Not since the first day I met each of my dogs when I drove them home to Virginia from Illinois — Winnie as a pup during Hurricane Ike, and Finn as a 3-year-old a few years later — have I asked them to join me on a longer journey. And they have never been away from home for an entire week. But months of planning, preparation and waiting were behind us, the truck was packed, and we were ready to go. The plan was two nights of roughing it, camping in a couple of Virginia’s state parks, then a few nights in a fantastic cabin in Bristol, Tennessee. Fall foliage, crisp air, fishing, exploring, relaxing, recharging. But it’s funny, you put two dogs in the back seat of the truck and they don’t know if they’re going to 7-11 or Montana. All road trips start exactly the same to them. So I felt the weight of the responsibility. Obviously they need me to take care of them, to provide for them, to not put them in danger and to not do anything stupid.
Our first stop was a lakefront campsite in Virginia’s Douthat State Park. The forecast was for a very cold night, and I’m not a very experienced camper. I got plenty of firewood, warm clothes for me, Winnie’s winter coat and two warm sleeping bags zipped together. We set up camp, fished a little in the stocked lake there, went for a hike, took pictures, lit a fire, cooked, ate, opened a beer and relaxed. But as soon as the sun set, the cold pushed down from the cloudless sky, and I wanted to get settled while we were all still warm from the fire. We all got in the sleeping bag and I just waited for the temperature to drop. I did not have to wait long, and only slept in fits and starts. I kept checking Winnie, who is more sensitive to cold than Finn. She wore her coat in the sleeping bag at my feet and seemed plenty warm. During the night, however, Finn hooked a leg outside the sleeping bag and as he moved, the bag unzipped. His restlessness woke me up and when I figured out what happened, I could feel cold air just pouring in on him. I got him zipped back up and we slept a little bit, but by 5 a.m., we had all had enough. The inside of the tent was covered in ice, and all the warmth saved in the sleeping bag was gone the instant I unzipped it. After a quick and cold bathroom break (it was 20 degrees), I turned on the truck, put the dogs in the back seat and turned on the heat. After a while we ate some breakfast to warm us up. I sat there between them as they ate and their tails wagged as I talked to them. We had made it through a pretty uncomfortable night, but we were all fine. I felt the temperature dip a bit, as it always seems to before dawn, and I looked up to see more stars than I can ever remember seeing in my entire life.
The plan for the next night was to camp at an even higher elevation with a similar forecast, setting up a tent that is now lined with ice, over a wet sleeping bag and air mattress. We held a team meeting and decided we would not do that. Instead, we would push farther southwest, go for an afternoon hike, and find a warm place to stay that night. We hiked to the Great Channels of Virginia, a vigorous, 6 mile out-and-back with a big elevation gain, beautiful and well maintained trails through steep and rugged terrain, and a hand written sign on a kiosk at the entrance announcing bears had been seen in the area. Every blind curve in the trail had the potential of surprising a bear, so I talked to the dogs the whole time to make some extra noise in the wind. They must have been thinking, “has he lost his mind? Yeah, we get it, we’re good dogs. We heard you the first four hundred times.” It’s also archery season there, so my deer colored dogs tried out the Ruffwear Track Jackets I ordered especially for this trip. I am really impressed with them. Walking, climbing, running, shaking, leash, no leash…these vests never budged from their intended position.
After that first frigid night, somewhere between two and four hours of sleep and a strenuous hike, all three of us were pretty happy to cancel our camping reservation near Mt. Rogers and camp at the Days Inn Bristol, VA instead.
The next day we stopped and talked to the fine folks at Mountain Sports Ltd. I wanted to see some beautiful scenery but none of us were in the mood for a big hike that day. The staff there recommended a pretty stretch of the Virginia Creeper Trail near Damascus, VA. What a gem this trail is, 35 miles of former railroad bed transformed into a trail for hiking, biking and horseback riding.
There are definitely trout in the beautiful Whitetop Laurel River that parallels the Creeper Trail, but I had my hands full with the dogs, camera and tripod so I didn’t bother trying to fish.
With the exception of the first night being twenty degrees colder than I was really prepared for, the weather the entire week was simply spectacular. Fall foliage was stunning everywhere I went.
Speaking of the Days Inn Bristol and Mountain Sports, Ltd., where the dogs were welcomed, I want to acknowledge the other establishments along the way and in Bristol, Virginia and Tennessee that welcomed the three of us. Starting on the top left, Shenandoah Valley Brewing Co., Staunton, VA; Queen City Brewing, Staunton, VA; Redbeard Brewing Co., Staunton, VA; Burger Bar, Bristol, VA; Holston River Brewing Co., Bristol, TN; Bristol Brewery, Bristol, VA; State Line Bar & Grill, Bristol, TN; and the brand new Cabelas, Bristol, VA. I am always very appreciative of businesses that allow and welcome dogs.
Walking around Bristol was fun. It’s a cool town best known as the birthplace of country music. I stopped to admire one of the many murals on the sides of buildings there and the dogs sidled up close to me as they do on city sidewalks. Then Winnie stood on my foot. I include this photo here because I love moments like this, even though I can’t really explain why.
It was time to check in to the cabin where we would be staying for the rest of the week. And oh my, what a cabin it is. I unloaded the truck, spread the tent and sleeping bag out to dry and then we just relaxed. More perfect weather, a few tasty local beers, a great local pizza and an early night made for a perfect evening.
The next day we met Orvis fishing guide Patrick Fulkrod who took us out on the beautiful Watauga River. This was an amazing day that I chronicled in more detail in my previous blog post, Brown Trout, Orange Dogs.
I love my dogs, obviously, but one of the main reasons I genuinely enjoy their company in all sorts of situations is that they are well behaved and under control. We don’t do any formal training anymore, but every day is filled with “teachable moments,” and spending the time required to have dogs that listen and respond to commands is absolutely one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Reflecting on the trip so far, it has been neat to watch how differently they each respond to new situations. Sometimes predictably, sometimes not, but always differently. Finn typically wants to know what is on my mind, what I expect of him, what we are going to do together next, while Winnie is usually off dancing to the beat of a drum only she can hear.
The cabin at dusk. Shortly before this photo, I was leaning on the tailgate messing with the timer on my camera when the dogs barked. I had been seeing deer all day so I didn’t give it much thought, and just told them to stay. When I looked up, just off to the right of the chairs in this photo was a Momma black bear and two cubs. The dogs had never seen bears before, and even I was impressed that they stayed. But, safety first, if you haven’t gathered yet by now, so I put them in the back seat of the truck, quickly went back to the camera and tried to get a photo. But it was too late. Literally every setting on the camera was wrong — manual focus, timer, long exposure, low ISO — so I just watched as the mother turned back toward the woods and left, cubs scampering quickly behind. It was exhilerating to see them so close, and another proud moment of dog ownership.
I didn’t get to fish the South Holston on this trip, but before we hit the road home I walked down to take a photo in the morning mist. Next time, SoHo.
We had all day to get home, so when I saw a sign for Hungry Mother State Park, a park I’ve heard a lot about, I decided to swing through and check it out. It. Is. Stunning. What a beautiful, serene lake. I really want to come back here with the kayak and camp for a few nights.
Still feeling like we were approaching the end of the vacation too quickly, I detoured off the mundane, terrible Rt. 81 and enjoyed a stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway from about Roanoke to Lexington. My God, the foliage was astounding. The best I have ever seen in Virginia, in fact.
But it’s a good life, I think, when home calls as strongly as the beautiful new places we discover, and we were all anxious to get there. Back on the highway, I put the windows up and the hammer down. I turned music on for the first time in over 300 miles, never having noticed its absence. And from the back seat, dogs smelling of wood smoke snored, and dreamt their very different dreams together.