Driving along the Muskogee Turnpike that Saturday night, I was a wreck.
I had set out way too late – again! – that morning from Nashville. It would be well after dark – again! – before I reached Tulsa. This was only Night Three, but I was already exhausted and ready to pack it in.
Oh, and another thing. My iPod had crapped out – again! – which, for me, qualifies as a national state of emergency. I’m not a big radio guy, so no iPod = no tunes. I had three things in mind when I signed up for this cross-country road trip: (1) take my adorable dog to visit my far-away son on the sunny campus of USC; (2) see the whole U.S. of A. into the bargain, and (3) listen to my music non-stop, with no one (Carol . . .) telling me Taylor Swift should stop singing about what it’s like to be 15, for God’s sake, and no one (Carol . . .) complaining “It’s too loud – could you please turn that thing down!”
But my biggest problem – by far – was that in just 72 hours, Ricky had driven me to near-lunacy with his frenzied forays into the rear cargo area of my Acura MDX, where his Holy Grail – the 17-inch high cannister of Royal Canin high-protein venison – loomed, beckoning. He was no longer my lovable, if quirky, beagle. He had truly become Feral Dog. Just so you understand: With the car moving, with the soothing thrum of the engine, he was still Mr. Perfect, snoring like a furry little angel. But each pit stop, which should have lasted five minutes max, had turned into a half-hour, no-holds-barred wrestling match between me and my satanically-possessed 30-pound pet.
It couldn’t go on like this.
I pulled off the road at a gritty truck stop in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, determined to prevent Kamikaze Ricky from getting the best of me. To plug the gap between the driver’s seatback and Ricky’s shotgun seatback, I erected an impregnable barrier from the floor of the cargo space to the roof, made up of a large case of Poland Springs 16.9-ounce water bottles, my blue Nike overnight bag, a plastic egg crate filled to the gills with travel books, and another storage crate jammed with emergency road supplies – jumper cables, extra flashlights and batteries, heavy blankets. This layer I fortified with two humongous green L.L. Bean duffels worth of clothing and a carton of complimentary Triple-A TourBooks, maps, and brochures. Still further back, I filled in with some items Robby had requested as reinforcements for his hard life on the West Coast: his Razor scooter, his tennis racket, and a pair of high-powered Bose speakers to better blast his iPod out his second-floor dorm window onto McCarthy Way.
This is what now separated Ricky from his food supply.
Not that I was worried about my dog actually getting into the food. The storage container holding it was 100 percent dog-proof. It was made of heavy-duty, industrial-strength plastic. You’d have a hard time blasting it open with dynamite.
I just didn’t even want him trying. I was sick and tired of having to chase him down every time I left the car for a whiz, or a fill-up.
Well, he wasn’t going anywhere this time.
No way, Jose.
First I pumped gas, eyes fixed on Ricky’s the whole time I held the nozzle, daring him to move. He sat at attention, stock-still. It was a staring contest at high noon, and neither of us blinked. I slowly backed away from the Acura, eyes still locked with Ricky’s. After about 20 paces, I turned and dashed to the rest room in the convenience store to take care of my business. I couldn’t have been gone for more than two minutes.
I scampered back to my car, having blindly convinced myself that I’d find Ricky in the shotgun seat where I’d left him. How could he be anywhere else? Hadn’t I built a goddamn barricade around him? Hadn’t I constructed a freaking fortress that no normal creature could breach?
I peered through the passenger-side front window.
The shotgun seat was empty.
Couldn’t be. I took a step toward the back of the car and looked anxiously through the rear-passenger window. Still no sign of Ricky. Was it the glare of the sun on the glass that was hiding him from view? Could I be hallucinating? Had Ricky finally driven me loco?
One more step back. Frantic now, I searched through the tinted cargo window at the back of the car. From there I could just make out a brown, black, and white little dog wedged between one of the huge Bean duffels, the crate of books, and Robby’s scooter, looking horribly squished and contorted, his head swiveled on his neck in a scary, Linda-Blair-like angle – yet still with his jaws clenched resolutely onto the lid of his food cannister, teeth gnawing feverishly.
I yanked open the hatch and wildly flung suitcases and guidebooks to the gravelly blacktop in order to excavate my monomanical beagle. I was worried, of course, that he’d be buried alive. At the same time I was livid that he’d foiled me once again. Isn’t my brain supposed to be about 25 times the size of my dog’s?
I was finally able to reach my 30 pounds of furry fury and and pry his jaws-of-life from the prize. The allegedly indestructible lid of the animal-proof container was now pocked with teethmarks – gashes so deep you could clearly make out the contents. Ricky could now not only smell those fragrant chunks of venison; he could actually see them.
I was so angry with him I felt like . . . I don’t even want to say it. Clearly, something had to be done if I was going to make it to L.A. without murdering my pet.
It was during my Sunday morning shower that I figured it out.
The evening before, somewhere on the Muskogee Turnpike between Fort Gibson and Broken Arrow, it occurred to me that before I’d left Connecticut, had I used half a brain, I’d have installed one of those doggy barriers that all the local Fairfield County soccer moms have in their SUVs to keep the golden retriever cozy and secure in the way-back. So I called ahead to Brenda and Bill, my oldest son’s friend’s parents, whom I was visiting in Tulsa – and Brenda very graciously researched the portable gates for me, locating a Petsmart that not only had them in stock, but also would be open on Sunday.
There was a problem, though. In the chaotic landfill the Acura cargo space had become in just three short days – yesterday’s boxers, empty water bottles, worn and sweaty T-shirts, a discarded flashlight – where was I going to find room to set up the barrier? I had so much crap back there I never should have packed! Two humongous cannisters of water some nervous-Nelly website (ForPussiesOnly.com, it should have bee called) told me I should never be without on a cross-country drive, as if I were traversing the bleepin’ Sahara. Tons of running gear that, because of Ricky’s need for a 24/7 corrections officer, I’d never have time to use. Tons of books I must have been smoking something if I thought I’d ever get to read. And Ricky’s 30”x24”x21” black metal crate, which was doing nothing but taking up space. I’d already cut my hand on a loose, jagged edge of the damn thing while groping around the cargo mosh pit for a fresh pair of socks and . . .
And that’s when it hit me. Like a celestial ray, bathing the shower stall with light.
I had Ricky’s crate in the car – and I was scouring Tulsa for a dog barrier? I had Ricky’s crate in the car – and I was using it to house his blankets and squeaky toys and doggy bed? I had Ricky’s crate in the car – and I was spending an hour-and-a-half a day constructing and reconstructing ramparts made of suitcases, guidebooks, and water jugs?
Hey – instead of chasing my infernal beagle over every inch of the 143 cubic feet  of interior space, from steering wheel to spare tire, 15 times a day – how ‘bout I try using Ricky’s crate to put Ricky in?
I bounded out of the shower, barely rinsing off the soap, still dripping, dying to share my Eureka breakthrough with Brenda and Bill. Brenda responded to my epiphany in a manner that was, as I think back upon it, quite delicately phrased: “I kind of wondered if you’d brought a crate along, but I assumed if you had, you’d already be using it.”
I used my hosts’ driveway as a staging area, emptying everything – everything – from the cargo space, and starting from scratch. I dumped the “emergency” water containers. I stashed my running gear out of the way – in the well over the spare tire. I tossed a bunch of paperbacks. I policed the Acura for used napkins and crumpled-up McDonalds bags and styrofoam coffee cups and stuffed it all into the Millers’ garbage shed. I kept what I needed, and only what I needed – and reorganized the way-back so the the things I’d want frequently were easy to reach.
Then I emptied Ricky’s crate, storing his belongings in newly available spaces. And I set up the crate in the rear-most section of the cargo area, with its door positioned so that it could easily swing open unimpeded, should I need to march Ricky back there for a “time out.”
I felt as if the world had been lifted from my shoulders. Sure, it had taken me three days to figure this out, but better late than never. I thought about the behavior of my dog that had led me to do this. God, what a single-minded creature! Kind of like the Tim Robbins character  who for 20 years used a tiny rock hammer he’d gotten from the Morgan Freeman character  to chip and burrow his way from his prison cell to freedom in The Shawshank Redemption.
In spite of myself, I had to admire my dog’s relentlessness. He simply would not take “no” for an answer. There was something about his doggedness (haha) that felt quite . . . familiar.
He reminded me of someone else I knew very, very well.
If you’re still reading, check out this post on Beagle Man, when I had just started off on LA/XC-1.