There aren’t many things on this earth quite as sad as a dirty cardboard box crammed to the brim with half-dead puppies. I know because I found one on an annual sojourn to Baja. It’s not an uncommon thing–a fact that’s nearly as sad as the box itself–but that only makes it sadder than it already is. It’s the opposite of gilding the lily. But sometimes, the saddest thing can turn into something so happy it hurts. Such was the case with this story.
It was a beautiful evening. My girlfriend Stevie and I were driving our rusty old camper van towards town, creaking our way along a washboard road towards a goodbye dinner. She had a flight booked for the next day to go back to work in northern Alberta, a cold, desolate place filled with money and unhappy, transient workers, and we were on our way to drink too much tequila and laugh about how incredible the last few weeks had been.
Behind us, the sun dumped buckets of orange-hued paint at the foot of a rapidly darkening horizon. That incredibly fine Mexican dust swirled around the tires as we drove, coating the sidewalls and windows like soft velvet, shafts of light from the setting sun piercing it, setting it ablaze with dazzlingly bright motes of dust that caught the light and flickered like fireflies. To the north, an arroyo was stopped in its tracks by a massive rocky headland that fell dramatically into the Pacific. As we came to a bend in the road at the foot of a small hill, I spotted a tiny creature on wobbly legs being herded off the road towards an open patch by two skinny, mangy dogs. “Did you see that?” I asked Stevie, who was sitting shotgun with her feet on the dash, rubbing cocoa butter on tanned legs. “I think that was a puppy. Should we stop?” We stopped, looked at each other, and opened our doors. When our feet hit the ground, we changed not only our trip but the trip of everyone on the beach we were camping on. Isn’t it wonderful how the smallest decisions can have the greatest impact on the future?
The trip was a long time coming. I’ll be brief because there are years of stories I could tell leading up to it, but four years ago, we quit our jobs, sold our shit, bought a van, and drove from Canada to California. We ended up living on the street in Venice, parking in different spots most nights, pissing in kitty litter jugs, dodging the Venice two a.m. crowd (mostly violent, drug-addled mental cases, starving for meth and some form of meaningful healthcare), loving and arguing passionately. The trip we’d imagined never quite materialized–although it did for a few moments here and there on the drive down the coast–and I’ve felt terrible about it ever since. Mexico was to be my redeemer. It was to be the trip we’d talked about, the trip with the sunsets and freedom and perfect waves. It was to be the trip I promised… but what I promised did not include a box of diseased puppies that might soon be dead.
We stopped and got out of the van, then watched as the puppy was flipped into a wax lettuce box by the mangy adult dog. There was no sound from the puppy, nor from the box itself–not a whimper or a whine–but it was evident that the box was full. On closer inspection, we found what looked to be seven tiny puppies, perhaps five weeks old, covered in fleas, ticks, sores, and an incredible amount of vomit and shit. They didn’t look as though they’d last more than a few hours. For a minute, we considered leaving them. We had a day left on our trip, and a box full of sick puppies wasn’t on the itinerary. I needed to get back to the office and Stevie needed to be back at her job in the northernmost reaches of Alberta. As it would be for anyone, though, it was impossible to drive away, so we began scooping the puppies out of the box and putting them on a blanket from the van. It was horrible. As it turned out, there were eight. The eighth, who would be named Emmy, was at the bottom, curled in a fetal position, her little eyes shut tightly. She was the runt, and her brothers and sisters lay on top of her, voiding themselves of their sicknesses as worms and parasites ravaged their tiny bodies. At first glance, she seemed dead. We pulled her limp and lifeless body out of the box, fleas leaping off her in frightening numbers, her patchy, wiry fur coursing with them. Setting her down on the blanket, though, she stood briefly on her own, opened her dull eyes slightly, looked up at us, then collapsed back into her fetal position. The other puppies swarmed around a bowl of water we’d put out, drinking as though they’d never tasted water before, then immediately throwing up violently before going back for more.
The adult dogs looked on carefully, growling deep in their throats, as we tried to clean the puppies up as best as we could. Although they were both bitches, it was clear that they weren’t the parents. Instead, they were more likely to be two other strays that happened on the box and took it upon themselves to protect them as best as they could. With time, they backed off and watched from the roadside. For the next few days, they could often be found just a few hundred yards away pacing back and forth outside a camp nearby. After a while, though, they vanished into the dust and the puppies stayed with us. And then something incredible happened: the entire community of traveling campers on that beach came together to make sure these sick little creatures would be alright.
There was one person in particular who assumed the brunt of the responsibility. Reynolds, a soft-spoken tree worker from North Carolina, became the surrogate father to all the dogs. By the next day, he’d built a dog run out of chicken wire for the puppies. About eight feet in length, it sat in front of his tent beneath a shade cloth, a donated kennel from another camper down the beach serving as a bedroom. The blanket from the van sat inside, and the puppies, with the exception of Emmy–who spent the majority of the first two weeks inside Reynolds’s jacket–piled onto each other at night. Their bellies were massively distended from worms, their noses coated in glossy lice eggs. Their ears were infested with ticks that gorged on their blood, and the fleas were thicker than their mange-ridden fur. While the seven puppies lay together, Emmy latched onto Reynolds’s heart. She spent her days and nights in his jacket next to his chest, soothed by his body warmth and his heartbeat.
For days, the puppies hung on by a thread. Fed by hand with syringes full of puppy milk, they slowly regained their strength. Tentatively, they began playing with each other, nipping gently, mewling like kittens, and fighting over food. Their bellies, still swollen with worms, began to get smaller. With medication from a nearby vet, vast amounts of worms, white and thick as bean sprouts, came out in their shit. Mites infesting their skin died and came to the surface in pus-filled infections, and hatch after hatch of fleas was killed off by endless flea baths and powders.
By this time, Stevie and I were supposed to be home. Her shift began the day after we found the box. Her job, though, treated her like garbage, paid her badly, and didn’t do anything to keep her there. In one of the most epic “fuck this, I’m out” moments I’ve ever seen from her, she abruptly quit her job the day she was supposed to show up. I called my boss and asked for a more time in Mexico. “I don’t want to be responsible for the deaths of eight puppies,” he said. “So yeah, that’s fine.” And with that, we joined the ranks of the other sandy beach bums with no real end date to their trip and a rag-tag group of forlorn, homeless puppies to care for.
As the puppies gained strength, the inevitable question arose: what were we going to do with them? We all asked around about local shelters, but most of them were packed to the brim with abandoned dogs. Over-populated and under-funded, Baja dog rescue operations are incredibly sad places run by people with hearts of gold. I don’t know how they manage to spend their days tirelessly working towards an impossible goal, but every little bit counts, no matter how futile it may seem. The world is a better place with those people in it, but we didn’t want to burden an already over-burdened dog rescue with eight more sick dogs unless it was absolutely necessary.
For the next few weeks, a handful of us struggled to make it known that we had puppies that needed homes. We brought them to markets and spread the word through nearby towns, urging anyone and everyone interested in becoming a dog owner to come and have a look. From the outset, it was clear that Reynolds was taking Emmy, despite the fact that she wouldn’t be able to enter the United States for almost three months, and he was flying home to North Carolina in two weeks. Stevie and I were taking one, but we had no idea which. The other six puppies were homeless, skinny, and although they were rapidly getting better, they were still very sick. It was a worrisome situation. I thought often about what it would be like to drop a few remaining puppies at a shelter and walk away from them, and it was difficult to imagine.
All of a sudden, though, things snowballed. The first puppy to be adopted was a little girl we’d affectionately named Distendo-belly, because her belly was so incredibly distended from worms. With a black nose, a small patch of mange on her right side, and the sweetest eyes you’ve ever seen, Distendo found herself a home when a shy girl about twenty years old with long, dazzlingly red hair and a wonderful smile approached us at a Sunday market. A few of us had been wandering between the stalls with armfuls of struggling, floppy puppies, telling anyone who stopped us the story and letting them know they were available for adoption to good homes. The girl, whose name has escaped me, immediately took a shine to Distendo–later to be named Ruca, if memory serves–and, after a brief conversation with her boyfriend, decided to take her.
Soon after, a couple from Vancouver, Craig and Andrea, overnighted with another black and tan female, who had yet to have even a temporary name. She was skinny as a rail, feisty as all hell, and desperate for love. By the next morning, Craig and Andrea had decided to become the proud new owners of the newly-named Renny, after Reynolds. A few weeks later, after Craig left, Andrea came and stayed at my house in Malibu on her way north. She parked the Delica on my street and brought Renny up for the evening. She was a different dog: active and happy, it was as though she knew just how lucky she was. Now, she lives in Vancouver, and judging from the videos, is primed for a wonderful life.
Then, two others were fostered by a couple from Invermere, Canada, named Brad and Robin. Firefighters in the winter, Brad and Robin are deeps wells of adventure stories, permanently smiling and seemingly unfazed by anything and everything the rigors of travel can throw at them. They slept with the dogs in their camper for two months, continuing their exploration of Baja, before driving through the US and eventually dropping the dogs off in a small town on Vancouver Island to their (to use a horribly over-used foster dog phrase) forever-home. I don’t know how they managed to let them go, but they did, and they are saints for doing it.
There was another little female that I was most worried about. We’d nicknamed her Chihuahua Girl, and she didn’t stick out from the rest. She wasn’t small enough to feel sorry for (at least not as sorry as some of the others) not rambunctious enough to be noticed as much, and had no real distinctive markings. Of the eight, I felt that she would be the last to go. I would routinely see many of the other puppies swaddled in some random passerby’s arms, but Chihuahua Girl always seemed to be standing at the edge of the run, mournfully staring up at her brothers and sisters. Then, an extraordinarily nice family appeared on the road. They’d heard about the puppies through the grapevine. A gaggle of giggling children and two even-keeled, amazingly happy parents chose her from the pack, and Chihuahua Girl became Daisy.
By this time, Reynolds had left. After a difficult goodbye, he left Emmy with me and Stevie. By then, we’d made our choice, too: a beautiful little boy we named Ocho Guacamole. He looks to be a terrier/shepherd mix, but as with most Mexican rescues, he’s too watered down to really pin down a breed, not that it matters. The vet estimated he’d be around 20-30 lbs, but now, a few months later and nearly four months old, he’s shaping up to be 40-50. Sweet, doe-soft eyes, a black muzzle with a terrier’s beard and a wrinkly forehead, Ocho is whip-smart, cuddles with the best of them, and is so motivated by food he’ll do just about anything. The little guy learned to stay in about three minutes and sleeps with his head under our chins, breathing softly, sighing with contentment, before inevitably dreaming some violent, food-based dream, twitching, snorting, and making the strangest noises I’ve ever heard. I’ve never looked forward to seeing anything grow up more than him.
After a week with Emmy and Ocho in the van, Stevie and I packed them into kennels and squished them under the seats of a 737 bound for Vancouver. Ocho, as he does, cried like a baby half the time, only quieted by handfuls of dog food. After a surprisingly easy border crossing (thanks to an amazing Mexican vet who may or may not have fudged their birthdates by a few days), a short stay in a hotel, and another quick plane ride to Vancouver Island, we were home. The van stayed in Mexico in a storage area for quick strike missions, along with most of my surfboards, all my bedding, and nearly every pot and pan in my kitchen. Since the United States won’t let puppies younger than four months old into the country, we needed to get a direct flight from Mexico to Canada (where immigration laws are a little less strict), or we’d risk getting turned around at the border, or worse, losing the dogs.
Reynolds then flew from North Carolina to Seattle, rented a car, drove across the border to Vancouver, took a ferry to Vancouver Island, picked up Emmy, then turned around and did the whole thing in reverse, only this time, he had his little girl with him, hidden in the backseat of the rental car when he crossed the border. I don’t cry often, but when I let go of Emmy, I broke down. She was so small and so helpless in the bottom of that box on the side of the road. Crammed underneath her litter mates, she’d given up on survival. Now, after a chance encounter on a dusty road at the southern tip of Baja, here she was in Canada, waiting for the man who literally saved her life with body warmth, hand-feeding, and love. I won’t lie–I wanted to keep her. Reynolds, though, needed her. And she needed him.
Come to think of it, we all needed those dogs. Surf trips are fun, but ultimately not all that rewarding. They’re a fleeting fun–just as each individual wave is fleeting. Surfing is a selfish pursuit. A wave has to be mind-blowing for the memory to last a lifetime. Most often, I’ve found, the best parts of a surf trip isn’t surfing. Instead, it’s the people you meet, the places you see, and the happy accidents you stumble upon in the pursuit of waves. Surfing is just the vessel for the real experience.
Yeah, the waves were fun, but waves will always be fun. That box full of half-dead, shit-covered little dogs? That, my friends, was the real fun, and it’ll be something we all remember for the rest of our lives. Those dogs aren’t fleeting. The people that came together to save them aren’t fleeting. We’re all bound by that experience now, and even if we lose contact, we’ll always remember each other from those few weeks on a sunny beach in Mexico when a surf trip became something much more important than a surf trip. Like I said: isn’t it wonderful how the smallest decisions can have the greatest impact on the future?