It was drizzling as we came up the hill, but we felt buoyant. We were heading into Ashland, Oregon for our first day off in 11 days.
And then we saw him: a dog.
At first glance, we couldn’t tell if he was friendly or grumpy.
His head was lowered and he was standing in the middle of the trail. Either he was lost or blocking the way.
I held out my hand to give him a sniff.
He obliged and then I scratched behind his ear.
He greeted Jake, as well, looking forlorn.
He had the coat of a mutt but a collar told us he must have a home.
We looked around. Although that section of the trail was close to Interstate 5, we couldn’t see any houses nearby.
“Hello? Has anyone lost a dog?”
No one replied.
“Do you think he’s thirsty?” Jake asked.
We had filled up on too much water at a spring 12 miles back.
I grabbed my titanium dinner cup from the back pocket of my backpack, and Jake filled it with water. The dog sniffed the cup. He didn’t need water.
“Too bad we don’t have any food!” I said.
The dog wasn’t skinny but had the look of a someone looking for a snack.
Unfortunately, we had nothing left.
I had eaten my last Snickers bar (not really suitable dog food anyway) a couple of hours before. Jake has shared some of his last Snickers with me at lunch. All that we had in our food bags were empty ziplocks and trash.
It was about 4 pm. We were in the last miles of a 25-mile day. We were heading toward a side trail that would take us to a lodge and restaurant and freeway to Ashland.
So we walked on. The dog took a few steps in our direction. We hiked on and he ran to catch up.
Oh, well, I thought, we have a new friend.
Every so often, he stopped to mark territory, giving the impression he was familiar with the territory. Sometimes he even walked in front of us as if he were showing us the way.
We rounded the corner onto the side trail down the lodge and the freeway that would take us to Ashland. I was sure he would head back then. I looked back. He paused but continued following us.
The side trail sloped down steeply. At one point I felt a weight fall against my leg.
“Oh! He fell down!” I cried.
The dog’s legs had given out on the steep terrain and he had slid into my leg and trekking poles.
I started to worry. What are we going to do if we can’t find his owner? Big sections of the trail have bans on dogs. We knew a hiker who had a service dog, but that took paperwork and lots to training. I ran a few scenarios through my mind — none of them favorable. Then I put it out of my mind. “The trail provides.” The refrain I’ve heard so often since we started this hike flashed through my mind. A solution will present itself, I thought. I just don’t know what it is yet.
Within seconds, the dog was back on his feet again. We crossed a set of railroad tracks and had to redouble our steps as we momentarily followed the wrong trail. Through it all, man’s best bud trotted along behind us. I wondered if he, too, was imagining a new direction — abandoning his home for a life on the road with two homeless travelers. And then I remembered: he was a canine. He probably just thought we were going to feed him.
Finally we reached the road, which was really the off ramp of the I-5. We crossed it in the rain. And only here, the dog hesitated. There weren’t any cars but he seemed afraid of the road.
Eventually he mustered up the courage. And it was at that point I heard a car’s breaks.
I stopped in fear for this dog we had met only 30 minutes before. He had followed us. I felt responsible for him.
I whipped around.
The dog was ok. The car’s driver was leaning out the window.
“Bennie!” shouted the driver. “What are you doing down here?”
The dog turned toward him.
The driver knows him!
I walked back toward the white SUV.
“Are you his owner?” I asked.
“I’m the neighbor of his owner,” the driver told me.
“We found him up on the PCT,” I told the driver. “He followed us down.”
“Their property is near there,” the man said, already helping the dog into the backseat of his car next to his small child in a car seat.
It all happened so fast. The dog was found fortuitously — right as we were heading to the lodge and road that would take us to Ashland.
Jake and I looked at each other in disbelief.
The trail provides was all I could think.