In the beginning, I didn't even think about it. The dog was just a puppy. I walked him down to the end of the street and back. It must have been a total of three or four blocks. Occasionally people would say something, usually "What a cute Dalmatian" or "How old is he?," but to tell the truth, I hardly noticed. It was a small five minute chore. Somewhere on a scale between taking out the garbage and going to the grocery store.
Well, the more the dog grew, the longer we began to walk. It wasn't long before we began to have a routine. 2.2 miles round trip. One day I even clocked it with one of those little pedometers hikers and joggers clip to their belts. Day in and day out we walked exactly the same route. For months I told myself that these were the dog's wishes, but in the end I guess, they were mine. There was a certain pleasure in doing the same thing over and over again.
The more constant our routine, the more aware we became of things changing around us. The dog was a lot better than me at first. If there was a lawn mower, or even a plastic garbage bag sitting in an otherwise empty front lawn, he would notice it instantly. Something was out of place, and he would growl and approach warily sniffing the air until the new object became familiar. Eventually I followed suit. First I started noticing the obvious things. My neighbor two doors down had an old Rolls Royce in the garage. A block or so further there was an old sailplane in a metal trailer in another neighbor's back yard. Some people had swimming pools, and in the Summer, almost everyone mowed their grass more often than they went swimming. Older couples would sit out on their front porches in the evening and say hello as I walked by. Younger couples glassed their porches in and never came out at all.
Seven houses on our route had boats on trailers in the driveway: three bass boats, two ski tow boats and two small sailboats. Oh, and I forgot, there were two canoes sitting on cinder blocks I didn't even count. None of these boats ever moved an inch. The closest they got to water was when the automatic sprinkler systems came on twice a day and wet them down. Once during the holidays a man put Christmas lights on his boat, but that was as far as it went. He never even took the cover off. I'm not being fair though. I did see one couple move their sailboat out of the driveway and over to the side of the house when they got a second car.
As the days grew shorter, we began making our route during dusk and later in darkness. I didn't like having the daylight hours gone before I was even able to get home from work, but the dog wasn't bothered at all. If anything, he seemed even more alert. A bark from another dog a half a mile down the road and he would be sniffing the air, looking for clues. The darker it got the more acute his sense of smell and hearing seemed to get. It was almost like having another set of ears. I'm sure it was hearing or smell, I can't believe dogs could see that well. We'd be walking and all the sudden all of his attention would be directed toward some empty spot in the darkness. Nine times out of ten, we'd see a jogger or another animal about twenty seconds later. They would appear in front of us like ghosts in the darkness and then quickly disappear again.
By Winter, we were walking by starlight, one nose to the ground looking for special scents, and the other up in the air looking for the Big Dipper. I could find Orion, watched Jupiter and Venus move toward each other, and once even saw a shooting star, but it took me three months to find the most recognizable constellation in the sky. Every evening I would look up and try to figure out where North was. It should have been easy since I quickly figured out where South was. Navigating by the stars is hard in the city. What I noticed most of all were revolving searchlights in every quadrant of the sky, marking midnight madness sales and new restaurant openings all over town.
When you travel by night, one thing becomes clear very quickly. The whole world is watching television. In house after house we'd see a blue glow in darkened living rooms and bedrooms. On the streets where the Yuppies lived, the blue glow would sometimes come come from a Macintosh screen instead, but that was rare. Whenever there were several cars in the street in front of someone's house it usually meant there was a basketball game on TV. Every second or third house has a fenced in yard with a dog house and at least one dog. They usually began barking long before we came into view, but occasionally you'd catch one asleep and they'd try to make up for lost time by barking wildly as we passed by a few feet away on the other side of their fence. It's funny, but if you walked very directly up to the fence and let the dogs sniff around and get to know each other, they'd quit barking immediately. I think the barkers were jealous, or lonely, or both. All Winter long we never saw another dog being walked by starlight. They were all at home barking at the moon, waiting for Summer.
Over time we got to know many of these dogs by name. There was Connie, an eight year old Dalmatian who'd worn a path between her dog house and the fence. She'd usually come out as you walked by, unless it was too cold. And then, her curiosity satisfied, she'd walk directly back to her dog house along the same path. Baby is the rich kid on the block, a beautiful one year old Golden Retriever who rumor has it is worth $3,000 on the dog show circuit. And then there's Toby, a nasty little Border Collie who always seems to be loose whenever the neighbor's leave garbage out in plastic bags. I'm real curious about a big Chocolate Lab named Elvis. There's a pair of them, but it's always Elvis who gets into trouble when we walk by. I never heard the other one's name. It's always "Elvis, get back here" or "Elvis, get away from those flowers." I keep wondering if the other dog's name is Dion, or Little Richard.
Curiosity has to be a big factor for both of us. The dog is always checking something out. And usually it's another dog. The way dogs sniff the ground, you'd swear it was a wine tasting party. When they're on to a promising scent, they stop every so often, sniff, delicately lick the grass, and start to salivate. They do this for a long time, with this thoughtful look, almost as if they're rating a fine Burgundy. What they are rating is all the other dogs in the neighborhood, probably far more accurately than I've been able to rate the people who own them.
I must admit that I'm more than a little curious about some of these people.. For example, the young couple who own Elvis the Chocolate Lab. I was convinced for months that they were country cousins. He owned a Chevy Blazer with oversize tires. She had a heavy Georgia accent. And the dogs sure lived like country dogs. They had matching white doghouses in the back yard and apparently never came inside. I think the guy was trying to train them as retrievers. Every so often I'd see him in the park with both dogs, throwing canvas dummies for them to retrieve. Well, imagine my surprise when I walked by their house one day when the door to the little guest house out back was open. Inside was the studio of a serious painter. Several large canvases were stretched and primed. And there was one large work in progress on a huge easel in the center of the room. Suddenly all my preconceptions about these people shifted. Instead of animal loving rednecks, they now became artists who happened to own a pair of hunting dogs. I became even more confused a few months later when I walked by just after dusk and saw the man through an open bedroom window staring into the screen of a Macintosh computer. Now what were they? They might not be artists at all. They could be Yuppies and faking everything. The dogs might not even sleep in the white doghouses. For all I know they might go inside every night and sleep on a rug at the foot of the bed.
I don't think a dog's curiosity leads them in quite the same direction as mine. They seem to stick to basics. Is the scent male or female? They would sniff around, size up the situation, and mark their territory accordingly. Once the dog had lifted his leg, the matter was settled, and it was on the the next tree. As far as I could tell, his curiosity was a practical matter, and mine was the kind that came with an overactive imagination.
Maybe people were curious about us too. We were regular as clockwork. Every day rain or shine, we'd make our rounds. After a while, certain people would look up from their gardening and say hello as we passed by. As the weeks became months these greetings became small talk. "What a pretty dog," they'd say. Or, "What's his name?" It was always the dog's name that people asked about. Never once did I hear anyone asking about my name. Come to think of it, I never heard any of the women along our route say to each other "What a nice looking guy." It was definitely the dog they were interested in. Little kids would ask their Moms if they could pet the dog, and then turn to me and almost always say, "Does your dog bite?" Women with little babies in strollers would almost always point the dog out to their babies while saying "Look, there's Pongo." Of course we also got our share of "Where's the fire," and "Put out any fires lately?," usually from jolly older retired men. The dog loved all the attention. But he couldn't always handle it. Once, I remember he peed all over a ladies foot just as she was gushing about what a sweet puppy he was.
Personally, I could have used a bit more attention. A lot of people said hello from their yards and would come over and pet the dog, but there weren't many other walkers on the roads in our neighborhood. Everyone that wasn't driving in a car rode bicycles. Cycling must have replaced jogging as the fitness activity of choice somewhere along the line. The cyclists were out in force every afternoon right after work. And on Saturdays and Sundays, our route was a madhouse. You had to watch out for the cyclists. They traveled silently with grim looks of determination on their faces. I was always sure one of them was going to come zipping by just as the dog was making a lunge toward an attractive tree near the side of the road. He has a few close calls with the cyclists before he learned to keep his distance. We grew to like the few remaining joggers on the roads. They looked almost relaxed by comparison, but of course they weren't much in the way of company either. The dog and I pretty much had the slow lane to ourselves. Occasionally we'd run into a retired couple out for an evening stroll, but usually they were already finished and watching TV by the time we made our rounds.
I imagine if they're were lots of people to talk to, I wouldn't have noticed nearly as much as I did. We knew what all the neighbors ate by what kind of garbage they left out on trash pick-up days. We learned where St. Augustine Grass would grow best. And when to prune the Photinia Bushes. I learned to recognize Orion, Leo and finally found the Big Dipper. While the dog learned in no uncertain terms that not all Cats have been de-clawed.
More than anything we learned that things aren't always as they seem. A yard that looked full of weeds would reveal itself every Spring to be carefully planted with an amazing variety of wildflowers. An unassuming ranch style house we had been passing for months turned out to have a life size sculpture of a Jersey Cow in the back yard. A Rolls Royce out in front of the house, didn't mean the people were well off, or even, as it turned out, that they owned the house. And a Harley Davidson in the front yard certainly didn't mean that the house belonged to a bunch of bikers. The one Harley in our neighborhood belonged to a school teacher. A few things you could take at face value. If you saw a woman mowing the grass consistently, it was a safe bet that she was divorced. If you saw a man consistently mowing the grass, chances are there was a pickup truck belonging to a lawn care service nearby. I was surprised, but very few men seemed to spend much time taking care of their own yards. The ones who did were almost inevitably retired, and they always had the best looking yards.
I often wondered how much you could tell about people just by looking at their lawns. Did the Republicans keep better looking yards than the Democrats? Why did some people sod expensive Bermuda Grass under trees where it would never grow. And why did others plant St. Augustine in places where Bermuda would have done better? What did people who placed pink flamingos in their front yards have in common? And why were there always a pair of flamingos? I never saw one standing alone, and I certainly never saw a flock of them. It made you wonder. Somewhere along our route there was always at least one person who attempted to water with one of those strange tractor shaped sprinklers that pulled themselves along a hose, using the hose as a kind of railroad track to circumnavigate the lawn. These things never worked, but that seldom stopped the person using one from laying out complicated tracks made from hundreds of feet of garden hose. I could have told them that the sprinkler would get stuck before it had traveled five feet of hose, but they wouldn't have listened. Not with a water powered model railroad in the front yard.
Some people seemed to wash their cars a lot. Other's seemed to barbecue chicken on the grill every night of the week. And if I wondered about them, they probably wondered equally about us. Who was this pair, regular as clockwork, that came down their street every evening? I knew a few people must talk about us because from time to time total strangers would ask if the dog was still jumping over the fence in the back yard, or if I ever drove the old Citroën I parked in front of the house. These were not next door neighbors either. Sometimes they lived six or seven blocks away. And like the other consistent things in the neighborhood, poor garbage service and powdery mildew in the Crepe Myrtle trees, we got talked about. It had to be the old people; I'm sure the pretty young mothers wheeling babies in strollers never gave us a second thought.
As time went on the dog grew older, and our walks grew longer. We didn't retrace our steps quite so often and new insights about the state of the neighborhood came much quicker. The demographics were changing. On the Southeastern boundary of our route, we noticed that Blacks were starting to move into houses the older white couples left for nursing homes. The Northern boundary and a small area bordering the park itself was still populated by old timers who had paid off their 20 year 4% mortgages years ago. This was where the lawns looked the best and most of the garages had been walled in and converted into recreation rooms.
People who lived in small wooden frame houses tended to keep very large dogs. And the people who lived in large brick houses favored small terriers, or more often, poodles if they were retired. The poodle owners all drove huge older model Cadillac Fleetwoods, while the owners of German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers tended to favor small Suzuki Samuri's. As they say, it's a crazy mixed up world. Young people never put Christmas lights on their roof and older people never took their's down. As I mentioned earlier, one old couple we passed every day even kept Christmas lights on their boat. We noticed that the people driving the latest model BMW's usually ended up with the most Domino's Pizza boxes in their trash. And that virtually every young mother had the same practical Mary Tyler Moore hairdo. I don't know what all this means, but most of it was surprising.
Over time, my sense of wonder over our many observations and small discoveries began to diminish. Instead of being amazed when I realized that one street on our route had a Magnolia tree in every yard, I began to wonder why I had never noticed something so obvious before. The dog for his part no longer tried to pull the leash out of my hand every time his interest turned to a neighborhood cat or squirrel. Eventually, he began to pass right by certain of his favorite trees without being overpowered by a desire to lift his leg. Our routine had become such a certainty that we both started taking it for granted. He expected me home at a predetermined time just as much as he expected food and water in his bowl. I must have expected the same, for on those rare occasions when the weather was unfit for man nor beast, or more commonly when the dog had to stay overnight at the vet, I felt that something was missing.
The walk had become an end in itself. And I began to restructure other parts of my life to accommodate it. Just as I had learned to accommodate the demands of going to work every day many years earlier. There were certain similarities. I remember when I first began working full time, I did it as much for the sense of discovery and exploration as for the paycheck. Then, I was just as amazed by the undercurrents of office politics as our walks have made me about the diversity of lawn weeds and the sameness of working couple's garbage. I can imagine a day when the dog and I take our walks completely for granted. We've already gotten to know each other well. There are knowing looks, shared secrets, and a great deal of trust. I know he'd probably rather walk without his leash now. I'm almost certain he'd be happier, and still continue to walk right along beside me. I trust him. But I still worry, even after all this time. He might get run over by a car, attempt to get a little to friendly with a Pit Bull, or just run off and disappear.
The dog means a lot to me. And the leash provides that small amount of security and hope that is often found in marriage.