Eighteen hundred miles with Rosie
I never expected to see Rosie again.
We'd said our goodbyes a couple of months before, when she was transferred away from the emergency animal shelter where I'd lived and worked all spring. I helped guide her into a travel kennel, bid her a quick farewell, and watched her go, fully expecting that this was the end of our time together, another brief intersection between the life of a dog and my own, poignant and priceless and quietly beautiful, but ultimately, in the grand scope, pretty unremarkable.
I never expected to see her again. Most of the dogs I work with pass out of my life and into their forevers--families, love, permanent homes--without any coda or epilogue, and I try to feel satisfied knowing that I made them as comfortable as I could during the time we shared together.
But then, here I was, two months after that goodbye, standing in line at the car rental terminal at Seattle airport, pushing a baggage cart loaded with a travel crate with Rosie inside of it, waiting to pick up the midsized SUV in which I would drive the both of us eighteen hundred miles to the south end of Colorado.
Life's funny sometimes.
If I'm perfectly honest, Rosie and I hadn't had the most collegial relationship during our time together at the shelter. A tall, graceful, ten-year-old of indeterminate lineage (some kind of Labrador mix, according to her records), she'd been adopted as a puppy by an American family in Afghanistan, and had lived a happily domesticated life with that family until last summer, when a combination of family health issues and geopolitical upheaval had forced her family to America, and forced Rosie to stay behind in Kabul.
She was a dignified girl, and the shelter life proved challenging for her. Timid from the start, she wasn't quick to trust, allowing only a chosen few volunteers and staff to walk and handle her, and even then, only on her terms. There were many mornings when I would find her barking at the door to her kennel, clearly eager to go outside for a pee, only to have her draw back and show me her teeth when I opened the kennel and showed her a leash.
Sometimes she would acquiesce, and we would venture outside into the parking lot outside of our shelter, and she would do her business--her relief evident--before turning around quickly to hurry back to the safety of her kennel. Sometimes she wouldn't let me touch her, and I would dutifully close her kennel again and leave her in peace, hoping that someone else would have better luck with her.
We'd brought nearly three hundred dogs and cats from Afghanistan, an historic evacuation accomplished by an alliance of rescue organizations from across the globe. Of those 286, there were animals with whom I felt a stronger bond than with the others; though I cared deeply for them all, there were some who I got to know better, who I walked more, maybe, or drove to the vet for appointments, or who simply seemed to share the same vibe as me.
Rosie and I never really had that connection, though we did have our moments. I could see glimpses of the dog she must have been, out of the shelter, not stressed, at peace. I wished I could have seen more of that. And I hoped, fervently, that when she left our shelter she would find her way back to her loving family quickly.
Because that's why she'd come to us. Her family was back in America, but due to bureaucratic restrictions, Rosie wasn't allowed to join them until she'd endured a litany of tests, permit applications, and months' worth of red tape. The process was slow, agonizing. It still wasn't done when Rosie was transferred out of our shelter, more than three months after she'd arrived in Canada.
I figured that someone else would get the job of reuniting her with her loved ones. It would have been nice to have seen the family's face when they saw her, but you don't always get to see the happy endings in rescue. You just have to trust that they're out there, more often than not.
And then, one day in late June, I was asked if I wouldn't mind being that guy, the one who took Rosie home. It seemed it was our job to get her home, after all. The plans were nebulous, hypothetical, but of course I said yes. There is no better feeling than helping reunite a family with the pet they thought they'd lost, and maybe forever. It truly makes all of the tough parts of rescue worthwhile.
And that's how I wound up reuniting with Rosie.
Frankly, the idea of a reunion made me a little nervous. I worried that Rosie and I wouldn't get along, that she would distrust me the same as she had during our time at the shelter, that we wouldn't find a connection. That she would hate me, and snap at me, and destroy my apartment while we waited for clearance to venture across the border.
Still, I was game to try, and it didn't seem like Rosie had many other options. So a group of us trooped out to the outskirts of Vancouver to repatriate her. We invited her favourite volunteer to meet us at my apartment, to help her get settled in--and boy, was Rosie happy to see her.
She and Martha had shared that connection that Rosie and I'd missed; I could see how much Rosie trusted her by how she leaned into Martha's head scratches, how she pawed at Martha and nuzzled whenever Martha turned her attention away. By how she visibly relaxed whenever Martha was around.
But Martha couldn't stay forever. Soon enough, it was just Rosie and me, alone and eying each other warily, her lying on a dog bed by the window, panting a bit from the stress and the heat, and me wondering what I'd gotten myself into.
But we figured it out. The Rosie I'd known at the shelter--anxious, on guard--disappeared fast, once she got her bearings in my place. Once she figured out she was safe.
She still wasn't much for long walks--we'd go a few blocks, sniffing happily, before she'd decide she was done and turn and tug insistently toward home--and she was afraid of the fan and only hesitantly climbed up on the couch, but she loved to be pet and scratched behind the ears, and she met me at my door, tail wagging, whenever I came home to the apartment.
We were beginning to trust each other, slowly but surely. Beginning to make that connection.
And all the while, preparations were being made to get her home. But even at this stage, with the paperwork seemingly in order, there were multiple hoops to jump through, and while Rosie and I got to know each other, folks like Jennifer Skiff at Animal Wellness Action, and Lori Kalef and Alexis Tanner at SPCA International were working tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure the process of getting Rosie into the United States went smoothly, with no chance of failure.
Days went by, a kind of helpless purgatory, as we all waited on the whims of government agencies and disinterested customs brokers. We'd been granted a permit to bring Rosie into America by land, so I tried to plan a driving route from Vancouver to Colorado that would fit the rest of my schedule. It would amount to an approximately 5000km round trip by the most direct route, and though I had some time to spare, I didn't have forever.
But at long last, we received the final clearance. I packed Rosie in my truck and set out for the border--where we were summarily denied entry and told we would have to fly Rosie into Seattle, instead of driving, despite what our permit seemed to indicate.
While I stewed on the Canadian side of the border (and fought to escape being Covid-quarantined for my abortive non-entry into the United States), Lori and Alexis leapt into action. Within an hour, they had a backup plan hammered out, and I had new marching orders. Early the next morning, Rosie and I set out again, this time for the Vancouver airport and a brief, 45-minute flight to Seattle.
(Rosie, it must be said, took this all in stride. Now that she was out of the shelter, she seemed to be growing more comfortable by the day, even while I was asking a lot of her.)
After a chaotic and harried morning check-in at YVR, Rosie and I cleared customs and took flight to Seattle, her in the hold of our Alaska Airlines turboprop, and me comfortably ensconced in an aisle seat. The flight was quick and unremarkable, and we reunited happily in the oversized baggage area at SeaTac, both of us relieved that we'd made it through the flight unscathed.
Now all that remained was the drive, nearly 1800 miles to the very southern end of Colorado. I'd allotted us four days for the journey, and planned a leisurely route through Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Our vehicle was a rental; the agency upgraded us at the desk to a swish Mazda CX-9 with a million creature comforts, including air-conditioned seats, a sunroof, and blind-spot monitoring.
I collected the vehicle, drove Rosie to a park near the airport, cut her loose from her travel kennel and broke the kennel down and set out Rosie's favourite blanket on the backseat of the SUV. For the next four days, she'd be riding in style.
We made a few quick stops for provisions on our way out of Seattle, and then hit the highway for good in the early afternoon. It turned out that Rosie was an accomplished road-trip dog; she sat happily in the backseat and snoozed, sometimes sitting up to look out the window, sometimes poking her head in between the front seats to angle for pets and scratches, which I gladly obliged her.
We made good time that afternoon, crossing the Cascade mountains and speeding across the plains of Eastern Washington to Spokane and then into Idaho under postcard-blue skies. We spent our first night in Sandpoint, in a nondescript highway chain motel with an under-30lbs rule for pets that 60-plus pound Rosie and I pretended not to notice.
It was Saturday, July 2nd, the Fourth of July weekend, and Sandpoint was buzzing. Rosie and I found a brewery down the street from the motel that offered a dog-friendly patio, but with the Independence Day party already raging, and fireworks detonating above us like mortar bombs, Rosie opted to stay in the SUV while I wolfed down a quick veggie burger and a beer before hurrying us back to the motel for the night.
We hit the rack early, though Rosie did take the opportunity to pester me for the attention I hadn't been able to give her while we were driving. We had a good cuddle session, and then we both passed out for the night, too tired to even be bothered by the air conditioning unit in the corner that howled like a diesel engine under heavy load.
We woke early the next morning to rain, and an empty highway eastward into Montana. Our route had us on a winding, scenic two-lane stretch of pavement toward Missoula, and Rosie contented herself with sticking her head out the window and feeling the wind on her face as I navigated the curves.
Once again, we made excellent time, stopping for a quick pee break on the east side of Missoula, and then ducking off of the highway to make an ill-advised crossing of the continental divide on a steep, uneven, muddy track somewhere near Helena.
Trains were the reason for the detour, and we stopped to watch one pass after we'd crossed the divide. Well, I watched the train. Rosie stood at the window and barked at it until it was gone.
We continued eastward, clearing Helena and then Bozeman and Livingstone, Montana, trading thundershowers for brilliant sun and mountain passes for golden plains and back again. That night, we stopped at the Dude Rancher Inn in downtown Billings, Montana--a character joint if ever there was one, with plenty of cowboy regalia in the lobby and an authentic Old West lack of air conditioning in the room.
Once again, I found a beer and a bite to eat as Rosie endured still more premature fireworks, and then we retired to the room for a quick cuddle before bed. We'd found the rhythm of the road by then, the two of us, and I was really enjoying Rosie's company; she wouldn't sleep on the bed but on her blanket beside it, and I found comfort in rolling over in the night and seeing her there, and reaching down to pet her and feeling her nuzzle against my hand, eager for more pets even when I tried to go back to sleep.
The next morning--Day 3 on the road--was tumultuous, gusts of wind and dark clouds punctuated by brilliant jagged bolts of lightning. One of the creature comforts our rental car offered was a steady stream of warnings about weather-related danger, including flash floods and thunderstorms; today's flavour was tornados, and we hurried out of Billings before any funnel clouds could find us, racing torrential downpours past Little Big Horn and into Wyoming, where blue skies awaited.
In contrast to our morning in Montana, our afternoon in Wyoming was *hot*. We stopped a few more times to look at a few more trains, but with the sun baking down on us, we didn't stay long out of the air conditioned vehicle, and I gave those A/C-cooled seats a try and found them pretty darn cool.
I won't be trading in my old Tacoma anytime soon, but I could definitely get used to the modern conveniences, especially after a thousand miles on the highway.
We reached Cheyenne that night, the Fourth of July, and took a room at a Motel 6 on the wrong side of the tracks to wait out what was sure to be a loud, raucous evening. I had a hell of a time finding vegetarian food at that time of night on a holiday weekend, and settled for a mediocre chain pizza and a couple of cans of local craft beer as Rosie curled up against me on the floor of our room, and fireworks popped off outside as the rest of the motel's patrons partied hard in the parking lot.
This would be our last night together, though I tried not to think about that. I was excited to return Rosie to her family, but I was also very much enjoying our ride. Despite our initial mistrust of each other, we'd truly bonded.
My heart tends to gravitate toward dogs like Rosie, if I'm honest. Animal rescue has put me in contact with hundreds and hundreds of dogs, from puppies to hospice cases, and I'm always drawn to the senior dogs, who've often lived lives of unspeakable hardship and who still, given a little bit of love and patience, find a capacity for forgiveness, and hope.
We marvel in rescue about a dog's extraordinary resilience. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the emergency shelter in Vancouver, where Rosie and her companions arrived on a massive cargo jet from Afghanistan. Together with an army of staff and volunteers, I helped welcome the dogs to our facility, releasing them from their travel kennels and coaxing them, scared, stressed, and dirty, onto Canadian soil.
They were heartbreaking, those first hours. The dogs had been through hell and come out the other side, and you could see every inch of that journey in their eyes. My heart breaks to think back on it now, to remember those dogs who I quickly grew to love in such a state.
But within a few days, and with the help of our hundreds of incredible volunteers, those scared, anxious dogs seemed to realize they were among friends; they wagged their tails and leaped up for kisses, barked at us happily when we came to take them for walks. They played with balls and rolled over for tummy rubs, ran joyously in our exercise pens.
They became dogs again, before our eyes, and though some took a little longer to come out of their shells, they got there eventually, having weathered storms that would have truly broken their human caregivers.
I hadn't seen Rosie come out of her shell, not at the shelter. She'd held onto her fear and distrust for months, the poor girl, even as her peers seemed to thrive. And that made our journey together all the more profound, all the more meaningful to me; finally, I was seeing the wonderful dog I'd lost hope of ever meeting. Finally, she was letting me in.
And she was a wonderful dog, and an excellent travel companion. I could have driven with her snoozing in the backseat or nuzzling up for scratches until we ran out of road. But of course, this wasn't just a drive for Rosie. It was a journey home.
The next morning, on a grassy hillside outside of Cheyenne, Rosie and I sat in the sun and watched cars and trucks rumble by on the Interstate.
"Today's the big day," I told her. "Are you excited?"
She wagged her tail and nudged me for more pets. For all of her qualities, she wasn't much of a conversationalist.
And so off we went. South out of Wyoming into crowded, traffic-choked Colorado, the highway clogged with construction slowdowns and roadside fender-benders. We navigated through Denver and pressed on further south, until we'd reached the town of Pueblo, less than a hundred miles from our destination.
I let Rosie out for a pee and a sniff in the dog park, texted Rosie's family to let them know we were almost there, and then we set out again, the landscape scrub brush and desert and the mountains rising to the east, a thunderstorm threatening in the distance.
We covered those last hundred miles quickly, and the thunderstorm receded, leaving us with nothing but sunshine as we approached our destination. I watched the GPS with equal parts anticipation and trepidation; when it began to count down from ten miles to go, I reached back and found Rosie's paw and held it as we drove.
I wondered if she knew how meaningful this journey had been to me, how grateful I was to have been given this time with her. To have seen, after all this time, the true Rosie.
Her family was waiting in a pretty little park just off of the highway. We pulled in, and I killed the engine. We'd driven 1,756.2 miles from Seattle, and that was just a fraction of how far Rosie had really come. Behind me, Rosie lay, patiently, across the backseat, her favourite blankie still underneath her. She watched me, waiting for our next move.
"Okay, babe," I told her. "We made it! Let's go see your family."
The reunion made it all worthwhile. Rosie's family were overjoyed to see her, and Rosie--though characteristically understated--was clearly very happy, too.
I wondered what she made of it all, watching her hop up on her hind legs to give kisses to her dad, her tail wagging with excitement. Of her time alone in Afghanistan, then at the shelters--first in Kabul, and then in Vancouver. Of the flight on that Russian cargo plane. Of the drive.
I wondered if she'd ever expected to see her family again. If she'd given them up for gone forever.
We took some pictures in the park, and let Rosie stretch her legs, and chatted a little bit about the drive, about the journey. Rosie's family filled in some of her backstory that I'd never heard, some vignettes of her life in Afghanistan, before the world turned topsy-turvy.
I handed over Rosie's supplies--her favourite blankie, her toys, her food and water dishes. A card from Martha, her favourite volunteer. All too soon, it was time to go; we each of us had long drives ahead, even still.
So we loaded Rosie into her family's SUV, set out her blankie across the backseat, and I gave her a quick goodbye and a few more scratches for good measure, and then I exchanged goodbye hugs with Rosie's family, and waved as they drove off, and when they were gone, I walked back to my rental car and sat on the tailgate and cried.
Rescue is bittersweet. If you're lucky, it's sweeter more times than it's bitter. And this was one of those sweet times, for sure. This journey, this reunion, was a privilege afforded to very few people. What an absolute honour to be able to bring someone's pet home.
We'd all want the same, were it our animal who was lost.
But I would miss Rosie anyway, acutely. As I drove back north toward Colorado Springs and my hotel for the night, I caught myself glancing into the backseat as if she'd still be there. When I woke up the next morning, I turned instinctively to the floor beside the bed, expecting to see her asleep on that blankie.
I felt her absence, and it hurt. I'd fallen in love.
I flew home from Denver a couple of days later. Dropped off the Mazda in the rental car lot, its white paint dulled by endless miles of road dust across five states, superhighways and dirt roads, under hot sun and menacing thunderclouds.
By the time I dropped the car off, I was getting used to not seeing Rosie in the backseat. Her family had messaged me and let me know she was doing well. They'd sent pictures of her, happy, on their couch. She was settling in, slowly but surely, to her new home with the folks she loved best.
I probably won't ever see Rosie again. That's just how rescue goes. And if I'm lucky, the next months and years of my life will be filled with many more dogs to shepherd home. Maybe I'll even get to reunite a few more with their families.
I won't ever have a road trip quite like my ride with Rosie, though. And I won't ever forget the miles we spent together, quiet and content in that swish SUV. The nights in those seedy roadside motels. That morning on the grass outside of Cheyenne, or the first night she slept, peaceful, in my apartment.
I won't forget Rosie. I try not to forget any of them. And in some small corner in my heart I'll keep driving with Rosie, for as long as I live, until the day comes at last that we run out of road.