As published in The East Hampton Star, February 15, 2007
I named my dog after John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley,” one of my favorite travel memoirs. In Steinbeck’s own words: “He is a good friend and traveling companion, and would rather travel about than anything else he can imagine.”
When I adopted Charley, my plan was to take him with me on long trips in the car. He’s been through New England a few times, down to Philadelphia, all over Long Island, and to New Jersey. Not exactly the kind of extensive traveling Steinbeck and his Charley did, but it has suited us fine.
When I found Charley in the Southampton Animal Shelter, after losing my beloved black lab four months earlier, he was the most hyper pup in the litter, and not a lab or lab mix, which is what I thought I must have. He was born to a Bernese mountain dog mom who gave birth to five pups–two from one father, and three from another– which was something I didn’t realize was possible.
The three “others” were black lab mixes. Charley and his smaller, quieter sister were the Bernese twosome, with long black hair, white “vests,” light brown legs, and white “feet.” All the pups were adorable, but I knew that I wanted Charley. He was the most personable of the whole doggone litter!
When he was just a pup, we drove to Philadelphia to visit my stepson, a student at UPenn. We stayed for two nights in Robbie’s apartment, one he shared with several other students. Charley was a model guest–no whining, no barking, and no peeing on the furniture or the floor. The first day Robbie, Charley and I wandered part of the city and met up with some of Robbie’s friends. Charley was frisky and a real charmer. Everyone stopped to pet him or to give him a hug, and receive a few wet, slobbery puppy licks.
On the second day we drove to Independence Square. People kept stopping to admire Charley, and there were even a couple of photo ops: one, with a group of Chinese sightseers outside Independence Hall, and another, near the Liberty Bell, with a German family–parents and three small children–who kept picking him up and calling him a gut hund.
“Ah, mein schatzi,” the mother cooed. Charley didn’t seem to mind. (To me, of course, he was, and is, a wunder hund.)
We once stayed at a waterfront, dog-friendly motel in Rockport, Massachusetts, on Cape Ann. I had only to open the door to the room and let Charley out on the rear deck. He was soon down at the beach, sniffing around with the other canine tourists, running through the sand, and every so often, looking up to see if I was watching, to see if I approved.
It was late April, and the evenings were mild, so we walked far down the beach together. He walked through town with me, too, and I tied his leash to a post or rail when I wanted to pop into an art gallery or boutique. He didn’t especially like that, but not many shopkeepers, there or elsewhere, are tolerant of a 90-pound, bulky, furry dog roaming through their merchandise.
Charley and I have been walking the streets of our east end villages for most of the 10 years I have had him. It’s never been safe to walk him on the street where we live because of the traffic and speeding cars, so I’ve driven him to East Hampton, Sag Harbor, Southampton, Montauk–whatever village we happen to wind up in during our daily round of chores.
I keep him leashed, of course. He wants to sniff around other dogs, whether or not they or their owners want him to, which has led to more than one arm sprain as I tugged him away. Then there’s his hunting instinct, especially for squirrels. He will pull away, break loose from my grip, to chase a squirrel.
Sometimes we go to the beach – to Maidstone Park, especially, where I can walk the nicely paved perimeter of the park and Charley can go unleashed, leaping through the brush and tall grasses, speeding along the sand, and sitting down in the water. This is a dog that does not swim; he sits down in the water and soaks himself, much the way my grandmother used to do at the beach when I was growing up.
I take him to Main Beach sometimes, but have learned not to take him far into the area east of Main Beach, where the Sea Spray cottages are. When we walk through there, he finds the marshy area opposite the cottages and sloshes through it. He comes out smelling like decayed fish, stinking weeds, and putrid water. Then I have to take him home in the car after just a quick toweling. Yuck.
Our winters are usually harsh and cold, so there are many days when Charley and I simply cannot go on our daily workout. Not that he dislikes very cold weather the way I do. He’s a mountain dog, after all, and is quite content to perch outside on the bench-seat deck railing, in single-digit degree weather, and to roam frozen ground in our large, fenced yard
Our neighbors are used to hearing him howl like a wolf whenever he hears sirens. Winter or summer, day or night, Charley’s on patrol, as if the police and fire sirens aren’t loud enough.
“Want to go for a walk, Charley? Get in the car.” His big bushy tail wags from the moment he hears the word “car” and he runs to the door. He rides with me, in my smaller, less colorful version of Steinbeck’s Rocinante, nearly every day, for short trips and long. He knows our beaches and streets, our fields and wooded trails, and because of him, I’ve gotten to know them well myself. He seems to have a great sense of where we’re headed. When we do drive off on a different road – or onto one that leads to a place he particularly loves – Charley paces back and forth in the rear of my sedan, or jumps up into the front seat next to me, panting and whining, ready for new adventures.
He stretches out on the floor now and closes his eyes, weary from our latest long walk in the village. He’s finished his dinner, which, as he ages, he will only eat if everyone stays out of the kitchen until he’s done. He’s soon snoring and, to borrow from Steinbeck’s “Charley”: “His legs jerked in the motions of running and he made little yipping cries. Perhaps he dreamed he chased some gigantic rabbit and couldn’t quite catch it? Or maybe in his dream something chased him.” and makes strange, yelping noises in his sleep.
Is that a smile I see now? Is Charley dreaming of tomorrow, and of the day after that? Is he wondering where we we’ll travel next? We’ll take a trip to the North Fork this week; drive past Steinbeck’s old home in Sag Harbor, take the South Ferry, cross Shelter Island to the other ferry, then drive west from Greenport, making many stops along the way. Charley will like that.