An epic road trip with an aging dog

An epic road trip with an aging dog

(CNN) – My husband Mike waved a stick on my face, diverting my attention from the freezing tide that was crawling towards my feet and returning to the very important task at hand.

“It’s your turn,” he said, laughing.

When I looked up, I saw the amber eyes of our dog Bagel ordering to take the next step.

Since our first meeting, Bagel’s gaze has said all that his inability to speak could not. Twelve years later, we understand each other better than ever.

A chosen family

When Mike and brought her back to the shelter after a trial play date, she stalled before entering the house, pressing herself tightly against my legs and looking at me, eyes wide, ears back, wagging tail. As nice as the shelter staff were, Bagel was ready to do more.

We learned that Bagel, two years old when we met her, had already spent more than half of her life in shelters. It was time for her to have a house and people for her.

In a way, it looked like she had made that decision the day Mike and I met her. Bagel has chosen to return home as much as we have chosen to join our family.

This family trip was dedicated to the dog and its love of water.

Courtesy of Stacey McKenna

Twelve years after the adoption of Bagel, we decided to celebrate the occasion with a road trip.

And so we ended up on a beach on Vancouver Island, more than 1,500 miles from our house in northern Colorado.

Maximum pleasure required the involvement and participation of the whole family, Bagel reminded me while I resumed our fetch game. Holding my eyes with hers, she threw her head back and sent me her staccato bark directly: “Hey madam, you’re supposed to play too. It’s your turn!”

I took Mike’s stick and threw it as far into the water as possible.

Tofino’s beaches stretch as well as long, so the waves flow silently and shallow near the shore, even when they tear apart further. Bagel immediately gave chase, galloping on hard sand, splashing in the shallows and snatching his prize from the crest of a wave. Within seconds, she came back, dropping the stick at my feet with a bark and a nod. “Again!”

Family road trip

We had been playing fetch for almost an hour. It was cool September weather, partly sunny and crisp. Although the sun kept coming out from behind the clouds, I shivered. Usually I hate being cold, but for once I didn’t care.

As I watched my aging dog dance like a puppy, diving its face into the water, covering it with salt and sand every time it shook it up, I knew we had chosen our trip wisely.

A border collie-bovine dog-labrador crossover, Bagel has always found a precarious balance between exuberant and hyper, intense and neurotic. At 14, she is always ready for adventures, but when we planned this trip, we realized that it could be one of the last.

In her youth, Bagel needed hours of intense exercise every day, but she always had something new. We walked for miles in the morning, then she ran or swam as hard as she could in the afternoon.

A border collie, a cattle dog, a Labrador cross, Bagel loves water.

A border collie, a cattle dog, a Labrador cross, Bagel loves water.

Courtesy of Stacey McKenna

But if things got too routine – if we took the same trail or visited the same park too often – she would simply refuse to participate. She really wanted variety.

For over 12 years that Mike, Bagel and I have been a family, we have spent months together traveling the country and living off our motorhome.

Bagel’s affinity for novelty and crowded routes has worked well on these trips, and she has joyfully channeled her energy into a wide range of activities, often paving the way as we roamed the deserts to find Climbing cliffs and we crossed the grounds of cacti and rattlesnakes. She topped it off with fetch at the campground and splash sessions in a shallow stream during lunch.

In the past two years, however, old age has finally begun to temper Bagel’s energy and strength, and now seems to be rationing his getaways. Morning walks are still part of her routine, but they are slower and it doesn’t bother her if we stop to chat with a neighbor.

She keeps her enthusiasm for the afternoon, especially when it comes to playing in the water.

Chasing water

Last fall, in recognition of Bagel’s favorite type of game, we decided to take another type of adventure.

Instead of following our usual travel habits, which had taken on a frenetic character which often overlapped with our professional lives and played for the existence of Bagel’s puppy, Mike and I found only one objective. In honor of Bagel’s 14th birthday, we flushed the water – and let the dog set the pace.

The 14-year-old bagel takes a break from playing fetch.

The 14-year-old bagel takes a break from playing fetch.

Courtesy of Stacey McKenna

The approximately 3,500 mile loop took us from our home to Fort Collins, Colorado, in the Pacific Northwest and vice versa. We have traveled through Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, British Columbia and Utah, through the incredibly diverse landscapes that characterize western North America: plains, deserts, mountains, canyons, tropical forests and coasts.

Since we live in a landlocked state, we decided to make a straight line to the ocean, where we would take our time to browse the islands and comb the beaches.

But, we only arrived 146 miles from home before stopping for the first swim in Bagel. The Glendo Reservoir in eastern Wyoming is a pale turquoise lake surrounded by clay that crumbles under the soft sand like flour and, when wet, will swallow a set of sandals.

It is popular with boaters and water skiers, but its amoeba-like edges create an abundance of peaceful coves. As soon as we got out of the truck, Bagel rushed to the water.

At the edge, she turned and looked at us again, her eyes not inviting us until we were ordered to join. After tying Bagel in his neon orange life jacket, Mike threw a stick and our senior puppy jumped onto the clay and dived into the water.

A few days later, we crossed the western slope of the Cascade Mountains and rushed to the coast of Washington. From our campsite at Deception Pass, we walked through the imposing cedar forest which ended up in the sea, and we were amazed by the little light that penetrated there.

In a canine speech, Bagel says:

In a canine speech, Bagel says: “Throw it out again”.

Courtesy of Stacey McKenna

I was almost sad to have traded the wide open, sunny plains for this dark, temperate rain forest, but watching Bagel explore – his nose on the ground, his tail wagging – I saw him with fresh eyes. The flashes of illumination revealed hundreds of shades of green. When I tripped over a root, I discovered a tree trunk larger than my torso. Remaining motionless, we were enveloped not in the buzzing of insects (in the ground) or the chirping of birds (well above the canopy), but in silence.

Over the next nine days, we took a ferry to Orcas, San Juan, and finally to Vancouver Island. As we explored new places for all of us, our activities took on a familiar rhythm. The walks now consisted of leisurely hikes in the woods, slow walks in the botanical gardens and Bagel’s targeted exploration of the many, many smells of new cities, but they always happened in the morning.

In the afternoon, Bagel played in the water, sometimes for hours, and never twice in the same place. As at home, her days were interrupted by long, deep naps, and whenever possible, we timed our trip between destinations to maximize her sleep.

Often, however, we crammed into the motorhome with it, bathing in the alien joy of doing nothing.

Three’s business

The first day at Deception Pass, the rainforest trail finally spit us out on a beach. Bagel stumbled into the deep sand and struggled to climb over his own marbles, and for a few miserable moments, Mike and I feared that we had been too ambitious.

The epic family trip revolved around Bagel the dog.

The epic family trip revolved around Bagel the dog.

Courtesy of Stacey McKenna

Our four-legged load has been an essential part of our family for almost as long as we have been in a relationship. Bagel is still my protector, my comforter, my favorite office companion of all time and the only reason why I venture outdoors in the snow. Yet, as she ages, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the disheartening fact that Mike and I will almost certainly outlive her.

And, therefore, it seems to us more important than ever to celebrate, rather than cry, the finite time we have left.

As this walk and the journey progressed, as she explored new paths and ran on new foundations, Bagel became stronger and more confident, energized by the fact that we were all together. By the time we reached Tofino, about 11 days later, she could gallop on the sand and had learned to time the waves.

Mike and I only had two jobs on these outings: being active participants and imposing rest periods so that she had the energy to start all over the next day.

Fresh eyes

As Bagel flourished, I started to see things a little differently. The shoe covered with molds washed up in Vancouver; paddle on an island in Mountain Lake on Orcas Island; the hard sand and the soft sand and the polished pebble beaches we encountered along the way – everything was beautiful.

Lake Horne Park on Vancouver Island provided a break from all water activities.

Lake Horne Park on Vancouver Island provided a break from all water activities.

Courtesy of Mike Spasev

At 2189 miles, we found ourselves in the desert, en route to the only part of this trip that was not specifically intended for Bagel. We headed to City of Rocks, a climbing area and national reserve in southern Idaho known for its granite steeples and humiliating views.

But as temperatures soared and water-based adventure opportunities dried up, Bagel’s enthusiasm waned and we realized that in order for this trip to stay true to its intention, we had to bypass our plans and find more water.

We booked it through the Utah desert, watching the sun go down over the red rocks while we were driving and sleeping under the bright lights of the Walmart parking lot, Bagel patiently waiting for whatever next experience unbelievable. When we got to Colorado, we knew she deserved a final before we could go home.

I think Mike and I, unprepared to let the stopwatch resume life, needed it even more.

As we arrived at the parking lot of the Dillon reservoir, Bagel awoke from his nap in the back seat. This place was an established favorite. An artificial lake at 9,000 feet above sea level, surrounded by peaks, and what Bagel and I are probably the best beach in Colorado.

Mike and I set up camp chairs near the water’s edge, and as I sat down, Bagel caught my eye, threw his tennis ball at my feet and sounded a demanding bark.

“Throw it away!”


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