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Driving Miss Daisy

Road trip adventures are sweeter with a canine companion

spinner image illustration of daisy the dog sitting at picnic table near body of water eating ice cream
Chris Lyons

Shortly after Tom and I became a couple, we took our first road trip together, from Dallas to Los Angeles, for a wedding. I decided then that we had potential for forever. I could never have married a man who didn’t also love a road trip.

In our 35 years together, Tom and I took many such trips, with plenty of adventures and high jinks enroute. “Heeere we go,” we would say as we pulled out of the driveway.

But in May 2020, at age 59, Tom died of a heart attack. At 61, I was suddenly alone.

I took my first road trip as a widow about four months after losing Tom, trying to flee the sadness of home. I drove from Dallas to New Mexico to visit friends, and broke up the drive into two legs, spending the night in Amarillo, Texas.

That night, alone in a hotel room, was among the hardest of my life. Although I’d traveled solo after I was married, knowing now that there was no one back home to check in with felt uniquely dreadful. I felt adrift and untethered, and not in a free-and-easy way. It was storming that night, and the rain-smeared view of the highway and neon hotel sign outside my window nearly broke my heart. 


Wingdog to the rescue

I decided what I needed to help me in my life and travel journey was a dog — a wingdog, so to speak. Ours had been a child-free but dog-full household, although it had been several years since we’d said a tearful goodbye to Jack. He was a good dog. Now another dog sounded just right. Someone to talk to in the car and hear breathing at night. Someone to hike with and learn to camp with. A sentient body to hug.

spinner image daisy the dog with sophia dembling in vehicle
Sophia and travel sidekick Daisy hit the road for another adventure.
Courtesy Sophia Dembling

Enter Daisy, 65 pounds of mixed-breed, supermodel-gorgeous looks: black-and-white with a muscular build and eyes that see deep into your soul. She was 3 years old when I adopted her as a rescue. She had recently birthed and nursed 13 puppies and was weak and underweight. We bonded immediately, one sad lady with another.

Daisy is not an easy dog; she’s anxious and, like many rescues, came preloaded with complicated issues that I’ve been working hard on (with the help of professionals). But for the most part, Daisy is obedient, easy to train, mellow and she likes hugs. In many ways, we are two peas in a pod: both introverted, moody and inclined toward quiet solitude. Though she has no use for anyone else, Daisy trusts and is devoted to me. The feeling is mutual.

Road tripping with Daisy requires as much paraphernalia as traveling with a toddler and entails many considerations, compromises and expenses. I won’t lie: I sometimes wonder if I’ve made a terrible mistake. Being footloose is a lot harder when you’re responsible for another creature. I travel with her crate, a bed, her rug, a tether for campsites, her food, snacks and more. Not all accommodations allow dogs, and many that do have a weight limit that Daisy exceeds. Most places also charge an extra pet fee. Stopping at roadside attractions can be tricky to impossible. If the weather permits, I’ll leave her in the car for a little while, but not a whole museum’s-worth of time.

Sometimes it’s best to board her at a kennel — to visit friends, for example. I learned this early on when we stayed with friends in Nashville, Tennessee, who had a nice, large, fenced yard. We put Daisy out there while we visited, and she destroyed their screen door trying to get back to me. They were good sports about it, but now I’m more likely to board her for visits or stay in  dog-friendly short-term rentals, motels and campgrounds. And I don’t leave Daisy alone unless she’s crated.


A doggone good girl

For the most part, though, travel with Daisy is fun. On the road she mostly snoozes in the back seat, but it makes me smile to see her head pop up from time to time as she checks out the scenery. We share snacks; nothing wakes her faster than the rustle of cellophane. If I leave her in the car at a rest area to run to the bathroom, she watches for me from the window and smiles when she spots me.

Traveling alone I can get road greedy, trying to cover as many miles as possible. Traveling with Tom required us both to agree on impromptu stops, which we only managed occasionally. Daisy and I stop and step out of the car often to stretch our legs and take in new views. We’ve become rest area aficionados, both the big fancy ones and the weird little ones that are nothing but a few picnic tables and a trash can by a cornfield. Daisy is strong and extremely protective (to a fault, actually), and with her I feel empowered to stop when the whim hits me, even if it’s the middle of nowhere. I like those neither-here-nor-there places and moments. 

Taking her for walks wherever I’m staying gives me a new view of my surroundings. If I want to do dog-free activities, I can leave her crated in a short-term rental (better for dog travel than hotels), which doesn’t bother her in the least.

If I just need a place to crash for a night, I’ve learned which motel chains allow pets to stay for free. And as a special road-trip treat, I let Daisy sleep on the bed in motels, which she doesn’t get to do at home. Other travel treats include occasional hamburgers or ice cream cones. We all deserve road-trip indulgences; Tom liked beef jerky, I’m into gummy bears.

We’re learning to camp too, which I’ve always wanted to do. Truthfully, I don’t think Daisy is crazy for camping and does it only to humor me. The first time we camped was on a dusty flat in Amarillo. A huge wind kicked up in the middle of the night and set everything shaking, including Daisy. We finished the night in the car. Our first night in Arkansas’ Petit Jean State Park, I built a campfire and pulled up a chair. Daisy gave it a glance and retired to the tent to sleep. The last time we camped, in the San Juan National Forest in Colorado, she dug a hole under the picnic table and spent most of her time hanging out there. I have decided she is enjoying the experience her own way, and I’m fine with it. I do wish she could help set up a tent, though. Some things are objectively more difficult alone.


spinner image daisy poking head out of tent in the woods
Daisy's travel adventures have included several camping trips.
Courtesy Sophia Dembling

My capable canine companion

Daisy does like to hike, and she’s an exceptional hiking companion. My sense of direction is pathetic, hers is infallible. On a hike outside Boulder, Colorado, an equally direction-impaired friend and I found ourselves at the confluence of several trails. We stood for several minutes, peering at maps on our phones trying to figure out the way back to the car while Daisy stood at the correct trail, looking back at us with patient bafflement. Her route across dry river stones in Dinosaur Valley State Park in Texas was by far the best way for us to get where we were going; I saw her consider each decision before choosing the stones that would provide the surest footing.

And, most importantly, Daisy is my buddy. Widowhood is a state of existential loneliness, and while Daisy can’t fill the vast Tom-shaped hole in my life, she is a living creature to whom my presence matters greatly, and she’s got my back. She provides a comforting snore at night, and in the morning, she smiles and wags and insists on cuddles that I am happy to give.

She makes lonely hotel rooms less lonely, is fun and photogenic on hikes, lets me choose the music in the car and ensures I don’t eat the whole bag of pretzels by myself. And she’s someone to say “Heeere we go” to as we pull out of the driveway.


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