Pack of Three
Make the mistake of telling others you go hiking alone with your dogs, and they’ll murmur expressions of pity.
Or worse: offers of company.
People who’ve never tried hiking alone with their canine pack don’t understand the point. They can’t know the beautiful peace that comes from rambling, without human company, along a rocky shore or forging a pine path with only one’s four-legged friend. They’re missing so much. Nature is perhaps most healing when enjoyed in companionable, animal silence. Nature doesn’t need a voice-over or a narrator. She furnishes her own rhythmic soundtracks, and she requests only deep listening. She is rich with discoveries you’ll miss if you’re traipsing loudly along, lost in conversation with another human. But with your dog? You become part of nature’s rhythm and flow, emerging from your hike having shed most of the meaningless head chatter that follows so many of us around. Sometimes, you’ll come out the other end of a solo pup hike having solved a problem you didn’t realize you had.
You become part of her rhythm and flow, emerging from your hike having shed most of the meaningless head chatter that follows so many of us around. Sometimes, you’ll come out the other end of a solo pup hike having solved a problem you didn’t realize you had.
You’re Not Really Hiking Alone With Your Dog
Whether we’re hiking two miles or ten, whether we’re near the bay or deep in the woods, the dogs and I both derive something beautiful from our forays over rocks, tree roots, streams, and muddy paths. In these times, we are both watchers and watched. In the woods, in particular, the girls’ low-to-the-ground presence alerts me to sights I would otherwise miss: a shed snakeskin, a cartoon-like orb I have to research, and muddy tracks that may or may not be coyote.
Our favorite moments are the times we see something quiet and beautiful watching us. And yes, I say “we,” as the girls always look to me after such encounters. They, too, understand our shared witnessing binds us a bit closer than we were before. Sometimes, those instances are so brief, we wonder if we saw anything at all: a beaver side-eyeing us as she slips gracefully under water, a great blue heron gazing warily as he creates more comfortable distance. And then, with precious rarity, we are gifted expanded moments of personal connection with some wild creature who must sense our respect and awe. Through long experience, Phoebe (and now, Scout) understand that wildlife is not to be bothered or barked at but watched with regard. As reward, we meet so many creatures who would otherwise hide from humans. Hiking alone with your dog isn’t really being alone at all. It’s embracing a subtler, almost otherworldly definition of what companionship means.
Leader of the Pack?
When it was just Phoebe and I hiking, we developed some quirky patterns that seem even more pronounced now that Scout has joined us too. If we’re taking an “out and back” hike where the path out is the same as the path back, I always lead our pack on the “out”. I’m not sure of Phoebe’s reasoning for trailing closely behind my left foot, but she’s made it clear that, for the outbound half of our trip, I need to be in front. Phoebe lost no time imparting these rules to Scout, who also now expects me to lead the charge to our destinations.
Am I Dispensable?
Usually, about 30 minutes into our hike, I’ll start theorizing why, on the way there, they trail just inches behind me. Are they expecting me to scare off black bears or to hold back the brush for them? But then, my theories never hold weight, as on the way back, they trot ahead of me confidently, checking back frequently to be sure I’m keeping up. I think their confidence grows on the way back, as they must scent the trail we had traveled just an hour or so before.
When we take a loop hike, they never take the lead. This, again, starts me wondering what they’re thinking and why they stick so closely behind me. I invariably return to my original theory. Clearly, they’re content to employ me as a human shield, strategically placing me on the front lines. They likely reason I’m better equipped to ward off surprised snakes and angry briar patches. And then I chastise myself for attributing to them such cowardice. In reality, they feel comfortable with me, in nature, and they’re used to me deciding which direction is forward. It’s only when they know we’re going home that they decide it’s okay to take the lead. The unwritten rules we’ve developed on our hikes make our relationship both simpler and more complex. Hiking alone with your dogs cements your bond in ways that a neighborhood walk can’t replicate.
The unwritten rules we’ve developed on our hikes make our relationship both simpler and more complex. Hiking alone with your dogs cements your bond in ways that a neighborhood walk can’t replicate.
Another Time and Place
But, back to companionable silence. For me, hikes are less about our physical health and more about our sanity. Entering a tunnel of trees immediately transports me to my childhood spent in Michigan’s upper peninsula. I believe our woodsy hikes are equally transporting to Phoebe and Scout, connecting them to their wolf roots. Birds, frogs, crickets, rustling trees, grasses, and grasshoppers join in a symphony that erases nagging, everyday human stresses. The smell of earth and green immediately calms me. And the dogs? They’re less interested in bird noise and pleasant smells, preferring to root out scents I prefer not to imagine. We are all together, but separate. We don’t need to entertain one another with chatter or to make plans for the future. We just are.
We are all together, but separate. We don’t need to entertain one another with chatter or to make plans for the future. We just are.
When we overtake another hiker and her dogs, or pass someone coming as we’re going, the humans exchange brief head-nods and the pups a polite sniff. But most often, we’ll hike for hours without encountering another human or dog. Those walks are the most magical. We can time-travel to being early New England settlers, surveying the best place to build a home. Here, we’ll stop for a shared drink from the water clipped to my pack.
Resting on a downed tree, we’ll inspect our potential homestead. I remind myself of what the Puritans would have done with me, a witch in spirit, and Phoebe and Scout, my familiars. But then, I shrug and assume I’d have convinced the zealots to see reason. At least, that’s what I tell myself. But either way, these musings help reset my priorities, reminding me of all the humans who’ve come before me and all who will come after. In thoughts of the past and future, I find my present.
Hiking Alone and Living Deliberately
In his gorgeous work Walden, Thoreau confides to readers, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” We go for much the same reason. Or, at least, that’s my reason. Phoebe and Scout already live deliberately, in the moment, and for only those things that matter. Me? I need reminding. We—once a pack of two, and now of three— return to civilization much better for our brief journeys. The pups are grateful for my time and the pure joy of movement. And I am grateful for the reminder that the world operates beautifully, without my needing to do a thing. If you, too, need the reminder, we can highly recommend one thing: go hiking alone with your dogs.
If you enjoy reading essays about the companionship of small dogs, you might like Dog In the Time of Coronavirus and We Love Our Dogs; Do Our Dogs Love Us Back?
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