Cletus meets Confucius on the Appalachian Trail

The dog’s name was Cletus. Of course, we didn’t know that at the time. We were pretty sure he had a name, though. After all, his owner had cared enough to put a collar on him with a phone number embroidered on it. But the dog was truly lost.

He ran back and forth across the parking area, from car to car, person to person, searching for a familiar scent or voice or face. He looked hungry and frightened and confused. He came to us when we called. Others stopped, too. But they soon went on their way, claiming no one knew him.

My sister, Pat, and I had just arrived, pulling into the parking lot of an access point and campgrounds for the Appalachian Trail. It was a gorgeous autumn day – perfect for walking this renowned trail for the first time. She has recently moved to the area, and it was one of our few days together in a long time. We were both greatly looking forward to the experience.

But there was Cletus. Even if we didn’t know his name yet. Lost, alone, searching. Too thin, she thought. Collar’s too tight, I thought. I tried to give him some of my water, but he didn’t want it. Of course, our phones wouldn’t work at that altitude. So the collar information didn’t do us much good.

Pat thought at first we could go on our planned hike and come back, and if he was still there, we could take him with us. But then she looked at my face.

So, she suggested that we put him in the car where he would be safe – cracking the windows on this very crisp day – go on our planned hike, and come back and take him with us. But then she looked at my face.

And so, without a word and barely a sigh, she picked him up, opened the hatchback of the rented car, and lifted him in. We put the backseats down so he could have the entire back of the car in which to ride. Cletus was not a big dog, but no tiny pup, either.

Driving back down the mountain we had literally just ascended, Cletus looked a bit green. “I think he’s going to throw up,” I observed. “Not in this rented car,” she replied. “Pull over, pull over!” I warned. “We’re almost to the Ranger’s Station. He’ll be okay,” she was sure.

Cletus held it down, and Pat went into the Ranger’s Station and used their landline to contact the owner. It turned out he was at one of the campsites near where we found Cletus, and they had become separated the night before. Cletus was a “bear hunting dog,” we were told, and this was not an uncommon occurrence.

Personal convictions aside, we agreed to meet the owner at a nearby gas station. “But we’ll keep the motor running,” we decided … in case we didn’t like the looks of him, or Cletus acted afraid or reluctant. Pat even began to speculate about the possibilities of her two cats accepting this mixed breed pup as a part of her own family.

Cletus’ dad turned out to be a pretty good guy, we determined. And very grateful and relieved to get his buddy back. Cletus went willingly, and boarded the owner’s truck without comment. He was a serious working dog, not the sort who goes in for a lot of sentimentality, apparently.

Due to the lateness of the day by this time, we decided the hike would be out of the question. We opted for a nearby antiques store, instead.

Throughout the ordeal, I had let Pat know how much I appreciated her compassion and acquiescence. The kind of unspoken understanding that only sisters can have, I suspect. I hugged her a lot, and she took it in stride. “But, just so we’re straight,” she quietly observed, “I get credit for this for a long time, right?” “Oh yes. Yes, you do,” I agreed. It was one of those sister moments you never outgrow.

Confucius has a saying about perfect virtue that encompasses five practices. Generosity of soul and kindness are two of them. As far as I’m concerned, Pat had just nailed them both.