Grand Canyons and Garages

I’m writing this post from a desk in my parent’s two-car garage. The couch I left behind is also out here, along with an air mattress and a few other pieces of furniture that make it more livable. There’s an A/C unit in the window and a mini fridge in the corner. 

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For now, I’m a grown-ass woman depending on family and friends for shelter. My sister and her boyfriend live in the lower half of the family duplex with their cats, lizards, and dog—so we’re out here. When things get too cramped, we’ll take trips up to the Pawling house to regain some personal space. 

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I expected this to feel like hitting “rock bottom”, but it hasn’t been so bad. Not yet, anyway. It’s a little embarrassing to take video calls for work in a garage-turned-studio apartment. The upside to being in my 30s is not caring what other people think anymore. Buying a house, sight-unseen from California, wasn’t an option. For now, this is home. Again.

I spent last week with my parents driving back east and then spent the weekend catching up with friends. I’ve seen more loved ones in a week than I have in the past seven months. This is probably why I don’t feel too sad (yet).

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The dogs handled their second cross-country road trip well. In January, the entire country was in an unusually cold spell. Last week, by contrast, the entire country was in a heat wave (it was 120°F in Arizona). The dogs definitely preferred the cold.

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We swung by the Grand Canyon and camped at Monument Valley for the first night, and stayed in hotels the remaining three nights. At this point, the dogs are pros as sneaking into Motel 6’s and Super 8’s (both are dog friendly but have a 2 dog limit). The 3,000 mile journey flew by after a few dozen podcasts. I recommend Guys We Fucked, Stuff You Should Know, and Reply All. 

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So now we’re in the next phase of this strange adventure. In between house hunting, fence research, and new dog truck plans, I’m preparing for the 2018-2019 season. I’m leaning heavy into mushing now that I’m flying solo and planning to move to Tug Hill. I’m going to beef up our Patreon content and rewards, and hopefully, have a lot more dog-related stuff to share here, too. 

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I’ll leave you all on a cliffhanger—a big box is on its way to us from Oregon. Check back in a week or so to find out what it is!

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Get the Show on the Road

So it begins, again. I took down all my framed prints, tapestries, and decorative knickknacks and packed them up. All of my kitchen cookware and appliances are in an enormous, 200 quart storage bin. I filtered through my book collection for the second time this year and created another pile to donate. (Only a small pile—I can’t seem to let go of most of them) These things won’t see the light of day until I'm settled into my next home, wherever that may be. 

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My parents are flying to Las Vegas later this week, where they’ll vacation for a bit before heading my way. On Monday morning, we’ll set out on another cross-country trek. This time, we’re taking a more northern route—stopping at the Grand Canyon and camping near Monument Valley before heading north and east through Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and finally, New Jersey.

Driving across the country is daunting, but we know what to do. And it’s not nearly as daunting as buying a home. Thanks to Will, I was lucky enough to have a place to live without the financial commitment of home ownership. This time, I’m on my own. A large portion of my savings will go into a down payment, closing costs, and putting up a dog yard. Once the house is settled, I’ll be selling my SUV and buying a 4WD pickup truck to handle the upstate winter. The dog van will likely get sold next year so I can set some money aside for a non-dog vehicle. Beyond that, there’s hopes of fencing in an acre or two for a play yard, an ATV, and more dogs. Always more dogs.

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When I was a kid, I dreamed of having my own little farm. Sled dogs weren’t part of the plan, but I knew there’d be plenty of animals. Even then, I didn’t envision a usual nuclear family. But I didn’t expect to be buying my first home by myself. I thought I’d have a partner at my side for this.

This whole situation is a little bit sad. And a little bit scary. But more than anything, I’m proud of myself. I’m making decisions based solely on what I want for the first time in my life. Could it all be a huge mistake? Definitely! But I need to find out.

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Is there room in Mushing for the non-competitive Musher?

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I’ve been mushing for about eight years now. In that time, I’ve participated in about a dozen sprint races. Some were just “fun runs”, but the majority were ISDRA sanctioned, legitimate races with competitive teams. My dogs usually did fairly well, placing somewhere in the middle of the pack—between the slow-and-steady Samoyeds and the gazelle-like Eurohounds. How we did depended a lot on our order out the chute. If we were behind a fast team, we usually did well, since we could chase them right to the finish line.

Sprint races are short and intense, with teams spaced out only by a few minutes and often interacting on the trail. You’ll also be running against all levels of musher—from recreational newbie to competitive pro. Unlike mid-distance and distance races, which seem to mainly be composed of Alaskans and maybe a few Siberian teams, you’ll see all sorts of dogs at sprint races.

For me, there are a lot of variables that make sprint racing stressful. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy attending races and talking to other mushers. I love seeing the dogs run. But when it’s our turn, I’m usually a ball of nerves. 

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The funny thing is that I’ve never had any major issues during a race. My dogs are mysteriously polite during the chaos of getting to the start chute and returning back to the van. In my early races, we did get into a tangle and my bike fell apart (ah, Fair Hill), but we made it out without injuries or upsetting anyone. I wish I could break the nerves, but it just seems to be part of racing.

For me, mushing isn’t about the thrill of competing (or winning). I prefer to be alone in the wilderness with my team—a collection of dogs I picked and trained to work together. Just traveling over different landscapes is a victory in itself. I want to grow my team to go longer distances. I want enough dogs in harness that when someone is tired, injured, or retired, the team can still keep going. I want to breed a litter of pups, so I can hand-pick and raise a future team right from the very beginning (this won’t be for a long time, if at all). 

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I have a lot of goals for me and these dogs: longer miles, overnight expeditions, maybe even some small-scale touring. Racing isn’t part of the plan. Yet, for most mushers, competition is the main goal for their whole operation. Nowadays, sled dog kennels serve little functional purpose other than racing and touring (which tend to go hand in hand—big race kennels often give tours). I don’t know of any mushers who use dog teams for their traditional purposes—fur trapping, transporting goods, etc. (though it still exists in native cultures). 

The “purpose" of these dogs has obviously shifted towards competition. As a working dog, their value is determined by how well they do their job. So, it should come as no shock that whenever I ask for advice from other mushers, it comes to me under the assumption that I’m building a race team. But what if that’s not what I’m after? What if my goals don’t align with the majority of the community? 

These are rhetorical questions because, truthfully, I don’t care. I’m always going to follow my own path, even if it’s an edge case in an already niche hobby. That said, you’ll probably still catch me at sprint races from time to time. You may even see me at a mid-distance race one day. If you do, please pat me on the back and maybe give me a Tums. 

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No Rest for the Musher

Sled dogs are synonymous with winter. What most people don’t realize is that mushing is a year-round event. Fall is for dry land training—either with a cart or an ATV—to prepare the dogs for the season ahead. Winter is when (weather/climate permitting) most races are held and mushers switch to sled runs. Spring is for learning: training puppies on slow, short runs and giving young dogs a chance to lead in front of small teams. 

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Summer is considered the “off-season”, but that just means the dogs are not running. There is no summer vacation for the musher. While the trails disappear under a living blanket of green, mushers are preparing. Gear needs to be fixed or replaced. Holes in the dog yard need to be filled. If you have them, dog houses need to be cleaned, repaired, and re-painted. The dog truck needs maintenance. Some kennels raise litters during the summer. Caring for six tiny new team members is far from time off. The existing team also needs exercise and mental stimulation to get through the warm months, when mushing isn’t an option.

The off-season might be the busiest time of the year.

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This summer is especially busy for team Blue Eyes, as we are preparing to move across the country… again. I’m pre-approved for a mortgage and started house hunting online, but there’s only so much you can do from 3,000 miles away. The properties seem promising, but there’s a long way to go before we’re finally home (for real, this time). 

As a project manager by trade and a planner by compulsion, I’ve laid out about a dozen check lists for what needs to get done in the next few months. I’m putting myself through the gauntlet of annual doctor visits while I’m stationary. The dogs are getting their annual vaccinations, too. The dog van and SUV both need to be cleaned and serviced for the cross-country trek (the SUV also needs some repairs). I have to sort through all my belongings (again) and sell or donate what I don’t need (two big moves really helps reduce clutter). Everything I’m keeping will be stored in an enclosed trailer until I have a permanent home to put it in. I have to carefully decide what I'll need until then and live out of a duffle bag.

I have about a dozen accounts to update and then update again when I buy a house. I’ll need to switch health insurance plans. And adjust my car insurance. When I’m finally a citizen of New York state, I’ll need a new license and to update all my vehicle registrations. And dog registrations. There’s so much to think about. 

Our road trip east has already been planned and dog-friendly hotels are booked along the way. Once we’re back, we’ll be staying with my parents (in the garage? glamorous) and at the Pawling house, which puts us closer to the upstate NY houses I want to see. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the home-buying process goes smoothly and we’re able to close before winter. I need to put up a dog yard and play yard, if I can swing it, before the snow falls. 

The future is taking shape, even though the finish line seem so far away.

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Dog Fights

People often ask me if the dogs get into fights. When you have a buttload of dogs living together, it’s a legitimate concern. I can’t speak for every musher, but I think most have dealt with the occasional fight. Large scale kennels usually tether their dogs to manage their interactions. Others separate their dogs into different enclosures, ensuring they get along with those in the space they share. (For example: my friend has a “wimpy” dog yard and an “asshole” dog yard)

 Don't worry, we're just playing.

Don't worry, we're just playing.

When I entered the world of mushing, my intentions were to keep a small team (ha!)—they were to be pets first, sled dogs second. This also meant keeping them inside the house with me. For the most part, this has been working out just fine, even as my numbers increased. Knox and Dexter would get into an occasional spat, mostly due to Knox’s resource-guarding tendencies. Still, their issues have been easily managed.

We were spending most of our time at the Pawling house when I brought Blitz and eventually Hubble into the mix. Pawling has a decent sized floor plan and an enormous yard for the dogs to release their energy. This is especially useful in the off-season, when it's too warm to mush, but the dogs still need exercise.

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In our move to the SoCal mountains, we knew there'd be a tradeoff: a much smaller house and yard in exchange for trails right at our doorstep. The hope was that I’d be able to occasionally run throughout the summer, since average lows remain much cooler here. Many mushers keep their dogs in enclosures or tethered during the off-season, so I hoped the smaller space would work for my pack. 

As you might have expected by the tone of my posts, it has not worked out.

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One of the major reasons I decided we have to move was the uptick in fights. We’ve had a few between Willow and Denali, which tend to be the scariest. One sent me to urgent care with an infected finger. Dumb move on my part—I couldn’t get them off one another, so I stuck my hand in Denali’s mouth to pry it open. This is a lesson in how NOT to separate fighting dogs. Instead, you should make a lot of noise, throw a bucket of water, or grab the aggressor by the hind legs.

Hubble’s raging hormones are an added bonus in the daily maintenance of hot, bored dogs. Regular playtime has turned into frequent spats*, I suspect because there isn’t enough space for the dogs to get away from one another when they’ve had enough. 

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I already know I want to expand my team, so it’s time to find a property with enough space to keep everyone happy and safe. I’m looking at homes with outbuildings, walk-out basements, and enclosed porches that would be suitable indoor hangouts for the dogs. The plan is to build an ultra-secure dog yard that connects to the house (so I can easily let them in and out). Surrounding the dog yard will be a much larger space (1-2 acres), enclosed with cattle fencing and dig guards, to act as the supervised play yard. Depending on what my team looks like and the space we settle on, I may break up the dog yard into separate runs for even more control over who interacts with who. 

It’s time to eat my words and let my sled dogs be sled dogs.

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*Luckily, the majority of the fights are between the boys. These are both easy to predict/prevent and mostly a lot of noise, spit, and pulled hair. They rarely injure each other. The girls, on the other hand, fight rarely but viciously and without much warning.

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Jess Returns East, Admits Defeat

After my posts about California not working out, several people asked me where I’ll be headed next. I didn’t mean to end on a cliff-hanger. At the time, I was still sorting through the emotional distress that came with the decision.

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I appreciate all the advice and suggestions on where I should go to pursue my mushing dream. I don’t want to sound ungrateful (it’s amazing to me that anyone cares at all), but I already know about the mushing meccas around this hemisphere. Alaska, Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the UP of Michigan have long been at the back of my mind, but they’ll be staying there for a bit longer.

When I set out for California, Plan B was always to return to the northeast. When I was leaving, I reassured my Mom that if things didn’t work out, I’d end up in New York state. Specifically, I’m aiming for the Tug Hill region (around an hour outside of Syracuse), which has some beautiful dog sled trails and lots of snow. Properties on several acres are within my price range. Most importantly, it’s within a day’s drive to my support system: my family, (most of) my friends, and a mushing community I know well.

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This should give me a taste of the rural, mushing-focused life I’ve been chasing after for years. It’s a step towards full independence and a more self-sufficient existence. If I love it and want more (more miles, more trails, more dogs), then I’ll put some real thought into those mushing meccas I mentioned above. Maybe it’ll be enough. Or maybe I’ll decide to dial back and move closer to a city again (as unlikely as that sounds). 

Only time will tell, as it always does. 

As for right now, I’m spending the summer out west, where I’ll savor the lack of humidity and mosquitoes. There's still a lot of the west coast for me to explore. The journey east is scheduled for early August. Once I'm back there, I’ll bounce between central New Jersey and the Pawling house once again, until I find my own little homestead. 

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31 Years and Rolling

I stopped looking forward to birthdays after passing all the big milestones—driving, voting, drinking, and, uh, renting a car I guess? After 30, you’re really just paying attention to the first digit. And when that number changes, it’s not really a joyous occasion. It’s more like, oh fuck, wasn’t I just 17?

Of course, at 31, I’m far from old and hopefully far from the cold, sterile lab where my remains will be donated to whatever cause finds use for them. Still, every year is a reminder that life is fleeting. 

I was up several times this morning, well before dawn, hoping to see multiple inches of snow on the balcony. This is (most likely) it—the final hurrah of the 2017-2018 mushing season. It’ll be in the 70s by the weekend, with lows bottoming out at 40ºF, so we're mostly done running. I still wanted that 400 miles. On my birthday. On snow.

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At around 6:30 AM, I could no longer sleep, and decided to make the most of the ~2” that had fallen. At the very least, the dogs would have some fun in the yard before the snow turned to rain. I really, really wanted to take out my brand new Prairie Bilt sled. It arrived last week and I can tell it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s more maneuverable and durable than my wooden sled, with a large bag and plenty of storage space for carrying gear and dogs. This will be our expedition sled and I can hardly wait.

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But, wait I shall. 

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I loafed around most of the morning, ate a large breakfast, and peaked into work to see what I was missing (we're encouraged to take PTO on our birthday). At around 9 AM, I saw our old neighbor walk by with his four tiny dogs (and a broken arm) in the wintry mix. This guy is dedicated. Once he was out of the way, I figured the trail would most likely be empty. Time to gear up.

I harnessed the team and we rolled out on the dryland cart, since the snow wasn’t sticking on the trail. I thought they’d be more fired up, especially since we hadn’t run in awhile, but they seem to be in off-season mode already. Still, we managed seven slushy miles through some beautiful, snowy scenery. 

The tree that had fallen on our main dirt road was cleared, so we got to go further on a slightly smoother stretch of trail. We did encounter some people and a loose dog (of course) but they were in the distance, and got him under control and out of the way well before we approached. Two coyotes also crossed our path directly in front of the team. They're a nice omen from the forest and a boost for the dogs on our return home.

And so, we got our 400 miles (401.7 to be exact). In the snow, on my 31st birthday. Alone, save for the dogs, on the side of a 7,200 foot mountain in Southern California. A strange life, but I’m so happy to be living it.

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Musher's Bod

Every day is a little bit warmer, even a mile up. As I shed winter layers, my bruised and achey limbs are exposed to the world. I carry with me little reminders of the season gone by. 

We should get at least one more run in this week—possibly even on snow. If all goes well, we'll hit 400 miles. After that, any runs we sneak in are a bonus. Realistically, our season is wrapping up.

Over the spring and summer months, my bruises will fade, but the "reverse" seasonal depression will kick in. The next step? Figuring out where we'll be when next season begins.

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Back on the Trail

I planned to mush as much as possible this week—every day, if I could swing it. The warm spell we were under finally broke and, starting tomorrow night, we'll be cramming into a tiny Venice bungalow for a couple days. This means the dogs will be spending most of their days confined to crates while I attend a work retreat. Luckily, the office is only three miles away, so I’ll be able to check on them. I also spent over $100 on new chews and toys to keep them busy. (And people say sled dogs have it rough.)

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I wanted to run 30+ miles this week, both to exhaust the team before their week of confinement, and to hit the 400 mile mark for this season. Our last two runs at home weren’t great. Last Saturday, I went out well after sunset, and still ran into people and their loose dog. Thankfully it was another husky and my dogs always seem to get along with northern breeds. (Racists? Breedists?)

We ran again on Monday and managed to flip the cart over while maneuvering a rocky downhill section. It was my fault—I was fumbling with my mitten and didn't drop the claw brake. Hubble started pulling (he’s still learning what “whoa” means), which got the rest of the team moving. The cart awkwardly spilled on its side, which is rare, given the shape of this thing. I was still clutching my mitten when I turned it upright, lost my footing, and this time got dragged on my knees (but I didn’t lose the team!). My arms are strained and my legs are now a lovely shade of black and blue—watch out Venice Beach!

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On top of numerous bad experiences on these trails, Blitz and Knox have been pretty spooked about running from our yard. I’m not entirely sure what caused it, but I’m guessing it’s the way the cart bangs out the gate and down our gravel driveway. When we run at other locations they’re both screaming to go, as usual, so I know they’re not calling it quits. 

Though it pains me to see cold days slip away “unmushed” (and to have Denali follow me around the house whining about it), I may give up on these trails for the remainder of my time here. The universe is telling me that they’re unsafe, whether it’s loose dogs, old people, bad terrain, or mountain lions (oh yeah, there was a mountain lion a few blocks away). Something is going to happen and I especially don’t want to risk it while I’m alone up here. 

We'll take advantage of the trails at Holcomb Valley while we still can. It's a lot smoother and I've had very few dog encounters. The only people I tend to see are camped or off roading. It still requires loading everything into the van and driving about 20-30 minutes, but we'll manage with what we've got before warm weather sets in for good.

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This morning we squeezed in eight miles before the temperatures got too warm. I wanted to wake up earlier and hit the road by 5:30 AM, but a local bear was sorting through our neighbor's trash, so I decided to avoid that confrontation and sleep until 6. 

The dogs were exploding with energy after several days off, but I have to keep a close eye on them as we attempt slightly longer runs—especially when temperatures are above freezing. The girls and Blitz know how to pace themselves, so I don't worry about them too much. Hubble is still young and runs at full throttle, which needs constant monitoring. Knox also knows how to trot when he's tired, but there's not much he can do about his woolly coat. Plenty of water breaks and shady trails helped, and the team is now snoozing happily around me.

Tomorrow we'll run again before driving down to the coast. I'm still eager to attempt 6 miles/rest/another 6 miles, but the forecast looks too warm for it. Either way, I'm proud of these dogs and looking forward to what next season will bring.

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Thank You

My last post garnered a pretty big response from friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. I wanted to thank everyone who checked on me—for the encouragement, suggestions, and support. Coming to terms with this decision has put me in a better place mentally, but check back when I start making moves. It will get harder. 

After writing my April 15th post, Facebook’s “On This Day” reminded me of this entry from exactly one year before—when I had announced my decision to move to California. What the hell, man. (I think April 15th will be a personal holiday going forward.)

In that post and several since, I’ve explained why I thought California would work for me and the dogs. If you’ve been following along, you’ve heard my reasoning: low humidity, plenty of snow, close to my employer, cool in the summer, trails near the house, yada yada yada. I did leave something pretty major out: I’m here because Will wants to be in Los Angeles. 

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I don’t talk about relationships in this blog. In the past, boyfriends have had little impact on my mushing life. Most were supportive and interested, which is all I ask of them. But when you get up and move across the country with someone, that changes things.

I knew from day one that Will was destined for a warmer climate. He warned me early that he didn’t stick around for winter and wanted to make a permanent move out of New York City. I didn’t know, specifically, what that meant—but I figured we’d cross that bridge when we got there. And that bridge took us to southern California.

A mountain is the only ecosystem that could potentially sustain us. Will would have Los Angeles for warmth and city life and I’d be (roughly) two hours away and over a mile up. When we visited Big Bear in the winter of 2017, it was snow covered and full of potential. (We also ate donuts, which may have clouded my judgement.)

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I had to give this a shot and I'm so grateful for everything Will has done to try and make this work for me. While he isn’t going to be up in the frosty, predawn hours to run dogs, he has been the most supportive fan of Blue Eyes and Spitfire thus far. When we were still in the Hudson Valley of New York, he put a fence up around his property so the dogs could run. He traveled with me when I got both Blitzen and Hubble from their breeders. He’s dealt with hair, poop, pee, muddy paw prints, and dead groundhogs throughout the house. And about a thousand chewed up socks.

He drove across the country twice—the second time so I wouldn’t have to do it alone. He bought this house so that I’d have somewhere to live with the dogs, since renting is not an option. He put up another fence out here, to keep our neighbor’s dog from mauling mine through the chainlink. He’s secretly purchased a tougher dryland rig and a metal sled to help me survive this rough terrain. I don’t think I could ever repay him for everything he’s done for me. And that’s just the dog-related stuff.

That’s all I want to write about this. I don’t like talking about relationships here (or, uh, at all) and I’m sure this will make him feel weird, too. Still, it’s a piece of the puzzle and part of this story. If you weren’t aware of it, you’d probably raise an eyebrow as to why I made the choice to move here.

So, there you have it.

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