Good Dog

Dog on the Run

No matter how hard we try, some dogs just can’t be contained

Illustration: Illustration by John Cuneo

“Let’s get a dog,” Lisa suggested one morning as we dug into a shared plate of homemade pancakes.

With her shiny blue eyes, unkempt auburn locks, boundless mind, and short skirts, saying
no to Lisa wasn’t really an option. The best I could do was stall. Miming a full mouth, I slipped off to the bathroom.

What was I going to do? Getting “the dog” is a classic early step, falling soundly between the first kiss and ordering a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. We’d been together for about a year and had shared an apartment for a few months. I wasn’t opposed to this next move but definitely needed more time to think it through. A couple of weeks, minimum.

Four hours later, after shuttling among three Boston-area shelters, Lisa settled on a tall, sinewy black mixed breed with a startling white diamond lighting up his chest. He was the only one that hadn’t barked or whimpered for attention, instead standing his ground in the middle of his cage, looking proud and unconcerned with this unseemly business.

“He’s so noble,” Lisa said admiringly.

“Well…maybe,” the shelter attendant allowed, and then cautioned: “He may not be right for you….You have a fenced-in yard? He’s definitely a runner. Just got brought in after escaping from another shelter.”

A defiant escapee who runs off at every chance? Remembering Lisa’s conviction that dogs deserve to run free (she had just finished Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s compelling, if polarizing, The Hidden Life of Dogs, which advocated this type of dog owning), I suddenly envisioned an exhausting future and scoured the adjacent kennels for a low-key alternative, landing on a hound three cages over. “Hey, Lisa, how about the basset? He’s so calm and cuddly. Perfect, right?”

“Is he dead?”

A few hours later, He Who Must Escape came home with us. Convinced he was a runner only because no one had showered him with enough love, praise, and training, Lisa hugged and kissed him as we practiced the amateur dog owner’s trinity (sit-stay-come) for hours on end—again and again, until I fell asleep with a biscuit in my mouth.

By the next morning he was already “staying” obediently for as long as a minute, and so we took him to the field across the street. Bounded by a wide brook on one side and a curved parkway streaming with traffic on the other, he had no real escape route. Standing beside the brook, Lisa command-ed, “Sit!” and he responded instantly.

“What a good dog!” Handing me the leash, she walked about fifty feet away. The dog watched her every move, fixated.

Holding up a treat, she called out, “Stay!” as I unclipped him. Although his muscles twitched with excitement, he readily obeyed.

Ten seconds. Fifteen. Twenty. “Come!”

And like Br’er Rabbit through the thicket, he was off, dodging cars from both directions as he headed in the opposite direction, toward the center of Somerville.

After hours of fruitless searching, we got a call from a guy six miles away in Union Square. When I arrived, the dog was loosely tied to a metal hitch, staring at me with a look that seemed to ask, What took you so long? That night, on account of his now-proven proclivity for “lighting out,” we decided to call him Huck, after American literature’s most famous runaway.

From that day onward, Huck lived up to his name. No matter how we tried to contain him, he took off countless more times before Lisa finished law school. We toyed with the idea of leaving this as our outgoing message: “If you’re calling about Huck, please tell him we love him and we’re on our way.” Each time, Huck would be standing, never sitting, with that same look of patient disdain.

When Lisa landed a clerkship for a federal judge in Beckley, West Virginia, we chose a home based on Huck’s need to run. Perched on a mountainside overlooking the New River, a mecca for East Coast white-water paddlers, in the museumlike town of Thurmond, our recently renovated railroad house (a cheaply built four-room slapped up to shelter miners and railroad workers) put us safely in Huck Heaven. Located in what had become National Park Service land, Thurmond had a population that was twenty-four and dropping. The bridge that separated it from the rest of the world was grated and uncrossable for a dog; on our side of the river, the next town was a good ten miles over the mountain. The New’s shoreline was steep; rock climbers arrive from all over the world to scale its walls. To cause mischief, Huck would have to swim either a dozen miles upriver to the nearest settlement or even farther downstream through impossible Class IV and V rapids. Even better, Thurmond had only a single, mile-long loop road drifting through mostly deserted homes and boarded-up downtown buildings. Huck could light out all he wanted, but at the end of the day, he had nowhere to go but home.

We settled in nicely, for know-nothing flatlanders. As more and more residents sold out to the Park Service, I became, in turn, the town waterworks manager, a city council member, and postmaster. This last was my favorite position, since the post office, a tin shack with antique brass post boxes, sat only a few feet from the active rail lines that served as Thurmond’s Main Street. Coal cars soothingly rattled by all day long and, on a good day, dropped enough coal to fire the ancient stove. I got this coveted (by me) position simply because I was young and agile enough to load and light the coal stove, put up the mail, and make weak (but demanded and complained about by all) coffee before opening at ten. All very important details, given that the post office was our ad hoc community center, and the morning bull sessions our town meetings. Soon enough, Huck’s exploits became the main topic of conversation. According to my graying neighbors, he had chased away a panther, leaped over a passing car, and scared off a suspicious character outside the mayor’s house.

His greatest exploit, though, was yet to come, on a slow August afternoon so hot that even the coal was worried about spontaneously igniting. A call came from a rafting company stationed some seventeen miles downriver. They had Huck, and would I please come get him? With no time to waste (thirty minutes out to the nearest real town, then up the highway about thirty minutes, and then back to the river for thirty more, winding past decapitated mountaintops and forgotten hollers), I didn’t pause to ask how or why. When I finally arrived, Huck was running from one picnic table to another, wolfing down burgers, barbecued chicken, and corn on the cob. A hero’s feast.

“That’s some dog,” said the rafting guide who’d called me. “We were just getting clear of Double Z”—a winding Class V rapid already eight miles down from Thurmond— “when one of my paddlers saw him. He was having a better run than some of the guides even, picking perfect lines past the keeper holes and following the tongue. We eddied out and pulled him aboard, but after a short rest, he jumped out, trotted upstream, and ran it again. It wasn’t until he’d done it three times that we could coax him back on board.”

Back in Thurmond, word spread. The next morning, Mayor Wells—seventy-some years old and rumored to be the last living prostitute from the burned-down Dunglen Hotel (Thurmond was once the second-most heavily trafficked depot on the Chesapeake & Ohio rail line)—arrived with a handwritten certificate proclaiming Huckleberry Carter the Honorary Sheriff of Thurmond. She seemed a little put out about having to hand the award to me but cheered up while giving Huck a hug as consolation.

Huck didn’t get to serve out his full term as sheriff. Oh, he did eventually take on the challenge of the mountain behind us, returning, sometimes, with various souvenirs in tow: deer heads, bear-size bones. Once, we rescued him from an unruly squad of beer-breathed, foul-tempered mountain men, narrowly escaping in an old Volvo wagon. But soon after, expecting twin girls (I’d been right about Huck being a practice run), we moved from Thurmond and into Beckley, closer to Lisa’s workplace and medical care. Trapped in a tidy middle-class neighborhood, Huck had to settle for humdrum walks around the block and runs in a local ballpark. The Thurmond glory days were gone for good.

When the twins were three months old, we moved to Maine for a short period while I worked on a book. It would prove to be Huck’s last adventure. We arrived after seventeen car-bound hours of him going stir-crazy, incessantly poking us with his nose and barking at the car door. We should have seen it coming, but as soon as we cracked the door he immediately slipped out into the surrounding woods. He hadn’t done anything like this for at least a year, and it felt like old times as we searched for hours. We unpacked, fed the twins, drove around within in a ten-mile radius. No one had seen Huck. Exhausted by the drive and the search, we gave up around ten o’clock and went to bed, believing, as always, he’d soon turn up. Huck always survived these outings, always made it back home.

Only this time, he didn’t. The next day, the phone rang. It was a woman from the local ASPCA. She was heading to the property of a local farmer on our behalf, she said, to collect Huck’s body. The farmer had shot him the night before, claiming the dog had been harassing him and his animals for months. Though we pressed charges and the farmer eventually had to pay a fine, it brought little comfort. Later, after we’d returned to West Virginia, we scattered Huck’s ashes in the New River, not far from the rapids where he had cemented his legend.

We blame ourselves for his demise, and we’ve replayed that night endless times to try to make it turn out differently. The closest thing to a healing balm, we’ve found, is remembering Huck for his noble adventures and untamable spirit. But no matter how I spin it, one thing never changes. I can’t help wishing he were still around: jumping panthers, riding rapids, lighting out for God knows where.