There’s a moment when you look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Oh. I’m one of those pet owners.” For me, it came last weekend when our little beagle/shepherd mix, Penny, the sweetest dog I know (if not exactly the brightest) ran away.
My wife Kathy and I love that little dog more than is normal. The last I saw her, she ran up on the porch at our friend’s house, wagging her whole body and looking up at me with a big doggie smile. She was happy because she’d been playing for hours with seven other dogs on a great big 16 acre farm, and she was having the time of her life.
I should say that we moved here a few years ago from Maine, coming to work on the rivers at first, but then falling in love with the place. That’s saying a lot, because Maine is beautiful. But West Virginia’s beauty is more accessible. I drove all over the country and lived a lot of places trying to make up my mind where I wanted to be. No matter where I went, I just kept thinking about West Virginia. Never in all my travels have I seen so much of everything I love packed so close together. I could go into the low cost of living, too, but I won’t.
We made a great group of friends here, and one of them (a zip-line guide named Brent) had invited us down to his parents’ ranch on the Greenbrier River, an hour and a half from our house. The place is stunning. A huge farm with horses and a wraparound porch, on a sparkling bend in the river, with low hills climbing behind. We’d stayed there overnight, had some laughs, hot-tubbed, and our dogs had romped.
In the morning, as is the custom in West Virginia (I’m joking — sort of) we went out on the porch after eggs, bacon, and coffee and started blasting away at cans on the lawn. I’m making it sound a lot more redneck than it is. One gun was an air rifle (read: BB gun) and the other a .22 pistol (with enough stopping power to bring down a medium-sized squirrel if he was already drunk).
It was the pistol that scared off our Penny. She’s terrified of thunder, fireworks — any loud noise. Why didn’t I see it coming? Did I say she was sweet but not bright? Maybe the brainpower issue runs in the family. Anyway, an hour after we started blazing away, Kathy came out and asked if I’d seen her. I walked the property, calling, but no luck.
If this had been any other dog, I wouldn’t have worried, but she can hardly jump into a car by herself. If a door’s almost closed, with a 10-inch gap, she can’t get through it and will stand looking sad until we open it for her. If I hide a ball behind my back, she’s convinced it has vanished. She’ll fall for this over and over. But she’s so sweet. The sweetest dog ever.
Six friends who are former outdoor guides also joined in the search. They are climbing guides, zip-line guides, raft guides and videoboaters, most of whom moved here for the rivers like me and Kathy, then fell in love and made lives. One has a climbing business. Another’s a math teacher now. A CPA. A Marketing Director. And my wife Kathy, a banker. We all beat the bushes for hours. It was 37 degrees, and raining. We talked to neighbors, widening our search across rolling hills patchworked with farmland and forests.
One friend, who runs a thriving photography business and coincidentally has a deathly fear of spiders, even braved the giant crawlspace under the house to look for our dog, but no dice.
As the day got longer, I counted at least (no kidding) 75 deer, and became convinced that though Penny ran away at first because of the gunshots, she probably gave chase to a buck or a doe, then looked up and didn’t know where she was. And kept walking.
By dark, we stopped looking. Either someone would find her and call our phone numbers (on her tag) or she’d wander back on her own (though I didn’t think that was likely) or we’d never see her again.
We had to make a decision. Out here, with no phones, there wasn’t much more we could do. What if someone had already found her and was trying to reach us? We needed sleep to continue the search in the morning, and Kathy, who works at an understaffed bank branch, just couldn’t get the day off. We had to drive the hour-and-a-half home without Penny.
It wasn’t fun. All the way, in the dark and the rain, we kept thinking about her out there in the cold. She’d never spent the night by herself. I pictured her lost and confused, afraid, shivering, wanting her mom and her dad, and her bed. There are so many ways for a lost dog to die. Hit by a car. Hunters. Coyotes. She could get taken to an overfull animal shelter and put to sleep. (All the shelters around here are packed.) Then I checked the weather, and saw it would drop to 11 degrees the next couple of nights. I thought about Thanksgiving coming up, and how gloomy that would feel.
I’ve said we love that dog more than is normal. When we got home, the place felt wrong without her. Kathy and I posted on facebook and prayed.
Then something happened.
Friends started calling, texting, and emailing. A kayaker friend’s mom said her husband, an avid outdoorsman, was gearing up to drive down and search in the morning. A guy we know from the Army Corps of Engineers (he works on the massive dam that makes the Gauley flow) said he and his dog would be down to help look. Alan Jennings (ACE Whitewater’s master of logistics) offered help searching also. Other river friends said they were coming, too. Raft guides and river people of all shapes and descriptions. A friend of mine (my former boss in the video department at North American River Runners — now owned by ACE) put me in touch with another raft guide who drives school busses in the winter, in the area where our dog was last seen. That guy said he’d tap into all the other drivers down there, and they’d keep a look out on their morning rounds. Another friend who lives here, but commutes to DC for a marketing job, made a fantastic “Lost Dog” poster. So much help, so much sympathy and advice and so many prayers and good vibes.
Now, I love my dog, but we have to take a step back here: it’s a dog. And yet dozens of people were going well out of their way to help find her. I’d never experienced anything like it. If that kind of mobilization gets done for a beagle, can you imagine what a real emergency would produce?
It was nothing short of overwhelming. And though it was hard to sleep, at around 2:30 am we finally did. A couple hours later, we woke to a call from Brent. He’d been checking the porch every couple hours, and at 4:30 am, there she was. I couldn’t believe my ears, and he had to repeat it three times.
I drove down and got her. I bought great big fat cheeseburgers for her and our other dog, Murphy, and me and Kathy watched happily as they wolfed them down. Penny slept for 26 hours in her nice, warm, soft bed, getting up only to pee and to eat. I kept looking in on her, my heart overflowing with gratitude that she was back, for how comfortable she looked (I couldn’t get enough of that) and that I live in a place filled with so many good people who have loyalty woven into their warp and woof, and who will always find a way to make anything work.
This may not be where we’re from, but this little river community near the meeting of the New and Gauley Rivers is forever our home. We’re really, really looking forward to Thanksgiving.
Written by: Tom Gerencer