Travelling during the pandemic in the company of dogs
By Walter Nicklin
The very first dog that I could properly call "my own" (when I was a preteen), I named "Scout." His name says it all, encapsulating the impulse that led me to a lifetime of travel, both in the United States and around the world. This ever-curious beagle and I would explore the planet together, with his inquisitive nose always leading the way.
But first Scout and I would have to make short exploratory expeditions in and around our neighbourhood. Wherever Scout pointed the way, I followed. He always lived up to his name, as we discovered places even my parents didn't know existed.
During the pandemic, dogs can help us see the world differently. In this Time of Corona, when you're not supposed to leave your house, much less travel to exotic locations, dogs help bring the outside world inside. By retaining a hint of wildness that the modern world has long-buried, dogs represent a source of forgotten knowledge. The kind of knowledge you might absorb by observing jackals on an African safari or coyotes while camping in a national park. And you don't even have to pay to travel away from home for the experience.
Dogs can also help us interact with other humans, even if their faces are hidden behind masks. That was the role happily assumed by the dog my classmate and I adopted when I spent a year studying in Vienna. "Der Hund" we called him, and his affable presence served as a bilingual tour guide facilitating our interactions with natives. The language of dogs is universal.
In pre-pandemic times, the typical sidewalk parade of assorted furry creatures, led by their human companions clutching plastic bags of doggy poop, could seem a blur, hardly worth noticing. But once you start paying newfound attention, each dog can assume the air of an exotic creature spotted travelling to a foreign land.
Dogs can also provide a convenient excuse to get outside, a ticket to much-needed escape from sheltering-in-place isolation. During the tight lockdowns in some parts of Europe, dog owners have been especially privileged, giving them a pass to leave their homes without fear of governmental censure. In the United States, a colleague reports that only because she was looking for someplace to walk her dog did she discover the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Here, old railroad lines and other public spaces "are reimagined to create safe ways for everyone to walk, bike and be active outdoors."
So on your next walk with your dog to escape the covid-imposed confines of your house, let the dog lead you instead of the other way around. While seeing-eye dogs are bred and trained for visually impaired people, all dogs - if you let them - are in effect travel guides allowing us to see the world anew. The most familiar neighbourhood can then become the equivalent of a faraway vacation, since the most rewarding sojourns, no matter how short, are all about exploration and discovery.
The dogs in my life have always enriched my travel experiences. Take, for example, our mongrel Mitty, whose fondness for chasing sticks was obsessive. When hiking in the woods, searching among the countless other sticks littering the forest floor, she never cheated and would always drop at your foot the very stick that you had thrown as far as you could.
She could discriminate among the twigs and branches of chestnut oak, tulip poplar, white pine, and so forth, as I could not. She awakened my curiosity about the wonders of trees and the types and textures of their wood. Thanks to Mitty, I began to fancy myself an amateur forester or dendrologist.
Another rescue dog, a beagle/terrier mix, helped soothe the ache after Mitty died. My two daughters, studying high school physics at the time, christened her "Quark." She would disappear for hours to follow scents of unknown creatures. In trying to find and follow her, I had to rely on my eyes (not nose), and so became conversant in scats and tracks, an outdoor traveller's road map.
Dogs become extensions of ourselves, with their acute hearing and especially keen noses expanding our field of perception from the visual world to the odoriferous. Talk about travel!
Arguably the urtext of travel narratives is Homer's "Odyssey." When the protagonist finally arrives home after 20 years at war and sea, the only creature who recognises him is his dog, Argos. The by-now old and frail dog wags his tail to greet his master for whom he had patiently waited, and then promptly dies. In a much more recent narrative, "The Hidden Life of Dogs," the author Elizabeth Marshall Thomas chronicles the travels of the Siberian husky Misha roaming around large swaths of Massachusetts. "Misha was Odysseus," she writes, "and Cambridge was the wine-dark sea."