A Flying Dog

A good friend and regular reader of this blog, One More Thing to Read, suggested that I revive On the Road but as an edgier version. I appreciate that observation, and it does seem that several posts have something to do with traveling. I’m not sure that I travel all that much, but it seems that when I do, I observe every aspect of my ever-changing environment.

For instance, on a recent flight, I was seated next to a woman whom I considered one of the last people who still makes an effort when traveling. One is so used to seeing travelers emerge from jet-ways looking as rumpled as the clothes in their luggage after a TSA bag search, so I was impressed that she had taken the time to pull herself together.

The flight wasn’t packed, so she opted to put her carry-on bag under the middle seat in front of us. I was already focused on a re-read of The Catcher in the Rye when she sat down. Reading a real book with actual pages to turn provides me the opportunity to mind my own business the moment my seatbelt is fastened without having to wait until the captain has reached the proper altitude for electronic gadgets.

Let me be clear: I say that I have the opportunity to mind my own business. That doesn’t mean I do.

I was involved in the antics of Holden Caulfield, so it wasn’t until I heard the first muffled bark that I realized the carry-on at my feet was indeed moving on its own. Earlier, I thought I had seen movement in my peripheral vision, and I was relieved to know that the bag wasn’t haunted. It was merely possessed.

The anxious Yorkie in the bag had let out a muted cry, and its owner reacted with such surreptitious attention that I was under the impression that she’d smuggled the little dog aboard. As she glanced around her in all directions, the woman projected the nervous demeanor of someone who has just shoplifted something sparkly from TJ Maxx, and based on the bling in her blouse, I suspected she was familiar with the store.

My seat-mate frequently bent over to get her head close to the bag, and it seemed to me that she was having difficulty letting the dog relax and settle down. From the corner of my eye, I watched as she constantly opened the pet carrier to speak to the dog. She would pull out some kibble, offer it to the poor little thing, and then she would grab its head and shove it back in like it had been naughty. The severity of her shoving may not have seemed such a big deal to her, but from where I sat, it looked like she was trying to un-deliver a baby. She struggled to zip the bag after each discourse, causing me wonder why she would continually open it if it was so much trouble to shove the dog back inside.

I looked up for a second to give my eyes a break from reading, and I saw the Yorkie ram its head through the small opening where the two zippers didn’t quite meet. Aha! The dog was unzipping the bag, but its owner had not thought ahead to put something through the holes in the zipper handles to keep them from separating. Even if she didn’t have a lock, surely she had a safety pin or even a paperclip.

Finally we were cleared for takeoff, and she shoved her pooch under the seat after giving it a final pre-flight lecture. This lasted so long that she missed the entire speech on safety belts and oxygen masks. The flight was just commencing, but I was curious as to how our trip was going to turn out. On the first leg, I’d shared a seat with a very interesting woman who had once lived near the Grand Canyon. We talked of the Southwest’s scenic topography, and we exchanged stories about the cuisine of her native New Mexico. I didn’t hold out much hope that any conversation with the Dog Whisperer would be as interesting since she was preoccupied with keeping her cantankerous cargo under control.

Because the flight was not full, and there were no assigned seats, her husband had opted to sit across the aisle. On a 95-degree day in both our departure and arrival cities, he spent the entire fight wearing a corduroy jacket and a facial mask as though the cabin air was cold and poisonous. I had yet to hear about MERS, and SARS had not been en vogue for over eight years, but he was afraid of something. I considered the possibility that pet dander had forced him into a seat across from his wife, but I assume he lives with the dog and was able to tolerate any possible allergens. Judging by his rare attempt to communicate with his wife across the aisle, I wondered if the mask’s purpose was to separate himself from a woman who had clearly insisted on bringing her dog against his will and better judgment.

When you travel alone, you never know who will end up seated next to you on a plane.

When you travel alone, you never know who will end up seated next to you on a plane.

I had gotten a quick look at my seat-mate as she made her way toward me, and she looked about 45. By comparison, the husband looked significantly older, which made me think the woman was a trophy wife.

After all her struggling and fidgeting, my reading material was less interesting as I repositioned myself in order to get a better look at the situation. We were not in the air very long when I noticed that she had taken off her shoes and had brought her legs up so that she could sit on them. I couldn’t miss the fact that they were plastered in bandaids. Was she treating blisters or preventing them? And those were not her only feet issues, as she had prominent lumps on both. The sort of lumps one gets from having worn the wrong shoes for decades, and the bandaids were a sign that she had not yet learned her lesson. In comfort mode, however, she had shown herself as the type of person who kicks off her shoes at the drop of a hat.

I’ve become even more germ conscious in recent years, and my imagination runs rampant when I think of the surfaces we walk on while wearing shoes. Just getting from your home to the airport, you’ve walked on the sidewalk at the terminal, across the floor, into a public restroom, across even more floor and then onto a plane. Add to that, shuttle buses, taxis and urban landscapes, and then multiply those exposures by the millions of other people who fly on a single day. The floor of an airplane, then, is a bacterial brew.

I cannot believe a single person thinks that the cabin floor somehow gets cleaned every night. They’re not shampooing those carpets when the crew leaves, and even when they do clean the carpet, you can be sure they’re not using antiseptic. If you’ve noticed that your tray table, when in the unlocked position, has something sticky on it when you take that first flight of a morning, you must accept that cleaning the floor isn’t even an afterthought. Keep your shoes on; especially if you have such pronounced lumps that could hang a jacket.

Coiled up with legs under her, my seatmate fidgeted as we flew over Arizona and New Mexico. The dog continued to unzip the carrier from time to time, and its owner continued to scold it as if the poor thing might suddenly comprehend English. I decided to say something.

“If it makes it easier on you, feel free to bring the carrier up to the seat. Perhaps your dog will relax if it’s seated next to you.”

“Oh!” she replied. “I can’t do that. They won’t let me.”

Her husband looked over and lifted up his mask in order to communicate. She told him that I had made an offer, but she couldn’t accept. He nodded toward me to acknowledge that they had been through this before, and there was nothing to be done. The dog’s restlessness didn’t bother me at all, but it was stressing my seat-mate. I felt that we’d all have a better flight if she could sit still.

Her excessive movement was causing her to get hot, so she pulled off her sparkly blouse to uncover a revealing halter-top. In California, we get anti-tobacco commercials, and they have shown to a generation the effects of long-term cigarette smoking. If only someone would form a campaign that shows the results of damaging sun exposure, we could change the look of senior citizens within our lifetime. The poor woman’s shoulders looked like the forearms of a redheaded farmer.

I couldn’t help myself, but I had to get another look at her face. I would have guessed somewhere between 40 and 45, but considering those arms and working my gaze down to those tragic feet, I calculated 11.7 years for every foot of her length. My hat is off to whoever worked on her face since she had barely a wrinkle or a blemish for someone so thin and sunbaked.

I ate my little bag of peanuts and returned to reading. The dog finally settled down, and I assumed it had gotten bored and decided to take a nap. It wasn’t until I looked up again to hand my trash to the flight attendant that I noticed my seatmate’s splayed position. Her left knee was pulled up to her chin, and her heel was barely preventing this foot from sliding off the seat. At a glance, it appeared that she had extended her right leg at a 45-degree angle. If she were trying to maintain some level of in-flight flexibility, she was succeeding.

Then I realized that her right foot was inside the pet carrier. If the dog was still inside it and awake, what was it doing? I felt like I was suppressing laughter in church. She was a shorter woman with smallish feet, and the pet carrier made it look as though she was wearing a cast boot the size of a small sleigh. For all her attempts to look elegant, she had failed. Her husband looked over and rolled his eyes as he turned away. I could only imagine the exchange before she won the argument to bring the pooch, but he was saying nothing while thinking, “I told you so.”

© 2014 by Patrick Brown

Nature Calls

I’ve just returned from a period of rejuvenation. Every so often I have the opportunity to visit an undisclosed location. I say it’s undisclosed because I want to keep this secret for as long as I can before the owners open it as a bed-and-breakfast. In addition to the main house, there is a fully loaded one-bedroom guest cabin where I stay. There are trees everywhere, and the only sounds are the birds, wind chimes and the occasional sound of music emanating from the main house. Occasionally, you hear the wind in the trees, but the weather is usually calm and a campfire burns continuously without disturbance. There are places to walk, deer to see, pets to be played with and great conversation. The food is amazing, and there is as much interaction as you like, and I like a lot.

Life among the trees.

Life among the trees.

I rarely leave the property during my stay because I want to maintain the feeling that I’m completely isolated from civilization for as long as possible. Civilization can be reached within a few minutes, but I put the world out of my mind when I’m finally away from everything that might trouble me. Paved roads run out miles before you get there, and you have the feeling that if you yelled your head off, the only creatures that could hear you wouldn’t care. Best of all, cell phones are unreliable out there, and I think it’s the last place in the United States where you can’t be reached unless you want to be. (A note to future bed-and-breakfast guests: there is Wi-Fi should you have to post a blog entry or check your flight schedule.)

On my final morning of this self-imposed isolation, I walked a small portion of the 80 acres alone, and I took photographs of the flora and video of the wind blowing through the tops of the trees. I took a walk each of the days I was there, as it helps with clearing one’s head. I cherish the opportunity to take this break from everyday life, but I do have some concerns while I’m in the midst of solitude. Aside from the small number of humans that I saw each day, I was always aware that we were not alone. Nature’s many creatures, wondrous as they are, hover in the shadows of the woods and in the grass.

I’m always on the lookout for snakes. I can’t stand them, and though I’ve never come upon one during any previous visits, I had a strong feeling that I was going to see one on this trip. What makes this particular spot on the planet so beautiful is that no developers have cleared the land and plowed it all under so that they could create a golf course or incorporate non-native plants into the landscape. Since mankind has not harmed the acreage, I hold to a very strong belief that the place is overrun with vipers. I’m so paranoid about snakes that I keep every door and screen latched securely, even if I turn my back for just a second. I look around the inside of the cabin every time I walk in from outside. I act like a security officer making sure the coast is clear because I am determined to avoid walking into the bathroom in the middle of the night and hearing the warning rattle of one of Mother Nature’s most easily agitated creatures.

As it happened, I was alone for most of my final day during this recent visit. After getting through my morning routine, I thought I’d take a walk before lunch and an afternoon of heavy-duty writing, which I’d neglected for two weeks. I emerged from the cabin about 11:00 and took a left turn down the driveway to the property’s entrance. The gate was closed, so there would be no unexpected visitors. The driveway is white gravel now; it used to be red dirt, which disguised a number of possible creatures that like to get sun while remaining camouflaged. With nothing on the path, I stopped here and there to look at the spring blooms and new undergrowth. Once I reached the cabin, I felt that I’d ended my walk too soon, so I headed down the sandy path toward the large barn in a big clearing so that I could turn and take the path leading to a park-like area just before the pond.

A clearing at my favorite undisclosed location. Poco is running across the grass after something that has caught his eye.

A clearing at my favorite undisclosed location. Poco is running across the grass after something that has caught his eye.

I’d seen a family of deer in that spot just two days before, so I waited a while to see if they might return. The wind happened to be blowing, so I decided to take some video of the treetops swaying with their new spring leaves.

After a few minutes with no deer and no visit from Beauty the German Shepherd, I decided to head back. I was starting to get hungry, and I knew that there would be leftover gumbo from the day before. I’d had a lesson in making a dark roux, and I longed to have another serving at the top of the hill.

Beauty, the German Shepherd

Beauty, the German Shepherd

I wasn’t going too fast, but I was walking with a purpose, starting to let my guard down about something crossing my path when, sure enough, a snake had coiled itself in the middle of the trail right where I had walked just a few minutes earlier. When I reported the sighting, I was asked to describe the thing. Honestly, I didn’t pause long enough to make an entry in some non-existent nature journal. Instead, I let out an explicative, jumped to the left as far as I could, hoping that its spouse wasn’t lurking in the tall grass, then I ran up the hill as fast as I could without looking back.

When I was shown photographs of possible snakes like someone going through mugshots to identify a purse-snatcher, I learned  that it was a copperhead. I was told that I was lucky it wasn’t a timber rattler that might’ve chased after me.

Some would tell me that the snake symbolizes change, and that I should accept a visit from this creature as a sign. I agree: a sign to stay inside unless I go walking with someone in front of me and someone behind me.

One thing that occurred to me after this heart-pounding incident is that if I’d been able to get phone service at the undisclosed location, I might’ve been on the phone as I stepped on the thing. The upside to phone service is that I could’ve called 911, but would help have reached me in time?

Furthermore, had I been on the phone with no threat of snakes, I would’ve missed out on the sights, sounds and smells around me that were recharging my batteries. I get very limited time at this place every few years, and I should savor every second. Back in Los Angeles, there are plenty of opportunities for phones and technology. You really have to disconnect from time to time, and I understood that very clearly when I arrived. It took receiving a phone call at the Grand Canyon to wake me up and understand that.

We recently took a trip through Arizona to explore Americana, including Route 66, some ghost towns and the various beautiful spots in that state. We had stretched a day’s drive to Flagstaff into three, and no one had called me for much of that time. However, the night before we reached the Grand Canyon, a call came in from an unknown number. There were no messages after the first two calls, which I ignored, but then there was a message that the party needed to reach me. Because service was spotty in places, the message was choppy and unintelligible. I could tell that they needed me to get back to them so I left a message explaining that my availability was sketchy and they should call back when they could.

At the Grand Canyon, I had taken my phone since it’s also my camera. The phone vibrated in my hands as my arms stretched out to get a slightly better shot of the Colorado River, which had come into view. I suppose that 2:07 in the afternoon was convenient for the caller, but I hadn’t expected to hear from her because we’d heard from locals in Flagstaff and people who worked in the park not to expect service. I’m not one to nervously “check my bars” so I was completely surprised when the call came through.

Instinctively, I answered the phone without consideration of those around me who were there to breathe in the expanse of such an ancient wonder. At the time, I felt the call was important, but Gary gave me a look and shushed me. I couldn’t just cut the conversation off since I’d answered and needed to clear the matter up, so I walked away embarrassed.

On the phone at the Grand Canyon.

On the phone at the Grand Canyon.

“That couldn’t have waited?” he asked. I was finished and walking toward him. I could see that perturbed look on his face. If you can’t be free of the world’s encumbrances at the Grand Canyon, then where?

I like to think I’m good about being considerate of others when I’m on the phone, which is due in part to my dislike of discussing my business for all to hear. That’s why I can’t work in a cubicle or in an office without doors. My private conversations are private, but that day I had forgotten myself at the Grand Canyon of all places.

Sunset at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. There was no way I could be distracted by a phone call while taking in this view.

Sunset at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. There was no way I could be distracted by a phone call while taking in this view.

I know that it’s difficult for most of us to put down our phones and gadgets, but I am one who knows that I need to disconnect when the demands of city living start wearing me down. That said, I’m glad to be home.

©2014 by Patrick Brown