Two years ago, I had an idea. What would it be like to reinvent the dog walking experience? Not so much for Sam, my Golden Doodle, but for me. All the experts say walking is a meditative, contemplative endeavor. Ask the great walkers—Thoreau, Dickens, John Muir. And for the dog? What if the dog led the way? What if Sam was my guide instead of me dictating the experience?
So, off we went.
My book about this, Walks with Sam: A Man, a Dog, and a Season of Awakening (Roundfire Books, John Hunt Publishing, UK) will officially be released this September. But you can pre-order it now at Amazon, if you’d like. I thought it might be time to give you a taste of what you’ll find in the book. I am not a dog expert, I am an owner who found the beauty in a simple walk with Sam.
Here’s the prologue.
And So It Begins
It was the summer of 1963 and my best friend was moving away. He lived a block up the street in a brick bungalow, and on many summer days after elementary school had let out for the season, Mark and I would build forts on the home’s wide stone porch. We draped a bed sheet over an old chair and a couch his parents had planted there, and with our green plastic Army guns we would climb inside, preparing ourselves to battle the Nazi soldiers who would soon be coming over the hill. We played for hours, pretending we were under fire from a determined enemy, an enemy we would always overcome. During a break from the skirmishes, his mother would bring us lemonade. As we refreshed ourselves under the billowing sheet, there beside us standing guard was my dog.
Sally was a tri-colored collie given to me by my grandfather, my mother’s dad, just a few months after I was born. “A boy needs to grow up with a dog,” he told my mother when he came to the door, the eight-week old puppy in his arms. From the time I could walk, Sally was right there with me. She followed me on walks in the woods. She came along when I visited my grandmother’s home a block away. And on that porch up the street on that hot day in August decades ago, Sally was there. Not only keeping an eye out for Nazi soldiers, but also reminding me she would never leave me, even if my friend would soon leave forever.
When you are seven years old, you struggle to understand the concept of change, that things would not always stay the same. I knew my friend was moving, he told me so, but I could not comprehend what that truly meant. People in my world did not move away. My parents grew up on the same street where I grew up. My grandparents lived a few houses away. My aunt and cousins lived on a parallel street, a five-minute walk from my home. Change—someone leaving—seemed a dreadful concept.
The day of the move, a long, tall truck parked on the street outside Mark’s door. Big men moved tables and chairs, box after box, table lamps, dressers, and trunks. Mark and I stood in the front yard and shook hands. “I guess I’ll see ya,” Mark said. “When?” I asked. Mark did not answer.
On the slow walk home with Sally at my side, I tried not to think about what was happening. How far could he really be going? Maybe he’d still be at school? I stroked the top of Sally’s head and rubbed behind her ear. She nuzzled against my hip. “You’re a good girl,” I murmured. I was certain that no matter what was happening with my friend, Sally would stay. She would always be my dog, always be my friend. She was not packing her things into a moving truck that would rumble down the street and out of sight.
About halfway to my house, I stopped and sat in the grass along the sidewalk. I wasn’t ready to go home. Sally sat next to me and curled up to rest her head on my knee. For a good while, the two of us silently sat, waiting for my confused feelings to go away. I patted Sally’s back. She licked my hand. I hugged her around the neck and held on for a long time. When we started to walk again, we did not head straight home. Instead we took the long way, through the backyards, across the alley, and down another street. We ambled over a hill dotted with evergreen trees and through a stretch of maples near a creek. Time stood still. Sally and I were less than a few tenths of a mile from home, but looking back, we were walking a great distance from one thing and closer to something new. I didn’t know this then, but I believe that time with Sally was my first encounter with the beauty and redemptive power of a contemplative walk, and especially a walk with one’s dog. The little boy in me would not have comprehended this, but in time I would realize how that day was my first lesson on how a journey, even a short one, could deliver solace, how you could make things right by putting one foot in front of the other. Kierkegaard—a famous daily walker—once wrote in a letter to his favorite niece who had been struggling with personal problems—“If you just keep walking, everything will be all right.” This little boy knew nothing of Kierkegaard. But he knew how he felt after that walk with his dog, his constant companion.
It was a tough day for a little boy, but without Sally, it would have been unbearable. She eased me through the first big change in my life. Sally was there when I realized that nothing would remain, life would forever shift. She was there to hold open the lens a little longer so I could see that a walk, especially with your dog, could heal but also open you up, permit space in the soul’s tight chambers, allow your heart to heal.
So here I am, many years later, at the age of sixty and change has been, as it always is for anyone, part of life. I left Pittsburgh to attend college a hundred miles away. I left Pennsylvania and moved to Chicago for a job as a radio journalist. I’ve married and divorced, and married again. I’ve had two sons. Children forever change you. I have moved from one state to another. Lived in a dozen houses, apartments, and condos. I’ve changed jobs. Lost friends and found new ones. Buried family. And over the years have cared for eight dogs, from Sally to Sam, which I share with my wife, Leslie. Sam—a black golden doodle—came into our lives not long after my dog and Leslie’s dog, animals we had raised before we met, died of old age. Sam was a few months old when she came to us, and at the same time Sam was figuring out who she was as a young dog in a new home, I was contemplating who I had been and who I wanted to be in my older years. There are mileposts at which one inevitably examines a life—the age of 21, at 30, 40, 50. You celebrate with parties. Sometimes you set goals. Make priorities. You ask questions: What do I believe? What do I cherish? What scares me? What thrills me? At 60 years old, it was a good time to ask again. I was on sabbatical leave from Columbia College in Chicago. This was a good time to reexamine, to put the lens squarely on me and focus on who I was in my late years. It was also a good time to train a dog. Not that Sam needed a lot, she had already been housebroken, but she was in a new home, had new owners, had to adjust to new smells, had to find her place. In essence, she had to reexamine who she was. So, what would we do? How would Sam and I do this together?
There are plenty of epic foot journeys: Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage in Spain or The Pacific Crest Trail, all 2600 miles of it. My walks would be local. Mini-adventures. Neighborhood walks. Woods walks. Slow. “It’s a great art to saunter,” wrote Thoreau. Sam and I would be more like old Henry David; we would ramble, roam, and wander. Literature, art, and philosophy are littered with great walkers, those who believed a good walk lights a creative spark, can heal the soul, repair the heart, can work out a problem, can illuminate the world around us and ourselves. Thoreau was one of those walkers, so was Rimbaud and Twain. There’s, Joyce, Dickens, and Kierkegaard, of course. It’s a long list. It was time I joined the list of the famous and the unknown, and I would do it with my dog. Sally was my companion on my first philosophical, contemplative walk and Sam could rekindle what had been lost in the years.
And so it begins, methodically and patiently, my regular walks with Sam. Might we learn from each other, find out about ourselves, and when this season of walking is behind us, who will we be?
The answers will come one walk at a time.