The road is my home. All of my adult life I have traveled the world, meeting fascinating people with stories to share and seeing firsthand the oddities that hide in the hardest-to-reach spots. But this wayward life is not without sacrifice; often it takes more than it gives, and it requires forgoing personal desires in favor of professional ambition. It’s also why I hesitated whenever I considered bringing a dog into my life.
Then this past spring the COVID-19 pandemic reached America, the pace of work slowed substantially, and I decided to give a warm home to a big, senior dog — but instead adopted a 10-week-old runt of the litter: a stubby-legged, sausage-bodied Bassett mix, named Blue on account of his blue tongue. Those first few months with Blue were blissfully simple, and suddenly I felt like I had a home where I wanted to plant my roots and watch my family grow. But I knew one day soon the road would call and the adventurous child inside of me would answer — only this time, sweet Blue would obediently follow in my footsteps, unaware of how huge and strange this world can be.
In July, my girlfriend Mallory and I took our six-month-old puppy on his first road trip: a two-week, 5,000-mile ramble through the American West, sleeping in a Happier Camper trailer that we towed behind our 2020 Jeep Gladiator, seeing a frighteningly divided country anew through wide puppy eyes.
Prior to today, Blue refused to evacuate his bowels anywhere other than our backyard. His turmoil is obvious as he sniffs around the scalding hot rest area outside of Las Vegas, desperate to find a comforting and familiar scent. When he finally squats and does his business, Mallory and I erupt in applause; Blue yips and wiggles his long, low body as he runs to us for “soft rubbies” and love. When we drive into Zion National Park in southern Utah, Blue wakes up just as a herd of bighorn sheep cross the road in front of us; he stares through the glass, silently struggling to understand what he is seeing. We stop in town to have a beer at the local brew pub, and it takes us 10 minutes to get to our table, because again and again people ask us two questions: “What breed is your dog?” and “Can I please pet him?”
Blue chases a lizard around the campsite before we drive east into Bryce Canyon, where hundreds of rust-colored hoodoos spiral up into the sky. We stop at Joe’s Original Rock Shop, where a 10-year-old boy is tending the register. He asks with a soft lisp if he can pet our puppy. On cue, Blue rolls over in the dirt and presents his belly, and the boy abides with tummy scratches. I ask the kid if he has a dog, and he says, “Yeah, but I can’t let her outside because she will murder other dogs.” We drift aimlessly on scenic two-lane country roads until we rejoin the highway, where it is dangerously windy, and with each massive gust, the fiberglass trailer sways from side to side. Blue hates it as much as I do, barking sharply in discomfort, but eventually we make it to our evening accommodations: a small, tree-covered dirt stall on a horse farm in Moab.
We worry that one of the horses might stomp on Blue’s fluffy little head, but to our surprise, the friendly mares and stallions are as curious about the oddly shaped pup as he is about these huge, hooved dogs. We drive into Arches National Park and marvel at the delicate sandstone structures shaped by eons of water and wind. Even with the Jeep’s air conditioning on full blast, Blue is panting uncomfortably, so we nix our plans to go four-wheeling along Moab’s legendary off-road trails and instead head north to find cooler temperatures at higher elevations. Before sundown we pull into an RV park in the nothing town of Coalville, and within minutes there is a swarm of people at our site. Blue rolls onto his back, anticipating scratches, but this time, the trailer draws more attention. I do my best to answer a deluge of esoteric questions while I rub Blue’s belly.
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A few moments after we pass a sign welcoming us to Wyoming, the right wheel of our trailer falls off at 60 mph and goes bounding across the field next to us like a happily prancing doe. All five wheel studs sheared off, so the spare tire is all but useless. I call a flat-bed tow truck while Mallory moves our essentials from the trailer to the Jeep’s bed, and in the back seat of the truck Blue cries and wails, as confused and frustrated as we are. We share a beer while we wait for the tow truck, then drive two hours north to Jackson, Wyoming, where we get a room at the hipster-posh Anvil Hotel. We order rich, creamy Italian food from the restaurant around the corner, and then I take Blue on long, aimless walk through downtown so both of us can decompress before bed. When people stop to pet Blue and ask me what his name is, I amuse myself by answering with absurdities like “Burt Reynolds” or “Randy Savage.”
In the morning Mallory watches a Xena marathon on TV while I answer emails with buckshot replies and Blue chews on a pig ear. We decide to spend another night at the hotel so we can enjoy an entire day exploring Grand Tetons National Park and adjacent Yellowstone. We stop alongside the Snake River so Blue can dip his oversized paws into the slow-rolling water, and he looks back at me with a grin. He has the best day of his puppy life: running free through overgrown fields of wildflowers, barking with naïve machismo at one-ton bison, growling softly at a juvenile grizzly bear as it digs for grubs. As the sun sets we drive back through the Yellowstone, Blue hanging his head from the passenger window, eyes closed and still grinning.
Rob is the warmest mechanic I’ve ever met, and his sweet smile assures me that our trailer is now in proper working order. We head south and stop at Red Baron Drive-In in the town of Afton, where we eat cheap-but-good burgers and milkshakes, and Mallory sneaks a few fries to Blue; she’s a sucker for his dopey, doleful brown eyes. We spend the night at a KOA next to the highway, and while Mallory makes hot dogs and beans on the propane stovetop, I walk Blue to the fenced-in dog park. Blue chases me, then I chase Blue, and then together we lay in the grass, panting, watching as the sky burns and darkens.
There are no available RV spots anywhere near us, so Mallory and I decide it best to enjoy a hearty meal before we spend our night parked on a disused logging road or in a murky alley somewhere outside of Denver. The waitress at Penrose Taphouse & Eatery in Fort Collins, Colorado, can’t focus as she takes our order; she is too enamored with Blue, as are the rest of the restaurant’s patrons. While Blue and Mallory woo the crowd, I call two dozen more RV parks and eventually find a spot in the farming town of Greeley. We meet our neighbors for the night, Jerry and Linda, who collect antique mining equipment and safes from the 1910s and ‘20s. Mallory and Linda drink wine while Jerry and I talk about Chevrolet Corvettes. Blue chomps on a bully stick and chases the moths that fly too near the lights of our trailer.
We aren’t hopeful that we’ll get a first-come, first-served campsite near Rainbow Lakes on the edge of the Indian Peaks Wilderness, because it’s a wildly popular place. The five-mile gravel road to the campground is narrow and jagged, and it is a high-stress endeavor with a 17-foot-long, 2,500-pound camper in tow, but after 30 minutes of trundling along we reach the campground and find an idyllic campsite just before the place fills to capacity. We take Blue on his first-ever hike, a 2.5-mile trail that skirts the edge of three small trout-filled lakes. Mallory fears Blue’s tiny legs might preclude him from hiking, but those fears quickly dissipate as we watch the pup run up steep grades, jump felled trees, and leap from boulder to boulder. At a creek crossing he refuses to walk over the small bridge and whines until I carry him, but I am glad to have an excuse to hold my little man and kiss his wet nose.
We eat fried egg and bacon sandwiches before starting the painfully slow drive out of the Rainbow Lakes campground. We stop at a deli in the nearby town of Nederland to pick up sack lunches before we start a hike around Mud Lake; Mallory desperately wants to see a moose, and she heard moose frequent this spot, but unfortunately we see none. After our hike we drive to a century-old farm south of Denver where a group of friends are filming a short monster movie that I wrote this past spring. The actors are four local high schoolers; all of them fawn over Blue, and Blue is smitten by them, too. When filming wraps, Blue stubbornly anchors himself in the dirt, refusing to leave his new friends.
We spend the night in an RV park at the base of Pikes Peak, with plans to drive down into New Mexico, but in the morning our neighbors tell us about the town of Grand Lake and say we will absolutely see moose if we go there. That is all Mallory needs to hear to change our itinerary, so we backtrack into the mountains and rent an RV spot at Winding River Resort, which backs up against Rocky Mountain National Park. We stare in awe through the windshield as we drive the Jeep up to 12,000 feet, and on a one-way dirt road with successive switchbacks we see a dozen bull elk, many of them still in velvet. We see eight moose, too, and Mallory is elated.
Blue and his mom snore in the passenger seat as I slog south down the highway, both lulled to sleep by an audiobook that Mallory put on before conking out. A friend recommended that we stay at Hotel Luna Mystica outside of Taos, where a sprawl of gorgeous vintage RVs and trailers are available for rent; traveling campers are allowed to park on the edge of the grounds. When we arrive, Blue jumps out of the Jeep and immediately buries himself halfway down a prairie dog hole. Mallory yells for him to stop, then points off into the distance and screams, “Double rainbow!” In our trailer we make s’mores and eat them in bed, snuggled up with our boy.
Downtown Taos is a ghost town; recently, the coronavirus spiked in cities across the country, and New Mexico and bordering Arizona are now hot spots for infection. We drive four hours south to explore the extraterrestrial capital of Roswell, but the UFO museum is closed, and the downtrodden downtown isn’t as kitschy cute as we hoped it would be, so we turn west and drive toward California. In San Antonio, New Mexico, I see a sign for the seventh best burger in America — as rated by GQ Magazine in 2005 — and pull over at the Buckhorn Tavern for a green chili cheeseburger and a locally brewed IPA. A few miles down the road we find the Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park, which looks abandoned but isn’t; I find the owner of the place asleep in his car, door open and engine running. Blue hesitantly plays with a roving pack of ranch dogs that materialized from the tall grass while Mallory and I sit in lawn chairs, watching storm clouds gather and quail scurry by our feet.
We didn’t intend to drive 14 hours in one day, but the campsite we planned to stay at has suddenly closed due to forest fires. Almost no one in Arizona is wearing a mask or seems to take coronavirus seriously, so when we reach Phoenix in early evening, I tell Mallory I’ll put the hammer down until we got home, making one quick stop for In-N-Out Burger. When we park down the street from our house, Blue jumps out of the Jeep, sniffs around excitedly, and tugs at his leash. I still love being on the road, but Blue makes it clear: this is home.
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