I am a professional show dog handler. This is a job that is very time sensitive and physically demanding, so I hire dog show kids to help me out. Which effectively means that on any given weekend, I am personally responsible for the health and well-being of other people’s kids and dogs while traveling great distances in short time frames. Since most of my clients consider their dogs the same thing as their children, this can be a daunting and awesome burden.
Over the course of 20 years, there have been more than a few harrowing moments on the road. Knock on wood, we have all come through unscathed. I have no doubt my personal guardian angels work overtime, all the time.
Just for example, there was the time I blew a fan belt going up the west side of Stevens Pass in Washington State. Back then I was driving my first “rig.” She was a 1973 GMC class A motorhome fondly referred to as the “Pregnant Cadillac” due to that inscription on the spare tire cover. No cell phone coverage in those days. The road had almost no shoulder, and was narrow, twisting, two lanes, unless you’re in a passing zone, with a steep bank on the uphill side and an even steeper plunging drop-off on the downhill side. A 29-foot motorhome, six dogs, a 12-year-old and me.
No one stopped. We’d only barely made it around a nasty corner before the engine died and the other vehicles didn’t have time to slow down before they were way past us. Most folks don’t want to slow down when they are trying to get up a steep grade, anyway. After waiting more than an hour, with daylight slipping away, I finally had to leave the kid and the dogs with strict instructions not to step out of the vehicle until I returned. I hitchhiked to the top of the pass and made frantic payphone calls to my mechanic. He tried to convince me I could replace the belt with a pair of pantyhose. No dice on that option!
As I was leaving to walk several miles back down the mountain, a clean-cut thirtysomething man approached and asked if I needed a ride. He pointed to what he claimed was his import sedan, maybe a Honda or Toyota, with the hood propped open, and proceeded to tell me a long-winded, unsolicited story about waiting for his ex-wife to show up.
Maybe I read too many books. Maybe my imagination is too fevered. All I know is, as the man told me his sort of odd tale and gave me several even stranger looks, every hair on my body was standing straight up and my skin literally crawled with the urge to bolt. Fortunately, I’ll never know if I missed out on meeting the next Ted Bundy. I ran scout pace – walk 50 steps, run 50 steps – down that mountain until I thought my heart would explode.
Finally, a semi-truck pulled over to offer me a ride. By that time I was desperate to get back to check on the kid and dogs. It was getting dark and I had been gone longer than I said I would.
The maybe-psychopath at the summit had at least looked and smelled normal. My driver introduced himself as Grizzly Adams. He wasn’t even close. He had long, wild, unwashed hair and beard, one tooth, literally, and grimy bib overalls. My new friend stopped for the kid and we went barreling back to the bottom of the pass. That was where the only tow truck was to be found, along with the return of cel service.
It made for a very long night. We arranged alternate transportation, had the rig and the dogs towed down the mountain (including a very harrowing u-turn in the middle of the highway with no shoulder), took everything out of the motorhome, loaded it into another vehicle, turned around and drove back up and over the mountain and eventually arrived at the dog show in the very wee hours of the morning.
That was the kid’s first trip with me. Amazingly enough, he worked six more years for me. This wasn’t the last or even the worst of our adventures. After he graduated high school, he told me he was going in to the Marines.
“Matthew,” I said, “How can you do this to me?”
“I mean after working for me all these years, now you’re telling me a Marine Drill Sergeant looks good? How do you think that makes me feel?”
Our whole crowd got a good chuckle from that one and it became sort of a catch phrase over the years. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re in for a long, long road.