I thought our first blog of the trip was going to be super boring, a rant about how unhappy we are to have left home and how difficult it is to adjust to meaningless wandering with no schedule again. I should have known better. With nine dogs to keep things interesting, including four very naughty puppies, how could our first day be anything but an adventure?
Today’s adventure took place in Belgium, at a rest stop near Brussels. Using our trusty European Truck Stop app, Travis was able to find a place that had multiple reviews stating an open gate that would lead to a big free area where we could run the dogs off leash for a few hours. As usual, the information was reliable and the dogs spent a happy twenty minutes or so running around and doing their business while Trav caught up with his girlfriend Georgia and I moped around feeling irritable. Eventually, we figured it was time for feeding, since we’d been on the road all morning and had made everyone skip breakfast since it was too busy at the truck stop we spent the night at to safely have all the dogs out at once. Everyone seemed calm, the area seemed secure, so Trav went back to the caravan to get feeds and I stayed to watch the hooligans.
Within minutes, Zima, typically, decided to lead her brothers on a scouting expedition through the wooded areas surrounding our clearing. I followed at first, calling half heartedly to them and glancing back now and again to be sure the older dogs were with me. After getting caught in a couple of pricker bushes, I stopped and realised that Nibble had remained where she was at the gate, intently watching for Travis’s return. Nervous about leaving her where I couldn’t see her when the general public could wander in at any time, I backtracked, reasoning that the puppies wouldn’t get far by the time Travis returned with food, and hungry as they were bound to be, they’d return quickly at the sound of a shaken food bowl… this method worked at home when they wandered out of eyesight after all.
I confidently shook a food bowl and called for Zima and Dobbie a few times, then waited without concern to see the four of them flying towards me, eager for their late breakfast. After a minute or two, I took a few steps towards where I’d last seen their white tipped tails and shook the bowl a little more ferociously, adding in Slade and Balkan’s names and a slightly panicked “PUPPIES,” which we’d used to round them up their entire lives. The adults chowed down while I walked deeper into the woods, and the thorny branches now springing up everywhere. I tried to remind myself that there wasn’t really anywhere for them to get off too, and that they had probably just wandered slightly out of hearing. Travis went in the opposite direction while I started shaking the food bowl constantly and we both called, increasingly desperate and irritated, for our brats. Three or four minutes later, we regrouped where the older dogs had finished eating and agreed that he would take them back to the caravan, change into pants to protect himself from the thorns, while I headed out into the cornfields just behind the woods. Travis’s annoyance was plain, he hadn’t wanted to let them all off at once anyways, and I was trying to cover my concern with a airy comment about how they’d surely be back as soon as we went looking for them properly.
I followed the trail the puppies had created in the tall grass until I reached the cornfield. There was no sign of them anywhere, and only the rustling of the cornstalks breaking up a rather deafening silence. Even the sounds of the nearby highways were muffled in all that corn, and I wished I’d brought Wasi along to keep me company. I wandered back and forth for a few minutes, trying to make a game out of my panic by pretending I was a tracker of old. I scanned the ground for paw prints, confident that four still clumsy puppies would have left an easily followable trail in the deep, impressionable dirt. It took me a few minutes, but I did eventually stumble on a paw print that clearly belonged to a Slade or Balkan. Success, I thought, check me out, tracker extraordinaire! It bothered me a little that there was only one clear print, and none of the jumble of tracks you’d expect from four dogs running together. But I followed the prints I could see every few feet, shaking that food bowl, confident I would stumble onto them at any minute.
Twenty minutes later, with scratches covering every body part, and an itch spreading across my legs and arms from god knows what was on all those thorns and stickers, I broke free of the corn field to a clear walking path. A field of cows were to my right, with an open meadow to my left before it turned in to what appeared to be a Christmas tree farm. The paw prints I’d been following were long gone and after so long struggling along the edge of the cornfield, I was able to orient myself only because the highway was now directly in front of me. The puppies were no where to be seen. I struggled to hold back tears and to silence the berating voice in my head that was reminding me that if they were gone, it was my fault. I spotted our truck stop back to my right and after a few more shakes of the bowl and desperate calls of “PUPPIES,” I headed back. I was trying to reassure myself that they were all microchipped, all had dog tags with Travis’s phone number and our social media tag line, hell they even still had their haltis on so someone would pick them up and get in touch. We’d planned to spend the night there anyways so surely they’d either be found or wander back in at some point in the next few hours.
I braced myself to walk back into the thorns edging the cornfield, wondering if this rest stop had a shower because I was going to need one to wash off all the sweat and whatever poison those prickers had got me with. I could feel blood dripping from the scratches on my legs and sighed at the thought of a pair of my favourite pants gone. It’s crazy what you think about in a crisis isn’t it? About 100 yards along the field, I ran across the start of fencing the truck stop was on the other side of. I glanced up at some trash cans and saw a flash of white… Zima and all three of her brothers were happily digging through what they could reach on the ground. She must have smelled me, because before I could say anything, she looked over and let out a happy bark. All four of them bounced over to the fence line, tails wagging, clearly pleased with themselves and not the least bit stressed from their adventures. They were lucky a fence was between us, because I was torn between overwhelming relief and a very strong desire to beat the lot of them. In the end I just stared for a minute while I took ten deep breaths before shaking the bowl again so they’d follow me and starting along the fence line towards the gate. I had to come off the fence for a while to fight my way back through to the clearing, and I ran into Travis, who promptly jumped over the barbed wire surrounding the corn and went off to round them up. It took me another three or four minutes to fight through the thorns and stickers, and, helpful bitch (literally and figuratively) that she is, Zima reappeared a minute or so in to lead me out… easy for her to do since she could duck under the majority of what was holding me back.
If you’re wondering, there’s no point in scolding them since they had, after all, returned. So we fed them, made a lot of comments to each other about how they’re never coming off their leashes ever again, took stock of our injuries and took them back to the caravan for water and their crate. Exhausted, mentally and physically form the ordeal, I sat down on the sidewalk and was promptly surrounded by happy, not the least bit apologetic puppies. Zima climbed in my lap for a snuggle and I started to laugh… while we definitely will not be repeating this experience (I hope), at least it had forced me to think about something other then missing home. You can always count on the Travelling Menagerie for an adventure!