A couple years ago I walked around a festival in Richmond with my friend Jay and my dog, Finn. We had all run together in a mud run/5K thing and were enjoying post-race beers and people watching. I started noticing it for the first time then, that people gravitated toward Finn. Sometimes seemingly without knowing it, they would veer slightly as they walked toward us, close enough to absently run fingers down his back as they passed, or they would rest a hand on his head as he stood next to them in a beer line. He was popular, and countless people asked about him or complimented him, but these subtle gestures were somehow more special.
At a local festival this spring, a young girl with Down Syndrome knelt in front of Finn in the grass. He sat quietly as she hugged him and whispered to him for a long while, finally separating and yelling to her Mother, “Mommy this dog loves me!” She spoke the truth.
This summer the young son of a friend met Finn out in public and put his hands on the sides of Finn’s head and said quietly, not for me to hear but just for Finn, “I love you, too.”
I am not, despite whatever my presence on social media seems to suggest, a people person. But the more time I spend with this dog, the more I realized how selfish it is for me to keep him all to myself. If ever there was a dog perfectly designed from scratch to be a therapy dog, it is Finn. We studied, we took the test, we filed the paperwork, and Finn became a therapy dog.
I chose a nearby facility that is already familiar with the therapy dog program we are enrolled in, and today – National Dog Day of all days – was our very first official visit. Half of us was nervous.
The staff could not have been more welcoming, and knowing they were aware this was our first visit put me at ease. I can’t take photos of patients and don’t want to discuss even in vague terms the types of afflictions and disabilities we encountered today, but it warmed my heart to see that dogs are blind to everything but a person’s heart and soul. We visited with ten or twelve residents, and what I saw and heard tonight made me more proud than I can ever remember being of anything my whole life.
He stood quietly as we waited, moved out of the way in hallways and elevators. He sat next to people in wheelchairs and moved closer when they could not reach him. He refused food offered to him despite being inches away from a bowl of fruit. He laid his head down sideways on laps and stayed there for easy petting. He sat still patiently when one woman could barely move her hands enough to rub the back of his neck. He shook hands to the great delight of one resident, who made him repeat the trick for those in the room not paying adequate attention. He filled the room with curiosity and laughter and conversation, about his name, his breed, his handsomeness, his disposition, his eyes. He started people telling stories about dogs in their lives, dogs long gone.
I don’t know what the future holds for me. But if I live far longer than I think I will, and one day find myself in a dining hall like the one I was in today, for the love of God, someone, please, bring me a dog. Bring me a dog that sits still for a pat on the head and reminds me with a nudge when I forget to keep patting. Bring me a dog that leans in my lap and wags his tail with the slightest touch or softest word. Bring me a dog that somehow makes me feel more loved than anyone else in the room, then moves to the next person and makes them feel it too. Bring me a dog that makes me remember what it feels like to share years with the very special dogs that warm my feet and fill my heart this very moment.
Bring me that, and I can go in peace.
I won’t pretend that my 24 hours off the grid this weekend even remotely resembled a backcountry excursion into peril. No, this was camping in comfort with my two best friends, Wirehaired Vizslas Winnie and Finn. It was fly fishing for pond bass, a roaring campfire and ice cold beer. It was a wood fire grilled New York Strip steak at dusk cooked to perfection and big enough to share with the dogs. It was perfect weather, a star filled night and a steady breeze. This was glamping, plain and simple. But even setting up my truck tent on the familiar grounds of my friend’s Rose River Farm puts me far enough away from civilization that I was able to (okay, forced to) disconnect from my phone for a day. And as I get more and more dependent on that connectivity — from constant texts, emails and calls to Googling questions the moment they pop into my head instead of taking the time to sit and ponder a thing — the more value there is in unplugging for a bit.
Speaking of pondering, Winnie immediately took to the pond not to swim and hunt toads and do whatever it is normal dogs do, but to simply stand there. It’s her thing, her zen. She stood here the entire time it took me to set up camp and then for a good hour beyond that. She’ll turn her head toward a rising fish, but has no interest in further investigation. I do not know what’s on her mind, but I figure it can’t be all that different than what’s on mine when I step into a cool stream with a fly rod.
Fly fishing for bass with poppers is a blast when the topwater action is on. And in the evening, it was on. Nothing too big, but lots of splashy fun all around the pond edges. Finn and Winnie watched with great interest. I actually have to keep Finn in a ‘Stay’ a fair distance away from me as he can not be trusted with a fish on the line. If he’s too close, the splashing fish sends him into a crazybananafrenzy and he can not help but dive in after it. (Pro Tip: Make sure you do not have a dog like this before you try kayak fishing with him.)
But the pond will be there all night. It was time to lighten the beer cooler a bit and get the fire started. I don’t think I would have any interest in camping if I couldn’t have a fire. It was through the first wafts of wood smoke that the initial oddness and that dull, background anxiety of not having a cell signal started to feel more like a benefit than an inconvenience. And from that point on I was no longer interested in who was trying to contact me, what was trending on facebook or even what time it was. It was simply time to start a fire and open a beer.
Dogs, like people I suppose, are very routine animals. The whens and wheres of eating and sleeping are a big part of their lives, so I wondered how they would react to a complete changeup on this, their first camping adventure. Turns out they literally could not care less. They ate their dinner around the fire while I grilled my steak, then they shared some of mine. They were comfortable and utterly relaxed the entire evening. After dinner, Winnie fit in some more pond standing time, I did a little night fishing and the beer cooler got lighter still. We watched the stars for a bit, all silently agreed this was a fine way to spend a weekend, and we called it a night.
I mentioned this Napier Outdoors truck tent and Airbedz air mattress in an earlier review and I stand by what I said. Both these products perform extremely well, and it’s just an extraordinarily comfortable setup. The dogs loved stretching out but still being next to me, and we all slept like logs. Until, in the middle of the night, we were awakened by what I would describe as a Blood Curdling Cacophony Of Odd And Terrible Animal Noises. Before I even realized I was awake, the dogs and I were kneeling in front of the side window of the tent, staring into darkness. In the hazy, jittery half sleep that comes with abrupt awakenings, my brain could not make sense of the sounds. Later, in the light of day my brain told me they were coyotes, but the cackling, crying and screaming was definitely not what I thought a pack of coyotes would sound like. The dogs never barked, and I was glad for the low tech brand of radio silence not to give away our location. We went back to sleep easily and awoke at dawn, happy, rested and not surrounded by coyotes.
The agenda for the next morning was to explore Skyline Drive and find a new spot to hike. As we entered Skyline Drive I purchased an annual pass. Shenandoah National Park is one of my favorite places and I happily support it.
Hawksbill Mountain is the highest peak in the entire park. The hike to it, even when taking the longer loop, is only about three miles, with a moderate elevation gain enough to get your heart pumping. With a long drive back home still ahead of us, this looked like a great way to get a little exercise and not keep us out all day.
The overlooks (there are four) along the way are spectacular. And photos are a must at the highest point in Shenandoah National Park.
Coming home from camping trips with my Dad as a kid, we always stopped at Whitey’s, a North Arlington, VA mainstay with a big sign out front that read: EAT. It was just a few miles from home, but my Dad always stopped there no matter the time of day or night. He would have a Budweiser in one of those thick, heavy, frosted mugs, and I’d have an identical mug of A&W root beer. We would order burgers. Back in the day, Whitey himself was sometimes there in the last booth along the wall, under the deer mount with Christmas lights on the antlers. My Dad would pretend to calculate how much grief my Mom would give him for keeping me out late on a school night, then order us another round. We would, each in our own way, embrace those little extensions of our weekend. Done with fishing and camping and canoeing and sunburn and mosquito bites, done with cleaning and loading and securing and double checking it all, but not quite ready to be home. It’s there, it’s close. But not yet. On this camping trip, the role of Whitey’s was played by Shawn’s Smokehouse BBQ in Culpeper. This time my mug was filled with Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager, and while I ate every bite of my pulled pork sandwich, the mac and cheese was split three ways.
But delaying the trip home doesn’t mean you don’t like home. It just means you found something special while you were away, even for just a day. And if you take the time to reflect on it a little more, maybe you’ll remember it better. Or bring a bit of what you found home with you. So we ate slowly, savoring the last morsels of our first camping trip together. And when the time was right we headed north, with full bellies, full hearts, and all the windows down.
I spotted this bright green caterpillar on my native honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and did some Googling to figure out what it was. I was very excited to learn that it was a Snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis), and some further searching uncovered three more caterpillars. I have seen the adult moths before, but they are extremely fast flyers and very elusive. They, along with wood ducks and a few others, have long been on my list of Things I Wish I Could Photograph.
Unlike the Monarch butterflies I have been hosting and observing, these caterpillars pupate in cocoons on the ground. So I got a container, put some soil in the bottom and added fresh honeysuckle from the host plants for the caterpillars to eat. In a few days they all disappeared underground to make their cocoons.
One by one, the beautiful moths emerged. And while I could observe them inside the container, they were still difficult to photograph. This is the second one and I caught him immediately after he emerged, his wings still pumping full of fluid and unfolding. So I put some milkweed flowers in the container and sure enough he climbed aboard long enough to pose for some photos. This moth has not yet used his wings, those crystal looking scales shed with the first wingbeats and appear clear. But once they learn to fly, they’re gone so fast I can’t even raise the camera to my eye.
This photo of the first of the four shows the clear wings that give this fascinating little creature its name. They are commonly called hummingbird moths, but more closely mimic bumblebees in size and behavior.
The simple little pollinator garden I planted last year to attract and sustain Monarchs has been a constant source of natural wonder in many forms. If you are looking for a beautiful, robust, native plant (in the eastern half of the U.S.) that pollinators love, consider coral honeysuckle. You’ll find that hummingbirds and butterflies love it. And if you happen to notice a large bumblebee drinking nectar, take a closer look. You might have a very interesting visitor.
This fawn stopped by my Audubon At Home Wildlife Sanctuary sign and posed for a photo this morning so I thought it would be a good opportunity to share a little bit about that program.
Natural habitat for native flora and fauna is being steadily diminished by development in high population regions all across the country, and Northern Virginia is certainly no exception. Audubon at Home is a National Audubon Society program that promotes citizen participation in conserving and restoring local natural habitat to help offset the impact of development. Audubon’s Northern Virginia chapter certifies properties as Wildlife Sanctuaries, but it’s really the animals who decide. I am very lucky to live in a place that animals seem to love to begin with, and with some help from volunteer Audubon At Home Ambassadors, with just a few simple changes I have been able to transform my property into a certified haven for birds, butterflies and other beneficial wildlife. I added a small garden with native plants to attract and sustain butterflies, bees and other pollinators, constructed a couple brush piles that provide habitat for all kinds of critters, and transformed a spot of previously mowed lawn back into a natural meadow.
To find out how you can make your home, church, school or business an animal friendly, certified wildlife sanctuary, visit the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia.