Imagine, if you will…

You slowly come to and realize the room is dark and quiet. Half a dozen beers lie at your side and the glow from the TV is the only light in the room. You stumble to your feet. As you start to find your way through the fog in your mind, you realize the dog isn’t around—you must not have let him back in the house before passing out.

You open the sliding door to the porch while trying to blink away the fuzziness. The stars are out, but other than that, there’s just darkness. A thick grove of trees separates your acreage from that of your neighbour, an off-season campground.

You turn on the porch light so your dog will be able to see you. You call out for him and give a few whistles. Nothing. You call out again and wait to hear the scurry of footsteps racing through the dry leaves. Again, nothing.

All of a sudden, you hear a man’s voice: “Is this your dog?” The way he says his vowels, you know he’s not from ‘round here. You look over towards the edge of your property, where the voice is coming from, and see a light from what must be a headlamp. It prevents you from seeing who spoke.

Through your alcohol-induced confusion, you have just a few seconds to make a choice about how to answer. Your brain tries to processes the options: 1) Ask who’s out there, 2) Tell the man to bring the dog to you, 3) Walk out to the man, or 4) Grab your gun and threaten to shoot the would-be trespasser.

Now, imagine this is you:

Chocolate lab dog - A clash in the night

You’re travelling in a rural part of the country, experiencing a very different way of living from that of the big city you spent your entire life in. You’re enjoying the unhurried pace, the natural surroundings and the small talk opportunities folks here make the time for.

You’re staying at an off-season campground. They’re not officially open right now, but the manager lives just down the road and he’s allowed a few campers to stay for a while.

The campground is set on a small parcel of land with a few short trails and a rural road you can walk along past orchards and acreages.

There’ve been a couple of dogs hanging around the past few days, always together. They seem to show up at around 8 a.m. and leave at about 4 p.m. They follow you for walks and demand belly rubs that you gladly dole out in spades.

One is a beagle who loves to indiscriminately chase after anything that moves. You’ve seen her go after lizards and squirrels, and even chase after a skunk. The other is a chocolate lab who loves to poke his nose into everything, exploring with endless curiosity. They have collars, but no identifying tags, so you’ve named the beagle Ren and the chocolate lab Stimpy.

You ask the campground manager if they’re his dogs, and he tells you they must belong to one of the neighbours, but he doesn’t know which one. It’s not usual for dogs to be running free in this area, he tells you, but normally no one says anything unless they start getting into trouble.

Your big-city mindset and soft heart for animals kick in and you worry about the dogs’ safety. You wonder if they’re being looked after properly. You resist your animal-advocacy instincts and remind yourself that this isn’t your neighbourhood, so it’s not your responsibility.

One night, after dark…

You hear some barking outside. You poke your head out and realize it’s Stimpy—without Ren. He’s right outside your door. You’ve never seen one without the other, and he’s never come so late.

You go out and he barks at you. Maybe he needs your help?

You grab your jacket and decide to walk up the road. You know Stimpy will come along. Maybe he’ll lead you to Ren, if she’s in trouble, or maybe he’ll keep taking the road and leave you to go to his home. You bring your headlamp along and walk out into the night.

Following the road, you pass the gate to the campground, and then continue past an acreage, a hobby farm and an orchard, with Stimpy at your heels. He doesn’t run off home. You’re stuck with him.

You head back towards the campground and figure you’ll leave the next move up to Stimpy, when you hear some whistling and a deep voice calling out a name you can’t quite make out. You wonder if that’s Stimpy’s owner calling for him to come home.

The man disappears for a moment, and comes back outside waving something long and dark. “Do you want to get shot?” you hear coming back at you.

You look at Stimpy. He looks at you—no reaction to the voice. Maybe he’d rather be with you, but you know he should go to his home.

You walk towards the voice and see a man under a porch light. You stand at the edge of the property and call, “Is this your dog?” towards the house that’s set back behind a long driveway.

There’s a short silence and you wonder if your question was clear.

The man disappears for a moment, and comes back outside waving something long and dark. “Do you want to get shot?” you hear coming back at you.

It takes a moment for the words to register and you have no idea how to respond. Quite frankly, you’ve never been asked this before. It seems really out of place as an answer to, “Is this your dog?” This is a far cry from how things are done where you’re from.

You shift your weight from one foot to the other and clarify, “There’s a chocolate lab here and I’m wondering if it’s yours.”

An annoyed voice shouts into the night, “That’s Fred’s dog. Up the road,” and you know the interaction is over.

Stimpy follows you back to your campsite and you decide to let him fend for himself.

The next morning at 8 a.m.

Hawk flying - A clash in the night

Ren and Stimpy are back at the campground, tails wagging, ready for a day of play. There’s no hint as to why Stimpy was out so late on his own the night before. 

You tell the campground manager what happened. He shakes his head and apologizes for his neighbour’s behaviour. It’s not the impression he wants his guests to have of the area.

“That man’s a wildcard,” he tells you. “He drinks too much and does some crazy things, but he’s never gone this far.”

“Last summer he shot and killed a hawk because it dive-bombed him and clawed his head,” the manager adds.

You marvel at how readily this man pulls out his gun.

Moving along

When the day comes for you to move on to the new adventure waiting for you at your next destination, you give Ren and Stimpy extra belly rubs and hold them just a little tighter for hugs.

You’re going to miss them.

For the last time, you watch as they run after each other, make their rounds to greet everyone and take long naps in between.

You think back on the night of the standoff. Your big-city ‘protect the lost puppy dog’ instinct was out of place in this rural setting. The impulsive farmer’s instinct to protect his property from intruders made no sense to your ‘just trying to help out’ sensibilities.

A smile suddenly comes over your face as you think about what you and Ren and Stimpy have in common. You’re all naively roaming wherever your hearts take you. And sometimes you get into a little trouble. But the joy that unleashed freedom brings makes the risk all worth it! 

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image 1: Pixabay; image 2: Pixabay; image 3: Pixabay