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The Dog Went Over the Mountain: An Interview With Peter Zheutlin

Posted by Billy Francis

Peter Zheutlin is a freelance journalist and acclaimed author of serious pedigree. He has published eight books and contributes regularly to columns in leading publications. Peter is also a dog lover. Ever since he began working on the New York Times bestseller, "Rescue Road,” his books have focused on canine companions in one way or another. “Rescue Road” highlights the struggles of rehoming neglected dogs. In the sequel, "Rescued,” he explores the next chapter of rescue dogs’ lives in their forever homes.

Peter hit the road again for his latest book, “The Dog Went Over the Mountain: Travels With Albie: An American Journey.” Inspired by John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley,'' Peter embarked on a 9,000-mile, six-week pilgrimage to rediscover the country with his partner in crime and best friend, rescue dog Albie. How did he plan such a complicated trip? Peter’s an avid BringFido user, of course. Now that he’s safely back in Massachusetts and reunited with the rest of his pack, we spoke to Peter about life on the road with Albie and what they both learned along the way.

In the book, you explain that you're the proud pup parent of three dogs. How did you break the news to Salina and Jamba that they wouldn't be joining you and Albie on the road?

Just as I couldn’t explain to Albie where we were going and why, and how long we’d be away, there was no preparing the others, either! When Albie hopped in the car the day we left he had no idea if we were going to be gone for five minutes, five hours, or six weeks. I didn’t learn until we came home that Salina, in particular, was pretty depressed without Albie, something my wife Judy didn’t share with me while we were on the road because she didn’t want me to feel badly about it. It surprised me a bit because Salina can be pretty aloof; she doesn’t rely on Albie when they’re home together. But it was an interesting little insight into her emotional life.

One of your favorite items was a handy water bowl for Albie. What else did you check off your packing list before you put the keys in the ignition?

Since Albie and I are both on the cusp of old age, our respective medications were top of mind. I am 65 now and he’s about 10 – we don’t know for sure because he was a stray whom we rescued from a high-kill shelter in Louisiana in 2012. I am sure of my age, however! There was the seat cover for the back seat where Albie rode and which he would occasionally work his way behind when the top was down and he wanted protection from the wind. A good supply of treats and the kibble and canned veggies that are his staples. I brought my old and tattered copies of “Travels with Charley” and “Bound for Glory,” Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, because we planned to visit Woody’s hometown of Okemah, OK.

Photo by Peter Zheutlin

"Travels with Charley" is the main influence for "The Dog Went Over the Mountain." How do you perceive pet travel has changed since Steinbeck’s day?

We were far more connected than Steinbeck would have been, given that we could call home from the car almost everywhere we went. Whenever we needed a dog-friendly place to stay or eat we could jump online, go to BringFido and voila! It was so convenient. Steinbeck didn’t have that luxury, though he was also in a camper, not a small convertible as we were, so he wasn’t always in search of dog-friendly accommodations.

Unsurprisingly, you had to find places to walk Albie throughout your road trip. Which state was your favorite to walk him in and why?

You’re really putting me on the spot here! I don’t think I can name one, but I can tell you about some of our favorite walks. In Maryville, TN we found a network of paths in and around the city, part of a greenway, that was lovely. With or without a dog, wandering the streets of the Garden District in New Orleans is something I love to do. The trails at Lands End in San Francisco offer some of the most spectacular views you can find inside the limits of a major urban center.

What was Albie's favorite restaurant/hotel on the road?

He’s less discerning than I am, but we had a wonderful evening sitting on the bench in front of Vanelli’s Bistro in Tupelo, MS, mainly because the owner, Voz Vanelli, was such a warm and welcoming character. He’s my age, an old hippie with long gray hair, a guitar, and a good word or song for everyone who passes by. I refer to him as the maître d’ of Main Street. We found The Restful Nest Bed & Breakfast in Mariposa, CA through BringFido. We were the only guests on the first of our two nights there and the owners, Jon & Lois Moroni, invited us for dinner, which was exceptional and bountiful. They adored Albie and he joined us for all our meals. When we went up to Yosemite for the day, they packed us a goodie bag for our trip. It was the closest thing to being home (other than when we occasionally stayed with family) we would feel on the entire trip.

What was your biggest challenge or obstacle on the road with Albie?

Albie proved to be a very easy, undemanding and compliant traveler. I had two concerns when we left. First, at home, as he’s gotten older, his interactions with other dogs and even some people have become less predictable. So I was worried about that, but on the road he couldn’t have been better behaved. My second concern was whether he’d be happy on the trip, if it would be interesting for him in some way. There were a lot of long days in the car and I worried he wasn’t getting enough stimulation. But he never complained, even about my driving.

Photo by Peter Zheutlin

The book reads like an adventure, a road trip and a buddy comedy, but it also offers useful advice on what to do and what not to do for people who travel with pets. How would you sum up this advice for people planning a road trip with their dogs?

You really need to know your dog. Albie, older and mostly mellower now, didn’t need the level of exercise and stimulation a younger, more energetic dog would need. He’s also got arthritis that has steadily progressed in recent years. During our trip he could walk a mile or two, but if we had made the trip this year instead of last, he wouldn’t have been able to do even that. So, hiking 20 miles in Yosemite was never going to be on our agenda. Look, Albie and I are in the autumn of our lives; when I first traveled to Grand Canyon half a century ago, I was capable of hiking to the bottom and back up in summer’s heat. I wouldn’t attempt that now. Knowing your limitations and those of your dog, and your dog’s needs for stimulation and exercise, should be paramount in your planning.

If you could do it all again, what would you do differently about the trip?

As I write at the very beginning of the book, this was a road trip and our impressions of places were necessarily superficial. If you really want to get to know a place, you need to spend extended time there. Yet, we all form impressions, fair or not, about the places we visit, even if briefly. If we had had the time, I would have liked to have had the luxury of settling in to a few places for a couple of weeks.

What do you think Steinbeck would say about your book?

“Nice try, kid.”

Your books have taken you all over the country. Where to next? How about emulating Phileas Fogg’s trip around the world in “80 Days with Albie?” Or do you have something a little closer to home planned?

Funny you should mention Phileas Fogg. In the 1890s, my great-grandaunt, traveling under the assumed name “Annie Londonderry,” left her husband and three small children in Boston to circumnavigate the world by bicycle. (She was the subject of my first book.) I am sure she was inspired in part by Nellie Bly, the famous investigative journalist who, in 1889, as a stunt for The New York World newspaper, set out to break Fogg’s fictional record. And she did, becoming an international celebrity in the process.

But we’re staying closer to home for our next adventure. Every year for the past several years, we’ve taken the dogs for a winter break to the Charleston, SC area. That’s a two-day car trip in two cars with three dogs because we can’t all fit in one. We’re doing it again this winter.

Photo by Peter Zheutlin

Finally, did you find what you were looking for on the road with Albie?

I didn’t set out looking for anything in particular. I just wanted, as Steinbeck did, to rediscover my country at this later stage of my life. I did sort of hope that, after spending six weeks on the road with a creature that doesn’t dwell on his own mortality, I’d come back more accepting of the inevitable. I can’t say I did. But we did learn that despite all the bitterness, rancor, and divisiveness of our times that there’s still a large reservoir of common decency out there that we need to hold on to.

The warm welcome we found wherever we went struck me. It was the coffee shop employee in Tupelo who gave Albie a cup of whipped cream with bacon bits that I didn’t ask for. The intimidating group of motorcyclists in Los Banos, CA who kept gesturing toward me at a stoplight to let me know my gas cap was dangling from the side of the car. It was the homeless woman in Redding, CA who shared intimate details of life on the streets and, on Mother’s Day, wished me a happy Father’s Day come June. It was the ex-Marine cycling around the country for more than two years we met in Bismarck, ND. I spoke to him for an hour, political polar opposites who nevertheless engaged with mutual respect on the politics of the day, a conversation likely to have devolved into insults if held behind the barrier of social media. On the surface things seem calm, but something unsettling is afoot across America. The question is whether the better angels of our nature will prevail.

Have you ever been on an epic road trip with your dog? Leave a comment or tweet us @BringFido!