Holly Kays photo
Arti in the woods
Arti the whippet-terrier in her element.
It was late summer in the Smokies, and high-country greenery flourished. With each step I took down the trail, leaves and grass absorbed more and more of the traffic noise from the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway. The trills of birdsong soon became the only sounds on this little-used section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
It was time.
“Alright, hang on, buddy,” I said to the small dog attached to the leash in my hand. I knelt down beside her, placed my hand on the leash clasp, and took a deep breath. It was ridiculous how crazy I’d become about this little whippet-terrier mix in the two short weeks I’d had her. When you think about it from a dog’s perspective, it’s also kind of crazy how big the Pisgah National Forest is. Hundreds of thousands of acres, and no fences.
What if she didn’t come back?
She would, I answered myself, replaying a mental video of Arti at the dog park and her full-tilt, tongue-hanging-out runs back to check in during breaks from rough-and-tumble play. She would come back, and she needed to run as much as I needed to hike.
So, I unclipped the leash.
At first, Arti simply trod cautiously behind me, paws occasionally catching the backs of my boots. Gradually, though, her confidence grew. She launched increasingly wider circles of exploration and eventually took off up the trail at full whippet speed. Her paws pounded the trail like a miniature racehorse’s, and my heart stopped. I had lost her, I was sure of it.
“Arti!” I called. “Arti, come!”
There was nothing. Silence. And then, a jingle in the distance. The beat of paws on dirt. And finally, my pup running to me at unfathomable speed, face exuding pure doggy delight.
In that moment, I knew the best was true. My new friend liked hiking as much as I did.
Over the last few years, I’d grown used to hiking alone. I’d moved around a bit, living in places high in natural beauty but low in ready-made friends. When given the option to stay at home until a hiking buddy materializes or start exploring solo, I say carpe diem. But in Arti, I now had an automatic hiking buddy. I’d forgotten what a wonderful thing that was.
I could go on and on about my fondness for hiking—why I love existing amid the realness of soil and tree and rock, or what a thrill it is to witness a sweeping mountain view or rushing waterfall. But hiking with Arti gives freshness to these experiences.
From the moment I pull out my pack to the second she takes off in a loop of joy through the forest, I’m party to her excitement. Like an extension of my inner child, she runs and dances around in a way that my adult incarnation of self is just too restrained to do. She reminds me of the privilege imparted through even the most low-key stroll through the city park. She shows me how the things you smell and the people you meet along the way are just as important as the view at the end of the trail.
Actually, it turns out that Arti thrives on the social aspect of the backcountry. Her on-trail introductions spurred a half-hour conversation at the top of Pinnacle Peak, in which I found myself divulging the ins and outs of my current writing project with a stranger. Another time, we met a couple on the Parkway whose dog appeared to be Arti’s fraternal twin, and we wound up exchanging phone numbers. One Arti-inspired trail meeting even resulted in a date.
This hiking-with-a-dog thing turns out to be the perfect setup for an introvert like me. Having trouble starting a conversation? Just unleash your own Arti, and she’ll take it from there.
About the author: Waynesville reporter Holly Kays is a forester’s daughter who is happy to live, write, and hike in the land of many trees.
Obey the rules
Before you take a dog in the woods, make sure you know the house rules. Dogs are not allowed on hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and while they are permitted on most national forest trails, particular areas and seasons come with other restrictions. Some areas require that dogs be on leash at all times, and it’s vital to leash dogs when there’s potential for conflict with wildlife such as bears or elk. Check with the agency managing the land where you’ll be hiking before taking your canine out on the trail.