One of my side jobs is house-sitting. Yes, I have a meaningful full-time job filing papers and making photocopies in an elementary school, but I also have a kid in college and expensive taste in beer so I pick up part time work on the side. Things like house-sitting and cleaning houses and landscaping and selling cards — all the secret income FAFSA never gets to know about. If you had to google FAFSA just now, then you live in a completely different world and very little I say is likely to resonate with you, so probably you should just click on the cards for sale part of my website, place your big order, and get back to whatever it was you went on the internet to do in the first place.
This week (April break) Vermonters with kids in school often say To hell with this long drawn out winter and mud season — we’re heading to the beach!, and then they leave me in charge of their homes and pets. I love house-sitting, which might sound strange because I am actually very happily married and miss my husband when we’re not together. But it might also be the ticket to our happy marriage — voluntary temporary separation. The truth is, it gives him a break from me to live like a bachelor for a few days. Dirty plates in the sink, piles of newspapers, napping on the couch with his hand down his pants, doing whatever the hell it is he does with guns and tools in the basement, and me, quietly absent and conspicuously not nagging. Plus, then I have cash to buy quality beer which makes us both happy.
Finch is a Labradoodle I’m taking care of this week. He has more energy than a squirrel on amphetamines. He is cream-colored and loves, more than anything, finding mud. And for some reason I haven’t been able to read a single thought in his head. This is unusual. I can usually assign a voice to a dog and have a full-on narrative going within a few minutes. But Finch is silent. Completely mute. No voice, no narrative, just… wind in the trees. It’s fine, I have enough confusing internal dialogue going on in the swirling chaos between my ears that I’m glad for the respite from additional noise in my head.
House-sitting is fun, especially when dogs are involved. I get to swoop in as the merry, thrill-seeking aunt who takes them on wild adventures and makes them fall in love with me, forgetting all about their regular boring family. But Finch. I may have met my match with Finch. I start the day with a run. Depending on where we go, he is leashed (on the road) or not (on the trails). Leashed means he does all the work and pulls me along and I pound out something more like a 7 or 8 minute mile as opposed to my usual pokey 10 or 11. Unleashed means I watch him cover four times my distance as he simply sprints wherever his nose tells him to, dog-smiling at me as he passes.
After an hour or two of this, I stagger back to the house with him, chug a couple liters of water, and try to catch my breath. He looks at me wondering what’s next. He is not even panting. I find a tennis ball and initiate a game of fetch. He does the equivalent of about 20 hill sprints and then tires of the game — not physically, mind you, just mentally or emotionally or something — and goes off to smell things in the woods and find sticks to chew. Eventually he comes over and thoughtfully sits on top of me so I can more easily pet him. This lasts about 20 seconds and then he is off again.
The other day we had just started on a run when I came upon an inviting old logging road with a gate (not for me, of course) which Finch and I were able to easily go under. So up the “road” we went. It soon became a tangled mess of abandoned logging roads / river beds / swampy pricker bush swaths. In case you don’t know, when you take a section of woods and log the hell out of it, it makes a horrible fucking mess. Even if you do it well. Because loggers aren’t trail runners and they aren’t thinking about leaving it nice for the next guy. They’re thinking about getting the dang trees on the truck and the money in the bank. (That makes it sound like a don’t like loggers — not true. I like the ones I’ve met. They’re outdoorsy and chiseled and hard-working and they smell like cut wood which is one of my favorite smells.) Messy or not, I was committed to this adventure. I couldn’t stomach turning around and putting Finch back on the leash and running on the road. So on we went, slogging through the muddy schizophrenic network of old logging roads until the last one just… ended. But, Finch and I were almost to the top of an inviting ridge with lots of tumble-down rocks that beckoned: climb us… see what’s on the other side of us…
Years ago, Tom and I invented what has become our hiking motto and a (probably foolhardy) philosophy of life to which we sort of aspire: when in doubt, plunge headlong into the woods. I looked at Finch for his thoughts. He stared at me silently. Clearly I was in charge of this adventure and if he had an opinion he was keeping it to himself. Hell. It’s vacation week. I don’t have anywhere else I have to be for the next few hours. I forgot water (again) and no one knows where we are, but when in doubt … Let’s go Finch.
Several hours later we came out on a road, I leashed Finch and then muddy, scraped, bleeding, and thirsty as hell, we ran the last few miles home. Surely by now I’ve worn out this dog. I figured I did a hell of a good job today. We got home, I cleaned him up (did I mention this off-white dog's affinity for mud?) and stood back, crossing my arms with satisfaction of a job well done, picturing how cute he will look when he stretches out and falls asleep. It's looking like I may never find out.