Five years ago I looked into a cage and said, "Stay here, I'm getting you out," to my dog, Dusty-Danger. He was sitting in the second pin at a shelter in Austin, TX, a shelter that had become known for putting down 50 percent of their animals. Walking into the joint was a random accident, a moment in which I was looking to escape the Texas heat, but a good choice. I had no intention of getting a dog, but was enamored by his one blue, one brown eye, and his charm. Chewbacca, Dr. Watson and the entire career of Dom DeLuise should all kneel before the fur-covered sidekick-ery of Dusty-Danger.
Dusty had been abandoned twice, once for financial concerns, and another because he "follows" people around the house. As Dusty and I got to know each other I was concerned he would cramp my style: I travel a lot, especially in the summer time, and didn't want to be held back. On the third day of having the dog I almost took him back to the shelter. He urinated on my books just as a new episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations was about to come on, the episode in which Bourdain goes to Spain and watches chocolate eggs melt in the sun. I was furious. Dusty and I hadn't gotten our rhythm down yet, and it wouldn't work, but that night he climbed into bed and snuggled with me, putting his nose on my leg. I promised him I would never leave, and never take him back to the shelter. Since then we go everywhere together, get pizza every week, wrestle and sniff. Dusty has become better known, and more popular, in the city of Austin than me.
I'm a creative writing professor, mostly plays and non-fiction, and after publishing an essay in the New York Time's "Modern Love" column last year about my relationship with Dusty my agent had an idea: what if the two of us hit the road and make a book out of it? You know, like John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley but with a modern spin. Two years from, now Dusty will be 10, I will be 40, President Obama will be in his last term as the first black president, and I believe the National Park Services will turn 99 years old. My idea is to interview everyone we encounter as we travel the country and ask them about where their lives are, where they think America is and where all of this is going. Dusty can be a catalyst for conversation. He does have charm, and is good at "following" people around.
We begin with what Joseph Campbell calls the "call to adventure" and start in Austin. As I've plotted our journey, I've bought a three-foot by four-foot map of the United States and pinned it to my dinning room wall. From Austin we head south to San Antonio and see the River Walk. Then, we drive across the south boards of the country, hit various parks, maybe Joshua Tree, and on to Los Angeles where we old friends and I can complete a tattoo I started 15 years ago on my arm. From there we go up the coast to San Francisco, maybe to Makers Fair, then Portland for some pizza at Apizza Schools (Dusty does love pizza), then to Seattle and see my brother's family.
From Seattle we go to the Twins Cities to see my Korean cousins, probably stopping off at Devil's Tower and every state fair we find. Then, across Wisconsin, take a ferry to Michigan (I know a person who makes kimonos out of old tea bags in Kalamazoo), go into the Rust Belt during high school football season, over the upper portion of New York State to the Boston area where I think we can hornswoggle our way into staying at the Norman Mailer Foundation for a while and organize the stories we have collected so far.
From there we will slide down the East Coast, hit New Haven (pizza at Frank Pepe's) before going to my old home of New York City and Coney Island. Then into the mountains of the Carolinas, and down into Florida where we might be able to camp out at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and talk art with people on the beach. Then, Dusty and I take the Gulf Coast route to New Orleans, and up the Mississippi River until we hit the Midwest where we can see my grandmother for her 90th birthday. Then on to Chicago, where we organize all the stories we collect into a book maybe at the Hemingway House. The dog and I are getting old, and I know we will have to say goodbye some day, but one last adventure, one last escapade might just be the most important thing we could do together. Not just to see and report on where our country is, by we are. I'm thinking about calling it "Away With Dusty."
I tell my students the only rule to writing is to get a dog. When you have a good day, when the writing goes well, and you get grants, and the reviews are good, the dog doesn't care. The dog wants to go outside, smell things, poop, play with you, lick you, eat some peanut butter, and snuggle in bed with you, because you are the dog's best friend. When you have a bad day, when you know the play you are writing is bad, is never gonna get produced, when you get rejection letters or, my personal favorite in this economy, get a phone call from your granter informing that they can't give you the money you were awarded because times are rough, the dog doesn't care. The dog wants to go outside, smell things, poop, play with you, lick you, eat some peanut butter and snuggle in bed with you, because you are the dog's best friend.
A dog keeps you grounded.
Today is Dusty's eighth birthday. The shelter I rescued him from is "no kill" now. We are having a surprise party for him at the Off-Center in East Austin, the Rude Mechanical's theatre, with the cast of Three, or The Sound of the Great Existential Nothingness -- my latest adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters. We will have pizza, take pictures, wrestle, sniff and tell stories before the actors have to do their thing. Sometimes I wonder if the dog and I are growing old before we grow up, but I'll never take him back to the shelter. I promised him I wouldn't.