Camping trips make some of the best stories. The trips we remember the most are the ones that are flooded by torrential rains, frozen by a sudden blue norther, or struck by some calamity that etches the event into our memory.
One such excursion happened to me in 1990. The overnight trip involved nine good friends and had a much more lasting effect on The Austin Chronicle than I could have ever imagined. This is the story of how a white mutt named Belton came to be a fixture at the paper.
The weekend trip began normally enough for my group of friends and me. We met at White Flint Park on Belton Lake off of TX 36 northwest of Temple. On this particular weekend the park was empty except for a few fishermen.
The trip would have faded into camping oblivion had it not been for the events of the second day. Since it was Earth Day, Sharon, Susan, Tim, and I set out with black plastic bags to clean one small piece of the planet. At an abandoned road near the entrance to the park we cleaned up what looked to have been a small, but rowdy beer drinking party.
About 50 yards from the mess the whimpering started softly. Tim and my dog Homer were the first to react to something moving under a large cedar bush. Tim jumped back with a start, and Homer barked. We all approached slowly.
Tied to a low branch and partially hidden under the tree's canopy was a white dog. It appeared thin even for its short build. Its head looked the size of a dinner plate.
The dog seemed friendly enough, so I crawled under the tree to investigate. The Labrador-mix pup was tied with a short piece of blue and white plastic rope. All he could move was his back end, creating a fan shape in the dirt and dry cedar needles. It appeared the dog had been there for quite a while.
The four of us talked it over. Why was this dog tied up like this? Where were his owners? What should we do? We decided to get him some water and tell the first park ranger we saw about the dog.
Back at our camp the others didn't seem too interested in our story as they laid around in the shade. With a gallon jug of water I headed back to the dog with Homer.
As the dog drank like there was no tomorrow I wondered, "Who would do this to an animal and why?" After he had finished the water, the dog looked at me with big, puppy eyes and I knew that I couldn't leave him there.
As I cut the rope I discovered he was also tied to the tree with a metal coat hanger. Someone really didn't what this critter to go anywhere. What if I was about to release a demon dog? I imagined some huge, mean biker dude catching me with his dog. My fingers couldn't work fast enough for me or the dog.
Once free, the dog and Homer played puppy games. The dog was a sweetheart. I couldn't understand why he would have been treated that way.
Everyone in my party seemed less than thrilled with our new guest. He played with the other dogs until he ran across the blanket where a game of Pictionary was going on and the cry went up to leash the hound.
Restrained again, the dog lost his energy. Soon he blew gnarly chunks and his breathing became very shallow. "Oh, no," I thought, "I've brought this dog here to die in front of my friends."
When everyone was ready to head home, the conversation turned to what to do with the mutt. The initial group decision was to tie the dog to the picnic table by the road and post a sign saying: "Lost Dog at Campsite #4."
As if by a miracle, the dog didn't look near death as we discussed his fate. He didn't look great, but he looked like he might survive. Should we leave him or take him with us? I had brought the dog into our lives, and I had the biggest vehicle. Everyone looked at me.
If we left him there the rangers would probably kill him, we reasoned, even though we hadn't seen one all weekend. At least if we took him back to Austin the rest of the dog's life would be more humane, even if I took him to the dog pound.
"What are you going to call him?" Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro asked.
"How about 'Belton'?" I responded without thinking. I knew I was hooked.
Sharon and Tim began to fight over who was going to sit next to Belton. Sharon won and got the backseat. Tim got Belton at his feet.
The drive back to Austin was uneventful. I kept thinking of the cost of Homer's last visit to the veterinarian and how Belton was going to need medical attention immediately.
The chivalry of the weekend soon wore off, and the reality of home set in. Belton was going to have to find another home. About the time I decided that he was going to the pound, Nick and Susan, his wife, decided to give him a home.
Belton lived for almost 10 more years, an amazing feat considering the condition in which we found him. He got the best care and love that any dog could want. Most of those years he followed Nick to the Chronicle office until he became blind and bit one too many advertising assistants.
If only Belton could tell the story of how he got to that cedar tree. We've conjured up a thousand different scenarios, but I guess we'll never know.
Coming up this weekend ...
Kolache Festival in Caldwell celebrates the little pastry pillows and the community's Czech heritage, Sept.8. 979/567-3218 or rtis.com/reg/caldwell.
Free Family Day in the Houston Museum District is when 10 museums and the Houston Zoo waive admission fees and provides shuttles to take visitors from door to door, Sept. 8. 713/790-1020 or www.houstonmuseumdistrict.org.
Coming up ...
Hummer/Bird Celebration in Rockport draws attention to the thousands of ruby-throated hummingbirds that migrate along the coast on their way to winter habitat in Central America, Sept. 13-15. 800/826-6441.
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