Five years ago, I would have titled this column “Hiking with Big Dog.” Prior to that, it would have been “Hiking with Fruit Loops.” This gives you both a chronological history of our family dogs and an insight into our dietary preferences. But I’m also reminded of the privilege I’ve enjoyed over the last 15 years: hiking with my dogs. I do it almost every day. Rain never stops us, though extreme cold will keep us parked next to the wood stove.
Fruit Loops —an Aussie with blue eyes—hiked with me during the early years of my marriage. During the middle years it was Big Dog, the Airedale who could get turned around in a pen.
Now, with my first son grown and serving in the Coast Guard, Platypus joins me as my much-older legs carry me up and down hills. His effervescent joy in the great outdoors is highly contagious, and I’m thankful that he gets me moving. Hiking with my dogs has been one of my life’s blessings (not to mention the fact that dogs don’t talk, meaning all those secrets shared on the trail are still secrets).
But Platypus and I harbor different ideas of what constitutes a great hike. To me, “hiking” evokes places like Clingman’s Dome, Mount Mitchell or Mount Pisgah. Platypus, however, seems to be dreaming about the quarter-mile track at the Leicester Community Center. The minute I change into my hiking clothes, Plat starts dashing back and forth between the door and me, and he doesn’t slow down till we’re finally out the door and in the car. As we near the Leicester Community Center, Plat’s excitement reaches a crescendo. And why not? He’s made friends there. He loves the children who play on the playground; many know him by name. He’s made a point of knowing the senior citizens who carry dog treats in their pockets (a good way to make friends with even the meanest dogs—which Plat is not, by any measure). Plat has also made quite a few dog friends over the years.
And while I’m stressing over how many times etiquette requires me to say hello as I circle past the same person each time around the track (is the first time sufficient, or is it impolite if I don’t speak at each encounter?), Plat is busy saying hello to everyone—whether it’s our first lap or our last.
Imagine his disappointment as I drive right by his favorite jaunt. There’s a bench where we always sit, beneath the tree and beside the creek. As we drive by, Plat gazes at it longingly. He knows he has to settle in for a car ride to some faraway destination, and his displeasure shows. Why seek out greener pastures? What’s wrong with the Leicester Community Center? his expression says, and I console him with Skittles (a sort of updated version of Fruit Loops).
But don’t mistake his dissatisfaction for a dislike of national parks and well-mapped trails that disappear down steep embankments. With his 3-foot-long body, 8-inch legs, rottweiler head and basset-hound eyes, Platypus loves every step of every rock, root and creek we cross. He jumps, leaps, circles and smells everything in sight. He streaks to the top while I plug along behind, and when we reach the summit, we both deserve a treat.
It’s simply that in Plat’s mind, the summit behind our own house is every bit as glorious, exciting and adventurous as Sam’s Knob or the tower atop Mount Pisgah. The creek at the Leicester Community Center is just as much fun for splashing as the water cascading over the rocks at Graveyard Fields.
Plat is right. Often, I’m seeking greener pastures when right out my back door is a mountain marked by old logging roads so familiar we could hike them with our eyes closed. And sometimes I’m just trying to fit into the Asheville crowd. Just as I never tell my friends that I listen to country music—in my car, very loud and with the windows rolled up—I also never tell them that the Leicester Community Center is fun. I prefer to say, “Plat and I were at Max Patch yesterday.” It sounds more impressive, so “native” (which I am, by the way). And if I really want to show off, I can even call my friends on my cell phone on the way home and casually mention my day at Devil’s Courthouse with Plat. It has a Katharine Hepburn feel to it: woman and dog, hiking alone on a mountaintop.
But dogs are quite good at exposing pretension. Plat knows when I really need a day away and when I’m simply trying too hard to be cool. He knows when I’m more interested in saying I spent the day on Shining Rock than in actually driving there and doing it. Even sitting on the summit—as beautiful as it is, and as wonderful as it can be to get away—Plat knows when I’m a fake.
That’s why I like to hike with my dogs. They never fail to out me with the truth, but they never hold it against me. In a marriage nearing 20 years and a life nearing 50, hiking with my dogs has provided some of the sanest moments—whether close to home or somewhere in Pisgah National Forest. Those walks saved my marriage on many days, saved my children on even more days, and saved me almost every day.
So to Fruit Loops, Big Dog and Platypus, I am forever grateful. And tomorrow, Plat, I promise: the Leicester Community Center.
[Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.]