Northbound Toward Home
The South has a dog problem. We have more dogs than anywhere else in the country, but we take the worst care of them. We are stubbornly resistant to leash and spay/neuter laws — and thus contribute hugely to the fact that more than a million healthy, adoptable dogs are put down every year. But 12 years ago, Kyle and Pam Peterson of Cookeville, Tennessee, started a business with a simple purpose — to take the South’s unwanted pooches northward, to homes where they are wanted. This week, writer Cy Brown and photographer Tamara Reynolds take us on a three-day marathon trip in a big rig full of dogs — all of them straining at the leash toward new lives.
By Cy Brown | Photos by Tamara Reynolds
Home is complicated.
Where is home? Is it the place you were born? Where you were raised? Where you live now? Where you feel most comfortable?
Northeast Georgia is my home. I’m from a little town called Toccoa, tucked away right beside the South Carolina state line, just south of the Palmetto State’s westernmost point. It’s not much of a place. I’d even go so far as to say that I dislike it most of the time. But I’d be lying if I don’t admit that Toccoa’s lush hills, its stoplights that take far too long to change and the old dirt roads that lead to my childhood home put me at ease.
My relationship with my hometown is like that of many young people who grow up in small, rural towns. I felt constricted and confined. The place always seemed much too small for me. As a kid, I didn’t mind it; I didn’t know any better. I remember thinking that one day Toccoa was gonna turn into a big city, because that’s what time did. It made things bigger.
Toccoa never grew, but I did, and with it my desire to escape. I finally left when college came calling, but that was only an hour down the road in Athens, where I’ve lived ever since. Sometime in my seven years in Athens, I figured out that it wasn’t so much Toccoa that I associated with home, but all of northeast Georgia. Those stoplights and dirt roads that weave through the Blue Ridge foothills, they comfort me.
This is a conundrum for me. Deep inside me, there is a strong feeling of wanderlust. But I can never imagine leaving these hills. They are in me. Some people hear a call that drives them to wander and find home anew, in an unknown place. I wish I was among them, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen to me. Whenever I leave my little corner of Georgia, whether to visit the pristine lakes of Rabun County or the Bohemian vibe of Athens, I hear the call to come back. It’s my home, and I didn’t pick it. It picked me.
Home is just complicated. What I didn’t know is that home is just as complicated for Southern dogs as it is for Southern people.
A little more than half of all dogs brought into animal shelters in the United States are euthanized, according to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And in a state such as Tennessee, which has the eighth highest percentage of dog owners of any state, you can expect that rate to rise. Because of a lack of leash and spay/neuter laws and less municipal money for animal control and care compared to other regions — coupled with a culture of generally letting people do whatever the hell they please — the stray-pet population in the South is far greater than other parts of the country. And when you add in the fact that seven of the top 10 states in dog ownership are in the Southeast, and the other three fall into some definition of the South, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s latest Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook, folks, we’ve got ourselves a big problem.
Go to almost any animal shelter in the South and you’ll find a place packed to the gills with dogs ready to be adopted. Big ones, little ones, old ones, young ones, black, white, yellow or spotted, everything is available. While this is great for someone who wants options when getting a pet, it’s a bit more problematic for the animals.
Southern animal shelters are overrun with dogs that will never be adopted. We have a huge supply that doesn’t come close to meeting the demand. There is neither enough room in our shelters and rescues nor enough Southerners willing to adopt stray dogs. Thousands of perfectly good, healthy dogs are euthanized every year as a result.
When you look at the Northeast, the opposite is true. With large human populations and stricter animal control laws, there is a huge demand for dogs and little supply. State-of-the-art animal shelters sit empty and unused with people coming in every day looking to adopt dogs that just aren’t there. While I could go to any animal shelter around me and get as many dogs as I please, it’s not that easy up North.
This always struck me as a problem with a simple solution: Take the dogs Southerners don’t want to the people in the North who do. Turns out, I was not the first person to do this simple math.
As I pull into the Peterson home in Cookeville, Tennessee, about an hour east of Nashville, early on a Friday morning in mid-June, I’m greeted by the whir of a generator, the barks of dogs and the hum of the engine on a big red Volvo tractor unit. Kyle Peterson, a tall, balding man with a sandy-brown goatee, is standing between the tractor-trailer and red barn that serves as the headquarters of Peterson Express Transport Services — P.E.T.S. for short — a business he and his wife Pam started in the early 2000s.
P.E.T.S. transports dogs from kill shelters around the Southeast and delivers them to rescues and families in the Northeast. The trailer beside him — filled with about 80 dogs — got back last night from pickups in Austin, Dallas, Little Rock, Memphis, and Nashville. In a few hours, two P.E.T.S. truck drivers and I will set out on a trip northeast, where we’ll deliver dogs to Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont. We won’t be back until Sunday.
P.E.T.S. is the premier animal-transport company in the Southeast. It’s delivered more than 60,000 from kill shelters in the South to new homes in the North.
This booming trucking business fills a much-needed niche in the animal rescue community, and it all began with a single truckload of dogs on its way to Boston.
The Petersons — Kyle (top) and Pam (bottom) — turned their hobby of transporting dogs for animal shelters into the premier animal-rescue transport business in the Southeast.
The long haul toward becoming the go-to animal rescue transport company in the Southeast began in the early 2000s. Pam and Kyle were dating, both working jobs they didn’t particularly like. Kyle sold home-security systems while Pam traveled around the state, installing computer software for every county government in Tennessee. They spent their free time helping animal shelters and did local transports as a hobby.
“Before Pam and I even married, she would drag me along on these transports,” Kyle says. “It was just something to do. On the weekend we’d pick up a dog and take it to Nashville or Chattanooga.”
Then one day in the early 2000s, Pam got a call that would change the Petersons’ lives — and the lives of thousands of dogs around the South. A group that Pam and Kyle had transported for before asked if she could bring 10 dogs all the way to Boston. They were willing to pay per dog. So Pam and one of her friends loaded up a truck and headed north.
“It was a nightmare,” Pam says. The two got lost and were four hours late. There may have been a flat tire in there somewhere (she can’t remember for sure). On top of that, there was a shooting outside her motel, which forced her and her friend to be locked in their room while the police investigated.
“I thought I would never do it again,” she says. “Then a few weeks later they asked me to make another trip and I asked what was going on. She told me, basically, that there’s a shortage of dogs in the New England area because they have strict spay-neuter laws and leash laws that are enforced.”
As self-described “psycho animal people” and frequent visitors to animal rescue chat rooms, the couple knew about the North’s lack of dogs.
“It’s bizarre. They have these big, huge, beautiful shelters, and there are no dogs in them,” she says. “It was really hard to comprehend because down here everything is so jam-packed. You can adopt five out and see 15 more come in.”
This time Kyle made the trip with her.
“Nothing really went wrong that time, but I was working in Knoxville,” he says. “She picked me up from work. We picked up the dogs in my pickup, drove to Boston, turned around and I went back to work on Monday.”
But the group called again, so Pam and Kyle went again. And again. And again.
“After about five or six trips like that, I was at a point in my job where I was always gone and my boss was a jerk and all this stuff. So I quit,” Kyle says. “And I just told myself I’d do this dog thing a couple times a month until I find something else. It just started from there.”
That was in 2003. For the next year, Kyle and Pam’s father made the trip northeast every weekend. When her contract with the state ran out in 2004, she started joining them. It snowballed from there. First they did it with a dually pickup. Then they got two. After a while, the Petersons were burning through trucks like they were nothing, which prompted them to get a commercial trucking license, buy some big rigs and hire drivers. More than 10 years later, P.E.T.S. has an entire team of truck drivers, part-time dog-walkers in two states and a full-scale animal transport operation.
“I just had no idea — if we would’ve put a business plan together it would’ve looked ridiculous on paper,” Pam says, laughing.
Kyle gives me a quick tour of the premises. The red barn is where they keep the puppies and tools for maintenance on the trucks. The puppies have to remain separate from the rest of the dogs because they are more susceptible to disease. Beside the barn is the big doghouse, full of kennels where the dogs sleep when in Cookeville, between their pickup in the South and drop-off in the North. Outside that is the big Volvo with the big trailer. The trailer has a generator attached to power climate control systems that keep the dogs comfortable on the trip. P.E.T.S. also has another tractor unit that pulls a horse trailer, similarly re-rigged for dogs. Most weekends, both trucks make the trip, but it’s a light load this weekend, so only one is needed. I tell Kyle I think that means we’ll get home sooner than expected.
“One truck takes much longer than two,” he says. “With two you can split the trip up. Y’all are gonna have to make every stop.”
I walk up a ramp attached to the door of the trailer to check out the where the part-time dog-walkers are busy taking the dogs out of their kennels and walking them in the big yard in front beside the red barn. It will be the last time the dogs get out until they have to be walked later tonight. There’s one narrow row to walk through in the middle, with crates of all different sizes stacked on one another. The crates for puppies and small dogs sit three high, while the big- and medium-sized crates sit stacked two per row.
Next, Kyle takes me across the yard, where five walkers are letting dogs sniff around and do their business, to the P.E.T.S. business office in a small trailer that Pam works out of, handling the logistics. She’s busy at the computer, double-checking to make sure all the dogs are accounted for. She looks busy and stressed, but a smile stays on her face the whole time.
I walk around the yard and the first walker I meet is Rick, an older gentleman with a silver handlebar mustache and a sleeveless shirt that reveals heavily tattooed arms. While the dogs at the end of most of the walkers’ leashes are tugging with all of their might, every dog Rick walks is as calm as can be.
“Around here they call me the dog whisperer,” Rick says.
Immediately, I take a shine to a Catahoula Leopard Dog named Munz, with a beautiful silver, black and brown spotted coat. Rick is walking him in the grass, and Munz keeps jumping onto Rick, glancing up at him with one of the saddest faces I’ve ever seen on a dog. True to his moniker, Rick starts talking to Munz and petting his belly, causing the Catahoula to flip onto his back. Then this big, goofy grin washes over Munz’s face. All he wants is belly rub.
Kyle introduces me to the drivers this weekend. One is James Ray, a boulder of a man with a bushy beard, sunglasses and a green-bandana tied around his brown mane. The other is Chris Pesch, a short, skinny guy in a camouflage hat with a fishing hook attached to the brim. Kyle tells me not to worry too much about talking to them now. I’ll get plenty of that on the drive.
“You making the ride all the way up with these two,” one of the walkers asks as she motions toward James and Chris. She cackles after I nod my head yes. “Good luck.”
As I load into the truck with James and Chris, Kyle comes up to ask me one more question.
“You ever been on a road trip like this?” Kyle asks with a concerned expression. I tell him I haven’t. “You’re in for an, uh, experience then. Once we’re on the road we don’t stop. We want the dogs to get there as quick as possible to be safe. We only stop to drop them off, pick them up or walk them.”
With all the dogs secured in the back, the big rig starts to rumble down the driveway. James gives the horn two short honks and we’re on the road.
The first leg of our trip takes us about an hour and a half east on I-40 to Knoxville. Most of the ride goes by in a haze, and I'm still groggy as hell.
It's my first time in a big rig. The first thing I realize is how noticeably different the point of view is. The height makes me a voyeur into all the passing cars. From the passenger seat I look down and see a woman eating a biscuit for what I assume is a late breakfast It's past noon. I don't begrudge her this. A biscuit is the perfect meal for any time of day. If anything, I'm jealous because it looks so good, and the gas-station biscuit I grabbed in Cookeville before heading for the Petersons’ seems like it was gobbled down years ago.
The beginning of any long trip with strangers is a little awkward, but James seems determined to talk his way through the awkwardness and into familiarity. By the time we pass Rockwood, I feel like I’ve known him my entire life.
James Ray, the "Red-Eye Jedi," is one of P.E.T.S.'s longest-serving employees.
James is a classic case of why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. His Southern drawl is more like a growl. As such, you wouldn't expect to find the beating heart of a nerd behind his barrel chest, but it's pretty obvious that's exactly what he is. The Sunday we get home is the finale of the fifth season of “Game of Thrones.” As two “book-readers” (not just show-watchers) we discuss what may be left out of or included in the final episode. This turns the conversation toward the “Game of Thrones” video game, which we have both played. I start naming a few games I like, and one after another, James gives me his opinion on them. I think I could do this for hours and he'd have played each one.
Another misdirection from James is his giant beard, which looks like the kind sported by your typical country boy. James is certainly a country boy — born and raised in Cookeville — but the beard has a more utilitarian purpose.
"I'm growing this out for the new Star Wars movie," he says. "I do some cosplay. My character is called the Red-Eye Jedi. I grow my beard out long, wear the Jedi robes and put in red contacts. It's pretty sweet."
That set him off. He stops talking about his affinity for “Star Wars” only when we reach Lenoir City to make a pickup.
We stop in the parking lot of a strip mall to pick up a few puppies and some cats from a rescue P.E.T.S. works with regularly. James and Chris work with the efficiency you'd expect from years of doing this. We are in, out and on the road again before I have a chance to realize what just happened.
"That's how we do it," Chris says. "We've gotta go fast or we get behind schedule."
When you make it to Virginia, you know it. In the blink of an eye after we pass the state line, the landscape changes from the dense forests and mountains of Tennessee to gentle hills and pastures. The change in landscape is stark and sudden. It makes us feel like we’re moving forward. I stay wide awake with my eyes on those pastures.
But with two dogs to pick up and only one to drop off in Roanoke, suddenly it feels like we're moving backward.
We stop at a gas station right off an exit of I-81. Dusk is approaching. Five people are already waiting for us as the big rig makes a wide turn into the tiny parking lot.
Our first drop-off of the day is here. It’s a little rat terrier named Abby. Abby’s new family, a red-headed woman and square-jawed man, are practically giddy when we hand her over.
The other three people are there to deliver more dogs for the trip. James takes the first dog and puts him on the truck with no problems. The second, a dark brown mutt with a sweet face and floppy ears, proves more difficult, though through no doing of his own. His foster mother, a middle-aged woman with large peace-sign earrings and ovular glasses, just can’t bring herself to say goodbye yet. She gives the dog a hug and starts crying.
"We've had him for a few months now, and he’s just become part of the family," she says.
Her tears seem confused, part sadness and part happiness. I almost tear up with her. My would-be tears are confused, too, though they border more on happiness. I know this dog is going to be somewhere it can live out the rest of its life in peace. I think I'll probably bawl like a baby before we finish this trip. James says I won’t be the only one.
“Tomorrow is the big one,” he says. “Drop-offs all day. People crying and smiling left and right. The look on people’s faces and their excitement when they get their dog, it’s part of why we do this.”
Night has fallen, and those gentle Virginia hills disappear into a shroud of darkness. All I see is road and headlights. I’m still getting used to riding in the big rig. My spot all day has been in the passenger seat while James drives and Chris sleeps. In a tractor unit, you can feel every bump in the road. If you run over a pebble, you feel it in your backside. But the seats are built with shocks under them, allowing them to compensate for with each bump. This nifty bit of engineering literally saves your ass. A couple of times, had I not been buckled in, running over a pothole would’ve sent me into the roof.
It’s getting late and we’ve been on the road for more than 10 hours, and we’re nearing Quicksburg, Virginia, the site of what James and Chris call, simply, “the walk,” a term they use with no kind of affection. It isn’t humane to keep the dogs looked up in their kennels for the entire duration of the trip. So, on the way up, whenever the trucks reach the Shenandoah Valley, they pull over in a small industrial park and walk each and every dog.
After so many trips, P.E.T.S. has the dog-walking stop down to a science. The company’s payroll doesn’t just include the drivers and dog-walkers in Tennessee; they also hire dog-walkers in Virginia, locals, who come out every weekend to help with the process. If the drivers had to do it on their own, it would probably take around four or five hours, along with their duties feeding the dogs and cleaning out kennels. I volunteer myself as a walker to help expedite the process and lighten the load.
We beat the walkers to the location, so James and Chris start cleaning cages while I grab a leash and take a dog out.
This is my favorite part of the trip so far, just because I love dogs. It’s been my only real chance to interact with any of them. I can’t control the first dog, a big black lab named Sugarwags, when I walk him. He pulls me every which way. I try to get him to go along my path, but quickly give up. It doesn’t seem like he’s afraid of the truck, rather just happy to stretch his legs and feel free, as if he can’t contain his excitement. If the dog’s happy, so am I.
The rest of the dogs are more manageable. Each gets about 10 minutes to use the bathroom and stretch its legs. The big pasture we walk the dogs in is wet with nighttime dew, and soon my sandaled feet are soaked. Three other walkers show up in short order and each grabs a leash and a dog. They are all much more experienced at this than me, so I follow the same path they take in walking the dogs, a big loop from the grass in front of the truck, across the parking lot to a field adjacent to the building we parked in front of, along a fenceline, then back across the parking lot to the truck. After a few walks, it becomes routine. I follow the path, pet each of them on the head for a minute or two, tell them everything will be OK and that they are a good girl or boy. The whole process takes about an hour and a half, but I could’ve sat out there with those dogs all night.
Chris says the walk went faster than normal, which means we’ll be a little ahead of schedule. They finish cleaning the kennels, have a quick word with the walkers and we’re back on the road again. The quickness of the walk seems to have put James and Chris in high spirits.
At around 12:30 a.m. on Saturday — more than 12 hours after we left Cookeville — we park at a truck stop and go get some Subway sandwiches for dinner. James’s time driving is done and Chris switches in. Soon, we’ll be out of the South as I know it, and the real trip will begin.
“It’s all downhill from here,” Chris says as he buckles in, “but it’s a big hill.”
We’re ahead of schedule when we pull into Hagerstown. James is asleep in the back and Chris is the most awake he’s been since we set out from Cookeville. It’s my first real chance to have a conversation with him.
While James is a nerd in good ol’ boy’s clothing, Chris is just a good ol’ boy. He likes auto racing, fishing and motorcycles. He speaks in a near whisper, so you’ve really gotta listen to hear what’s he’s saying. He’s also one of those people who at first appear shy, but as soon as you get him talking, he won’t shut up. It’s a big time in Chris’s life. He and his wife are about to close on a new home. He brings it up every chance he can get. It’s the one subject he talks about above a whisper, so you know he’s excited about it.
The drop-off is scheduled for 2:30 a.m. in the parking lot outside a PetSmart, but we pull in around 1:30. We’re expecting a wait. To our surprise, the couple that has come to pick up the little Lhasa Apso we’re delivering is already there waiting.
“That happens a good bit,” Chris says. “You think you’re early but the new owners are already just waiting to get their dog.”
Chris takes the little dog from Austin, Texas, out of its crate and delivers it to its new family. They’re all smiles and hustle back to their car, where they have a crate ready. As Chris checks the kennels and makes sure everything is copasetic in the trailer, I watch the family load the dog up.
They just sit in the car for a while, looking at it. About a minute after putting it in the crate, they take it out and hand it back and forth from one to the other. It takes James about five minutes to get ready to leave and when we pull out, they’re still just sitting there, looking at it.
An entire day with the P.E.T.S. crew is taking its toll on me. Chris can tell I’m fading and suggests I climb into the other bunk and try to get some sleep before the big day begins bright and early. Who am I to question the expert? I climb into the top bunk and pull a seatbelt net over it, which prevents me from flying out at every bump in the road. It’s not the most comfortable place I’ve slept, but I sleep — and by sleep, I mean I’m laying down trying to sleep — through both the stops in Pennsylvania.
I wake up, after some semblance of sleep, in a shopping center in Bedington, New Jersey. The sunlight is a shock to my system when I step out of the truck and into the warm New Jersey morning. There’s already a crowd gathered around the truck, eagerly waiting to pick up the new additions to their families.
First up are seven dogs who are going to 11th Hour Rescue. Not all dogs delivered by P.E.T.S. go immediately to a family. Some are taken from kill shelters where they had a likelihood of being euthanized to rescues where they will be safe, and sure to be adopted in a short period of time. In this case, it’s five tiny dogs, all from Garland, Texas.
While Chris delivers the little dogs to the woman who will take them to the rescue, I wander up and down the single aisle in the trailer. Ten dogs are getting off in Bedington, and at least three will be getting off at each additional stop along the way. This is the last time the truck will be full.
The last time I saw any of the dogs was at the walk. Back then, less than eight hours ago, I could see some joy on their faces, some relief. Now all I see is fear. Fear that they’ll be stuck in these crates forever. Fear of the unknown.
When I get out, the first hiccup of the trip is happening. Chris moves on after the small dogs and gave a puppy to a family of four. The family immediately know something is amiss: They adopted a girl, and the puppy they’re now holding is a boy. Chris quickly grabs the puppy and rushes back into the trailer to check his paperwork. I can tell the family is worried that they might not be getting a dog today.
A couple walks over from a Starbucks in the shopping center, rightfully intrigued by the ruckus caused by a tractor-trailer full of dogs outside their coffee shop at six in the morning. A well-dressed couple in their late 20s, holding what I can only assume isn’t a plain black coffee, ask what’s going on.
“These dogs have been adopted and are being delivered to their new homes,” I say. “This truck came from Tennessee, a company called P.E.T.S. They gather up a bunch of dogs from around the South, where we have too many, and deliver them up, where y’all don’t have enough. Every one of these dogs would probably be killed if they stayed down there.”
“That’s awful,” the well-dressed woman says, “but it’s wonderful someone is doing something about it.”
I feel like a preacher in the Church of P.E.T.S., spreading its gospel — and its dogs — throughout the Northeast.
Chris brings out another puppy a few minutes later and I can tell by their faces that this is the right one. A three-month-old shepherd mix from Knoxville sniffs the New Jersey ground and looks up at its new family. One of the girls in family picks it up and I watch her heart melt. Mine melts with it. The family passes it to one another and the little puppy licks each of their faces. Its fear is gone. It found a home.
Let me just put this out there: The roads in the Northeast suck. I thought driving in Mississippi was bad.
“I don’t know why it is,” Chris says with a tremble in his voice, caused by the shaking of the seats on the uneven road, “but these highways in New York and Connecticut are worse than anywhere else I drive in the country.”
Our next drop-off is at a commuter lot in Nanuet. Four dogs — three from Tennessee and one from Texas — will find new homes here. No rescues, only families. But the only one I’m concerned with is Sugarwags. The big black lab I walked in Quicksburg is meeting his family, two sisters who live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It should be a quite a culture shock for Sugarwags, who came from a rural area near Chattanooga, Tennessee. But, by the way I see his new family fawning over him, the transition shouldn’t be too difficult.
We leave Nanuet on our way to Connecticut, where we’ll be making three stops. First, we have to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge.
“The Tappan Zee Bridge,” Chris says, “is scary in a truck. It’s like riding a horse.” I never figure out what this means, but I agree: it’s scary.
As we cross the bridge I look south down the Hudson River and see the Manhattan skyline. I wonder how many dogs there are like Sugarwags? Country dogs who will spend the rest of their lives on the posh streets of Manhattan.
Three dogs — one from Tennessee and two from Arkansas — get off in Danbury. The first two go quickly. Their new families were already waiting when we pulled into the commuter lot off of I-84. The third takes a while and Chris is getting worried.
“All it takes is one late person to mess the entire schedule up,” he says.
Chris lights a cigarette, puffs and paces. We wait for about 20 minutes until a woman arrives to pick up her dog. She says she was confused about where she was supposed to be. Chris does not seem satisfied with this excuse. We’re behind schedule now and there’s almost nothing we can do to get back on it.
As we’re pulling out of the lot in Danbury, I notice a couple we delivered a red dachshund to is still in the parking lot more than 20 minutes later. The same thing had happened with the couple in Hagerstown. It happened in Nanuet, too. The couple is walking the little doxie around their car and snapping pictures at a feverish pace. It’s like they want these first moments with their new dog to never end. They want it sealed away in their mind for the rest of time.
About an hour later we’re in Glastonbury. Since this is a big drop-off, James gets up to help Chris deliver dogs and clean cages. Nine dogs get off here, and two get on. P.E.T.S. also transports dogs from the North that people want to get to the South, mostly when people are moving.
It’s close to noon, and the sun is beating down on us. I didn’t think it got this hot up North. The mixture of heat and fatigue is overwhelming and I feel like I could pass out at any moment. Joyous families and smiling dogs are all around me, but it isn’t having the same effect it was earlier. I think I’m becoming desensitized to the joy everyone is feeling. And the barking never stops. That’s what’s getting to me the most. I can still hear the fear in every sound the dogs in the trailer make. One dog in particular, a pretty yellow mutt with soft, sad eyes, is getting to me. Its kennel is right behind the door of the trailer, so I see it every time we make a stop. And I know it sees the outside world. It sees the new beginning every other dog is getting but still eludes this guy. My heart breaks every time I see those eyes. I walk to the other side of the truck to collect myself. The emotion is just too much sometimes.
In the most welcome sight I’ve seen so far, a woman picking up a dog is wearing a bright orange University of Tennessee T-shirt that reads “Vol For Life.” As a UGA graduate and fan, I normally hate any and all things Tennessee. But I’m comforted to something familiar in such an unfamiliar place. The woman tells me she’s from Tennessee.
“I’ve gotta represent for the Vols, especially with so many UCONN fans around,” she says, referring to Tennessee’s women’s basketball rivalry with the University of Connecticut. I still hate Tennessee, but I can certainly get behind that sentiment.
Our final stop in Connecticut is Plainfield. Plain is an apt way to describe my experience in the Constitution State: We’ve stuck to the highways, except for drop-offs, and never gone too far into any town. We once again find ourselves in a traffic jam. We’re dropping off seven dogs. The mixture of sleep deprivation and the monotonous view of the road has me feeling drunk. It’s roughly noon.
While Chris and James unload dogs, I stumble around the lot in attempt to shake off my daze. A speeding Mustang screeches into the parking lot and comes to a stop just short of where I’m standing. Close enough to jolt me slightly more awake, but not enough to bring me out of a stupor.
“Those dogs for sale?” the man in the Mustang asks. Chris told me to expect this. He said every trip someone will come up to the truck and ask if they can buy a dog. Sometimes it happens more than once.
“These dogs have been adopted and are being delivered to their new homes,” I say. I don’t go through the same spiel I went through with the couple in Bedington. I’m too tired and it just doesn’t seem worth it.
I am too tired to be a preacher in the Church of P.E.T.S.
The one moment in Plainfield that does bring a smile to my face is when Munz, the Catahoula, finds his home. As he walks away, the sad face is replaced by the goofy smile I saw when Rick had him on his back in Cookeville, and it’s mimicked by his new owner, an older man in a baseball cap. I can tell these two will make a good pair. Munz appears to have his partner in crime; he just had to go 2,000 miles from Austin, Texas, to find him.
When you imagine a small New England town, you’re imagining Medfield. About an hour outside Boston, Medfield is quintessential picturesque Americana. The Saturday sun is beaming down on all the old colonial homes and glistening on the surfaces of roadside ponds. We pass an ice cream shop that’s packed to the gills. People are lined up out the door with more folks, cones in hand, scattered across the parking lot.
Our destination in Medfield is Forever Homes Rescue, where we will deliver 13 dogs. State law in Massachusetts requires that any animals coming from shelters out of state must be quarantined for 24 hours. Some of these dogs already have families adopting them, but those families will have to wait until Monday to get their new additions. Others were brought in by the rescue, in hopes of adopting them out.
“The dogs that come into Forever Homes get snatched up like that,” Chris says, snapping his fingers. “They don’t last long here.”
This is the most impressed I’ve been with Chris’s driving so far. Mostly we’ve been on roads designed to hold big rigs. These roads are not like that. They are narrow, curving two-lane roads, designed for the people of Medfield to move around their community — not for a tractor-trailer full of dogs. Each time Chris has to turn onto another street, he swings the truck wide to the outside before sharply cutting in. From my perspective, it looks like he’ll hit a car or street sign, or run smack-dab into a tree on the side of the road. But Chris makes it with ease each time. I think maybe that’s the mark of a good truck driver. You scare the shit out of everyone who doesn’t know anything about trucks, but remain on the perfect trajectory each time.
It’s roughly 2:30 when Chris makes a final big, right-hand turn into Forever Homes’ dirt parking lot. Five volunteers are waiting to take the dogs from the truck and deliver them to kennels in the building. The process here is more streamlined than any other drop-off, because they’re all going to the same place for now. Chris and James grab a dog and hand it off to a volunteer who takes it inside. The volunteers all smile and laugh as the dogs lick their face and pant. It’s a nice sight, but not the same as the dogs meeting their new families.
“Have you been riding with them the whole way?” one of the volunteers asks me. I tell her I have. “It looks like you haven’t gotten much sleep.”
I excuse myself inside to go inside and use the restroom. When I look into the mirror, I understand why she asked. I have two huge bags under my droopy, sunken eyes. I look like exactly what I am — someone who has barely slept in the last 24 hours. I splash some water on my face and go back to see if we’re ready to get on the road.
Chris and James have already wrapped up when I get back. They are talking to the volunteers. I walk into the trailer and notice that the dog in the cage behind the door — the yellow one with the soft eyes — is gone, and I didn’t get to see it leave. That bothers me for some reason. The truck is much emptier than when we started. We started with more than 80 dogs and that's been winnowed to about 20. But that last group is still barking and whining, seemingly at the same volume as a pack three times as large.
I take the few steps up back to the cab. James is back in the driver’s seat and has the unenviable task of backing us out of the tight parking lot Chris pulled us into. He handles it perfectly and I’m not surprised. These guys are professionals.
As the truck shakes and shimmies down those narrow New England roads, I close my eyes, hoping to catch some kind of sleep before the next stop in New Hampshire, but the movement of the truck makes it difficult. What makes it more difficult is barking. The cab is silent, cut off from the trailer, where I’m sure the dogs have been clamoring since Tennessee. But now the barking is deeply ingrained in my brain. It’s like when you’ve been swimming all day then go to sleep. You can feel the motion of the water when you close your eyes, even though you’re lying perfectly still.
I’m tired as hell and just want to be home. We have seven more hours until our final drop-off. Then 16 more on the long drive back to Cookeville.
The main drop-off in Hampton is a clowder of cats. Six, to be precise, along with four dogs. We’re in another commuter lot, but this is the first one packed with cars, which makes pulling in a tricky proposition, but James handles it with ease. Like I said, he’s a pro.
The first nine animals go out in about five or 10 minutes, but we have to wait about 20 extra minutes for someone who is late to the pickup. This close to the end of the trip, every minute wasted is a minute earlier we could’ve been home. James rants and raves about the person who is late, and I join him. But when she shows up, he delivers her dog with a smile on his face and a skip in his step. She’ll never know we were cussing her existence mere moments ago.
I, once again, feel like I’m about to keel over. James, noticing my distinct trudge toward the truck and difficulty climbing into the cab, calls me out on it.
“Hey, man, why don’t you climb in the back and grab some sleep?” he asks. “It’s a small drop-off in Manchester and you can stay down until Vermont.”
He doesn’t have to tell me twice. I make my way into the top bunk and close my eyes. Sleep doesn’t come, but I still hear that barking.
“Time to wake up, boys! It’s White River Junction,” James shouts, stirring me and Chris awake and to our feet. It turns out I did get some sleep there toward the end.
I’m shocked when I get out of the cab and see green all around me. Tree-covered hills jut skyward all around us. It’s dusk, and the sun casts dancing shadows on the hillside. A small hamlet sits nestled in a valley a few hundred yards down the hill from where we’re parked. This landscape is far cry from any we’ve trod over the last 24 hours.
To me, an Appalachian boy, Vermont looks like home.
After delivering 10 dogs in White River Junction, we’ll only have three more to deliver, on top of four dogs we have to bring back to Cookeville. The site of an almost empty trailer is eerie, considering how full and loud it was just this morning. All the dogs are delivered, including a group of five puppies — all brothers and sisters — to a rescue. The puppies all quiver as they’re handed to their caretaker.
Chris and James introduce me to Robin, a short, tan woman who comes to the drop-off every week to take pictures for a local rescue. Here photos help facilitate adoptions in White River Junction. You can tell she’s a regular by the way James and Chris trade barbs with her. It’s like seeing an old friend.
As the puppies walk around the parking lot, climbing on top of one another, Robin catches a breeze from the heavily air-conditioned trailer and notices that some of them are shivering.
“Do you have to keep that trailer so cold,” she asks. “Look at these little things shiver.”
“What’s our other option? Keep the heat up and let them burn to death?” James quips back. “That’s not from the cold. It’s a tough ride. They’ve been in the back of that truck for more than a day and before that they were taken from their mom and passed around through shelters. They don’t know what to expect. These dogs are scared. Just give them some time and they’ll be fine.”
The sun is going down by the time we leave White River Junction. I’d like to see more of the Vermont landscape, but by the time we’re 10 minutes out of White River Junction, the hills are coated in darkness.
I stay awake all the way to Brattleboro, the final stop. I figure I can crash for the duration of the drive home, so I might as well get as tired as possible first. Maybe that will force me to sleep on the bumpy road.
I have to use the bathroom in the gas station we’re parked beside. By the time I get back out to the truck, only one dog is left to be delivered. A young woman with tattoos dotting her arms is adopting a pit bull. When she takes the leash from Chris, the dog charges forward, pulling the woman toward her car. Like it knows exactly where to go. Like it knows where its new home is. The dog sits in the passenger seat, and the last glimpse I get of it is the woman petting its head as she rolls out of the parking lot and into the darkness. This probably would’ve made me cry yesterday, but all I can think about now is turning around and heading home.
As Chris and James clean out the kennels one final time before we head south, I walk around the truck, shaking from fatigue. I trip over a bit of loose gravel and catch myself with the side of the trailer. I vomit. Everything that’s happened since I first got to the Petersons’ more than 36 hours ago has caught up with me and made me physically ill.
When Chris and James are ready to go, I don’t even stop at the passenger seat. I immediately climb into the top bunk. I close my eyes and prepare to ride out the last 16 hours of this trip in a dream.
We're through Knoxville. About an hour outside of Cookeville.
It’s around 3 p.m. on Sunday, and I’ve been awake since 1. The entire ride back was blissful slumber interspersed with a few periods of me lying awake, staring at the truck’s ceiling. We made a few pit stops for food as well as a stop to walk the last four dogs on the truck. Chris took over driving duties for the final leg at some point in the night.
"This is the worst part of the drive," he says as we roll down I-40.
That strikes me as odd, even though I agree. Why is this the worst part? There were times when I felt like I was gonna pass out, drop dead from fatigue. Times when the sound of dogs overwhelmed my senses and became too much to handle. I’ve actually gotten some sleep now, and the trip is almost over. So why do I feel the worst at this moment?
I think it’s because what we want is so close, but still just out of reach. My home in Toccoa is on the far side of town. Most of the time, when I come home, I have to drive through town to get there. And that short, 10-minute drive is always the worst part. It’s the final obstacle. The last thing you’ve gotta tackle before you’re back to where you're comfortable. Where the weariness of the world lifts from your shoulders. Where you're loved.
That's why the barking bothered me so much. These animals have been through so much. Many were born to strays wandering the streets. Mangy and untouched. Cast away, seen as unfit to love. Others were tossed aside by people who didn’t care about them. Their barks were cries for love, from someone, from anyone.
"Home stretch, fellas," James says, extending his massive arms, gripping my seat and Chris's.
That’s what this entire trip has been for these animals: their home stretch. P.E.T.S. has the unenviable — but necessary — task of escorting them in the worst moment of their lives. The truck ride is when they feel the most alone and scared, as far away from love as they’ve ever been. After a life in shelters, literally on death’s door, they have to take a long ride home. And I’m sure it’s even worse for them than Chris’s drive down I-40 or my drive through town.
The big rig rolls back into the Petersons’ driveway, and the engine shuts off for the first time after 55 hours and almost 2,500 miles. I thank Chris and James for the ride and climb out one last time.
“I see you survived,” Kyle says as he walks up to the truck. I shake his hand and thank him for letting me ride along, but quickly excuse myself. I still have a five-hour drive back to Northeast Georgia and my own home stretch. But the work isn’t finished for P.E.T.S. A truck is leaving again the next morning, winding its way through the South for another round of pickups.
When I get back into my car, I close my eyes for a moment, just to reflect, before starting the drive. And, for the first time in days, the barking stops echoing through my mind. I think about Munz and Sugarwags and the yellow dog with soft eyes, and I feel joy. I know they’re somewhere they’ll be loved.
Whenever I see big rigs moving down the highway, I always wonder where they’re going. If you’re like me, I’ve got at least one mystery solved for you. If you see a big red Volvo tractor with P.E.T.S. emblazoned on the side and a trailer full of dogs hitched behind it, you don't have to wonder about their destination.
They’re going home.