Yesterday, the mystery of the white dog was solved in a completely unexpected time and place.
Those of you who have read my book about section hiking the Appalachian Trail (Appalachian Odyssey) likely remember the story of the young dog that became an AT section hiker along with us. For those who haven’t read the tale or want a refresher, here it is.
In November of 1990, my hiking partner, Wayne, and I set off on a 42-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail in Vermont. It was a lovely time of year to be on the trail. The days were sunny, the nights were crisp and there wasn’t a black fly or mosquito within hundreds of miles or several months away.
We hadn’t planned on another hiking companion joining us, but when we passed through the hamlet of West Hartford, Vermont, that’s what happened. A friendly Samoyed decided that what we were doing seemed like fun, so she started following us westward. Our best efforts to encourage the pup to head back home were an abject failure. We thought that if we ignored her and kept walking, she’d eventually make tracks back to her home.
We were wrong. In fact, our happy-go-lucky friend stayed with us for the entire hike. Here’s how I described the difficult good-bye to the loveable dog in Chapter 4 of Appalachian Odyssey.
It was barely light when I arrived in West Hartford. I pulled into the store “parking lot” – a dirt turn out really – and saw a little boy playing in the yard next door. I rolled down the window and yelled his way.
“Hey. Do you know whose dog this is?”
“Yes.” He pointed toward a house a hundred yards down the road. “She lives over there.”
I drove up next to the house and tried to let the dog out of the cab.
She didn’t want to go.
I felt horrible about making her leave, but I couldn’t just drive off with a new (to me) dog. I opened the passenger door, got back behind the wheel, the pushed against her back side until she had no choice but exit the passenger side.
“I’m sorry”, I said as she half fell out, “But you need to go home.”
Quickly, I closed the passenger door. I was just hitting the gas to leave, when she got a running start and threw herself over the tailgate into the truck bed. The poor girl didn’t want me to leave.
Now I felt even worse.
I got out of the truck, put the tailgate down and urged her out of the back.
“I’m sorry. I’d like to take you home. But I bet there’s someone in that house that is worried sick about you.”
This time, I sped out of the lot with tears in my eyes. I watched in the rear view as she finally tired of running after me, then turned and slowly walked toward her real home. Perhaps her owners looked out the window, saw what was happening and popped out to call her name. That’s what I’d like to believe happened. I liked the sound of that ending, so I held onto it as my truth. It was easier to take that way.
Over the years, every time I heard a story about a dog that travelled hundreds of miles to reunite with their owner, I thought of that incredibly loyal dog. I also thought about why I never knocked on that door and introduced myself to her owners. At the time, I thought that I was simply doing the right thing – finding out where she lived and reuniting her with her surroundings and her owners. But it might have been a better thing to tell them that their dog hiked 30 miles of the AT with us and that she was well cared for all the way.
I went back to West Hartford, Vermont in October of 2014. The store that was once there still stands. Most recently, it was a pizza restaurant. It also went out of business. There’s a new sign in the window. This one says, “Building for sale”. The Appalachian Trail has been rerouted. It’s now a road walk that goes right by the old store/old pizzeria before it crosses a bridge over the White River, then climbs up and out of town, before reentering the woods and becoming a path again.
The home where I dropped off the dog exists in my mind’s eye, but none of the two homes next to the defunct store match my memory’s description. Three buildings down from the old store is the West Hartford town hall. There’s a huge, relatively new dirt lot behind it. Perhaps that is where the family once lived.
Wherever they went and what became of them, I wish they could know that their beautiful white dog that walked with me for three days will stay with me forever.“
Yesterday, I found out.
I have been traveling around the USA and parts of Canada in my 1985 VW van for over two years. By now, the word “coincidence” doesn’t adequately explain the number of times extraordinary things have happened to me and the equally extraordinary timing of each event — sometimes precisely when I need them (like the owner of a van exactly like mine pulling up 5 minutes after I stalled in traffic) and sometimes out of nowhere (like yesterday).
I was standing at my book signing table at the L.L. Bean grand opening in New Haven, Connecticut when a couple approached me to talk about my books and the Appalachian Trail.
“When you were on the trail, you walked right by my childhood home”, she said.
“Where’s that?”, I asked.
“West Hartford, Vermont.”
“Wait a minute”, I said. I opened a copy of my book to page 71 and showed her a picture. “Did you live near this store?”
“Oh, my God. Yes. Two houses down.”
“Did you know anyone that owned a white Samoyed?”
“Yes. My best friend had one named Willie.”
I couldn’t believe it. Here, hundreds of miles from where the mystery played out, it was finally solved. The more we talked, the more details came out. It was undeniably Willie who had joined us on our adventure almost 30 years ago.
Twenty-eight years later, Chapter 4 of my Appalachian Odyssey has a new ending — proving yet again that we never know where or when the stories of our lives will circle back to delight us.