Today marked the beginning. I woke up in a nervous rush, loaded the car and walked through the house six or seven times making sure the lights were turned off and that the doors were all locked. It was raining, adding a kind of urgency to our hitting the road. However, I felt the enormity of it all quickly begin to sink in just as I closed my bedroom door. I found myself standing there, letting a moment pass, coming to the frank realization that I would not be returning home for many months and that I would be hiking through hundreds of miles of the most rugged terrain in the eastern United States. I stood there torn, wishing to both leave and to stay at the same time, and my hand slowly reached for the handle. I opened the door and looked in on the room, my room, with its short, twin beds and it’s brightly colored walls. In that moment, I realized I was looking in on a child’s room and the uncertainty of what lay ahead took me by incredible surprise. Who would be the person returning to this room in four months or more? Who would be the person to sit on the end of the bed and gaze into the portraits of Confederate generals that hung on the wall with the same interest that I have now? Would I return from such a long trek the same boy who was standing in the doorway, gazing in on the tightly made up beds, one with the checkered quilt my mother had sewn laid across it? Shutting the door this morning was the beginning, the first steps.
After the truck was packed and we were ready to go, I knew it was now time to say farewell to our dogs. Francis, the most protective of our small pack and whose loyalty knows no bounds, gently trotted up and sat looking up at me with her dark hazel eyes, as if to show me that, even with the falling rain, she would watch over the house with us boys out of town. A stray puppy who had wandered onto our front porch in the middle of terrible snowstorm, the shivering little Francis was taken in and raised as one of our own. She has since spent everyday roaming our property line, watching over us, as if to repay a debt she feels she owes our family for saving her. I smiled down at her and she raised her chin in a proud way, rarely seen in a stray. I knelt beside her and patted her big, soaking head, telling her goodbye. She looked into my eyes with an unbreakable seriousness, realizing the great responsibility I was asking of her. I rose up and then approached our Gordon Setter, Sophie, who, unlike Francis, has no protective side. What she is lacking as a guardian, however, is made up for ten times by the unconditional love she possesses for ever living creature. Many times we have found her cuddled up with our young cat, Ron, cleaning and nuzzling him as if he were her own. Years ago, as a puppy, Sophie was bitten by a Timber Rattler and just barely survived. Time has made it apparent that she never fully recovered from her venomous encounter and my family has watched her aged far quicker than her years should have allowed. As I walked up to her, sitting underneath the roof of our garage, she rocked back and forth, trying to get up to greet me. I knelt down beside her and and I rested my hand upon the knapp of her neck, as to motion to her to remain where she sat. Her eyes rolled in all directions as I caressed the soft spots under her ears and I could see that there was enough puppy still left in her to not realize that I was saying goodbye. The excitement in her big dark eyes asked what it was we would do today and she leaned in to lick my face. I slowly stood and Sophie remained where she sat, staring up at me with happiness written all over her face. I smiled at her, hiding my sadness as to not spoil her ignorance. I then proceeded to the other side of the garage where our oldest dog, Louie, lay with his head resting on his paws. I started toward him and he raised his eyes to meet mine. I have said goodbye to Louie like this many times before. In high school, my everyday interactions with him, roaming the woods and hiking the trails around our home, was cut short by my going off to boarding school and then, eventually, to college. Each time I left he seemed to know it beforehand and each time I returned I saw him age just a little bit more. My eyes now fell upon the sad face of a twelve year-old Boykin Spaniel and, as I sat down on the concrete next to him, he lifted himself and slowly crawled into my lap. Deep within his fading yellow eyes, I saw nothing but an unshakable companionship, an overwhelming love and respect that neither distance nor time apart had ever withered. He whimpered slightly but quickly ceased, as if to let me know that, despite his aged body, he was still strong enough to say goodbye. For only a few moments we sat there as the pattering Virginia rain fell from gray skies before he finally stood. When he arose, however, it was not in the straining way he had done so beforehand, but solid and youthful. I too got up quickly from the concrete ground, just as he had, and stared into those yellow eyes, not speaking a word. For only a short time we shared this moment and then he turned his back and dashed off into the soaking woods and I too turned and climbed into the cab of our fully loaded truck, put the key in the ignition, and drove off down the gravel without once looking back.
Tonight my brother and I are in Durham, North Carolina spending the night in my parents’s new home. Of course my brother is sleeping on the queen-sized mattress while I have occupied my spot of the carpet and I’m left with nothing to do but to reflect upon the days events. Jake and I are heading off for what might be the greatest and grandest adventure of our lives. We will no doubt face struggles and triumphs that we have never and may never face again. Perhaps it is simply fear for the uncertainty of what lies ahead, such as the fear of failure or that I may discover that I am a weaker person than I, at first, assumed. Perhaps it is the strong attachments that I have for my home remaining from all the years of my childhood which provokes such sentiment. Maybe it is coming to the realization that the time has finally come and we are really doing this. I guess it will become apparent when we finally begin our trek in three days time, or perhaps it will remain a mystery. Whatever I may feel, I know, with absolute certainty, its basis is not out of lack of want. As we now rest upon the eve of grand adventure, I have found that fear and doubt seem to only strengthen my resolve to begin and, hopefully, finish. Today was the beginning. Let tomorrow lead only one day closer to our departure and let tonight pass gently by.