Sadie flew up the steps of our Adirondack cabin and hurled herself at my legs.
"Hey girl," I said, scratching behind the ears of my happy-faced little dog. "Where's Paul?"
"We just took the best walk, didn't we, Sadie?" Paul's voice answered. I looked over the deck railing toward the sound and saw my husband ambling up the path from the lake. He, too, looked ... well, happy-faced.
"I think I finally understand her," he said. "I've been thinking the wrong thing about her all this time."
Sadie is "my" dog. We adopted her from a shelter after it became clear that our other dog, Benji, had decided to be Paul's dog, and it would be unwise to argue unless I was ready to lose a finger or two.
Sadie is only 11 pounds, but she is all dog. She runs after anything that moves, barks at any sound in the Northern Hemisphere, and can't resist rolling in everything fetid. Most worrisome is her determination to destroy anything keeping her from exploring her bustling, cacophonous, stinking, wonderful world. Leashes are chewed, fences are jumped, barricades dug under, doors pushed open. "Come" works only in the kitchen, with a treat. Outside, you could wave an open refrigerator at her, and she'll just keep going.
So after six months at home, we called Sadie "crazy." But at Northbrook Lodge in the Adirondacks, with nothing but trees and nature and room all around, Sadie made perfect sense. She was an explorer, a free spirit, a part of nature.
Sadie was the same. What had changed was her context.
"When I saw how happy she was out there without her leash - and that she came back - I remembered that there were dogs like that," my husband said, as Sadie dug frantically in the dirt at the bottom of the stairs. Our dogs have always been of the very domesticated variety, seemingly deaf to the call of the wild. Sadie heard it endlessly. And when allowed to follow her instincts, her canine spirit leapt forth. "To see her run run run and be happy" made Paul realize how much we'd been holding her back. Out here, in the wilderness, with no traffic or barricades, "she was in a safe environment to be herself."
Travel foists new environments, new contexts, upon us. Those new surroundings challenge our ideas about what is "normal," or "standard." A new context can help us see ourselves or our traveling companions in new ways.
Over the years, I've become more conscious of the process. Every trip means adapting to a new context. And results vary, from blissful to hellish. In Paris, where I can blend in with the museum-goers and film-watchers and café-sitters, I feel more like me than anywhere in the world. Among the well-tanned and Botoxed of Los Angeles, I am your proverbial pike out of water.
The very process of traveling - moving, driving, flying - kick-starts my brain, which is usually rusting into place from banality. When I get out the door, my mind shifts. I pay more attention to my surroundings, from the tiniest flowers to the mightiest buildings. I follow the cadence of the language, parse the bouquet of smells. I see other people's lives in more philosophical terms. I see the universal in the everyday of others.
Yet finding places where I feel ultimately comfortable, contexts that enable me truly to be myself, are rare. Most of the time, I find myself completely out of place: the weakest link on the group hike up Diamond Head in Oahu; the only one with no desire to pull a handle on a slot machine; the lone diner at the newest London restaurant who has had no one in her family knighted.
I wear black in the Caribbean. Think church tours are boring. And cry about situations other people find funny. Like Sadie, I'm sure in these contexts I may seem just a trifle crazy to others.
I guess that's why those few just-right places keep whispering in my mind. Their memories are a carrot, a brass ring to reach for, when I need them most. Just when I'm ready to call myself crazy, their pull is strongest, reminding me that they exist. Places that can feed my spirit, coax my real nature out of hiding, remind me who I am.
Northbrook Lodge, near Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, was like that for me. And Sadie's experience there reminded Paul of the place that shimmers always in a corner of his mind: Kincardine, Ontario, 1974. He was 16, and for the first time, he was on a vacation without his parents.
"There was something about Lake Huron being so big, like the ocean, and the whole countryside was flat farmland, this wide expanse ... I never saw so many stars in my life. There were all these opportunities, and I was out of my parents' gravitational pull, and I saw that it was OK, I'd be all right, and it was fun." Those two weeks changed him forever. "I sort of saw who I was, for the first time. I could trust my own judgment. And when I came back, I didn't want to be held back like I had been anymore.
"I carve my life up into volumes and chapters," Paul said, which seemed appropriate for someone who's a librarian, "and 1974 in Kincardine, that was the beginning of Volume 2."
If we are lucky, when we travel we find our own private Kincardine. A new context. A new page upon which to write our story. A journal of our ultimate journey, through life.