The Beagle in Me, the Child in Snoopy

At the local pet shop, the owner, a gruff older man, tells me, “Oh, you got a beagle? You’re fucked!” And he laughs and laughs. “Dumb as a bag of rocks. Dumber than than the stone you walk on. You’ll never train him. And they’re runners. Trust me, you’re gonna be spending more time looking for him than with him.”

Ah but the love the beagle shows for his pack: it is like no other love from a dog that I’ve experienced. This is a breed that seems by its very essence to express an insatiable joy at association, joy at sleeping with the pack, eating with the pack, dancing with the pack, playing, running, leaping, sharing its ticks with the pack – a purity of enthusiasm. It makes me ashamed at not leaping around my girlfriend and licking her face after I’ve been away from her for three minutes.

Also, the beagle’s joy involves destroying the notes for various articles I’m working on, shredding them to little bits, to the point that my girlfriend and I decided that the dog shall now serve the function of providing pieces of carbon for the compost pit.

Cardboard, files, printed paper, paper towels, toilet paper, and the notes for my new book and her works of art – he chews them all to little bits with mad frivolity, shredding them to the tiniest possible morsels, which of course is perfect for composting and a labor-saver. Otherwise I would need to shred the carbon additions by hand.

On the trail in the Catskill Mountains, the beagle, who we call Apollo but I think answers to the name of Food, runs amok in the snowy hills and hollows and down the steep icy banks and up the tangled ravines, chasing his nose.

Snoopy was a beagle, and Snoopy of course was my kindred spirit as a child, the wise beagle who knew more than the kids who believed themselves his caretaker but was actually looking out for them far more closely than they could ever comprehend.

That’s the thing about dogs. They are looking out for us poor foolish misguided humans staring at screens writing articles such as this. They know the truth. The truth is to get out into the woods and run and find the tracks of big white-tailed buck deer with the same passion as finding mice escaping to burrows. They know the ways of cottontail rabbits and eastern chipmunks and, though beagles don’t have the finest hearing, they can smell the sound of wintering black-capped chickadees.

Not long ago the dog and I were wandering deep in a lonely forest of old oaks where the chickadees sang, and the little guy stopped at the song, listened, turned to me, nodded, and was gone in the snow, and no matter how many times I called him it didn’t matter. He was on the track of something good.

Which is what I wish I was on, what I think all humans want to be on, to feel a sense of total purpose in relation with the earth and its living things.

He came back after a while, and a few days later we went up another trail, up Rochester Hollow, where there’s a plaque for the naturalist John Burroughs, who grew up in the Catskill Mountains. After we got to the plaque and paid homage, the dog was outta there – up the hillside, random scent, fixed nose, wild-footed, true to his nature.

I spent the next four hours bushwhacking the woods looking for him in the cold clear starry night, with a half-moon lighting my way, the pale shine on the crusty March snow, the shadows cast by the leafless limbs of the trees long and strange and reaching out, the shadows so fleshy and thick that sometimes I seemed to trip over them. “Foood,” I called out, crumpling a bag of treats, crushing the treats in my fingers. Apparently the nose of a beagle is so attuned that the male of the breed can smell a menstruating female fifteen miles away. I wish I could do that.

In the dark of the copses of hemlocks and the few remaining eastern white pines, where the moon was shut out by the evergreens, I felt my heart tremble, for I thought I heard his footfalls. But it was not him. I heard the snow crunching under my feet as if I was a fool giant who knew nothing. There was not a sound stirring, no wind, the silence total, except when I called out “A-pahhhhh-loooo!”

Goddamn dog, I muttered. Goddamn sonofabitch bastard.

I sat down in a snowdrift, and looked up at the stars and felt an immensity of feeling, a gorgeousness of feeling, like I was swallowed in the night and was very small and happy at being small. I figured he was gone, and the night for him would be cold and long, full of suffering, and the coyotes would hunt him down and kill him. Twenty pounds was Apollo. A snack. Well there it is. Everyone’s got to eat.

Then I started to cry, and I couldn’t help myself, because I really liked that dog. And I don’t generally like dogs. I think they’re a pain in the ass. I dislike dog owners even more than I dislike dogs. I don’t like the way dog owners, especially in cities, diaper their quasi-babies and mew and pule over them and treat them in that demented domesticated relationship which is that between master and slave.

But I liked Apollo, the fuck. And now he was gone. I even liked his name, the christening given to him by my seven-year-old daughter.

Oh well, and I stood up and figured that was that. And then I couldn’t leave. I kept walking up and down the trail in the icy moonlight, calling his name, tracking the time by the constellations – twinkling Orion was swinging a club to the south, and Ursus Major was turning about the North Star – and thinking, I hate that dog for running away. Yet that’s the dog spirit, they need to run, they need to be free, and why am I not a dog, what am I doing with my life, why am not too running free, what’s my problem, why am I so complacent to think I can’t just get out in that forest and say fuck it, goodbye, go? Remember: Snoopy was always the one on an adventure! – and so on: the thoughts of a walker in the night woods looking for his lost mutt.

Later that night, my girlfriend and I would find him holed up at a house along Route 28. The creature wasn’t as wild as I thought. He had beelined down the mountain for the nearest human habitation that smelled of food. When he saw us he was crazed with delight, his tail beating like a hummingbird’s wing. My immediate thought was that I hoped he would run free again on a clear cold winter’s night and send me looking for him.

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Christopher Ketcham is the author of  “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West” (Viking-Penguin).  He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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