Lou-Lou and I spent three weeks at my cousin apartment in Austin. Lou-Lou couldn’t go outside because she didn’t have all her vaccinations yet. I carpeted the apartment with puppy pads, but Lou-Lou seemed to actively avoid them. I was constantly wiping the floor and apologizing to my cousin who didn’t mind at all.
I wasn’t keen on the name Lou-Lou. The adoption center had given it to her.
For a day or two I was between Philly and Savannah. The name Philly reminded me of home and I liked the tribute to the city, but the name itself didn’t feel right rolling off my tongue. The Ph- sound was too soft, like I’d be tossing a hacky sack against a wall each time I called her.
I hesitated on the name Savannah. I read somewhere that dogs responded best to names consisting of two syllables – Savannah had three. The name Savannah felt right though. The landscape was the same color as Lou-Lou’s coat and Savannah the city had been one of my favorite places.
So Savannah won out.
I bathed her frequently and always came away with bloody claw marks on my chest. Savannah hated the water. She either clung to me for dear life or I had to battle to keep her from escaping the tub.
In due course her mange receded and her hair grew back.
Once Savannah received all her vaccinations I decided we would walk home from the vet. The distance from the vet to my cousin’s apartment was roughly four miles of trail through a forest. However, to get to the forest we needed to cross a highway and a bridge.
Since she was hesitant on a leash, I carried Savannah over the highway then set her on the bridge walkway. Cars zipped by. Savannah panicked, her eyes darting around as though on a bad trip. She backed herself against the fence. I imagined she was having some serious flashbacks to being stuck and terrified on the highway with her sister.
I went to pick her up and she jumped into my arms like a monkey. I carried her into the forest until we could no longer hear the traffic.
For about a week we practiced walking together in the forest. After a few days she was walking a full hour with me. I would have liked to keep her in Austin for a few more weeks to get her road-worthy, but there was a schedule to keep and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome.
My cousin and her husband dropped Savannah and I just south of Houston. I felt a deep sadness leaving them. It had been so comfortable. There were always interesting things to do and interesting conversations to be had. Now I was breaking off again, to alone in the great world.
And looking down to Savannah inspired no confidence. A car had driven by a minute before and Savannah was still wrapped with dread.
I reorganize the things in my cart; moving my camera, battery pack, and dog food from the back basket and stuffing them up front. The front swelled like a blister, but the back basket was open and Savannah fit neatly inside. She could even curl up and sleep.
The cart caved a bit with the additional fifteen pounds. She’d have to get walking eventually, but my hope was by her hearing the cars driving by she would desensitize to them.
For the next few days Savannah was almost always in the cart. I couldn’t get her to walk more than a couple feet beside the road. It was driving me mad. We’d stop and for an hour I’d goad her with beef jerky and pats on the head, but we’d move maybe a hundred feet.
I was supposed to be walking twenty miles a day and instead I was barely covering fifteen. When she dropped against the ground I’d scream at the sky with frustration. Her fear of cars seemed so profound I couldn’t imagine how it would possibly get better.
A week after Houston I sat on a church porch rubbing my fists into my temples. I was in a town consisting of eight tilted houses, overgrown lots, a train track, and a trailer for a post office. An old highway followed the train tracks while a new four lane highway curved around the town like a bubble. The town was only something to pass over and I was feeling much the same.
Every morning since Houston I woke just to stare at the inside of my tent. I’d lay there wondering what the hell I was doing. I’d think how I left the people I loved to be broke and alone in the middle of nowhere. Walking a single mile seemed to take hours. Finding somewhere to sit and stare was the only thing I looked forward to.
Adding to my funk was the pressure of getting used to Savannah.
When we stopped she was a happy. Her tail was always wagging, she pawed at leaves and ran circles around them as though they were the most expensive toy on the market. At night she climbed into the tent with me. In the morning she’d move her head right beside mine and wait until I stirred.
I didn’t feel anything but responsibility for her though. I watched her passively, more observant than interested. When she nestled up to me I pet her and when she sneezed I laughed, but I felt no need to hug her. I hadn’t adopted her for the companionship so I didn’t look for it. She was there to be a protector and at the moment she was largely incapable of that.
In the little passover town on the front porch of the church I called my mom in need to speak to someone.
Savannah was sniffing around the bushes, still a bit mangy looking, but because her hair was still thin at points and stuck about wildly where it was thicker. Her little teeth were like the seashell fragments found on the beach.
“I think I’ve made a mistake,” I told my mom.
“I can’t get her to walk more than five minutes. She’s scared to death of cars. She hates the leash. I practically have to pull her when she has her leash on. Then when I pull even a little bit she drops into the grass and refused to get up. I’m not doing any mileage. I’m just spending all day battling her.”
“She’s just a puppy.”
“You knew what you were getting into when you adopted her. She’s going to need some training. You can’t expect her to be leash trained in a few days when she’s never been walked on a leash before. ”
“I didn’t think she’d be this stubborn.”
“You have to change your focus. Right now you can’t worry about the mileage. Concentrate on getting her trained and worry about the mileage later. You have plenty of time to walk, but make sure Savannah is ready. She’s going to outgrow the cart soon.”
Savannah trotted up the steps, paused, and scratched at paint chipping on the porch. I watched her indifferently. It almost felt like I hadn’t adopted her. She’d been a calculation – I’d care for her and she’d give me protection.
My calculation might have been wrong though, maybe the extra effort far outweighed the protection.
“Change your focus,” my mom repeated. “She’ll come around. Just get her moving a little more each day.”
She was right, of course, I was focusing on the wrong thing. I had no right to expect so much of Savannah her first week on the road.
The next morning I spent an hour walking Savannah in circles on the weedy streets of the defunct town, patiently waiting while she refused to move, then praising her lavishly when she decided to come along. I used up all the beef jerky in no time.
With a successful morning lesson under our belts I put Savannah in the back basket of the cart and got walking. I felt much better. Savannah curled up and fell asleep.
A few hours later I took Savannah from the cart and spent another hour with her on the leash. She didn’t walk very far, but if I looked for it I could see progress.
Savannah’s stamina grew exponentially. She was walking two miles a day, then four, then eight, then fifteen. By the Mexican border we were walking twenty-four miles a day together. The back basket of my cart was packed with things again. When Savannah wanted a rest she tugged me towards some shade.
Before crossing into Mexico I got every possible vaccination and certificate for Savannah. Websites made it seem like crossing any border with a dog would be equivalent to sieging a castle, but after all the money and running around I did the Mexican border guards didn’t even acknowledge her. We strolled into Mexico without pause.
The border city of Reynosa was a hectic, dusty place almost entirely free of sidewalk. Savannah and I had yet to navigate such a chaotic place. From the border the streets shrunk and the buildings closed in. I shortened her leash and kept her near my side.
The dogs weren’t friendly like in the U.S. The dogs south of the border served a different purpose. Rather than being sociable, an extension of the family, the dogs were often left outside and defended their plot of earth bearing their teeth.
They caught Savannah and I off guard. A white pit made for Savannah and when I kicked him back he tried for my foot.
After that Savannah walked with her tail between her legs and I walked full of adrenaline.
We wove inefficiently through the narrow streets, maneuvering around rusted out cars and making wide arches around the street dogs. Savannah darted when a dog moved towards her, only being stopped when the leash caught.
Our entrance into Mexico wasn’t a welcoming one.
But we made it through and beyond the border things were calmer.
We passed through other cities and the more time Savannah and I spent together the more in sync we became. Within a month Savannah knew when we were in a city to stay beside my leg and follow my movements to the inch. She no longer darted at new dogs but pressed against me instead.
I was strict with Savannah in the cities because I needed to be. City dogs knew when to wait and when to make a run across the street, Savannah hadn’t developed that skill. She wasn’t a city dog and I wasn’t going to take the chance of her learning any irreversible lessons. There was no room for error amid the chaos. We passed dead dogs everyday.
When we were in the countryside things were different. She had a full leash to explore while we walked and off the leash whenever we took a break.
Once she started growing, she grew fast. A couple months into Mexico and she was no longer the puppy I adopted. She was taller, wider, filled out and muscular. Her eyes shone brightly all the time. She was full of life, even after a full day of walking she explored the area around our campground with fervor.
When it rained Savannah was happiest. Her tailed wagged and she hopped around while walking. We did good mileage in the rain. We could only stop if we came to an overpass or a restaurant, but those were rare. At night, after a day in the rain, I’d pull her in the tent and dry her off. Then I’d drape my jacket over her to keep her warm.
Those were good nights. I realized somewhere in those hours that I didn’t need Savannah, but I was glad to have her. Sometimes I’d watch her chest rising and falling then reach out just to put a hand on her.
A year later, I dropped out of the car with Savannah in my arms. Two Chilean police officers and a group of people waiting at a bus stop stared as I put Savannah on the ground and kept her chin up. Her face was stained with blood and my arms were covered. After forty-five minutes her nosebleed had slowed substantially, but it hadn’t stopped. The desert sun cast long shadows. I had increasing doubts that’d we’d find a vet before it closed.
The Chileans that drove us out of the desert had taken us to Huara, a town surrounded by desert and only visible when fully zoom in on Google Maps. One of the Chilean men hustled to a police officer leaning against the wall of his control point. The police officer seemed utterly uninterested in everything happening around him. I couldn’t hear him, but I could see he was speaking as though he were in a rocking chair on a Sunday evening. He’d be of no help.
The Chilean helping me returned from the officer.
“He said there’s a vet in town.”
“Great.” I scooped up Savannah. “Let’s go.”
“Alright.” The Chilean man, marijuana leaves on his shirt and hat, nodded and slapped me on the shoulder. He was enjoying the purpose.
I was glad he was enjoying himself, but could find no pleasure in the moment.
“Let’s go!” he said to the other Chileans we’d driven with.
We piled back in, me and Savannah in the back. I doubted there was a vet. The town as too small, a good slingshot would throw a rock one end to the other easily.
We wove through some back streets, trundling off the concrete and onto dirt. We asked for directions, then came to a corrugated aluminum door. Savannah and I dropped out once again and waited in the shade of a tree.
“This is it?” I asked. The aluminum door could be broken down by one swift kick and there was obviously nothing behind it but more dirt and car parts. The Chileans helping me banged on the door. When no one answered jumped to see through the cracks.
“There’s no one here.”
“You’re sure this is it?”
The man in the marijuana hat nodded. The other two Chilean men were unstrapping my cart. “You’ll be alright here for the night.”
I stood thinking for a moment. A thousand potential paths branched ahead of me. Within fractions of a second I sent tendrils down each path, a relay of logic and odds unfurling, attempting to find the optimal way to get Savannah to a vet in our less than optimal situation.
Ten minutes down the road was Pozo Almonte, a town much bigger than Huara. Towards the coast was a city, Iquique, where there’d be vets but where the vets would be closed by the time we got there. And Savannah was still bleeding.
“Can you take me to Pozo Almonte?” I asked.
The Chilean hesitated. My cart was already unstrapped. They were headed towards the coast, not towards Pozo Almonte. The determination that had been in the Chilean’s eyes wasn’t there anymore. He thought a resolution was reached, that I was good where we were, on the back streets of some pinprick of a town.
But the resolution wasn’t reached. I couldn’t waste time in Huara finding a ride to a bigger city. A bus wouldn’t take me and Savannah and finding a cab or another car that would accept a hemorrhaging dog was a fat chance.
“Please,” I begged. “We can’t stay here. That’s not a vet. There’s not even a place for us to stay. There aren’t any hotels here.”
The sun was touching the horizon now. The Chilean turned back to his friends standing on either side of the SUV. “We’re going to Pozo,” he said.
I put my hands together in prayer. “Thank you, thank you.”
“Don’t worry, my friend.” Adventure had returned to his eyes, the Chilean patted me on the shoulder once more.
I grabbed Savannah and jumped in the back of the car. She was utterly drained. She gave way in my arms like a pile of clothes. Looking down at Savannah I felt a dormant rage. Something like a well of passion had grown in me for her and until that moment I hadn’t even realized it was there. The well was deep, plumbing the depths of who I was.
I knew looking into the well that I’d do everything necessary to protect her. If it cost me my bank account, if I had to block traffic until we found a ride to a vet, there was a profundity of emotion to draw on.