little terrier who’s 15, and, on walks, squirts his pee straight sideways, to amazing distances. One must always remember to walk behind Huey.

Ace immediately became part of the pack and adapted to our temporary quarters, but then that’s what dogs are best at, adjusting.  I’m not entirely sure he wants to leave. Nevertheless, the time has come to move on.

We’re thinking south, towards New Orleans, but we’re not sure.

In the days ahead we’ll probably be spending more nights in motels, and, once we get to cooler climes, camping – but we still plan to mooch when the offer is made, avoiding motels whenever possible.

(Two good things about friends: They don’t impose weight limits, or require non-refundable security deposits. At least none have yet.)

I’ve gotten a few lodging offers, even a couple from strangers. More often, they are from friends and family – some from people who want to see me so badly, they will tolerate my dog, more yet from people who want to see my dog so badly, they will tolerate me.

Traveling with dogs, though it can be restrictive and inconvenient, can also open doors. My ex and her husband, I’d guess, after 10 days of me sleeping in their den, won’t be too sad to see me go, but they’ll miss Ace. Although she informed me upon arrival that Ace is overweight (correctly, I realized), she then went on to treat him to, among other things, pancakes, bacon, cheesecake, hamburgers and hot dogs.

All of which, being a mooch himself — both when it comes to food and affection — he gobbled up.

I’m learning a thing or two from my dog about the fine art of freeloading — not surprising, given dogs are probably society’s ultimate freeloaders.

We feed them, shelter them, teach them, groom them, entertain them and sometimes go to far more ridiculous extremes. They get, pretty much, a free ride.

Unlike your average parasite, though, they give far more back in return — unwavering loyalty, unconditional love, companionship, affection, better health, smiles, laughs, serenity, comfort, exercise and, oh yeah, that sense of purpose and fulfillment that they add to our lives.

Since I’ve hit the road, I’ve been offered shelter, fed meals and found companionship (family variety) – everything a dog gets, except maybe a scratch behind the ears. I, in turn, try to be amusing, refrain from barking, not drool when dinner is served and avoid shedding on the couch.

In reality, I don’t uphold my side of the freeloading bargain as well as dogs do. I’m not quite as loyal and steadfast, as dependable or entertaining, as cute, soothing or stimulating. But I try.

Not wholeheartedly, like a dog – I won’t be licking any hands, for instance — but I try.

Paying respects at the Coon Dog Cemetery

Ace stepped lightly between the tombstones, paused to sniff a clump of artificial flowers, then moved on – past Flop, Train, Daisy, Black Ranger and Bear. He paused at the final resting places of Patches and Preacher and Bean Blossom Bomma, then sauntered by Smoky, Squeek and Easy Going Sam, whose rusting collar is looped over the cross marking his grave.

We were alone at the Coon Dog Cemetery in Cherokee, Alabama – except for the 215 dogs buried beneath us — on a hot and drizzly Friday, silent except for the chirps of birds and the whining hum of mosquitos sizing up my ears.

I’d long wanted to visit the Coon Dog Cemetery. We’ve featured it on this website before. But those were long distance, second hand dispatches. Being there, especially when no one else is, is another story.

Between the bursts of color provided by the fake flowers on almost every grave; the eclectic mix of memorials, ranging from engraved stone, to etched metal to carved wooden crosses, and the homey epitaphs and monikers, the cemetery is at once haunting and inspiring – a Southern icon, and a reminder of the powerful, difficult to relinquish, connection between dog and owner.

Especially when that dog and owner were hunting buddies.

Located in a grassy meadow in the wilderness of Freedom Hills, the cemetery permits only coon dogs – 215 of which are buried there, according to Susann Hamlin, executive director of the Colbert County Tourism & Convention Bureau, which now maintains the property.

The cemetery got its start when Key Underwood chose the spot – not far from where coon hunters gathered to share stories – to bury his faithful coon dog Troop. On a dreary Labor Day in 1937, Troop was wrapped in a cotton sack and buried three feet down. Underwood marked the grave with a rock from an old chimney. He used a hammer and screwdriver to chisel Troop’s name and date.

After that, other hunters started doing the same – first those from Alabama and Mississippi, later from all around the country.

We found it after driving 15 miles down a winding road through the gently rolling hills of northwest Alabama, and for an hour had it all to ourselves. Then another car pulled up, driven by Hamlin, who was escorting a photographer working on a project about Alabama for the National Archives.

Hamlin said about three dogs a year are buried at the cemetery nowadays – a reflection of the declining popularity of the sport, in which the dogs track raccoons and chase them up trees before the hunters … well, you know the rest.

How much pride those hunters took in their dogs still lingers though, in tall tales, folklore and, most of all, at the cemetery, where heartfelt tributes are hammered, carved and burned into grave markers:

“He wasn’t the best, but he was the best I ever had.”

“He was good as the best and better than the rest.”

“He was a joy to hunt with.”

Every year on Labor Day, a festival is held at the cemetery, hosted by the Tennessee Valley Coon Hunters Association. The cemetery is spruced up and decorated, and the event features bluegrass music, food and a liar’s contest.

For more information, visit Coondogcemetery.com and Colbertcountytourism.org. Caps and T-shirts can be purchased online, and proceeds help support the cemetery.

Better yet, check it out in person. Admission is free, but the mosquitos do take up donations. I added about a dozen more bites to my ongoing collection – a small price to pay for such a big, colorful and moving sampling of southern culture.

To read all of Dog’s Country, click here.

First stop, North Carolina

What is it about moving day that turns an otherwise adequately functioning brain into a sieve?

Our departure from Baltimore on our trip to who knows where was delayed for a couple of hours — not through any fault of Ace, but by mine own forgetfulness, a case of my brain getting so full of things to remember that a few of them got lost in the shuffle.

After my last trip to the storage unit, I returned home to find my bicycle, which was supposed to go in the storage unit. I went ahead and packed for the trip, loaded Ace in the car and made one more trip to the storage unit, with plans to leave straight from there.

Once the bicycle was loaded into the unit, I remembered I had forgotten to pack my pills that I never remember to take. So it was back home one more time to pick those up. I will probably continue to forget to take them, but at least I have them now. Then we were off, for real.

Ace, after some head out the window time, settled down in the back, where he has plenty of room because I put all my camping gear on the roof. As I suspected, that happy and carefree feeling I get on the road kicked in around Fredericksburg. It was smooth sailing, mostly, down I-95 to I-85, and into North Carolina. We made a quick stop for some barbecue for dinner — the drive-up window of Hursey’s Pig Pickin Bar-B-Cue in Graham is always good for a sandwich, and for a dollar more, they throw in a pig bone.

We dined in a parking lot, and Ace happily munched the bone — don’t worry FDA, I was monitoring him through the rearview mirror — all the way to Winston-Salem.

We arrived late, about 9 p.m., and — this being a frugal trip (we won’t allow ourselves to spend more on our travels than we were spending on rent) — confiscated my mother’s room in the retirement community for the evening. (Dogs are allowed in her room, but not the guest rooms. So she stayed in the guest room and I took hers.)

It was a clean start to the trip, once we got rolling, with only one snafu. Around 10:30 p.m., I stepped outside for a cigarette. Five minutes later, when I tried to get back into my mother’s building, it was locked. Apparently, I was out past bedtime.

The situation was quickly remedied with a call to security. They popped the door open and I stayed inside for the rest of the night.

Day one was relatively inexpensive — that, as I said, being one of our major goals.

Total costs for the day:

Gas: $50

Food: $2.55 sandwich for me; $1 bone for Ace.

Lodging: Free.

Liberation: Priceless.

And we’re off

The first leg of our journey around the country has begun — almost.

There’s one more load of last minute items to drop off at the storage unit, then a car to reload with what Ace and I will need for our month, or two, or three, on the road.

A few hours from now, Ace, who has been stressing out with all the packing up and furniture moving, will jump in the back of the Jeep, and settle in for the nine-hour drive to North Carolina.

For the past two weeks, he has known something is up, generally going into his crate or the backyard and assuming a position — head between his paws — that seems to say “Harrrumph, I’m not sure I like this.”

When I disassemble his crate about an hour from now, he’ll grow even more disconcerted, up until the moment he jumps into the vehicle and we get rolling. Then he’ll stick his head out the window, suck in some fresh air and be fine with the world. I’m hoping I will be too.

A few hours from now, I will either be feeling liberated, or thinking “ohmigod, I don’t have a home … what have I done?”

The plan? Well, there’s not much of one. After a stop in North Carolina to visit Ace’s grandma, we’ll push on to Alabama, for my son’s high school graduation. After that, we’ll meander west, eventually hitting Arizona. In other words, we don’t really know where we’re going, but we hope to have a good time, find some good dog stories and sample some dog friendliness as we make our way there.

Basically I decided to stop paying rent for a while, and — the book that has kept me busy for the past year being done — catch up with family and friends, all while reporting for ohmidog! from the road and continuing the job search.

How the latter goes will determine whether we return to Baltimore, which a big part of me is sad to be leaving — even after the city left me two goodbye notes, in two days this week, both slid under the windshield wiper of my car, which I’d parked on the illegal side of the street for moving purposes.

Thanks to all of our friends for helping us get on our way — to Dan and Marite for taking my fish, to Diane for the oatmeal cookies, to Don for helping me move the heavy stuff, to Tamara for far too many things to mention, to Tobey for the send-off party, and to all the humans and dogs at Riverside Park who were Ace’s friend, and mine.

With some trepidations (I’m pretty sure I packed the trepidations), we depart. We might get a little misty as we pull out of town, waiting for that feeling of liberation to kick in. I predict that will come once we get south of Washington. If it doesn’t, if we get that far and still feel sad, we know what to do:

Stick our heads out the window, take a deep breath and let our ears flap in the breeze.

ohmidog! is hitting the road

Restless, poor, unemployed and finished with THE BOOK, I — along with my two co-dependents, Ace and ohmidog! — am hitting the road.

Maybe for a month, maybe for two, maybe for more, we’ll be traveling the country — or at least those parts of it that are dog-friendly and in the red zones of that Verizon wireless map.

In the week ahead, we’ll be putting our stuff in storage, moving out of our house, leaving Baltimore, at least for a while, and exploring.

Basically we’ll take what we are spending on rent, and spend it on gas instead, see some America, visit some family members, camp out a lot, mooch off friends, continue to blog and job search and keep an eye out for places that are particularly dog friendly.

We depart with no real destination and no firm plan. We’ll be stopping in North Carolina for a quick visit with (Ace’s) grandma, tool on down to Alabama for my son’s high school graduation, and, proof of citizenship in hand, drop by Arizona, where my father and brother live.

Beyond that, it’s pretty wide open, and we are, of course, open to invitations, especially if you know of a good place to pitch our tent.

If you run an especially dog friendly — not dog tolerant, dog friendly — institution, program or business, feel free to drop us a line (muttsblog@verizon.net). The same holds true if you run a rescue, shelter or dog-related organization that’s doing new and exciting things. Depending on where you are, and how close we’re passing by, we’d love to come see and document your efforts.

In part, our journey will be a search for dog friendliness — and by that we mean the true and sincere form, not dog friendliness based on breed, weight, or a non-refundable deposit.

What prompts the trip, more than anything else, is being finished with the book I left the Baltimore Sun to write, and my guilt about all the family members and friends I’ve ignored during the research and writing of it.

As for the book, it’s a behind the scenes account of the quest to clone a dog and the subsequent marketing of that service. It’s title will be “DOG, INC.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend.”

It’s scheduled for release in December, but don’t worry, I’ll remind you.