We were on a “sweep” to help conclude the 2010 census. I’d volunteered to drive in the absence of a substitute teaching job, as Steve navigated our course along backroads of Elliot County, Kentucky. Up one hill thought to be a destination, a pad-locked metal gate appeared at the end of a long gravel drive to an unseen residence. Turning around, we slowly descended the crushed rock passage, approaching a sturdy log cabin we’d passed on the ascent, except now a platoon of dogs had suddenly emerged from the woods, closing in on our vehicle. As every size, breed, and age of dog clamored around the car with a cacophony of excited barks and woofs, I brought the SUV to a stop. A tall, bearded man had come out of the cabin and was heading to the front passenger’s side where Steve had been ordering documents and maps for the day’s agenda. The first thing I noticed was the old man’s T- shirt featuring an AT Hiking logo on the front. A feeling of relief and calm came over me when I sensed he’d be amicable with Steve, who was a passionate advocate of trail-preservation in Kentucky. Coincidentally, we’d hiked several hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail together, before settling back in his home state. As the dogs’ initial alarm turned friendlier, I shut off the idling engine, waiting for the lanky homesteader to assure us it was safe to get out of our vehicle.
As we emerged from the protection of the car, the man who looked like Rip-Van Winkle stepping out of a storybook began talking trails and hiking with Steve, as predicted. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by curious dogs, including several puppies, totaling several dozen by wagging tail-count. One little guy had a head too big for his body, and paws suggesting his Dachshund-length would have a sturdy foundation as he grew. Another looked like it was part wolf, and yet another appeared to be a back-country boutique varietal not yet in the books. As the conversation turned to the reason for our visit, the hermetic man told us all the dogs were strays, except for the black lab on his cabin porch, who’d had the unplanned litter of pups. He’d been trying to keep them all fed on his monthly stipends as a retired Vietnam War Vet. A neighbor had just helped him give all the puppies their first round of shots, but he was concerned about how he would manage finding them all homes before winter. Somehow, he quickly caught on to the fact we were dog-lovers, and he didn’t hesitate to suggest we “take a few home”.
Out of the six pups, four males looked like black labs, but the other two were unique. The only female from the litter was a little black furball that could have been mistaken for a bear cub with soft eyes, and her probable half-brother was a male with black and white panda-bear markings framing insecure eyes. Both approached timidly but sat firmly on my feet, looking up as if to say, “please choose us”. That’s all it took for me to ask Steve: “Can we take two?” I wanted to be sure the female didn’t end up like her Mom, impregnated by more than one Father, knowing female dogs in heat are open for two weeks; and the little guy beside his half-sister, melting my defenses with his innocent eyes, wouldn’t get eaten by coyotes. ( A 14 year-old Golden Retriever back on the farm, who’d been a wonderful family dog for my children, was fading; and another black lab given to us as payment for a store credit owed was showing signs of bad hips at a young age. Neither of them could be expected to hike far. We loved them both, but knew they were destined to be our beloved stay-at-home farm dogs.) As expected, there was no hesitation from the executive director when he saw the hopeful pair.
“Willey and Tilley” got their names that day, as we drove away with the rescued pups in our laps. Census paperwork got reassigned to the back seat of the Honda Tribute, as our priorities realigned. “Willey” was short for William the Conqueror (Steve’s honorable-mention for Patton’s dog, a bull terrier who accompanied the famous General everywhere), and “Tilley” was the namesake for my Australian hiking hat that could float on water. So began the Adventures of Willey & Tilley, whose stories would span more than a decade.
As litter-mates, Willey and Tilley were seldom apart. They seemed joined at the hip, in tune with each other and respectful of compatible contributions to their life-long partnership. They ran fields on the farm, hunted for voles, sniffed every scent in whatever environment they found themselves, kept company with a rescued horse or two on the farm, and hiked side-by-side behind Steve or me along the Sheltowee Trace. Willey was the alarm-sounding Watchman alpha, and Tilley was the silent but empathetic Ambassador of peace, after friends had been sorted from enemies. They shared adventures through every season, across much of Kentucky, then coast-to-coast crossing the nation several times with me (Karen) as their long-distance driver and story-collector. Never-the-less, Kentucky was always Home, and they knew it. Every time they rode across the state-line they smelled it, reveled in the grass of it, eagerly waited to visit friends and familiar stomping grounds, somehow trusting their final resting place would be among Kentucky wildflowers close to The Great White Oak still standing as the center-piece of a small farm in the northeastern part of the state. A “Heart Home”, if there ever was one.
During formative years on the farm, as The Sheltowee Trace Association was being envisioned and established, their adventures included “Little Bit”, who was the fun-loving clown and sturdy huggable of an entertaining “4-Pack” consisting of Willey (the Alpha), Little Bit, Tilley, and Lucy. “Bit” held out a month longer than Willey this year, preceded by “Lucy” the lop-eared lab and “Sandy” their Golden-Retriever mentor for a year. It’s heart-warming to note, every time one of these beloved members of our farm family was released back to the earth, a Monarch butterfly appeared at the gravesite, before flying up and out over the field shouldering the Great White Oak. On Lucy’s last night, the Big Dipper in the Constellation seemed to be pouring-out, over its canopy; the next day, two Monarchs rose together from the side-by-side burial sites for Sandy and Lucy. Then, in October of this year, a lone Monarch appeared under the oak’s canopy on the beautiful fall day Willey joined them.
An inoperable tumor on Willey’s left rear leg had begun to weep the week before, and there were signs it had metastasized, adversely effecting his everyday bodily functions. He was in pain despite medication to help him sleep through a night without whimpering. A week before his final day, Tilley, began sleeping on the opposite side of the bed from where she and Willey usually laid hip-to-hip or back-to-back on the floor. She’d let him stretch out over both their beds, while she slept on the un-padded floor, further away from him and closer to me.
I had moved back to Kentucky with Willey and Tilley to work at a job I loved, but in part because I’d sensed a few months earlier, while traveling with Willey and Tilley, his time was approaching. I wanted him to be in the first and last place he’d known as home, and I wanted the other person who’d loved him dearly to have a chance to say goodbye. Knowing the time to release him was getting closer, we visited favorite places when I was off work like The Kentucky Horse Park for short walks around the grounds and naps in the shade, our old farm in northeastern Kentucky with its open fields to survey the landscape and roll a few more times in its freshly cut hay fields. We even made a special trip to savor Red State Bar-b-que brisket at a picnic table under an overarching willow. I’d chosen to return to a familiar vet in Flemingsburg for our final visit, because of the compassion and care they’d provided for all of our dogs and horses over the years. Through a flood of tears, I held Willey to the end, thanking him for his service as our faithful companion, assuring him it wouldn’t be long before his pain was over. He was gifted dignity in passing that afternoon.
On the tearful drive back to the farm to lay him to rest, “Scars in Heaven” a song by Casting Crowns came on the radio. Old neighbors appeared, offering to assist and consoled us as we drove over the freshly cut field back to the stately oak tree. The Great White Oak was waiting to receive him beside Lucy and Sandy’s plots. Tilley stayed in the pick-up truck and watched from the open door. She had been here before with me, only this time she wanted to stay in her “safe space” where Willey’s scent still lingered. Before sunset, we set a memorial stone and planted flowers in the freshly patted soil.
It was a long drive back to the place where we’d have to make it through the night without Willey, as the sun started setting on raw emotions and a new reality. In the sky directly above and in front of us, as Tilley jumped from the back seat once shared with Willey to the shot-gun position beside me, a brilliant vertical strip of a rainbow—a “Sundog”– appeared. It caught my breath. Wiping away tears, I pulled off the road onto a sturdy shoulder, rolling down the window to take a picture of the unmistakable sign.
The next morning, walking Tilley before work, she was sniffing every tree where the three of us had walked just the day before, picking up her brother’s scent, lingering a while at each place. I looked up to take in the crisp fall air, hoping to feel revived, and in the sky above the tree-lined street, a heart-shaped cloud with yet another “Sundog” at its center briefly appeared. And shortly thereafter, a new neighbor who’d met Willey and heard about his passing approached with a small brown jar holding sprigs of baby’s breath, along with a poem on a card entitled “The Rainbow Bridge”. The Universe was gifting us reassurances of Willey’s destination to an eternal home.
More often now, I think about how our pets become so much more than our companions. They teach us to care for lives beyond ourselves, about unconditional love, leaving us with rich memories and stories to share. They help us feel safe through every emotional passage, improving our quality of life in unseen ways. When they’re no longer with us, we understand they’ve helped us become better equipped to understand and offer compassion to others navigating landscapes of the soul.
Willey & Little Bit, we’re thankful you were a part of our earthly journeys. You’re just further along the trail now. We know you’ll be at the final trailhead with warm greetings, along with all the other adventure loving dogs whose company you’re keeping. Until we finally finish the course, too, keep those invisible tails wagging. Some days it’s what keeps us putting one foot in front of the other.