Peter Zheutlin is a New York Times-bestselling author who has brought some of the most extraordinary stories in dog rescue to life for readers around the country.
In his most personal book yet, he embarks on the cross-country journey of a lifetime with a loyal friend — his rescue dog, Albie — which he recounts in the poignant, bemusing, and keenly observed The Dog Went Over the Mountain. Such a road trip is a fantasy for many people, regardless of their age. And yet, it is often associated with younger travelers. Zheutlin decided to hit the open road just before turning 65.
Why now? And why with Albie?
“I’ve always been preoccupied with my mortality and aware that time is finite and fleeting, especially when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 53,” Zheutlin said.
A decade later, he picked up the same copy of John Steinbeck’s travel memoir Travels with Charley in Search of America he had read at age 16.
“I thought, ‘if not now when?’” Zheutlin said. “Steinbeck, too, was aware that when he and his French Poodle, Charley, hit the road in 1960, he was in the autumn of his life. That resonated with me.”Albie, a frightened stray, was rescued from a high-kill shelter in Louisiana in 2012. Albie was about three years old when he came to live with Zheutlin and his wife, cookbook author Judith Gelman. Because dogs age faster than humans, Albie and Zheutlin had arrived on the cusp of old age together.“I thought it would be a good time to find out if this was any country for old men, while we both were hale and hearty,” Zheutlin said. “And, as Steinbeck wrote, ‘a dog is a bond between strangers.’ Albie was my passport to countless conversations with people I would never otherwise have talked to. We met so many people who wanted to say hello to Albie. I was just window dressing!”
Much of Zheutlin’s and Albie’s journey took its cues from Steinbeck. And many routes were chosen for their natural beauty or historical significance, including The Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park and The Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Across the southwest, they drove remnants of the iconic old Route 66. Decommissioned in the 1980s, it was dubbed “The Mother Road” by Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath as the highway countless Dust Bowl refugees used to get to California.
“It was quite easy to imagine that we were seeing many of the same ridgelines and expanses of sagebrush that the Dust Bowl refugees saw as they drove west full of hope but headed for heartbreak,” Zheutlin said, recalling how he and Albie looked out at the scenery. But the logistics of making such a journey, much less a trip with a senior dog, can be complex.“Weather often forced changes in our route and upended some of our planning,” Zheutlin said. “Albie packs light, but I had to always be thinking of his well-being.”
Thus, Zheutlin chose to travel during the spring, in a clockwise loop around the country. Steinbeck traveled during the fall, and moved counterclockwise.
“I wanted the weather to be as cool as possible for as much of the trip as possible,” Zheutlin said.
Albie, for his part, made especially good use of the seat protector over the back seat of their convertible.
“He would work his way behind it when the top was down,” Zheutlin said, “and he wanted protection from the wind. It was so cute to look in the rearview mirror and see his head poking up above the cover.”
Zheutlin said one travel website, BringFido.com, was an invaluable resource. It led to the discovery of their favorite dog-friendly lodging, The Restful Nest Bed & Breakfast in Mariposa, California. Owners Jon and Lois Moroni, a couple in their 70s, invited Zheutlin and Albie to dinner and even packed food for their trip into Yosemite. Taking Albie on walks was an opportunity to find some hidden gems not appreciated from the road, whether it was a greenway in Maryville, Tennessee; the streets of the Garden District, in New Orleans; or the trails at Lands End, in San Francisco.
Upon reaching the Grand Canyon, the two walked for hours along the south rim trail, hoping for a break in the dense fog that completely obscured the canyon.
“I told Albie we were going to wait as long as it took because we’d come a long way to see this natural wonder,” Zheutlin said. “When the weather finally did break, and the canyon came into view, it was spellbinding, at least for me. Albie was mostly interested in the squirrels!”
And what would a road trip be without road food?
“Albie is less discerning than I am,” Zheutlin said, “but we had a wonderful evening sitting on the bench in front of Vanelli’s Bistro in Tupelo, Mississippi, mainly because the owner Voz Vanelli was such a warm and welcoming man.
He has long gray hair, a guitar, and a good word — or song — for everyone who passes by.”
Zheutlin said his best meal was at Upperline, in New Orleans. Its owner, the now-80-year-old JoAnn Clevenger, bursts off the page as one of the most memorable characters in Zheutlin’s book. And Crave, a coffee shop in Tupelo, gave Albie a cup of whipped cream for a treat, complete with bacon bits on top.
“It was another example of the simple acts of kindness we found wherever we went,” Zheutlin said.
The end of any journey always provides an opportunity for self-reflection.
“I hoped that after spending six weeks on the road with a creature that doesn’t dwell on his own mortality that I’d come back more accepting of the inevitable,” Zheutlin said, “but I can’t say I did.”
But his outlook on America yielded more optimistic takeaways.
“Despite all the bitterness, rancor, and divisiveness of our times, there’s still a large reservoir of common decency out there that we need to hold on to,” he said. “The friendliness we found everywhere was striking. There was a menacing group of motorcyclists who kept gesturing toward me at a stoplight; to my relief, they were only trying to tell me my gas cap was dangling from the side of the car. Then there was the ex-Marine, cycling around the country for more than two years, I spoke with for an hour in Bismarck. Political polar opposites, we nevertheless engaged with mutual respect; a conversation likely to have devolved into insults if held behind the barrier of social media.”
Zheutlin continued: “In these unsettling times, the question is whether the better angels of our nature will prevail.”