When I first found out that I had been invited to present a paper at a conference in New Orleans–a paper on Dancer in the Dark; the conference, Deleuze Studies–my first thought was this: family road trip. One of things that M and I discovered early in our relationship was a shared love for this mode of travel. We had driven to New Orleans once before and found it to be an intense but manageable 30-hour trip with plenty to see and taste along the way. We had left Montreal in a blizzard, and arrived in what was for us a balmy New Orleans four days later. But this trip would be something different, for this time we would be taking Coco, our one year-old standard poodle.
When you tell friends and family that you are taking your large rambunctious poodle on a twelve day trip–eight of which will be spent in the car–they react in a variety of ways, few of them positive. There are expressions of concern, confusion, and outright anger, and these are the voices that echoed in my head in the nights leading up to the trip; the nights when I thought of all the terrible things that could go wrong: heat-stroke, costly property damage, an inability to move freely through the city, and as a result, a reduced capacity for fun. Some nights the anxiety would overcome me, and I would wake up resolved to find a friendly home or kennel, to leave her behind. I would spend the morning sussing out possible dog-sitters then return to my senses and refocus my energies on mapping out the trip. In the end, having Coco on board made this one of the most memorable and enjoyable vacations of my life thus far and I cannot imagine having done it without her.
One of the things that I have struggled with in the last ten years or so is finding a balance between my desire to just let things happen, and my desire/need to have good food and a good, clean, quiet place to sleep–the latter being especially important in this day of bed bug horror stories. On our honeymoon in Europe in 2000, we booked all of our hotels before leaving Canada. This seemed like the sensible thing to do, but having everything laid out in advance made us feel old and lame, and so near the end of the trip, we made a radical change to our plans and took the train to Cinque Terre. We arrived in the middle of the day and thought that with expectations low, we would have no trouble finding somewhere to stay. By midnight, having train hopped up and down the coast with zero luck, and having little to say to each other that was pleasant or loving, we got back on the train heading north and spent the rest of the night at a faceless businessman’s hotel in Milan. It was a fairly depressing end to an otherwise wonderful holiday.
Since then, I have endeavored to be more organized in my travels but laziness, and this hard-to-shake romance of heading out on the open road with nothing but a direction in mind, often intervene. As a result, I end up drinking far too much drip coffee, eating too many unpalatable meals, and bypassing too many vibrant city centers because, in the moment, it seems more important to just get to where we’re going than seeing what is happening along the way. With Coco along, things would have to change, and so I set about planning for the trip, knowing that each stop along the way must meet two key criteria: it must have a dog park (or at the very least, a friendly, walkable neighborhood) and it must have somewhere good to eat. We would travel in 3-4 hour legs, drive for no more than 9 hours per day, and spend our nights in the kinds of neighborhoods that we might live in were we to become residents of the cities that we visited. We were mostly successful in meeting these goals and had several revelations along the way:
Revelation #1: When you walk around a strange city with a dog you are assumed to be a local.
Because of this, and because you have a cute dog on a leash, everyone, and I mean, everyone, will stop and talk to you. People will cross the street, or call you over to their side of the street if they are older and chair-bound, to share stories of their own dogs and to comment on yours. And if you have a standard poodle, which seems to be a rare breed in the south–in Montgomery, Alabama, a teenager told me she had “never seen one of those before… at least, not in real life”–they will stop their cars in traffic, and reverse back into gas stations to guess at the breed or inquire about age and constitution. This is in the states, primarily, and was not the case in say, Kingston. But our trip did not really start until we hit Detroit on Day 2, and it was there, when a fellow who looked like he might not be up to any good, called me over to chat while we were waiting for lunch, and told me an emotional story about how he bonded with his rescue pit bull.
There are, by some estimates, between 20,000 and 50,000 stray and abandoned dogs in Detroit, many of them pit bulls, and this dog had lived a pretty rough existence before the man had acquired him a few weeks back. The dog was anxious and wary, and as a result, their bonding was slow in coming. But the previous night, when a crazy storm had swept through the city, the dog had leapt onto the bed and snuggled in for safety. This was definitely a turning point, said the man, with a crooked smile, then receiving word on his bluetooth of something apparently quite urgent, he bid Coco and I farewell and safe travels and shuffled off. That under normal circumstances this conversation would have never occurred made me realize that this would be a very different experience than my other travels. I was delighted; and that was before M returned with the barbecue.