I have never been much of a conventional traveller. Sure, I’ve done the family vacations in Michigan and South Carolina, the school trips to Chicago and New York City; but even then, whenever I could, I’d break away from the group to explore on my own. I like to set my own pace, to wander without purpose, to become purposely lost. I long overcame the fear of eating alone in a restaurant, of sleeping alone in a hostel, of walking down the streets of Manhattan, Akihabara, Waikiki, alone.
Sometimes it’s lonely. I have never been much good at talking to strangers. And so many trips have gone by without a single photo of me, not a glimpse in Central Park, just a shadow at Tokyo Tower, because I haven’t anybody to take them. Without any proof my memories start to fade; were these really my trips or just snippets from Travel World News? Remember the time– The words fall futilely; there was no one else there to remember.
Last weekend I flew to Oklahoma to visit someone I’d never met, which I sometimes forget is an unconventional way to travel. I’ve been cultivating online friendships since I was eleven; it’s not much different than making friends at school. Sometimes the relationship is deep, sometimes superficial; sometimes you drift apart; sometimes people lie about who they are; sometimes people get hurt. This friend was pretty much what I expected after five years of virtual friendship (albeit a bit taller). In any case, she never murdered me in my sleep, but invited me to make myself at home.
“Eat anything you want,” she said. “Play video games, walk the dog.” She apologized as she headed off to work, leaving me alone in the house. Just me and the dog, a terrier mix that had pounced upon me as soon as I’d entered the yard. We curled up on the couch together, watching 90s sitcoms and Disney animated movies. It was a bit like what I do at home, only with better snacks and a nicer tv. The day was half gone before I finally pushed myself off the couch. Leashing up the dog, we set out together.
I’d never really thought much about Oklahoma (except for that stupid song that always gets lodged in my brain). My trip was planned rather last minute, opportunity colliding with that continual promise of We really should get together sometime. My friend had given me a quick briefing before heading off to work; food is here, there’s a park up there, stay away from the tracks at night. Now, with my friend gone until late, I was left to my own devices. Just me and the dog. I let the dog lead.
There is something magical that happens when you are with a dog. You stop being an awkward lone tourist, out of place; you stop being invisible, or even trying to be invisible. No matter where you go, broad streets or back alleys, a person with a dog always has a purpose. Just out for a walk. And people in turn, perfect strangers, have a reason, now, to approach. That’s a beautiful dog. May I pet your dog? I smile and don’t bother to correct them. For now, the dog and I are a team.
It’s a different way of doing things, dog touristing. You become a bit of a local, casual strolling, and yet you still see so much more than the walked-this-street-a-million-times resident, quick-walking to their destination with nary a side glance. Yes, it’s harder to pop indoors, to shop and explore inside places. Everything has its tradeoffs. But the weather was beautiful, sunny and warmer than I’d seen from Ohio’s meager springtime. A perfect day for a walk.
As evening approached, I scouted out a restaurant with outdoor seating. A family at a nearby table promised to watch the dog while I ducked inside for food. The dog settled down patiently beside my chair, never begging, occasionally sniffing at passerbys. She gulped water from a paper cup as I dined on buffalo tacos (not bad, like ground beef with a bit of spice). The shadows stretched as the sun fell. I cleared the table and we headed home.
Back on my friend’s couch, watching Netflix on the big tv, the dog and I, worn out from our day, waited for my friend to return. I flipped through pictures on my phone, sorting out the best to post online. Myself and the dog, posing on campus. Walking along the railroad tracks. Remember the time– She doesn’t reply. These memories too will atrophy, but for now I know we were there.