Coming Home: Sara’s Hugs

Do you know what makes up for every hour I’m away from my pack? It’s coming home to one of Sara’s hugs. I start thinking about that hug on Sunday night as soon as I leave the racetrack in whatever city I’ve been staying in for the past four nights. Last weekend, I worked in Pomona, CA. Next weekend I’m going to Phoenix, AZ and the cycle continues twenty-four times each year. Sunday nights are the end of my workweek, and each one feels like a mini-Christmas Eve. I even have trouble sleeping the night before I fly home because I’m so excited about seeing my freaks.

Sara has always been the quiet one, so quiet it’s easy to forget she’s in the same room. She stays close to the pack, but always at the periphery. Sara doesn’t cuddle like Ade or Floyd. She doesn’t seek afternoon or evening rubdowns like Meadow. Sometimes, Sara has a mean streak and bares her teeth if anyone invades her personal space. But, she has her reasons. Her first six months on this earth were brutal. Just like humans who survive traumatic incidents, she suffers from PTSD. And just like with people, it’s not a condition that simply goes away. It heals and fades, but it can’t be erased because it makes such deep marks.

My Monday morning flight home is always excruciating. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short hop or a cross-country slog because every minute ticks past like an hour. During those flights, I listen to podcasts or audio books, play solitaire, force my mind on anything except for my dogs because thinking about them only makes time move slower. But, once the plane descends, once we break through the clouds and Nashville spreads out below me in all its musical glory, I start getting butterflies.

I drive home 80 mph, weaving in and out of traffic with the focus of a racecar driver. As soon as I pull into our gravel driveway, I look for the dogs’ outlines through the picture window. They’ve been watching, waiting. The evidence of their lengthy stakeout is obvious, an abundance of nose art smudged across the window’s lower half. I open the car door and hear their barks, not the warning kind but the excited kind. I walk across the deck, swing open the kitchen door, and stand back.

Floyd, Meadow, and Adriana leap at me, and for a full minute I let them mob me. Adriana licks my shoes, clothes, hands, anything her tongue can reach. Floyd pushes against my shin, wagging his tail so hard his whole body moves like he’s doing a samba. Meadow performs what I can only describe as canine cartwheels back and forth across the deck. Sara is the only dog who doesn’t attack me.

Sara stands at the edge of the madness, tail shyly wagging, eyes glistening and trained on me. She’s waiting for her brother and sisters to get their fill. When the excitement starts to fade, I kneel next to her. She stands on her hind legs, stretches her front paws over my shoulders, and nuzzles my chin with her own. She’s almost eleven and starting to gray around her muzzle, but that’s the only physical sign that she’s entering her senior years. She still walks four miles with us every morning.

I push my face into her soft black fur and breath in her scent. I inhale that earthy, musty dog smell until it encloses me. That smell means home. Sara whimpers, a soft, happy whimper. I could whisper how much I love her, but she already knows. And I know that when I’m wrapped in Sara’s hug, she never wants to let go.


Coming soon: Part 3 of our Costa Rican Adventures aka Mangrove Day


Leaving Day

Floyd, Sara, Meadow, and Adriana are sleeping. They are arranged on the bed like points of a compass, together but separate.  It’s dawn, still black outside the windows. They know this is the time when I work in my office, even on leaving day, so they’ll nap until sunrise.

Sometimes, they’ll hear the coyotes’ howls or deer crunching on dead leaves, and they race outside to investigate or warn. They spend three minutes in the yard, then return to bed and situate themselves in similar positions.

Some mornings they cuddle all together or in pairs, but not today. They aren’t as relaxed as usual because they know I’m leaving. They know before I even pull my suitcase out of the closet. I must emit a scent on leaving day, the scent of excitement mixed with sadness. I’m excited because I love my job, but I’m sad because doing it means I have to leave my pack.

I work on the TV crew for the NHRA drag racing series on FS 1, which means I’m gone for over a hundred days per year because we race all over the country, all over except for Nashville. I try to fly out late and fly home early. But, airline travel is never dependable.

The dogs are a room away, but I hear their body language as clearly as any dialogue.

“She’s leaving,” Sara says.

“No walks or car rides for three days,” Meadow responds.

“At least Lino gives us a shitload of treats,” Floyd answers.

“I don’t want her to leave,” Ade says.

And I don’t want to go, but it is a necessary part of my job. Tomorrow, once I get to the racetrack, once I’m sitting inside the cool dark studio watching nitro cars going 300 mph, I’ll stop thinking about all the time I’m losing with my dogs. I’ll forget that their lives are too short.

On leaving day, I remind myself that there are women in my industry who have to leave their children. And I wonder if it’s as hard for them as it is for me.

Sea Turtle Adventures, San Jose to Playa Blanca, 220 miles

If you missed part one our adventures in Costa Rica, click here.

My first day volunteering for a sea turtle conservation group in Costa Rica easily ranks as the most enjoyable day of volunteer work I’ve ever experienced. I’d make up for it the following afternoon, but I wasn’t thinking about manual labor on that morning. And I can guarantee you Nora and Rita weren’t either.

We were riding in a skiff across the calm waters of the Gulfo Dulce. The gulf is sandwiched between the Osa Peninsula and mainland Costa Rica. Besides a marine biologist, a research assistant, and four other volunteers, the boat was loaded with scientific equipment, such as scales, rulers, cameras, nets, log books, latex gloves, syringes, and disinfectant.

I inhaled the smell of salt water and felt the sunshine soaking into my skin, but they were the only two familiar sensations. Everything else was foreign. Mangroves and banana trees, tall and bare except for their umbrella-like tops, slid past each side of us. Somewhere in that lush jungle, monkeys, wild cats, and sloths were hanging out. And somewhere in the clear waters, dolphins, whales, sharks, and sea turtles were swimming. National Geographic called the Osa Peninsula one of the most biologically intense places on the earth. And we were right in the thick of it.

We were working for the Osa In-Water project, helping them on a “water day.” A water day meant spending six hours in the gulf trying to catch sea turtles. If we caught one, we would tag them. If they were already tagged, we’d collect tissue samples and biometric measurements so the biologists could study things like population structures, general health, and habitat changes. Once we collected all the necessary information, we’d release the turtles back into the ocean. The project is particularly interested in two endangered species, the green and hawksbill.

Nora, Rita, and I had learned about water day the night before when we arrived at Playa Blanca, 220 miles south of San Jose, Costa Rica. Playa Blanca isn’t a town. It’s a village, which we realized as soon as we turned down the one dirt road that runs through it. It’s a place so small nobody has an address, and there is no such thing as a postal worker. Instead, people give directions through landmarks. And public buses transport letters or packages to the only store in the village. The same man who ran the store was also the skiff’s captain.

After twenty minutes, the boat stopped next to a remote beach nestled inside a cove. The biology team laid out a net that was a couple thousand feet across. Nora, Rita, and I carried equipment to the beach. One hour passed, then another, and we still didn’t catch a turtle. We ate our packed lunches, which mainly consisted of rice and beans. That was our third meal in Playa Blanca, and it was the third time we’d had rice and beans. Each time our hostess had added a new twist, last night she mixed in peppers, eggs for breakfast, and now fruit.

The in-water project provides food and housing for a small fee. As soon as we had opened our cabin door, I realized people don’t volunteer for a sea turtle conservation group because of the accommodations. Our room’s whole décor gave off a jail-like vibe. It had concrete floors, cinderblock walls, a tin roof, bunk beds, no windows, and no air conditioning. A single bulb hung from the ceiling and emitted a feeble glow. Every bed had a pillow, a fitted, and flat sheet. We never had hot water, not even lukewarm, but we did have a cockroach or two that scattered whenever we turned on the bathroom light.

Three hours into water day and still no turtles, so Nora, Rita, and I wandered off to explore the mangroves. Mangrove trees only live in warm climates, and they are key to the coastline’s health. They are easy to recognize because of their exposed and tangled root systems, as though they are standing on mangled stilts. This tangled abundance stabilizes coastlines, but it also provides safe nesting grounds for hundreds of species, including sea turtles.

We were examining different kinds of hermit shells when I first noticed the tiny red dots around Rita’s ankles. Once I saw a few, more and more appeared, until it looked like she had suddenly broken out in a severe case of measles. Starting at her toes and running up her thighs, she had at least fifty sand flea bites on each leg.

The research assistant had told us to bring plenty of sunscreen and water, and not to wear any bug spray because it was bad for the turtles. Looking at Rita, I had no doubt she complied. Nora and I didn’t wear any either, and we had a few bites but nothing compared to Rita. I don’t know what sweetness she had in her blood, but the sand fleas loved it. And they ate her alive.

The biologist, a French woman in her mid-thirties, advised us to sit in the water because it was the only place to escape them. So, for the last three hours we spent on that remote beach, we soaked up to our chests in the Gulfo Dulce’s warm waters. The water must have been 80 degrees, like bathwater. The jungle surrounded us in all its exotic green glory. Sometimes, red macaws, traveling in pairs and trailing their long tail feathers, flew above us. Occasionally, we heard a toucan’s frog-like croak.

We never caught a sea turtle, but a few times one would peek its head above water. Somehow the biologist knew from one glimpse whether it was a green or hawksbill. Besides our group, we didn’t see any people. We saw another small skiff, but it was as far away as the horizon. At some point, I said, “This is got to be the best day of volunteering. Like ever.” Even Rita agreed.

We’d pay for every bit of ease the next day, on mangrove day. But, we didn’t know that then, so we soaked until we pruned, until schools of tiny darting fish started nibbling on our toes.

Why Aggressive Dogs Need Special Masters

Mason and I arrived in Owensboro, Kentucky the day before Thanksgiving. My mother-in-law owns a rental property next to the Ohio River. Since we roll with four dogs and need a lot of space, the cottage is perfect for us. It has a fenced yard with plenty of squirrels. Plus, it’s located downtown, so it has sidewalks, which I’ve learned to appreciate since living in the country. We unpacked the car, leashed the dogs, and strode out the door for our afternoon walk.

We took a left on Maple Street, then a right on First. The temperature was mild for late November. Slivers of clouds lined the sky, and the sun’s filtered light glowed pink and gray. We hiked through English Park, passed the boat ramp, moved next to the muddy banks so the dogs could sniff the water.

Our pack was thrilled, ears cocked, noses slick and twitching with interest. Like any canine, they love walking in different places. And although we had traveled the same route at least 50 times over the past couple of years, we hadn’t been in Owensboro for months.

Twenty minutes into our walk, I saw a gray flash out of the corner of my eye. Mason walked Adriana and Meadow. Floyd, Sara, and I were a few feet behind. I stopped as soon as I saw that flash, paused because an internal alarm started sounding, banging before I understood what was happening. In that moment, that moment before I realized that a seventy-pound dog was charging straight at us, the distance between Mason and I grew to ten feet.

And even after I clearly made out the gray brute descending on us, I didn’t fully comprehend his intent. Because at first that dog, sleek, muscular, and steel gray, looked too graceful to be so angry. Plum Street, three houses, and two fences separated that beast from us. As I watched him effortlessly leap the first fence, then the next, I remember thinking how graceful, how agile he looked.

I called for Mason, but before I could say anything else that dog closed the distance between us and sank his teeth into Floyd’s shoulder. I guess he targeted Floyd because he’s the only male in our pack, but I’ll never really know. The dog locked his massive jaw on Floyd’s body and whipped his head from side to side. If Floyd ever cried out, I never heard him.

Mason reached us in seconds, but it felt like hours. He grabbed the mutt’s ruff and yanked. Luckily, the dog immediately released Floyd. That mutt didn’t like other dogs, but he listened to people. And that was our saving grace.

Moments later, Mason held the dog by his neck, and five people surrounded us, including the dog’s family. Everybody was screaming. The mother was screaming her apologies. Her children were screaming at each other to get “Buddy” back into the house. A neighbor was screaming at the family to get Buddy under “f**king” control. And someone was screaming at an animal control officer over the phone.

Through it all, I was quiet, not out of some sort of dog-whisperer coolness, but because I was frozen from fear. I had been frozen since the second I saw that gray flash. Finally, amidst all that yelling, I snapped out of my daze and knew Floyd needed to get away from all that frantic, angry energy.

I kneeled next to him, made sure there weren’t any visible wounds. Floyd had never fought back. I’m guessing that like me, he had been in a state of shock. Or maybe he was just too old to fight. Poor guy. Ten years old, enjoying an afternoon walk in Owensboro, and he gets beat up for no reason whatsoever. I didn’t see any blood, so while the kids hauled Buddy back to their house, while the mother and neighbors continued cursing at each other, we took Floyd home.

Inside the cottage’s quiet living room, my adrenaline dissipated, and I started shaking. I had to to break up dogfights a few times in my life. Anyone who rescues strays has done the same thing. But, the randomness, the lack of provocation, the sheer size of that dog had really shaken me up.

Floyd looked as upset as I did. I heard his heart pounding through his ribcage as I pulled back his fur and saw two bloody puncture marks. Floyd has three layers of fur. It’s so thick it could be a shag carpet. Thankfully, that shag-like coat saved him from a more serious injury.

Mason and I have walked with dogs all over this country, and we’ve never been the brunt of such an unprovoked, violent attack before. I reminded myself of that fact every time we left the cottage that weekend. In retrospect, when I consider all the possible outcomes of getting attacked by a seventy-pound dog, it was one of the best-case scenarios. Floyd didn’t need stitches, just pain meds and a week of antibiotics. As far as Buddy, I have no idea what happened to him, but I still wonder, even now, two months later.

A dog as aggressive as Buddy needs a very special master. From what I witnessed in the aftermath of that attack, he doesn’t have one. When I was fostering dogs full-time, people often asked what I thought about euthanizing aggressive dogs. Five years later, I still struggle with an answer. Of course I don’t want Buddy euthanized. In fact, I feel an incredible amount of empathy for him. But what if next time Buddy is outside, a child is the one walking a dog past Plum Street? And what if that child’s dog weighs twenty pounds instead of Floyd’s solid fifty? Legally and probably morally, the blame is with the family, but placing blame doesn’t help Buddy.

The next day, Thanksgiving afternoon, after a few extra slices of fried turkey, Floyd walked with us again. We avoided Plum Street, and I’m pretty positive we’ll avoid that street in Owensboro from now on. At first, Floyd moved beside me with his tail tucked against his legs. But after a quarter mile, his tail started rising and rising, until it was swaying full steam again.

Mary Oliver Quote

I’ve been rereading Mary Oliver poems. When I found this line, I squealed:

A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the trees, or the laws which pertain to them…

Mary Oliver, “Her Grave”

In one line, she pretty much sums up what this blog represents. Animals aren’t own-able because they aren’t possessions. They are as wild as the rain and trees. They are also sentient creatures with complex emotional capabilities. And they should be treated as such. Simple, right? I wish. Speaking of Mary Oliver, have y’all ever read Dog Songs? If not, treat yourself. It’s worth it. I promise.

131 Miles: Liberia to San Jose, Costa Rica

I tried to write about my adventures in Costa Rica in one post. I swear I did. But as I explained here, something extraordinary happened on that trip, and I can’t fit the whole story into 1000 words or less. For those of you just catching up, in December I went on a five-day, 700-mile road-trip across a third-world country. Throughout this month, I’m going to write about each leg of the journey, starting with the first 131 miles. Thanks for reading.

Dec. 7, 131 Miles: Liberia to San Jose

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have angst about my trip to Costa Rica, not stress but a sense of uncertainty. Sure partly, I had the normal anxiety about flying to a foreign country. Did I have enough cash? Would my plane be on time? Would my stuffed bag fit into the overhead? Did I have my passport?

But above all, I was concerned about traveling with women. I know that sounds strange, but I’m not around a lot of girls daily. I live with more dogs than humans and work in an industry with a male to female ratio of five to one. Also, I’m a tomboy who wears cargo shorts instead of yoga pants and board shorts instead of bikini bottoms. I live in my Penn State baseball hat. So, a five-night girl’s trip in a third-world country was a completely new experience for me.

I was traveling with two sisters from North Carolina, Nora Gabriel and Rita Southard. We were headed to the Osa Peninsula, a biodiversity hotspot, to volunteer for a sea turtle conservation group. Nora was the inspiration behind the whole trip. She’s a sea turtle advocate with a mane of black curls and an infectious laugh. I’ve known Nora for years but only met Rita a handful of times. Rita is younger than her sister, thirty something, tall with soft pale skin and brown hair that sways against her waist. Since we were starting our journey in the northern region of Costa Rica, and needed to venture to the southern end, we planned on splitting the first part of our trip into two days.

My first hour in Costa Rica went exactly as planned. I landed in Liberia during the late afternoon. Nora and Rita were waiting for me outside of immigration. We were spending the night in San Jose, 131 miles away, and taking a shuttle van to our hotel. Between the three of us, we knew a few phrases in Spanish, but none of us could have a conversation in it, and our driver didn’t speak a word of English. On the curb outside the airport, Nora pointed out the address of our hotel on her phone. He nodded, and that nod was the only assurance we had that he knew our destination.

About thirty minutes into our ride, my stomach started feeling weak. I’m prone to motion sickness, so in retrospect I should have sat in the front seat. But I didn’t. I sat in the very back because up until I got in that van, my stomach gave no indication it was upset.

Costa Rica doesn’t have many roads, so traveling takes a lot longer than it does at home. If we were driving 131 miles from one major city to another in the Southern United States, it would take two hours. In Costa Rica, it takes double that time. The two-lane roads were paved but winding, weaving back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes, we drove behind public buses or tractors pulling hay, and we moved at a snail’s pace. Sometimes, the road cleared and the driver would pound on the gas for a few manic kilometers before slamming on the brakes. The van had seen better days, faded red interior, chipped paint, windows that didn’t roll down. Plus, it didn’t have any seatbelts, so every time the driver slammed on the brakes, we lurched forward.

About an hour into the trip, my stomach was turning like a carousel. About three hours into the ride, it was spinning. Through sheer willpower, I was able to control it because I wasn’t going to be that girl, the one who causes problems, the one who shows weakness hours into a rugged five-day trip. Unfortunately, my stomach didn’t care about my reputation.

I said, “I’m going to puke.”

Nora and Rita looked at me, then at the driver, then at each other. At the same exact second, we realized nobody knew enough Spanish to ask him to pull over. Nobody knew how to tell him I was going to be sick. And that if he didn’t pull over, it was going to happen all over the van’s floor. It’s an odd feeling not being able to communicate at the height of an emergency. Granted, I had played around on language apps for the past year, but I never took learning Spanish seriously, not really. And I never regretted my apathy more than at that moment.

Since I get motion sickness and travel a lot, I’ve developed a habit. Consciously or not, I identify a puke bag the moment I get on any plane, subway, bus, or shuttle van. Luckily, I had packed a few Ziploc bags in my backpack. I don’t remember thinking about those bags beforehand, but when my stomach rose into my throat, and then into my mouth, I dug for those bags like a dog hunting a mole. As the orange haze of San Jose, the biggest city in Costa Rica, glowed through the van’s windows, I puked into a Ziploc bag, not once but twice.

After my retching concluded, I was embarrassed and humbled. I had been worried about traveling with girls, and I was the one who couldn’t hang. But if Nora and Rita felt that way, they never let it show. Instead, Nora handed me a wet wipe, offered water, medicine. Rita shrugged off my apology. “Please,” she said in a nonchalant way, as though she was totally accustomed to people puking into plastic bags, as though it was no big deal.

Now, almost six week later, I wish I could remember more about my first 131 miles in Costa Rica. But, in retrospect I only learned two things. First, I need to work on my Spanish, no more excuses. Secondly, I learned something about Nora and Rita. Nora’s nurturing and Rita’s feigned indifference had been the perfect remedies for my embarrassment in that van. Within minutes, they had made me feel okay again. That was the first but not the last time I realized that traveling with women, particularly these two women, was going to be a special experience.