Many moons ago, after high school but before college, I left home and traveled around the country. A free spirit some called me, I chose not to hitchhike as some others I knew did. Instead I drove my black ’94 5 speed Mazda car named Taye-Diggable. I lived on handouts and frequented dumpsters, making my home in tents in national forests, staying only a few nights before I moved on to the next point of interest. I lived this way for just under two years, sometimes traveling with others I met and sometimes alone. During those solitary drives across deserts and around mountains, I often found myself daydreaming about what it would be like to have a dog.
I had a dog back home named Asia, but she had become my mom’s companion and probably was too sick anyway to be on the road. Unfortunately, she was raised by humans who, ignorant to the outcome of their choices, thought it was just wonderful to share human food with the dog. She became diabetic and required insulin shots for the last year of her life. She was my first dog. I still miss the way she would lay at the end of Mom’s bed and wait for her pieces of bedtime snack popcorn, and the way she would shake with one paw and then the other, when you asked nicely.
One hot October day in eastern Arizona, about 50 miles outside of Winslow, I was driving tired, bored, and half mesmerized by the road, and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two small balls of fur just off the side of the road. My companion at the time acknowledged my gasp by shaking his head and saying, “No, don’t do it. We don’t need any dogs.” I thought about it for about .8 seconds and then whipped the car around, pulled off and got out. I used a sweet gentle voice as I tiptoed around the cacti and sagebrush to the two pups. They were slightly scared but had their noses in the air as if to smell my intention in coming close to them. As I approached, I could see just how similar they were to each other. They had solid color on their heads and backs, and lighter, speckled color underneath, and where one was black, the other was a brownish-orange. Their paws were not very big and they still had puppy breath so I guessed they were about 2 months old. They didn’t seem unhealthy or very hungry so I presumed they had recently been dropped off out there in the desert. We took one last look around as if to be sure some wandering owner wasn’t going to appear and claim them, and we put them into the back seat. They looked even smaller back there, just as people say about their new-born babies just leaving the hospital. They had obviously ridden in a moving vehicle before, as they didn’t seem threatened, just laid down and closed their eyes.
We set up camp that night after buying some puppy food from a Love’s station and the pups snuggled into our sleeping bags. We determined that the black one was a boy and the orange, a girl; brother and sister. The next day we visited a library computer and learned that they must be some form of Australian cattle dog, or a dingo and healer mix, typically very gentle, friendly and smart. We decided that the boy would belong to my friend, and so he got the name Onion. The girl then would belong to me, and after a few hours on the road, I came up with the name Azaylia.
In an RV park near Quartzite, we met some ladies who being retired, lived a similar lifestyle to ours, except of course that they did so in the comfort of their air conditioned RV. We learned two things that day. The first was that my friend decided he did not want the responsibility of caring for a dog. Accordingly, Onion became the RV ladies’ new road dog and they promised to take very good care of him. The second thing we learned was that the name Azaylia was already taken by a popular flowering bush, actually spelled Azalea. I decided to keep the name and my spelling, and soon called her Zail for short.
Zail became my best friend. She snuggled in my lap by the campfire, sat when I asked, and ever so gently took treats from the hands of children. (Not people food of course) save for the infrequent occasion that we didn’t have dog food and shared our beef jerky with her. She was by my side when I got lost in the desert, when I lived and traveled on a school bus, when I met my husband, when I brought home a baby from the hospital, when we moved to Carbondale, when we went to the Great National Sand Dunes of Colorado, the Float trips on Current River, the beaches of Key West, and both Garden of the Gods, when Julius learned to ride a bike, and she’s been there when I’ve laughed, cried, thrown-up, and most of all, when I needed a friend.
During our second week in Oklahoma, Zail loaded up onto the back of the work truck just like the other dogs, but must have jumped off before the truck left the pasture on its way back to the house, three miles away. We drove out that night with a spotlight and hollered and whistled and did not see any sign of her. Aaron was kicking himself the whole time, feeling so terrible that he had not checked to be sure all the dogs were still loaded up. I recalled that she only had a rabies tag, not a phone number. The next day we posted flyers at local stores and churches and on Facebook and we went door to door to every house near that section. Speaking with those people gave me a lot of hope because each one of them knew someone who would “be out working” the next day. And everyone was sympathetic, most of them having their own dogs in the front yard, and promised they’d call. Every time the phone rang, I jumped and ran to it, disappointed again and again. On the third night, we had the upstairs windows open while I read bedtime stories to Julius. Outside, I could hear the coyotes whining and I broke down crying at the thought of her being killed by those wild dogs. I cried so much that my nasal cavities were swollen shut. To lose a dog is to lose a part of yourself. It is no different than losing a family member and she was part of our family, longer even than the other two members of my family. I called to her in my mind and I told myself and my family that she was alive and she was coming back tomorrow.
On father’s day morning, I awoke to the sound of a clickety clickety click on the hallway floor and Grandpa saying, “Someone’s here to see you.” I sat up and looked over the edge of the bed and there she was with those big brown eyes that screamed I’m sorry and I missed you and I love you. We both got out of bed then and assessed her minimal wounds and told her what a good girl she was. She had probably followed the truck for quite a ways before it got so far that she got tired and began walking. It would have been dark by then and she may have hunkered down for the night. She showed up at a house with kids who wanted a dog and probably gave her lots of love. They had heard from a friend about the flyer and decided to call. I got to meet the woman of that house at the Fourth of July celebration. When she was introduced to me, I gave her a big hug and thanked her for taking care of my baby. It’s the Oklahoma quality of generosity at work that I saw on her and others’ faces in my time of despair.
Azaylia’s back paw pads were worn raw, her face had a scratch, and she had a small gash on her leg. She slept for two days. I so wish that she could tell me about her adventure, but then maybe I don’t want to know. What I do know is that she is one seasoned beautiful lady, a gal’s best friend, and she now sports a tag with her name and phone number.