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Sunday, September 10, 2006

An expotition by canoe on the lake at Herringon Manor State Park. This is a scene I feel sure I will not witness again. Nor, for that matter, will any of our friends who were there.
It was our 13th anniversary, after all. We wanted to spend it with friends, three other families with kids. It took a day and half to pack for it, this weekend getaway at Herrington Manor State Park in Oakland, Maryland. Packing involves getting binoculars, spotting scope, swimsuits, lifejackets, canoe paddles, barbeque tools, clothes, towels, soap, sheets, blankets, pillows, pads, food for three meals a day, condiments, baking pans, a decent skillet and spatula, Frisbees, footballs, beer, wine, juice, dishwashing liquid, dish sponge…I know I'm forgetting something here; I always do… and when all that is stuffed into two groaning vehicles we tie two canoes on top of the Explorer and are finally and exhaustedly ready to drive almost four hours and have a relaxing weekend with dear friends.
We also took Chet Baker.

As one drives into the park, there is a sign stating that no pets are allowed in the park from Memorial Day through Labor Day. This might seem to intimate that it's OK to bring a dog after Labor Day. And last year, though we put Chet Baker in a kennel, we saw a number of other dogs trotting happily beside their owners through the park's cabin area. Over the ensuing year, Chet Baker has gone from our dog to something more. I won't try to define what he means to us. That's obvious to anyone who reads this blog. Suffice it to say that it's really hard now for us to have a good time, knowing he's waiting for us in a stainless-steel cubicle in the basement of the veterinarian's office. And so, against our better judgment, we decided to bring Chet. We'd put his cushy bed and blankets in the car so there could be no possible chance he'd damage anything. It seemed like a plan.

We stay in rustic cabins at this park. They date from the 1930's, from the government work programs that gave the newly destitute masses something constructive to do. Their floors are wide planks of wood, deeply scored by saws from decades of vacationers who cut their firewood in the living room. The cabins are pervaded by the reek of creosote and mouse urine; little mouse feet patter overhead all night long. Bats chitter from eaves; chipmunks dart in and out of the foundation; a skunk met us on our back porch as we checked in. That’s fine with us. Between the reek and the crackly sleeping platforms and the mouse chorus lines, the cabins are not particularly restful, but sleep deprivation is part of weekends away with the family. Since there's no carpet, and no bedding whatsoever, it's difficult to divine what a small, squeaky-clean and impeccably mannered Boston terrier might do to damage one of these cabins if he tried. Or so our rationale, admittedly flawed by puppy love, went.

The first night went well. We arrived just before dusk, unpacked, scrabbled together a meal, and hung out with our friends. In the morning, we went out to the park's playing fields to watch a parade of warblers, tanagers, vireos, finches and flycatchers moving along the ridgetop. Chet sat beside us, patient at the end of his leash, just happy to be included. A park ranger pulled over and inquired if we were staying in the cabins. Yes, we are.
“You're aware there's a no pets policy?”
“Well, sort of. Isn’t it OK after Labor Day?”
“Well, not really. Just keep him under wraps so other guests don't get the idea it's OK to bring their dogs, OK?”
“You bet. Thank you.”
It was the nicest, gentlest possible bust. The ranger got in his truck and drove away. We settled into a day of bliss with Chet Baker as a full, if closeted, member of the gathering. Bill and I made blueberry pancakes and sausages for everyone for breakfast. We spent the morning paddling around on the lake, then all trooped back to our cabin again for soup beans and cornbread. I'd made the soup at home and lugged it to Maryland in gallon jugs. I baked the cornbread, golden and perfect, in the oven in our cabin. We loved feeding our friends, and they planned to reciprocate with dinner, breakfast and lunch in the days to follow.Aveen and Phoebe with what Aveen called "a small, large-mouthed bass." Aveen caught a total of four bass on Saturday, totalling nine ounces of fish. All were released, despite our entreaties to provide dinner for eleven.

Saturday afternoon, I took off on a hike along the park's miles of trails, Chet Baker bounding happily at my side. We took the .9 mile Green loop, and itching for more, set off on the more ambitious 2.4 mile Blue loop. As the miles rolled away, my mind relaxed, in the way it only does when I'm walking with my little dog. Chet and I saw two deer, six wild turkeys, and about 70 chipmunks. When I'd stop to sit on a log, Chet would jump up beside me. He's the perfect hiking companion. He's enthusiastic, but quiet and considerate. He even pants soundlessly, something I deeply appreciate when I'm listening for birds. We heard a barred owl, and Chet met his first horses. I held him in my arms as he touched noses with them, then licked their faces. The riders laughed, and one remarked that she'd never seen a dog do that. The horses seemed pleasantly surprised, their eyes wide, their ears as far forward as they would go. Chet and I continued on our way, always taking the farthest loops, loving the solitude and the walking.

Chet and I finally loped into camp after 6 PM. Bill hadn't been the least bit worried about me, even though I'd been gone for four hours. He knows that I'm most at home in the woods of anyplace on earth. But our daughter Phoebe was pale, and her eyes were wide. A female ranger had knocked on the door of our cabin while she was alone inside, and “yelled at me about Chet.” Uh-oh. Phoebe told me that the ranger had said that I should report to the park office immediately upon returning. This had happened just before 5 p.m. I looked at my watch, doubting that anyone would be there after 6 p.m. on a Saturday. I decided to let it ride. I didn't particularly want to talk to someone who would yell at a ten-year-old girl. I wanted to pour a glass of wine and join my friends and family, who were playing music around a picnic table next door, and preparing for a feast.

We sang a few songs, and then Bill and I went over to our cabin to clean up for dinner. I was just climbing into the shower when a truck pulled up, and the female ranger rapped smartly on the door. The bathroom door opened and Bill tossed Chet, who had been sleeping off our hike in his own little bed, inside with me. I listened as the ranger, backed up by another male ranger, launched her accusations. “We understand you have a dog in this cabin. Are you aware that we have a no pets policy?”
Bill equivocated, not exactly admitting to being aware of the policy, and alluding to the fact that dogs are allowed in the park after Labor Day. I listened, mouth agape, as the iceberg of their conversation began to turn over. The rangers began talking about our writing the manager, applying for a refund for our stay. It sank in on me that we were being kicked out of our cabin. I put my clothes back on and went out to see if I could help.

Bill and I offered to keep Chet locked in the car. What harm could he do, locked in our car?
“Dogs aren't allowed in the cabin area at all.”
“Even in a locked car?”
“No. People come to this park because we offer allergen-free cabins. They expect a clean environment without dog hair.”
At this, I had to interject. “ I'd hardly call this cabin an allergen-free environment. It reeks of mouse urine!” Phoebe and I had had to take Claritin on arrival, and we’d been up coughing much of the night. My observations were not helping, I could see that, but the ludicrousness of the situation was overwhelming. The rangers smiled and laughed nervously. It was clear that they were enjoying their first real bust in a long time.
“How can he spread allergens when he's locked in our car?”
“It's the principle, Ma'am.”
And that was the crux of it all. It didn't have to make sense. This wasn't about dogs, or allergens. This was about a Rule Being Broken. This was about retribution.
The rangers suggested that we get a hotel in town.
“Why would we get a hotel in town?” we countered. “We don't want to stay in town. We want to stay here, and leave first thing in the morning. We're just sitting down to dinner! It's 7 o'clock on a Saturday night! We're four hours from home!”
I offered another compromise. “How about if I leave with Chet, and spend the night in the car with him, outside the park? This would at least allow my family to stay, have something to eat, and get some sleep.”
“No. We're sorry. We're just doing our jobs. You'll all have to leave, immediately.”
It was time for the time-honored play. “Who's your supervisor?” Bill asked.
The rangers eagerly offered his name. And then offered to call “Kenny” at home, and see if he would change his mind. But, they warned, Kenny had told them to evict us in the first place, so they doubted that he would. Kenny was new, and somewhat strict. We should start packing. They'd come back in a few minutes, after they'd talked with Kenny, and tell us what our fate would be.
From the bathroom, Chet let out the tiniest little moan, a dog question. Why am I locked in the bathroom?
The rangers heard it. I could see their eyes light up with predatory zeal. They finally turned to leave, saying that they understood how upset we must be. And then the male ranger hurried back, smiling, his eyes gleaming. “Where is the dog right now?”
“In the car,” I lied. I didn't want this guy to get anywhere near Chet. If he would throw a family out on its ear at dinnertime, who knew what else he might do? Confiscate Chet Baker? Have him put to sleep?
“I looked in your car and couldn't see through the tinted glass. Will you please open your car and show him to us? Because my supervisor's going to ask me where the dog is, and I'm going to have to tell him.”
Now, the rangers were really having fun. Might as well humiliate us while they were at it.
I opened the bathroom door and brought Chet out. “Here’s the cause of all this consternation. Take a look at him. Here he is.”
“OK, Ma'am, that's all I need to know. I don't want to see your dog. I just wanted to know where he was, so I can tell my supervisor.”
Oh, you do that.
I started throwing shampoo and soap into my tote bag.
The rangers roared back up ten minutes later with the news from Supervisor Kenny. We had exactly an hour to get out of the park. The female ranger shot her cuff and checked her watch. “You'll need to be out by 8:05.” She giggled nervously.
"Thank you very much." Bill and I closed the door.
Phoebe began to weep. I began to cry. Our six-year-old son Liam patted my back, then brought me a chocolate chip cookie, to make me feel better. Bill began throwing sleeping bags and pads down from the loft.
Once I started crying, I couldn't stop. I thought about our kids, exhausted from a day in the sun, having to get back in the car for four hours. I thought about the glass of wine I'd just had. My legs were weak from my 4 ½-mile hike. I thought about making the drive in two cars through the mountains at night, with deer popping out on every side. (And sure enough, at 12:15 AM, somewhere along Route 50 in West Virginia, an enormous doe sauntered out onto the highway and stopped, squarely in the middle of my lane. Ford Explorers are topheavy at best. With two 40-lb. canoes on end atop the roof rack, I knew I couldn't swerve or brake too severely. I braked, swerved as gently as I could, and blew the horn just as I drew even with the deer, hoping to frighten her back the way she had come. By some grace from above, she sauntered back the way she'd come, and we didn't roll the car.) Thank God we were on the highway at midnight, and there wasn’t a dog in the Herrington Manor cabin area, though. At least that area had been secured.

Back at the cabin, I threw bedding and towels into baskets while Bill emptied the refrigerator. I washed and dried the dishes in the sink, and put them back in the cabinets. I don’t know why I felt compelled to leave the cabin in perfect condition, but I did. Darkness fell. Our friends carried boxes and bags to our car. Bill fetched the canoes from the lake, a mile away, and we tied them to the top of the car using flashlights. We got out of the cabin with eight minutes to spare. We trooped sadly over to share a last meal with our friends. We made S'mores. At 9:30 p.m., we settled the kids into pillows and blankets for the four-hour ride home. I ate another S'more for the road, perfectly melted, as only our friend Tami can make them. Joe and Tom promised to stop by the park office after they checked out to tell the management they wouldn't be returning to Herrington Manor. To tell whomever would listen that none of them would ever set foot in the park again, nor would any of their friends. It was the only thing they could do for us, but it wouldn’t give us back our anniversary weekend.
As we drove slowly out of the park, the rangers’ white pickup truck pulled up behind.
“We're leaving now. Thank you,” I called.
Bill turned on his flashers, and I turned mine on. They winked satisfyingly in the night. Something about it felt like a final act of rebellion. A little motorcade of bitterness.
The rangers escorted us and our dog out of the park.
In the dark car, Phoebe stroked Chet's head. He rolled his eyes, ears plastered back, frightened, and fully aware that he was somehow the cause of all of this. In the perfect wisdom of innocence, my daughter summed up the foolish sentiment that had led to our misstep and eventual disgrace.

“I'd rather have a bad time with Chet Baker than a good time without him.”


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