Welcome!

We are Kait and John Seyal, and our dogs are Max, Grace, and Jenny. On March 1, 2012 we began our coast-to-coast walk in Lewes, Delaware. We walked 3,088 miles to raise awareness for pet therapy and animal rescue. On November 17, 2012, we walked into the Pacific Ocean, completing our journey in Long Beach, California.

Max and Grace were both adopted as adults from shelters, and we trained them ourselves to be certified Therapy Dogs. As we walked across our country, we stopped to volunteer at hospitals, nursing homes, children’s homes, veteran’s facilities, and anywhere else the unconditional love of a dog is needed.

Max and Grace are certified and insured therapy dogs through Pawsibilities Unleashed based in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Click here to read our story from the beginning.

Click here to jump to the first day of the walk.
The first few posts were pretty rough, but we promise they get better.

Posted in Trail Life | 11 Comments

From where we have come/to where we are going

This New Year’s eve, on the cusp of another trip around our tiny little Sun, we join billions of people around the world in reflecting on the last year of our lives – and wondering what the future may hold.

visiting Cape Henlopen, Delaware earlier this year

November 17th marked the three-year anniversary of the day we walked into the Pacific Ocean and brought a vibrant chapter of our lives to a close. We look around now and see a life that was unimaginable to us only a few short years ago. Living the “domesticated” life, our pilgrim’s sense of wonder is easily eclipsed by work, paychecks, bills, meetings, and social commitments. The truth is that we cannot be who we were as pilgrims while we are living in one place like this.  Neither one of us can be as wide open to every experience – it’s just too overwhelming. We put on the blinders as needed, keep our heads down, and try to push forward a little every day. We keep a hard eye on the big picture of our goals, but it’s unnervingly easy to lose sight of the small victories and steps we take every day.

It is funny how we’ve come to measure our year by Walk anniversaries and where we were this time in 2012, marking the calendar in states crossed and lessons learned in hopes of holding on to who we were out there on the road. When I am looking for answers in my life, I meditate on where we were on that day during the walk, how I was feeling, and what I was learning about myself and the world. I think this is why we revisit places from the walk whenever we have the opportunity: It puts us in touch with who we were at our best and fans the little flame of inspiration that we still carry with us. I miss the clarity and peace of the Walk most of all – the kind of peace that washes over a person when they are able to fully accept themselves and each thing around them as a beautiful piece of the intricate tapestry of time and space; when we can embrace this opportunity to be “part of the mystery”- or something like that.  That’s the thing – there really aren’t words for it.  That’s why it can be so hard to hold on to. You just know when you’ve been there.

“Don’t let your dreams be dreams”

When we planned the walk, I could see it before it happened – a vision of the future we wanted to have. A year and 1/2 later, we found ourselves on the Atlantic coast looking west and facing challenges we still couldn’t even anticipate. With a daily regimen of positive thinking and sheer stubbornness, we made the walk happen. The long game that we are playing now is harder to see. The steps are not clear and simple like items that can be crossed off a grocery list or miles walked to the destination. This time, it is difficult to even make a list in the first place. I am holding dozens of related pieces of a puzzle without knowing exactly how they’re going to fit.  I just have to have faith that they will come together when it is time.

On that note, 2015 has been a year of many hard-won milestones for our little family. The biggest decision we made this year was to buy a house here in Louisville. We searched for quite some time before we found the right house with a small, simple floor plan, big private yard, affordable mortgage, and a location that gives us access to this city’s parks and vibrant neighborhoods. After many turns of fate and incredibly stressful days and nights lining up our priorities and finances, we finally settled on a 100-year old shotgun-style home in the Germantown neighborhood. Our new house is cozy with less than 1,000 square feet, but it has everything we need. It’s funny how living in a tent can make any house feel like a mansion.

home sweet home

Now I know what you’re thinking (because we sometimes wonder the same thing:) How can we go on another big Walk Across Somewhere if we are stuck in the middle of a city paying a mortgage? Patience, kiddos – it’s all part of the plan. Buying a house in the city was not a passive decision of convenience. Training dogs – particularly those who work in public like service and therapy dogs – requires a great deal of socialization. They need to be out the in world seeing, smelling, and hearing as many new people and things as possible. For those of you who have wondered how we could live in a metro area like we do, this is why: We can expose our dogs in training to cars, buses, motorcycles, sirens, other dogs, and strange cats just by walking out our front door. For public access work with service dogs in training, grocery stores, restaurants, and malls are easily within reach. I always saw myself on a farm by 30 and yet here I find myself living in downtown Louisville. It is a calculated sacrifice, but well worth it as a dog trainer.

At the beginning of 2015 I left the restaurant after 14 years in the service industry and began working full-time as a dog trainer and building our company, Good Job Dogs, LLC. This past year, I have been able to train professionally, take on new clients, and focus on developing our business. It’s slow going, but we have made so much progress! We have business insurance to cover almost every dog-related activity we could think of. We are building a strong network of trainers and organizations, including (but not limited to) Best Friends Animal Society and the Kentucky Humane Society – Kentucky’s largest animal welfare organization. Just this fall, I took and passed my “Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed” certification exam – one of the only nationally recognized dog training certifications. I’m officially Kait Whistler Seyal, CPDT-KA.

Our company motto is “helping dogs in need help people in need.” In that spirit, we look for special dogs in animal rescues and shelters and train them to work as therapy or service dogs. We have had a parade of incredibly talented and loving dogs through our home over the last few years. Each one has found a home and we learn something new from each experience. Max, Jenny, and Grace – the house dogs – have been great mentors to our dogs in training. They work very hard to set a good example when we bring new dogs home and I think they enjoy the playmates. Even Old Grace seems to like the activity. It is true that everybody breathes a sigh of relief when a dog in training finally moves on to their forever home, but it never stays quiet for long – there is always another dog on their way in our door.  Our home is never a dull or quiet place and we like it that way.

good dogs

this is Zoey, our current Service Dog in training.

Now that we have our home base of operations established, we are once again plotting our escape back to the nomadic life. It seems a little backwards, but the bottom line is that we don’t want to hit the road again until we can make the lifestyle sustainable – hence all the business building. We don’t want to be tourists; we want to be residents of the road.  Back in 2012, somewhere in Indiana, we started dreaming up this life where we would buy a big RV or a bus of some kind and convert it into a mobile home/ dog training center. We could travel from place to place finding good working dog candidates in need of homes all over the country and training them on the road before placing them in new homes. As we continued walking west, we kept kicking this idea around and refining it as we saw the benefits of integrating our dogs into our nomadic adventures.

We ran a formative experiment out there on the road. Everywhere we went, Max and Grace went too. And we noticed that they were good – not because they were perfect when we adopted them, but because of how we live with them. Their environments and situations were constantly changing, but the rules and their people – their foundation and confidence – were consistent. “Listen to me and follow my lead, little buddy, and everything will be just fine.” Perhaps we we were just lucky and adopted two fantastic dogs. But the more I have studied and learned, the more convinced I am that so much of who they are is largely a product of having a reliable foundation as we go new places and do new things all the time. Generalization is the key – learning that no matter where we are or what we are doing, the expectations and rules are the same. “Sit” means “sit” at home, in the woods, riding on a boat, or shopping at the mall. Some of the best mannered dogs we have met are those living with hitchhikers, street kids, nargles, and trekkers. These dogs’ lives are chock full of exercise, exposure, socialization, and generalization.

Max likes to go

When we picked up Jenny, we were as transient as ever – living out of a car and slowly walking our way across Iowa. By joining us, she unwittingly signed up to be our guinea pig for a grand experiment. She never knew a life with us other than one where she always got to go places. Our surroundings were changing constantly when she joined us, but we always gave her the same guidance no matter the situation. Within 11 months, Jenny was taking and passing all of her AKC and Service Dog exams. Jenny is our success story. She showed us what a vibrant life on the road could do for a dog and gave us the inspiration for a crazy dream that we are still chasing to this day.

Jenny

So, about that bus…

Old Greg

Old Greg is a 25-foot 1987 International school bus.  We bought him from a good friend this past May – just a month after closing on our house. He is currently sitting and waiting, safely parked in our backyard (that we specifically selected to accommodate such a vehicle). There is much work to be done – we need solar panels and water storage among other things in order to be more self-sufficient, but he is converted to run on waste vegetable oil and has had extensive work done to the interior. When it is time to get back on the road, Greg will be our first mobile training unit. We have had plenty of people laugh at us and tell us our plan is too crazy to work, but that sort of talk has never stopped us before. It is slowly becoming a sign that we might just be on the right track. The first bus adventure is still a ways off, but we have plenty of projects to keep us busy and move us toward our goals until it’s time to hit the road once again.

driving Old Greg home from Detroit

safely parked in the backyard

But wait – there’s more! This summer our bestest buddy, fellow dog trainer, talented musician and support driver extraordinaire,  Jon Jon Jon Slater, moved to Louisville from San Francisco with his dog-training fiancée Rachael and his good Old Brown Dog. They are planning to help us train good dogs for good people and build the next project. We are stoked to finally get the band back together.

Slater and Grace

As we plan and build our next steps together, I think a lot about how much we were able to accomplish with just a couple of therapy dogs, an idea, and the support of our loved ones and new friends. Perseverance pays off. If the Walk was possible with so little, there can only be greater things to come. We have built so much since then and learned so much more. Great things have happened and more are on their way. We couldn’t be more excited for 2016. From our little family to yours, let us offer a toast for the new year:

From where we have come, and to where we are going.


Posted in Animal Rescue, Dog Training, Good Job Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Uncategorized, service dogs | 9 Comments

the vision

Today, November 17, 2014, marks the two-year anniversary of the final day of our Walk across America. As we reminisce and re-read our blog entries from this time two years ago, we are reminded once again of just how lucky and blessed we are to have such a strong network of family and friends. We could never have accomplished what we did without the help of others. Our lives are not just our own, and we are happy to share them with those that we love.

Long Beach, California, November 17, 2012

And of course, we’re thinking of our friend, brother, dog-wrangling songsmith and support driver extraordinaire, Jon Slater. He is alive and well and working with dogs every day in San Francisco. We speak often and look forward to the day we are wrangling dogs together again.

Slater and his Old Brown Dog

Fall is always a strange and special time of year for our little clan. It is a season of anniversaries and birthdays, all coinciding with harvest festivals and the changing colors of the leaves. September 18th is our wedding anniversary. My birthday follows on September 26th, and Kait’s on October 1st. Every year we enjoy the opportunity to get festive for a couple of weeks and take some time to be thankful for another successful trip around the Sun. This Fall, we celebrated our four-year wedding anniversary.

But wait, there’s more! This particular anniversary season marked another, much more significant milestone:

Ten years ago this Fall, Kait and I met for the first time. We came into each other’s lives in September of 2004, during our first week at Ohio University. We were art students living in the same dorm building and attending many of the same classes. Kait had my heart from those first early weeks. She also had a boyfriend, so she and I stayed “just friends” for the first three years we knew each other. And thus began our decade-long-and-counting life collaboration. We worked together on art, shared common friends and interests, and started shaping our lives together long before we became a couple. Eventually she ditched the old boyfriend and we spent the next couple of years caught up in a turbulent mix of emotions, desires, hurt feelings, social upheaval…I’ll spare you the details. The point is, our transition from friends to partners was not smooth or easy or simple. But we knew that we wanted to be together, so we held on for dear life as the emotional roller coaster took us for a ride. When things got too hectic we would take long drives on the back roads of Athens county, trying to get lost while we talked about life. Wherever we turned, we always found ourselves back at a familiar crossroads. Eventually we graduated, moved to Pennsylvania, got married, decided we would walk across America – you know the rest.

out there

And here we are. Ten years deep. We love each other more and more every day. I know how cliche that sounds, but it’s true. Every challenge we face brings us closer together. Every day, we learn a little more about each other – and ourselves – and we love one another all the more for what we find. Our strengths and flaws fit together like a puzzle. We have learned to count on one another in a way that transcends the daily bumps and bruises of living together. Our partnership was strong before the Walk (even if we didn’t know it at the time) and that pilgrimage only brought us closer together.

2014 has been a tough year. Some things we can plan for; everything else just sort of happens. We’ve lost a lot of loved people this year. It comes with the territory of getting a little older, and hopefully growing wiser. We lost our kitty, too. He was awesome. But life has a way of grinding on and on no matter what happens, so we keep moving. Every day, we try to push our dreams forward at least a little bit.

Kait and I spent a lot of time apart this year. We have opposite work schedules a lot of the time. We’ll go a few days at a time barely seeing one another. When we do get an hour or an evening together, we’re usually too tired to really do much more than handle the business aspects of our relationship – bills, groceries, responsibilities. Considering how much we thrived on a life where we were side by side morning and night, it’s a significant challenge to spend so much time apart – especially when we are trying to plan and build a life together.

Right now, we’re in the rut of the daily grind. This regular 9-5 life we’ve slipped into can be maddening. Going to the business factory every day to play job, it’s easy to slide into a state of complacency – to lose steam and stop pushing our new ideas forward. But we are not satisfied treading water in our lives, building the dreams of other people. Kait and I are dreamers. We have never been satisfied with the playbook of normalcy. We are idealistic, driven by a vision of a life we want to build. That’s what drove us both to study art instead of more “employable” majors: A desire to make a new world, one that has yet to be seen. There is no road map for the unknown path, no user’s manual for a machine that has yet to be invented. So we trudge on, making things up as we go.

Any time we feel too overwhelmed and buried by the chaos and responsibility of our lives, we hit the road. Usually it’s only for a weekend trip, but we’re thankful to have friends and family to visit all over the map. And every time we pack up the car and get an hour or so outside of the city limits, something extraordinary happens: We get into one of those life-changing discussions where we talk about where we’ve come from and where we are trying to go – and how we can get there. Something about being out on the road – even in a car – gets our gears turning. New ideas come up, ripe for discussion and criticism. We brainstorm and scheme like no other time, trying to figure out how to turn our nebulous dreams into a reality. Road trips are where we have our board meetings.

A few months ago, we took a weekend marathon drive to a suburb of Washington, D.C. and back to deliver a dog to an adopting family. It’s the first time we actually made money while taking a road trip, and the family we delivered the dog to was awesome, AND they even cooked us dinner and offered to let us stay with them. It actually reminded us of the walk, and that was really sweet. But we gracefully declined their offer, because we had something else planned. We drove back into D.C., to the National Mall, and meandered around the Capitol taking in the nighttime sights. We found the head of C&O Canal Towpath in Georgetown and followed it on parallel roads northwest out of the city.

We spent the next day retracing our steps by car. We drove to the towpath, found a crossing and took a little dog walk for old time’s sake.

Jenny and Janess, a Service Dog in Training

Further up the road we stopped in Oldtown, MD, where we once crossed into West Virginia. The rickety wooden bridge we crossed by foot was under construction, impassible by car, so we drove upriver until we found another path to cross. Kait started to search for our route on the GPS, but I knew the second we found it that we were in the right place.

The C&O Canal Towpath

Those West Virginia back roads were the true test of the Walk. Early in the trip, the Appalachian escarpment rose harsh and wild and steep to meet us. And driving those same roads, we fell in love with West Virginia all over again. The rugged beauty of Greenland Gap, the strange vistas of Dolly Sods – we traced it all out, remembering every snack break spot, every camp site, every tree we peed on – it was all real. It really happened.

Max on top of Dolly Sods

I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the dogs taking it all in as well. I saw something on Max’s face – a look that was unmistakeable. He was poking his nose out the window, making the exact same face he makes when he smells an old friend he hasn’t seen in awhile. He recognized these places. He knew. I saw it in his expression, clear as day. “I’ve been here before.” I wondered long and hard about that realization. If a dog recognizes a person or a place, why is it crazy to think that they might think of those people and places when they aren’t around? And did Max feel, like I felt, an aching pain under the surface of joyful recognition – the pain of realizing just how much I missed those places and that life? Can a dog long for something that he does not have? Only if he knows what it’s like to have it, I suppose. I like to think that Max was able to see those places again and simply appreciate the experience without the bittersweet emotional baggage that comes with getting attached to things; but I’ll never know for sure.

On that little road trip, we remembered what life was really like on the road. It shook a bit of dust off our hearts and minds. It got us thinking hard again. And we came back, as we often do, to a vision we have been dreaming up since somewhere in the middle of Utah. It has changed form many times, evolving as any good idea should. But at its core, the vision is always the same:

We want to live on the road indefinitely, traveling and training good dogs for good people. And we don’t want to go broke doing it. We want to thrive, maybe even raise a family, doing what we love. Is that so much to ask?

The idea first came to Kait as a kind of rolling adoption jubilee, where we would drive from city to city in a school bus turned mobile training facility, picking up dogs to train and hosting adoption events along the way. I’ve often fantasized about living in a school bus house and we’ve been chewing on the possibilities for a couple of years now – solar power, waste veggie oil fuel conversion, built-in kennel space under a lofted bed – the list goes on. If we could thrive with four people and four dogs living out of just one car, imagine what we could do with a whole bus. Even if we need to scale the idea down, we would still thrive in a teardrop trailer pulled behind our trusty Rubie. Whatever shape it takes, we have a vision of a mobile service dog training facility that we can live and work from, side by side, traveling the country helping dogs help people.  If we do it right, we can do it indefinitely. That’s the dream.

Since we got back from the Walk, Kait has been learning everything she can about training service dogs. Building on her lifetime of experience training horses, she has been studying dog psychology and training methods. She teaches training classes for the Kentucky Humane Society and meets with service dog clients to practice their public access skills. I’m trying to keep up, helping to handle the dogs we have in training and proofread all of the paperwork Kait is drafting. We have trained and placed several successful service dogs through our work with Pawsibilities Unleashed, thanks in large part to the mentoring and guidance of Liz Norris. She has taken us under her wing and we are doing our best to use what she teaches us to do as much good as we can in the lives of dogs and people.

In the spirit of our vision, we founded our first company this year: Good Job Dogs, LLC. The name says it all: We want to train good dogs to do good jobs for people in need. It’s a mantra – a phrase we say every day when we are training: “Good job, dogs!” They love it when we tell them that they did a good job.

For the last six months we have been pulling together the bureaucratic foundation of our business, often feeling like we’re beating our heads against several walls at once; but we’re finally hitting some milestones that let us know we’re making progress. We have the tax numbers, the bank account, and just enough money to hire an accountant and a lawyer to finalize some details. We are working with an incredible business counselor who sees our vision for what it can be. Ideally, we want to be able to provide service dogs to people at little or no cost. We aren’t there yet, but that’s the long-term plan. We are exploring the idea of founding a nonprofit organization that will be able to raise the funds to make offering scholarships a real possibility. The final form of all of this remains to be seen, but piece by piece it is coming together. This is art, folks. Manifest. Someday soon in a bus or a car or a rickshaw, we’re going to hit the road again. Not soon enough, but soon enough.

Posted in Trail Life | 8 Comments

Lost at Home

A few days ago as I was driving Kait to work, she asked me a perfectly ordinary question that shook me to my core and caused me to question almost everything about my life. We were talking about our ever-evolving plans for the future, about passion and motivation. We discussed our plans to train service dogs full time. Kait said that working with animals is not an option for her; she would be miserable if she had to stop. And then she asked me – quite sincerely – “Is there something in your life that you just have to do? Something that just compels you every day?” Keep in mind, this is my best friend – my partner in life of ten years, the person who probably knows me better than my own mother – essentially asking what makes me tick.

And I didn’t have an answer.

Maybe 10:45 in the morning was too early for contemplating such a question. Or maybe I’ve never had an answer. My whole life, I haven’t really known what to do with myself. I “lack focus.” I “daydream frequently.” This general lack of direction in my life is probably a big reason why the idea of walking across America took hold so quickly once it entered my mind. I may not know what to do with my entire life, but putting one foot in front of the other for nine months? I could wrap my head around that.

It has been said (by someone who is probably at least a little bit smarter than myself) that nobody who drops the rest of their life to walk across a continent is “happy.” I think another common denominator of people who just walk out on the whole damn game is that they do not have a personally satisfying answer to the question, “What do you want to do with your life?” Some of us have been lost since birth; others lose their way somewhere along the path. One day you look up from the sidewalk and you don’t recognize the streets that you’re living on, or the faces and voices of the people in your life, or the habits you’ve been taking for granted, or the lines and creases etching into your face, or the unfamiliar thoughts in your own head. And then your wife asks you, “What do you want to do with your life?” And so you ask yourself, but all you can come up with is, “Who’s asking the question?

Conner Oberst of Bright Eyes put it this way: “My compass spins, the wilderness remains.” Wilderness indeed, Conner. But where does that leave me? What drives me? What can I not live without? I meditated on these questions yesterday while catching up on a summer’s worth of weeding, pruning, and mulching in our backyard. The best I could do was to come up with a list of mundane things that I do almost every day; but that really doesn’t answer the question. I pondered on, catching myself every time I started to fall into egoistic, emotional traps of self-doubt and criticism, letting each wave of panic and existential anxiety wash over me and dissipate. I came back to a zen mantra that has been a point of reference for me as of late:

“From where have I come, and to where am I going?”

For me, this question has become a mental tool that helps me ground myself in the present moment, while simultaneously presenting an opportunity to re-frame my current location or predicament. The answer may be as simple as “I came from my house and I am going to work.” However, physical orientation in space and time is only one part of the answer. I am also coming and going to and from mental states, emotions, pockets of imaginative delight and wonder…the list goes on. The answer to the first half of the question – “From where have I come?” – is always predetermined; but the second half – “to where am I going?” – affords me the opportunity to define a personal trajectory that I may have overlooked. I am coming from frustrated and I am going to…where? Calm? Calm sounds good.

And then it occurred to me: Maybe I can’t define what drives me because I haven’t found it yet. Or maybe I once had it, but let it slip through my fingers among the currents of an ever-evolving world so cacophonous and profane that it drives men to madness. So now my question shifted from “What do I have in my life that means something?” to “What am I missing right now that motivates me?” I know the top of my list is travel. I crave new places, new sights, new experiences. I long for those moments where, quite suddenly, I find myself in a place unfamiliar. I long to document such times and places in my life. I long to share my experiences with my brothers and sisters, to stoke the vicarious fires of our collective consciousness. There was a time…

It has been more than a year since I have written here – to you – to us. In that time, not a single day has passed without me thinking about writing again. I think about writing this blog and a book and a couple of screenplays every single day. I often think of the people who hung on our words and images for a brief year of wonder and unknown possibility, riding along with us as we embarked on an experience that was just too vast to keep to ourselves. Every day, I think about the therapeutic way that writing can help me connect to and better understand myself, while I pretend to write to anybody else.

So what happened? Why did I stop writing? Why haven’t I bothered to post even a photo of my dog, just to let our friends know how we are?

As is often the case, the truth is both simple and complicated. Simply put: For much of the last two years of my life I was very depressed, and I was too ashamed of myself to share it with anyone.

It didn’t happen all at once. I was still glowing from the Walk for the first couple of months after we settled back into Louisville. I was sad that it was all over, but I was hopeful about the future. But the truth is that coming home from the walk was a full blown break-up with the most fulfilling way of life I have ever experienced. It is over. There is no going back. Every time you turn a page, the book will never be the same. It will never again be what it once was.

I struggled to find steady work that didn’t drive me crazy. Suddenly, I felt eclipsed by bills and responsibilities and the expectations of others. I spent many afternoons just kind of pacing around my house, tidying this or that, trying to figure out what I “should” be working on. I wanted to dig into the blog and keep writing, maybe start to pull the pieces together for a photo book about the experience; but it hurt too much to even look at the website, let alone roll up my sleeves and get to work on a tell-all memoir. My life suddenly felt too small to be worth sharing. I started neglecting my health and I knew I was doing it – and I kept doing it anyway. Week after week I worked a little and just sat on the couch, eating and applying for jobs and staring into the leering TV. I stopped sleeping regularly, unable to quiet my racing mind at night and then unable to motivate myself to move in the mornings. First a week passed, and then two, and now it’s almost 2015 and I haven’t written a real word in over a year and we are still rocketing around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour.

But hey, who’s counting? After all, it’s really only a matter of perspective. And so I try to calm myself, center myself, re-frame that which overwhelms me into a map that I can use to navigate my path through this life. I try to remember that I have been pretty blessed since birth in more ways than I can count. I have a loving family and a wife who inspires me every day. I have a job and I’m not hungry or crushed by a mountain of debt. All of my problems are manageable problems. From where have I come, and to where am I going? Today, I am coming from a sense of loss. Now, I am going to count my blessings.

Posted in Re-Entry Syndrome | 23 Comments

One Year On

Author’s Note:

It’s funny how time flies. I just stumbled across this entry that I wrote – but somehow failed to publish – in November of last year. I had completely forgotten about it. I thought I would share it with you. Better late than never, right?

Kait and I and all three of our dogs are alive and well. So are Jon Slater and his Old Brown Dog. As always, thanks for reading. There is more coming soon.

- John

From November, 2013:

And just like that, a year flew past us. Today Yesterday about two weeks ago, the one year anniversary of the end of our walk came and went with very little fanfare. It has now been more than one year, one whole trip around the sun since Kait and I took our last bittersweet steps into the Pacific Ocean. What were YOU doing on November 17, 2012? It was already a year ago, whatever it was. Now it’s the holiday season once again, and our thoughts are with all of the people in the world we hold dear. Last year, we spent our Thanksgiving in a San Francisco apartment full of friends both old and new, feeling particularly thankful for every little thing. And it has already been a whole year.

And now it’s confession time: I don’t really want to write about…this. I don’t want to write about how I feel right now, or how I have felt all year. That is why I haven’t updated the blog in months. I don’t want to write about the Walk and how I feel about it, because it’s like writing about a lover or a friend that isn’t here anymore. I don’t know how else to describe it. It aches my heart to miss the road and that panoramic life. Things just made sense out there, and every step led clearly to the next.

Off the road, progress is not always so clear. This has been a difficult year in the little island mind nation of John. When I look back from now through my memories to then, there is an undeniable sense of loss. Something is missing. I get lost in my mind sometimes, trying to find it. I think myself in circles. I will be walking with my dog in our vibrant little neighborhood, and looking up at the leaves as they shift from green to golden yellow and fiery orange, and they’re raining down around us as my feet and his paws swish and crunch and the smells are amazing, and I’m not even there. I’m in the middle of Iowa, watching the horizon for landmarks that I can use to judge distance and time. I’m in Utah, fighting with my past self as the sun grows the shadows long and sets the horizon on fire. I’m anywhere but where I am – trying to make sense of it all.

And then sometimes I come back, and I remember what’s important right now. The thoughts that bring me back from those endless loops in my head are almost always thoughts of appreciation – for my life, for my family, for my luck and good fortune to just be. I remember how fortunate I am that I have the time and energy to even worry about existential warbles. Free time to think about ANYTHING other than surviving is a luxury, and I am trying to not take it for granted.

So here we are. It has been about one year since we returned to our home in Louisville. Other walkers, trekkers, and travelers warned us over and over about the challenges of coming home after such an undertaking. We had many discussions about how much a person changes and grows on the road, how people coming back from Peace Corps missions often feel alienated and isolated once they get home, and so on. And it is safe to say, nine months into whatever this is, that coming home may well have been the biggest challenge of the entire walk.

Posted in Re-Entry Syndrome, Trail Life | 8 Comments

Jenny Levels Up

Life has continued to go on after the walk, despite the illusion that we are no longer moving forward in the physical, linear sense.  Though we don’t always know where to put it, we have been maintaining the energy and momentum we carried home with us, and slowly building the dream that will be our future.

Before I adopted Grace in 2007, I had little to no experience training dogs.  My horse background was certainly helpful in understanding training, but I did not grasp canine psychology.  I started my crash course in dog with Grace.  Two years later, I had my first certified therapy dog.

Grace at a Sycamore Run Early Education Center in 2009

I have always wanted to help animals, but have a difficult time focusing so much of my resources to rescuing animals when there are so many people – so many children – in need of help.  While being involved with pet therapy work, I finally saw my future taking shape.  As a firm believer in animal therapy, I saw the incredible ability that rescued and rehabilitated animals have to help people.  I don’t want to just re-home homeless animals – I want to give them a job where they can help a person in need.  I want to help animals help people – then it all comes full circle.

when we first met Jenny in Iowa last July

When Jenny ran into our lives last July (can you believe it’s been nearly a year?) we kept her because we felt that she was talented.  We could see that she had the mind, temperament, and will to do just about anything we asked of her.  With her sweet and gentle demeanor, she took to therapy work immediately.  And while she could behave in a hospital, she could also walk 30 or more miles in a day and still have energy to run circles around the campfire at night.  I wanted to capitalize on her talent (and energy!) So I set my sights on search and rescue work, training to volunteer myself and a specially trained dog to search for missing people.  I decided to teach the dog that was dumped like garbage on the side of the highway to find and comfort missing people.

I started going to service dog training classes through Pawsibilities Unleashed with Jenny about a month after returning home from the walk.  I began my formal education in dog training with several goals: to move Jenny forward in her training (more on that later), to learn how to train service and therapy dogs, and to work towards my canine good citizenship evaluator certification.  In short, to truly learn how to train dogs and use their natural abilities to do incredible things.

The early stages of training for most advanced work like search and rescue or service dog work are pretty consistent.  Manners, obedience, scent work, and public access practice are the foundation for any working dog, so we started attending Liz’s training class for service dogs.  With Liz’s support and direction, Jenny and I moved along quickly.  But she wasn’t just learning the things I was teaching her – she was learning from the other dogs in class as well.

Kait and Jenny in class

The training class I attend has several diabetic alert dogs in training who are taught to monitor and alert on their person’s blood sugar by scent.  During a class while one of these dogs was alerting on her human, Jenny tuned in on the dog’s distress and investigated the scent with the other dog, joining her on the alert.

The following week, I skipped breakfast on my way to dog class.  Several hours later, my body was out of fuel and I was running out of steam.  Another diabetic alert dog in our class decided he didn’t like the way I smelled and alerted to myself and then his owner.

The owner looked at his dog, then looked at me and said, “well, ask her.”

I held my hands out in front of me – one in a “high five” and the other in a fist and asked his dog, “Am I low or am I high?”

She dutifully bumped my fist with her nose – the signal for “low”.

Her handler smiled, patted her on the head, and told her “good girl.”

Embarrassed, I reached down and patted her on the head and then pulled my snack out of my bag.  I had just been tattled on.

Over the next several weeks, I noticed that Jenny was paying very close attention to my scent and had started getting agitated when my blood sugar dropped.  Having recently given up gluten due to a newly discovered allergy, I am having a difficult time keeping my blood sugar high enough at times.  My new dietary restrictions have required a wholesale change that has taken some getting used to.  Fortunately, Jenny has assigned herself the job of looking after me and making sure I am looking after myself.  Under the recommendation of our trainer, I began training Jenny to be my medical alert service dog.

Jenny at the YUM Center in downtown Louisville

As I started working with Jenny and keeping records of her alerts and my sugar levels, I learned something very interesting.  Grace is actually more dependable as a blood sugar monitor that Jenny is.  I always knew that Grace looked after me, but there is so much more to it than I ever knew.  Grace has been my service dog all along.  She just never wore the vest.

Kait and Grace, 2007

Over the past several months, Jenny has flown through her training, enjoying the attention and the challenge of learning new things every day.  She has loved going on daily field trips to all sorts of interesting places and learns daily from her growing array of experience in the world.  I, too, have loved the training and learned a great deal in the process.  Not only am I learning to train under the guidance of a master trainer, but it is directly applicable to my everyday life and my goals for the future.

But this transition has not come without its growing pains.  Being a person with a service dog in everyday life is an incredible social experiment.  It is socially awkward, embarrassing, and a daily test of patience.  A service dog is a magnet for attention.  People grab at her in public, cooing “Awww, puppy!”  They stare, looking you over trying to figure out what is wrong with you.  They ask inappropriate questions such as “what do you need a service dog for?” at which point I often inquire if they ask every person in a wheel chair why they can’t walk.

However, these rather difficult and time-consuming interactions do have an upside.  I have a unique opportunity to educate people who seem to have difficulty managing their interactions with working service dogs in public.  At some point, I’ll have to come up with cards I can hand out with some basic information on service dog etiquette or something like that.

I feel the need to state that despite these social discomforts, the benefits far outweigh the downsides.  She has let me know that I need to go home and manage my business before I have a problem in public.  She is tuned in to me when I am too distracted to be.  And I have come to accept that even the downsides have their benefits.  The opportunity to educate people about service dogs, how to interact with their handlers (and not the dog), and the many ways that service dogs help people.

Jenny out to lunch

Just a couple of weeks ago, Jenny took her public access exam – a test that evaluates her manners, behavior, and service dog tasks while working in public.  She did beautifully and is now a certified medical alert service dog.  She goes to the grocery store, the post office, out to dinner – on all of my daily errands.  She is always in training, but always learning.  I can’t believe she has come so far in only 11 months.  As so many of our readers and supporters told us, she is special and worked her way into our walk and our hearts for a reason.

our first walk

Animal assisted crisis response and canine search and rescue work is still in our future.  We have continued to attend training class and to learn how far specialized training can really go – and how to get there.  It is no longer sorcery to me; it’s just a lot of structured work, time, repetition, and patience.  Jenny and I are loving every minute of it – all this from someone else’s garbage that we decided to pick up off the side of the road.

Jenny #9

Posted in Dog Training, Therapy Dogs | 9 Comments

LIVE Radio interview tonight!

Hey all you dog/walk enthusiasts out there, we will be doing a live interview on Crescent Hill Radio’s “From a Basement on a Hill” tonight from 8-9 EST.

EDIT: Here is a link to an archive of our interview

Posted in Trail Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

We got interviewed by the New York Times!

Here is a link to the article.

We were quoted warmly and accurately. They also interviewed several other walkers, and a few authors whose books I will now find and read.

Posted in Other Travelers, Trail Life | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

One year ago

One year ago today, we stood at the Atlantic Ocean.

We felt small and foolish and scared. And also determined. And I think desperately hopeful.

We had no idea what we were doing.

Somehow, thanks in no small part to the kindness and generosity of so many people in the world, we made it all the way to the other ocean.

As a way of marking this strange occasion, I pulled an all-nighter last night so I could put together a little video of the Walk – for myself, for Kait, for YOU to enjoy. I hope it finds you in good company and in good health.

Posted in Trail Life | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Redomestication

And so we returned home, having conquered that which we set out to do. We walked from sea to shining sea. When we left, we didn’t know what lay ahead of us, what would happen to us along the way, or who we would be when we arrived on the other side. We just knew we would get there. With our feet. And now that we have, we begin the struggle to understand what it all meant – what it means – and how it has changed us, because there is no question that it has.

After all of that wide open space and dynamic state of being, the contrast of living in a house is overwhelming. A house. A life where you leave your house, walk around in circles all day, running laps around a little neighborhood-shaped maze until you return home – back to where you started. And you snuggle in and bide your time until you get up and do it again tomorrow. Progress is no longer measured in miles. There is no little line inching across the map that traces your accomplishments day by day. We are stationary.

Max is bored. Also, this is the toy he came with when John adopted him.
He carries it everywhere.

Off the road, progress and accomplishment are proving to be very abstract concepts. They are not measured in states crossed, miles left to go, or friends made. Progress shows itself in home improvement projects completed, money deposited, a promotion landed, another holiday or birthday gone by – but there is no concrete way to know that you are moving closer to your goals. At least, not in the tangible fashion that we have grown used to.

When you are walking toward a coast, the beach doesn’t get up and walk away. It doesn’t change it’s graduation requirements or interest rates. It won’t decide you aren’t right for the job, or become obsolete due to advancements in technology. It just is. From the day we started, the end was certain. We just needed to walk west and we would inevitably run out of land. It’s strange how frightening that realization became as the numbers ran low on our “miles to go” counter. Whether we could comprehend it or not, we really were about to run out of land.  And then, incredibly, we did.

In the panic of realizing that this life we had grown to love and thrive in was about to come to an end, we began asking ourselves the inevitable “What have we learned?” and “How can we take this home with us?”

When you reduce yourself to such a simple existence, your daily life becomes a running metaphor. Perhaps the most simple and important metaphor is “The Trip” – that life, marriage, college, or any experience is a journey to be cherished – not just a means to arrive at our destination. We shouldn’t live our lives in a hurry to get to the end! The spaces in between here and there are where the adventures lie. Our lives are The Trip – a journey through our time on this Earth – and we should cherish every moment.

somewhere beautiful, sometime beautiful.

The depression after returning home is undeniable. But over the past three months I have started to understand what I miss about our life on the road – and begin learning how to bring it into my everyday domestic life. Call them teachings, lessons, mantras, or just inadequate words, but here is some of what we learned in our past life on the road:

Life is not a trap. Your job is not a prison. Nobody is holding a gun to your head (I hope.)  You are as free as you want to be. The only thing keeping you from changing your life is you. You don’t have to quit your job and abandon your responsibilities and give up your possessions to be free; you just have to truly know that you can. Recognize that you have a choice, and there you go: You’re Free.

Plans are made to be broken.  They exist to provide a trajectory and a structure to base your decisions on.  However, when life and chance reshape and redirect your plans – and they will – you really have no choice but to roll with the punches and revise the plan.  If you stay flexible and adapt instead of clinging to what should have happened, life has a funny way of working out.  Some things are a natural fit – so let them be.

Never underestimate the power of an animal to show us who we really are, and what we really need. Over and over, we watched our dogs work their quiet, subtle magic on people from all walks of life. Their love is unconditional, and the comfort they bring people is undeniable. And all they ask us for in return is adventure and food and snuggles. Our dogs have shown us every day how simple and beautiful life can be.

Grace goes with the flow

Bear with me, this next one is proving difficult to explain.

Try to see everyone as if you just met them.  Drop your grudges.  Drop your preconceived notions.  Forget what you heard about their family, their neighborhood, their job.  Take them for what they give you – who they are – at that very moment. We were gifted with this incredible opportunity every day on the road. As we passed through towns and cities and pinpoints on the map, we got to know hundreds of people in moments and we learned that everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has something to teach you. Let them be who they are, not who they were yesterday or last year.

Don’t waste your time on friends that don’t make you happy.  Your family is the family you are born with, but your friends are the family you choose; so choose wisely.

Love everyone. Don’t judge people too harshly. Most of the time, there is more going on in someone’s life than you are aware of.  Remember that every person you pass on the street has a life as rich and complex as your own. For the first time in my life, I was the smelly homeless-looking kid sitting outside the gas station with my backpack and my dog. People walked past me, as I used to do, avoiding me with their eyes and thinking who knows what. But then there were people like the woman who stopped and squatted down in front of me to say, “Sweetheart, do you have somewhere to go?” I chuckled and hugged her. And she was surprised to find that I wasn’t homeless, I had a reason for being where I was, and quite a story to tell.

Find a way to enrich the lives of other people. It is easy to get cynical, and forget that we are all in this thing together. The way you treat the world and the way you treat yourself are closely interwoven, so treat them with respect and consideration. Hold the door for a stranger. Tip your bartender well. Wish everyone good day – yourself included.

All the times strangers took us in, pulled over, or fed us, I asked myself: “Would I have done that? Would I have helped? Would I have had the faith to be that kind and generous?” And so many times, more than I’d like to admit, I had to tell myself, “No, I probably wouldn’t have.” Bless you all for leading by example with your kindness and generosity.

Be honest with yourself. Be honest with others. Be honest with yourself.

Most of these lessons we learned center around the tried and true Golden Rule; but I think the most important lesson we learned is that your world is a mirror.  You create your experience in life based on what you put out into the world.  The way you choose to look at the world defines how you respond to the world. Look for assholes, and you’ll find them everywhere. Or, as a good friend told me, “Smile at the world, and the world will smile back.”

Living in a city again is difficult. These lessons we learned are not exactly in sync with many of the values of city life. Over-stimulation forces us to put the blinders on and try to filter what we do and do not wish to engage. We can no longer be wide open to everything without risking our sanity.

I met a stranger at the bar a few nights ago and we talked about life, travel, and reconciling our views of the world with city life – domestic life. He told me that when you are a traveler, you are choosing to be open to the world and to allow the world, environment, and everything in it to act upon you. You give up control precisely so that you can see what happens – and you learn more about yourself by finding out how you deal with it.

When you are home, you are in control of your environment. You choose where you live, the people you spend time with, the colors on your walls. Rather than letting the world shape you, you must shape your own world. You must act upon it. Alex, if you’re reading this, thank you.

I have projects in the works and am finding the courage to begin tackling them, one step at a time.  Most of these projects are ideas that were born of and during the walk. It isn’t time yet, but soon, I will tell you about them. In the mean time, shape your own life. Make plans and then let them change. Chase your dreams. Help someone else chase their dreams. Share your dreams and listen to the dreams of others. Everything in our world started as an idea – a dream someone had.

Posted in Re-Entry Syndrome, Trail Life | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

the way home

Three months have passed since we stepped into the Pacific Ocean. We have been settling back into the domestic way of life, trying to wrap our heads around organizing our house (“what is all this stuff?”) and building a daily routine that isn’t maddening. Things have been weird. Now that I have gotten my bearings and can form coherent sentences again, we’ll pick the story up after we left San Francisco, and started to drive our way back East.

We took our time driving back across the Great American Bulge. Unnerved by the isolation and intense speed of the Interstates, we abandoned those straightest lines for roads less traveled across the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. Whenever possible, we sought quieter, rougher roads with faded lines and sweeping vista. We stayed with Kait’s aunt and uncle Lynn and Alvaro outside of Tucson. Their house sits up on a hill or mountain of some kind, overlooking the valley. We watched the sun set and the city glow and just out of sight on the horizon was Mexico.

Our stop was brief and refreshing, and we were on the road again. Outside of Safford, Arizona, we pulled onto a rough dirt road to find a place to camp for our last night under the desert stars. We had planned it out ahead of time and picked up groceries and drinks for the occasion; after all, we had grown quite attached to the desert’s awe-inspiring openness, and this would be our last time sleeping under its unabashedly clear night sky.

We found an unmarked ranch road and followed it back about a quarter of a mile until we came to a flat elevated clearing, where we pitched our tent and cooked our dinner over the fire while the stars whirled infinite above our heads.

The next morning, the car wouldn’t start – dead battery. We sat and scratched our heads and thought. We could walk back out to the small highway we had turned off of, and try to flag down a brave-looking driver to follow us back up the ragged dirt road and give us a jump; or we could keep walking down the dirt road and see what we found at the end. We looked at the map and decided to walk the mile or so further back to see if there was a house or ranch at the end of the drive.

It is hard to say what you might find at the end of an unmarked dirt road in the middle of the desert. On that day, we were lucky enough to find Cold Creek Ranch and the Schwennesen family. I knocked on the front door and Jean answered, and immediately offered to help when I explained our situation. She didn’t even bat an eyelash at the fact that we had camped on their property, and they were happy to give us a lift back to the car and give us a jump. It’s good to know our trail magic didn’t end at the ocean.

Back on the road, we backtracked to Safford to buy a new car battery. Better safe than sorry, as they say. And onward we drove to Albuquerque, to see our best friend Scott. He’s just the best. We spent a brief night with him and his wife, Tracy, catching up and cackling on about all sorts of ridiculous and paranoid delusions. Scott and I just get each other. In the morning we headed off for Santa Fe to stay with Kait’s cousin Alison. Scott promised to head up for a day or two, and we planned to hang out for several nights. Alison and Molly live up on a hill, and their yard backs up to a sprawling dog park that overlooks the city.

Santa Fe was a blur. We planned to see the city, but our first day in town it snowed all day. In the desert. The flakes came down heavy and clung to adobe walls and cactus thorns.

The snow melted off and Ali drove us out to hike Tsankawi Mesa, an annex of Bandalier National Monument. The short loop trail followed ancient paths worn deep into the soft rocks, past ruins littered with pottery fragments and caves with ancient paint chipping from the walls.

ancient pueblo pottery fragments litter the Tsankawi Mesa

home.

ancient footpaths traverse the rock faces

After our little field trip back in time, we cut hard north through Kansas, heading towards Kait’s brother up in Milwaukee. We stayed a night in Dodge City because, well, it’s Dodge City, and the next day found ourselves retracing some of our steps in southern Nebraska. A certain stretch of U.S. Route 6 – between Minden and Holdrege – stuck out as a particularly amazing day of walking. We drove it in about 20 minutes. Unreal.

Once again, we stayed the night with the O’Brient family in Villisca, Iowa. Staying with Jesse and Krystal again was a milestone in our re-entry, because knowing that they were real, living in their house just like we remembered, with their charming boys and deer skulls in the garage – it made the whole Walk real again. Staying with a host family from the Walk reminded us that it wasn’t just a dream – we were here. We knew that place, and those people, and they are still real and wonderful. That night, lying on the couch in their living room, I quietly wept in the comfort of their home.

And we made one final push north, through Chicago toward Milwaukee. We caught Tyler for lunch, and confirmed that we are indeed a rare breed of lunatic to have done what we did. Tyler even made bumper stickers that he only gives to other people who have walked coast-to-coast. He’s a fun guy. And we belong to a very strange and exclusive club of transcontinental pilgrims, and dedicated seekers of all things unsought.

Milwaukee was our last stop before heading back to Kentucky to unpack and breathe through the panic of “settling down”. Patrick, Kait’s younger brother, took us out on the town and laughed at our oddities. We are like wild beasts, trying to learn how to live inside and use toilets again. One day at a time, as they say. One day at a time.

We said our goodbyes and dropped south and east toward my old Kentucky stomping grounds. Just before we made it home, we stopped to find a fellow Walker out on the roads of Indiana. Jonah is fresh out of high school and taking time off before college to walk across America. He is chronicling his coast-to-coast adventure at Dudetrek.com. His plan was to walk on into the winter for as long as he could, and hunker down if he got to the Rockies before the spring thaw. That is one ballsy plan, man.

Godspeed, Jonah!

We took him out to dinner and talked his ear off, before dumping him on the side of the road, in the dark. We had a moment of realization when we found ourselves worried about his safety. Suddenly, we understood all of the hosts and people we met on the road that worried for us, and didn’t want us to leave, and went out of their way to check up on us. Coming from the walk, we knew exactly the kind of dangers Jonah is facing – and I don’t know if we worried more or less because of it.

So if you see Jonah (I think he’s in Missouri as of this posting,) buy him a big hot meal if you can. And ask him to play you a song. And tell him we sent you.

Posted in Re-Entry Syndrome, Trail Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments