Whenever life gets routine, Christine Rucker hits the highway for a jolt of adventure. But on an epic trip to Alaska it was bonding with her dog Bailey that offered the most surprises      

Story and Photos by Christine Rucker

I‘m sitting in the center of a 360-degree mountain landscape. A glacier creek is flowing next to our camp, and we are bathed in the magic light before a storm.

Why am I this lonely?

Ken had gone to sleep before dark and I heard that familiar voice creep into the fringe of my thoughts: “We are too different.” I had been hearing that voice for some time. Life was pushing us in opposite directions.

The landscape in Banff was hypnotizing. Daylight lingered late into the night, and when the stars finally appeared, it was as if the ink-blue sky was pricked with tiny holes of sunshine. I watched the moon peak over the mountains and become giant shadows embracing our camp. I took a few photos of a couple across from us, firelight brushed against their faces.

They seamlessly talked for hours, and I was jealous. They had that connection we were missing. I should have been totally zen here, but earlier I had lost my shit—literally, over an unemptied poop bucket left in the camper, the bucket being just the latest symptom of our fraying relationship.

From the Appalachian Mountains to the hills of Kentucky, along pristine rivers and through the Rockies, days of driving in a golden haze.

Communication isn’t one of our strong points, but that’s not uncommon for a marriage of 17 years. It was our differences that were erasing us. Contentment is hard for me. I’m always chasing the next adventure in the midst of the current one. I’m most alive when I’m connected to wild spaces—it creates an almost mental weightlessness in me. I’m not sure Ken has ever connected with that wild space that lives in me. His need for the known has diluted his need to be wild.

We had set out on an epic road trip from North Carolina, along the Eastern Coast of the United States, to Alaska about two weeks ago, on a lost-and-found sort of mission. It felt like the connection we used to have had gone missing, and I was hoping this trip would find it.

A rescue dog, bringing Bailey was never in question.

If that wasn’t a big enough task, we brought along our pointer, Bailey: a skittish, free-thinking rescue dog. We thought she might be the distraction we needed to soften the edges. But as it turned out the first two weeks had been rough and Bailey was not softening the edges. She began to shake uncontrollably when we loaded her up in the truck. When it rained, she tried to claw through the back seat. She was terrified of the windshield wipers. The more Bailey shook, the worse I felt for bringing her.

On particularly long days, I could smell her fear. It gave off an almost metallic scent. Those days I would ride in the back with her curled up in my lap but refusing to look at me. For Bailey, this was a “load up” that never went home.

She had come to us at about a year old without much human contact. She lived in shelters most of her young life, and there were hints of abuse. She was nearly feral when we adopted her. Skin and bones and scared to get out of the car she travelled to us in. Her tail constantly tucked, she held a lot fear inside her tiny frame. She wouldn’t make eye contact with us, and she didn’t for the next two years.

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She was the first dog I “listened” to, instead of training her into a dog that fit my needs. In this way, I could hear what she needed to be whole; in return, she taught me what it was like to be a dog. I loved Bailey’s free-thinking, unpredictable energy, which made Ken nervous.

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The landscape blurred from our Appalachian Mountains to the rolling hills of Kentucky, over the bridges of Missouri and then flattened out over the prairies and never-ending days in Kansas. At night, the truck camper was becoming our new home, and Bailey loved it in there. Small and compact, she would curl up under the covers against my stomach. It’s almost as if we shared the same heartbeat.

Sometime before we passed into Colorado she stopped barking. She’s never been much of a talker, but she would vocalize in barks and howls when she got excited. That had gone silent. Ken worried that if I let Bailey off leash we would lose her. But I felt we were losing her even as I held tightly to her leash. I was becoming less at ease with her in every new space. Ken’s worry was contagious. Bailey and I were on opposite ends of ourselves out here.

Ken and Bailey after a long day’s drive.

We rolled into Colorado late in the afternoon, along with the thunderclouds. We found a deserted wilderness area in Flagler to camp for the night. The rain falling on the top of the camper soothed Bailey…but only when we were stopped. 

We woke at daybreak, and through the mist of the morning could see a small herd of deer grazing next to us—Bailey was intently watching them. After breakfast, I unloaded our bikes and decided this was the perfect time to let her run.

She happily trailed behind our bikes as we started down a dirt road. Then a large buck crossed in front of us and she was gone faster than I could say “oh shit.” As far as I could see, there was Bailey, chasing wildlife. After a few minutes that seemed like hours, we saw her leaping in the air after some new scent and popping her head over a ridge to see where we were. Then she pranced back to the camper with mud-matted fur and a smug grin, and she set my heart free.

The incredible topography of the American mid-west and Canadian Rockies.

The road ahead of us was a river of asphalt, its banks rising from the earth into jagged mountains as we made our way through Montana. I watched a sheet of rain in the distance trying to catch up to an endless curve of boxcars moving through the valley below us.

We left Montana with the smell of sage and juniper in our clothes, Bailey’s nose twitching, trying to figure out what was in the air. I had done some short mountain-bike rides, but not enough to get the edge off the long days in the car. I was struggling with reigning in my own freedom as well as Bailey’s.

That evening, I watched Bailey sit next to Ken by the river. She seemed to relax with us at the end of the day, even though everything she was normally familiar with was not there. Her adventure was measured in the details.

Life was speeding up for Bailey and slowing down for me.

***

Our days simplified to driving, stopping for picnics, and falling asleep before light left the sky. Time finally seemed to collapse and we fell into a rhythm of being instead of doing. The Canadian Rockies welcomed us with their jagged edges and braided rivers, a milky green mosaic spread out against aqua lakes. 

Our first night in Alaska was spent on the banks of a river about a hundred miles in. It was early afternoon, we could have easily drove another hundred miles, but it felt right playing house in this wild place. Bailey found what looked like wolf tracks along the river and studied their scent, trying to place what kind of dog they belonged to.The sound of the river and the breeze through our camper relaxed us. Tucked under our blankets together created a sense of safety.

Bailey took in so much through her nose.

We travelled along the coast to Homer, and then up the interior toward Fairbanks on our way to Denali. We approached the formerly-named Mount McKinley as the clouds were parting, and you could almost see the peak, the highest in North America at 20,310 feet (6,190 metres).

Denali National Park was breathtaking, but too restrictive for a dog. (Dog’s are not allowed are on the majority of the trails, even if on a leash.) We understood the reasons; Bailey did not. Our route back through the Yukon Territory in Canada took us into late summer wildfires. Smoke drifting into the truck, saturating our clothes. 

Our days were spent driving through an orange haze. Somehow, when we stopped at the end of the day, we would find ourselves above the haze where we could see the stars.

We camped by rivers, tucked away from people and enjoying our own little bubble. In the evening we would take short walks exploring our space before darkness circled around us.

One evening, we had tried to find a campground for a much-needed shower, but each one was crammed with RVs and too much noise. We finally pulled off a road that overlooked a mountain range, with an hour or more left of dusk. Bailey was curled up in Ken’s lap when I heard something going up the bank across the road. When I looked over at Bailey she was rigid, her eyes focused intently, her nostrils inhaling deeply, nose twitching.

Ken and Bailey bonding too.

I saw what I first thought was a coyote. But it seemed too big. And it was staring just as intently at Bailey. It seemed to be watching us for an uncomfortably long time, then disappeared into the woods. Bailey smelled it long after it left, as if she was looking for some kind of recognition to this distant cousin. That night as I drifted off to sleep, I heard howling all around us. Not the yipping cries of coyotes, but the harmonious song of wolves. I dreamt they were circling us all night singing their song.

We drifted back home by driving south from Yukon, down through British Columbia into Washington State and the Cascade Mountains, then by heading east to Idaho, before landing in the Teton Mountains of the Rockies, where we stayed for a few days. Bailey had adjusted. She would lean into me as I practised yoga in the morning, and even jumped onto my back when I did push-ups.

In Idaho, we camped on a ridge in Hells Canyon. This was exactly how I imagined Idaho. Mountains the colour of autumn, the curve of the valley below wrapped in a velvet blanket, and the distant outline of the Sawtooths against surrounding hills like an echo.

I stayed awake and watched the Milky Way—it was so close I could touch it, and our camper lit up like one of its stars. The rattle of aspen leaves, the yips of coyotes and the rush of moving water whispered us to sleep each night. I felt a great sense of gratitude and freedom that only these wild spaces can give.

In Wyoming, we spent a few days in Yellowstone National Park—and as much as we took in its beauty visually, Bailey took in so much more through her nose. Every time we opened the window there was a new smell. Bison, with a musky, wildness that must have overloaded Bailey’s senses. Wolves, with that same mysterious scent from the tracks by the river. Bears, the wildest smell of all, with an oily, musky roll-in-poop smell.

Most days ended like this.

I’ve often wondered what heaven might smell like to a dog. For me, it’s the sweetness of honeysuckle in the spring, or the sap that runs from the skin of our North Carolina pine. Sometimes I think it’s the smell of sulphur before the crack of lightning in the high country. For Bailey? The musky smell of dirt, or moss with a hint of pine. Or maybe it’s the smell of mystery that surrounds our camper—telling a story of the wildness that lives here.

As we made our way home, Bailey would seek me out for comfort on long travel days. She would come up front and lean into me so hard that she seemed part of me. 

When I first adopted her, I had a connection with her that was unlike any I had with my previous dogs. It was there from the start, something I saw in her was also inside me. A fragility—somewhere in her history is abuse. I recognized it in her right away. It showed itself in certain actions. It was how she didn’t look me in the eyes, how she jumped if you moved too fast.

At first I thought it was because she didn’t trust me. But I soon came to realize it was because she was afraid. When I tried to hug her she would slip out of my arms, reading my hugs as dominance instead of affection. I had worked hard on recall training. But without her trust, nothing would stick. 

Even now, Bailey is holding fear inside her body, shaking uncontrollably, unable to release it. It’s hard to believe she and I have been together for seven years and I’ve never seen this reaction before. But now, it’s obvious. We have been speaking the same language, just in different ways.

There is abuse in my history, too. I’ve never taken a good look at it—how much it has shaped who I am. I’ve placed it far away from people, far from myself even, not wanting to see it. But it shows itself, almost mocking me, as I try to ignore it.

Christine and Bailey sharing a moment of fun.

What some people think is shyness is really a lack of confidence. It’s in my struggle to show affection: I slip out of hugs, too. It’s hard to allow people to get close. I crave affection, but it’s as if that part of me is muted. I shy away from praise, afraid to own my accomplishments. No matter how much I try to talk over the voice in the back of my mind, I still hear it saying I’m not good enough.

It took me a long time to override that voice, and a village of people who have loved me and given me a feeling of worth. It has taken Bailey a long time to look me in the eyes, but now she does. I suppose she finally feels worth, too.

When I look through the photos of our road trip to Alaska and back, I fall in love again. They bring me back to sleeping under aspen-infused air, and drinking from rivers all across the country—they bring me back to how I felt looking up at that western sky and feeling the warmth of its stars. Those moments we loved so much, they became part of us.

Miles have a way of weaving together emotional distance. Somewhere around Homer, Alaska, under the gentle rhythm of rain, something between Ken and I shifted. Curled up in the camper on a friend’s homestead we found a closeness and an honesty we’d never experienced in our marriage. I didn’t know if it would hold once we found our way home again, but I suppose what matters is that we felt it that night.

Triumph: reaching their destination in Alaska.

It was 1:00 a.m. when we hit our gravel drive. Bailey lifted her head and put it to the window. She started to whine a little, then started doing her pony dance in the backseat. She knew this smell; it was the smell of familiarity, of home—maybe what heaven smells like for Bailey. She danced through the front door, thanking us for bringing her back.

I never knew how important home was to Bailey, until I took her far away from it. I thought this trip was about reconnecting with my husband. But what Bailey showed me was more about reconnecting with myself.

CHRISTINE, KEN & BAILEY’S route: North Carolina to Alaska, via Canada

  • ROUTE to Alaska, beginning in North Carolina: NC, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon, Alaska. Major destinations on route included: Glacier, Banff and Jasper national parks, Whitehorse, Destruction Bay, Haines Junction, Fairbank, Anchorage, Seward, Homer, Denali National Park, Gates of Arctic National Park.
  • ROUTE home to North Carolina from Alaska: Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas,-Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Nortth Caroline, with major destination including: Kamloops, Whistler, Vancouver, Northern Cascades, Sun Valley Idaho, Yellowstone National Park.

Christine Rucker is a professional photographer who lives in North Carolina with her husband Ken and dog Bailey, but hits the road as often as life allows. You can see more of her work a www.christineruckersphotography.com and on IG here

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