Before she joined our team, Mountainsmith intern Tasha Rivard (aka Tiny Van Travels spent her days surfing, hiking, and exploring the American West. After four months of full-time solo vanlife and travel, she teamed up with furry copilot named Kuna. Their first day together quickly became an interesting one that taught her more about human nature than dog ownership.
From the moment I adopted Kuna, my life changed dramatically. Having never owned a dog before (not even a family one growing up), I quickly realized that the challenges – and rewards – of traveling with a husky-hybrid would be boundless. Suddenly, I was responsible for keeping someone other than myself healthy and happy. It wasn’t long (less than 24 hours) until we encountered one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced together so far.
Rescue Dog Adoption Day(s)
I adopted Kuna in Merced, California. Never heard of it? Neither had I. It was never on my travel itinerary and honestly it never will be again. But I was passing through on my way to the coast and spotted a shelter just off the highway. I’d gotten in the habit of randomly poking through shelters along the way; I figured maybe someday I might stumble across a small, athletic boy dog under 25 pounds that could be a good hiking friend but was never really looking too hard… It was more just fun to go in and play with some pups that were generally craving some spontaneous attention.
The shelter at Merced was hands down the worst I’d seen… and at that point, I had about 15-20 shelters to compare it to. It was literally set up like a pentagon-shaped prison: rows of cages surrounded a concrete courtyard which held a handful of slightly larger cages. The dogs would be dragged from one cage to the next, left outside alone in the hot sun for 10 minutes, then stuffed back into the cage they came from. There were 100+ dogs and maybe 8 employees on duty at a time, 4 of whom were always at the desk. Every single dog had kennel cough. I literally had to step around the piles of poop and puke coating the floors and kennels. (That’s not even to mention the overstuffed “cat rooms.”)
All of the dogs seemed to handle the stress of the place differently. Some cowered in the corner and avoided eye contact while others barked violently and bashed their heads against the bars. Every time I opened a segment door I’d be greeted with a repugnant wave of stench followed by a barrage of barks and howls. I almost turned around and left in disgust after the 7th or 8th segment, but continued on. Finally, I came to Kuna’s row (at the time her “name” was actually A327F14 or something along those lines… we changed that right away). She was surrounded by angry pitbulls who immediately went nuts when I walked in. As I approached her cage, however, she was silently laying on the floor looking up at me casually like, “Hey. Sup.” I stopped and knelt down in front of her cage. She didn’t move an inch or react, just followed me with her eyes.
“You look like a little wolf,” I said as I rolled a small treat through the bars. She sniffed it and flashed her amber eyes between me and the little star-shaped snack I had given her before standing up and eating it. She slowly walked over to the bars with wide eyes and her head low before gently licking my fingers once and laying back down with a content expression. I was doomed.
Instead of driving through Merced in 5 minutes as I had originally intended, I ended up staying for 2 days debating what to do. Long story short, I couldn’t leave her there. Next thing I knew I was rolling up towards Yosemite with a wolf-dog.
To the Woods – Camping in Sierra National Forest
I couldn’t think of a better way to work on building our bond than driving deep into the woods, so I took Kuna up to the Sierra National forest for some camping straight from the pound. After she puked in my van twice on the ride up (she had just gotten spayed, apparently this is a normal reaction even though it freaked me out at the time), we finally made it to an adequate piece of public land off the dirt road.
The next morning, I decided we needed a better site. I drove deeper into the National Forest and found a perfect spot away from everyone and everything – exactly the spot you hope to find on Public Lands. Initially, Kuna had a fear of jumping out of the van, so it took a lot of encouragement for me to coax her out that morning. With all my excitement, I got momentarily distracted from my normal routine. I praised Kuna for her jump and pulled the van door shut behind her.
The next sound I heard was the loud click sound of my auto-lock. My keys were still inside the van. My wallet, phone, food, water, and Mountainsmith K9 Cube with all of Kuna’s food/gear were inside the van. The only things I had on me were the clothes on my back, a small pocket knife, and a dog I’d owned for less than 24 hours.
Uh-Oh: Locked out and Alone in the Middle of Nowhere
I wish I had some epic MacGyver story for you, but alas, I don’t. I paused, cursed, and stood there dumbfounded at my mental laps for a moment. Finally, I decided we should just start walking. Even though we were on a remote dirt road, I figured maybe we could find a human or a park ranger or something. Worst case, I figured we could manage the 10 miles or so to a slightly more traveled road.
Shockingly, a car rolled up before we’d even walked the length of a football field. I waved like a madwoman in the middle of the road to get it to stop – the couple driving it very clearly wanted to just speed around me. As the woman cracked the window down halfway, I did my best to explain the situation and asked if they had a map or a phone or knew the area. They said no to all of the above and wished me luck before rolling up the window and leaving us in their dust.
I stood in the road for a moment quasi-dumbfounded before marching on in the same direction they were heading. After about an hour walking, I saw the same car coming back towards us from the other direction. The woman rolled down the window and said “just so you know there’s nothing up there,” then they drove away again. Kuna didn’t bark or whine, but she definitely looked at me like ‘what are we doing and why are we here?’ There was no other option than to turn around and start walking back the way we came.
Second Car’s a Charm
About a quarter mile from the van, I was able to flag down another car. This time, it was a young couple from the other side of the country out on a camping trip. I gave them the same spiel and without hesitation they both got out of the car. The guy pulled out a phone while the girl pulled out a map, a bowl, and some water for Kuna. Miraculously, they had extended service that was decent enough to make a call (AT&T for the win). They spent over an hour with me on the dusty road while I negotiated with triple A to get someone to come break into my van without breaking my van (turns out Sierra National Forest is a grey area – shops from Oakland don’t go into the forest but shops from Yosemite refuse to leave the park). While I was on the phone with my back turned, the couple put together a little care package for us from what they had on hand: granola bars, water, and even an ice cold beer. They even offered to drive me all the way to town if Triple A couldn’t come help.
They went completely out of their way to make sure we were going to be all set before leaving us and didn’t seem to mind the inconvenience at all. When I apologized for holding up their hiking plans, they had the best response I could possibly have asked for: “All we were going to do there was look at trees. We’re looking at trees right here already!”
I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful for the help of complete strangers. Besides those two cars, I didn’t see another soul until the Triple A truck showed up a few hours later. There was nothing in it for this couple either – They would never see me again, and I had legitimately nothing to offer in compensation except for a hug and a thank you.
Moral of the story: when the situation presents itself, don’t be afraid to give help or take help. We all encounter setbacks on the road or trail, and sometimes the smallest effort can go the longest way for someone else.