Living Safely on a Leash, Or Running Free?
Use your health, even to the point of wearing it out.
That is what it is for.
Spend all you have before you die;
do not outlive yourself.
~George Bernard Shaw
For as long as there have been people living in community, the question has been debated should we favor freedom or should we have security. For Americans, the obvious example is the American Revolution. Our forefathers were faced with the decision to be safe as second-class citizens under England or to be free men by founding a new country. The Founding Fathers made the decision that it was better to be dead than to be a slave. They were so bold they wrote it out in the Declaration of Independence and signed their names to it, thus burning their bridges. They were “All In,” succeed or die.
I faced a decision something like that for myself. When I first moved into a van, very little changed in my life; I kept working at the same job with the same health insurance. I had plenty of money and family and friends around to help me if I got in trouble. Being a vandweller had virtually no risk to it at all. But later when I retired and decided to boondock full-time on public land, it was a very different story. My pension didn’t come with health insurance and it was too small to allow me to buy it for myself. My ex-wife is a hospice nurse, and from hearing her many stories I knew that people in our country who do not have health insurance get sub-standard medical care and die earlier than people who do have it. I had every reason to believe that would be true for me. I fully expect to die younger because I took early retirement and don’t have medical insurance. I gave that a lot of thought and made a decision: I was “All In” to boondocking, whatever it cost me to be free, I would pay the price.
Let me tell you a story that helped to solidify my decision.
I love dogs, and can’t imagine living this way without one. So in January 2008 I found the perfect dog (Homer, an 80 pound Black and Tan Coonhound) for me in a Rescue Shelter in Asheville, NC. Then in March 2008 we left house-dwelling behind us forever to live fulltime in my small camper. Because our house was so small, and we were driving so much, I made a commitment to Homer to take him for long walks every morning and every night. And I have been faithful to that promise. In miserable heat, rain and snow and unbelievable winds we have gone out for walk every morning and every night for the last 4 years. When I look back at the last four years, the thing I treasure the most is those walks, they mean the world to me.
But I soon made a discovery that terrified me. Homer was born with only one “thought” in his mind, chase down and kill anything that runs. If it runs, Homer chases it. And not just for a little ways, he will chase deer or rabbits for miles. I was nearly frantic the first few times he ran off and left me. No amount of yelling or screaming at him would make him stop and come back. Then when he eventually did come back, I couldn’t punish him then because that would just teach him not to come back.
And he would go for a long time. I’ll never forget the time we were at a high alpine pass in Colorado and he took off after some deer. There were no trees so every so often I could see him way off in the distance chasing something. It was late evening so I decided to just spend the night in the parking lot of the view area and wait for him to come back. I knew there were bear, coyotes and rattlesnakes in the area, any one of which could have killed him. Even worse, we weren’t that far from a fairly busy road where he could get run over. But the greatest danger was that he would go to the road, someone would find him and rescue him by taking him home with them. The bottom line was that I probably would never see him again. Fortunately, he got cold and hungry and came back.
And this wasn’t a rare occurrence, everywhere we went there were plenty of things for him to chase and he would always chases them. His nose is absolute Lord and Master of his life. If there is a scent, he WILL follow it.
So I had to make a decision, what do I do about this dog? Do I put him on a leash to go on walks in the forest and desert, or do I let him run free and possibly (probably?) die young?
I had made that decision for myself, and decided to live free, but let’s face it, that was a strictly theoretical decision. The consequences of my decision were a long way off and didn’t seem very “real.” This was very real! Every time Homer ran off could be the last time I ever saw him. The safe, logical thing was to put him on leash. But that would be a miserable life for both of us. Hadn’t we moved to the woods to live deliberately; to live free or die?
So one day I made the decision, Homer would live free, and he would die whenever it was his time. But he would die having lived a glorious and joyous life full of fun and adventure. I have held that decision close to my heart many times since then when he would disappear for hours. When I would start to worry and fret about him I would remind myself that when the day came to put him in the ground I could say to myself with a very clear conscience that I had given him the very best life I possibly could. Sometimes I look him in the eye and tell him that if in the next life I come back as his dog, and he comes back as my master, I hope that he gives me the exact same life I have given him.
In all of life there is a balance and I do everything I can to keep Homer safe. I’ve tried to train him to stay closer to home. Every month he gets Frontline Plus to protect him from ticks and heartworm pills to prevent heartworms. I give him better quality food and treats to keep him healthy. If he cuts his paw I put booties on them so they will heal. BUT I WILL NEVER TAKE HIM FOR A WALK IN THE DESERT OR WOODS WITH A LEASH ON BECAUSE OF FEAR (bear in mind that I am not around other people or dogs, then I would put him on a leash).
That decision settled forever any lingering doubts I may have had about security versus freedom. I will not live on a leash because it makes me safer. I will run like a wild thing through the woods and desert being fully human, fully alive. And if that means I die young, then it will have been well worth it.