I was hiking along a trail in Pisgah National Forest, when suddenly I heard a snuffling sound behind me. I turned around and saw a coal black dog emerge from the brush. He looked to be of mixed Labrador and traveling salesman ancestry, and he was moving kind of funny. As he emerged fully I saw why. He only had one hind leg.
“What are you doing up here?” I asked. He sat down and glanced off to the side the way dogs do when they know they’re being questioned. It was a posture of politeness.
He looked a wee bit tired. Then I put together the facts: the trail is over two miles long, uphill, and this dog has one hind leg. Of course he’s tired.
In my shirt pocket I had an energy bar. I took it out and turned back to ask the dog, “You want something to eat?”
His ears perked up and he hopped right over. Using his best manners he came and sat right next to me. Not too close, but close enough. He made sure to look mostly at the food and only glanced at me in short takes. I did the same, just enough eye contact to prove I was friendly. He ate little bites of the bar out of my hand.
“You stink like a dog that’s been hiking,” I said. He cheerfully agreed. After all, there was more energy bar in the package. “What’s your name?” I reached out and slid his collar around to look for a tag. Riveted to the leather was a clear plastic insert with a handwritten message: My name is Jake. I live at the fish hatchery. I like to roam, so please don’t take me home.
“Jake?” I asked.
That’s me, he said with his ears. You got any more energy bar?
“No, that’s the last of the food, Jake. I guess you’ll be moving on, huh?” I know dogs. They’re the ultimate pragmatists.
Not just yet, he told me, by wiggling his hind side a little more firmly into place. He gazed off into the scenery, not wanting to be considered someone who rudely eats and runs.
“Want some water?” I asked, and opened the bottle I kept in my belt pack. Pouring a puddle into my palm, I offered it to Jake. He lapped the puddle up with his tongue. But he politely declined my second offer. Then he nodded his big head to tell me it was nice meeting me, and headed back to the trail.
As I watched, he worked the other hikers, frisking them for food. Mountain climbing and mooching were this dog’s avocations, and he was very good at both. When I returned an hour later, Jake was still greeting the new arrivals. Despite his ambitious climbing hobby, Jake was not a skinny dog.
“No wonder,” was my last thought, as I watched a young woman break off half of her sandwich and feed it to him.
I remember the impressive scenery from that day, but my fondest recollection is how I was able to share the trail with one of the locals, a polite stranger who had obviously overcome considerable hardship in his life. Jake was living life as fully as he could, without complaining, and good things were coming his way.
—BILLY HUGHES, ASHEVILLE, N.C.