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My Travels with Pete the Dog

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Kelly Vaughn had always wanted a giant adventure dog with whom she could explore Arizona’s rugged outback. Then, Pete arrived — a small-but-tough street pup with an intrepid spirit

Photos by Kelly Vaughn

Exploring the red rocks of Sedona’s Bell Trail.

The dog comes to me like a spirit on Halloween night, with a call from the man I am dating.

“Kel, you’ve got to come down here,” he says. “This little dog jumped in my arms. I can’t find his people, and Nala isn’t having it.” Nala, the Rottweiler, is of Olympian build — all lean muscle and shiny coat and strength of jaw and speed and spirit. She is the type of dog I thought I’d have one day — a bulky, strong-legged bear to keep me warm in a tent, to climb mountains ahead of me, to run and swim and lay waste to the car windows with drool.

But when I open the gate to fetch the little dog that night, 6 pounds of white fluff and fox ears and blue-green eyes stare at me, shaking in the chill of near- November. This is not my bear-dog. Still, “I’ll call you Pete,” I say.

Pete surveys the Phoenix valley from Shaw Butte.

We go home.

After a bath and a street-dog dinner of scraps of deli meat and bacon, the dog curls up next to me on my bed. We sleep that way for seven hours. The next morning, I buy dog food.

For three weeks, I knock on doors and post to community boards on social media and in the neighborhood, trying to find Pete’s people. At the end of the first week, I take him to what I call my “baby hill,” the mile-up, mile-back mountain near my home that I run to train for bigger things.

“OK, dog,” I say. “If you can make it up this mountain, I might fall off it.” He makes it. Running. I stay on my feet and fall in love.

Still, we search for his family. No microchip. No response.

A week or so after his first climb, I take Pete to try a hike with the man and Nala. The drive itself is long. The Jeep bounces over rocks and through washes. Dust sneaks through the air vents and cracked windows. Pete sits on the center console — our navigator — occasionally stretching his hind legs back so they hang off. Yet, it makes me think of those cat clocks that click back and forth, the tail moving in motion with the time.

He hikes 8 miles that day, finding his trail legs behind Nala. She learns to love him, too, and they still see each other from time to time and fall into their old routine of wrestling. Nala is gentle. Pete is brave, as though he saw his shadow once and thought himself a lion. The vet, though, tells me he is part Chihuahua, part terrier (what kind she doesn’t know). My children call him a fox. A unicorn. Buddy.

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Always up for adventure, Pete and the author scale rugged Humphreys Peak.

Since that hike, I’ve lost count of how many miles Pete and I have traveled together. No one claims him. I pray, still, they won’t.

The day before I am to take a friend to the very top of Arizona — the summit of Humphreys Peak at 12,637 feet — my dog sitter cancels. There are no other options. Pete will have to make the climb, too. We camp at an elevation of 9,000 feet, warming up on a segment of the Arizona Trail near Flagstaff’s sacred San Francisco Peaks. I let Pete off-leash, as I’ve done a dozen times before. He bolts. I run after him but can’t find him. My friends calls and searches. I ask mountain bikers and hikers if they’ve seen him. Four minutes feels like 40. And then, he comes trotting out of the woods, covered in leaves and dirt and pine needles. Clueless. Happy.

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The next morning, we begin the hike up the mountain, maneuvering crowds and terrain and the slow suck of oxygen from our lungs. I pick Pete up, thinking his legs would wear. He fights to be put back down. The dog summits on his own four paws. I struggle on my two.

We sit at the top for a while, he and I, and I am reminded of something I read long ago — some piece of a Milan Kundera quote about dogs and paradise: “Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring — it was peace.”

It’s true.

As we hike down, I force Pete into my arms. His small-dog strength is pulling me too hard, the terrain — all tundra and rock and slick — is dangerous with the pull of gravity. People clap, cheer and pet Pete, small and mighty and stubborn, the dog who conquered the mountain. And I wonder where we’d go next, knowing we’d find Eden there.

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