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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.