Welcome to Maryland

FROSTBURG, Md.—We roll our cycles into this little town like two wet dogs. It is raining, soggy, cloudy, damp, cold, and did I mention it’s raining?

“Welcome to Maryland,” says an old guy taking cover beneath a storefront awning with his dog.

“Thanks,” I say.

“Yeah,” he goes on, “our state motto here is: ‘We may be cold, but we’re also damp.’” He laughs at his own joke.

I try to laugh, too, but I can’t. We’ve been riding the trail for too many days. I’m cold. I’m hungry. And laughter takes too many calories.

The old man has a walrus mustache. He wears thick, Coke-bottle eyeglasses. And to be honest, I am more interested in his dog because this is a Chesapeake Bay retriever; the Lord’s breed.

In my life, I have owned exactly one.

I squat on sore legs to pet the dog. Her name is Brownie.

“This your first time in Maryland?” the man asks.

“Yessir.”

“We usually bring the rain out for guests.”

Maryland is a neat place. It’s one of those itty-bitty states in the U.S., comparable in size to Hawaii. Except in Hawaii they have hula skirts and fruity drinks. Here, they have emergency weather.

Still, aside from the rain, Maryland is like a mini version of America itself. This state has it all.

Maryland, for example, is a Mid-Atlantic Eastern state where everyone talks like the guy from “My Cousin Vinny.” But technically speaking, Maryland is also a Southern state.

And, it’s one of America’s oldest colonies, steeped in revolutionary history. Baltimore and Annapolis once served as temporary capitals during the Second Continental Congress. But, oddly, Maryland has never produced a single U.S. president. Figure that out.

The geography here varies, too. They have coastal dunes, seagrass, and pelicans. But also, Appalachian Mountains, black bears, and someone even spotted a mountain lion in Fallston recently. They have huge Wye oaks, but also boggy bald cypresses like the ones found in Florida swamps. Hot summers. Also snow.

Frostburg itself looks like the perfect American hamlet. If you were to hire the set designer from “The Andy Griffith Show” to draw up his idea of the quintessential mainstreet, it would look like this.

That said, I’m still transfixed with the old man’s dog. Brownie. She is dripping with rainwater.

“She likes rain,” the old man says. “A Chesapeake Bay retriever is bred for the water, you know. They love being wet.”

The “Chessie” is Maryland’s flagship dog. She traces her heritage back to this soil. In 1807 an English square-rigged ship was found wrecked off the coast of Maryland. Onboard were two abandoned puppies.

The rescued pups were named Sailor (boy) and Canton (girl). They turned out to be St. John’s water dogs, a breed that’s gone extinct. Saint John’s water dogs were nearly mythical canines with water-resistant coats, loyal temperaments, and fearless dispositions.

Sailor and Canton would go on to spawn a new kind of dog in America. One of our country’s most magnificent, and overlooked breeds.

When I was a kid, my first real dog was a Chesapeake Bay retriever. A lot of people called her a chocolate Lab, because they’d never heard of a Chessie. I never bothered to correct them.

She had a sea-otter coat that curled up when she got wet. Her eyes were amber, and showed more emotion in them than a Harlequin romance. That dog raised me.

She was originally my father’s dog. But when my father died, she curled onto a pile of his clothes and stayed there for two weeks, barely eating. When she finally left her grieving bed, she started following me around.

In a way, she became my second mother. She slept at the foot of my mattress, gave me disapproving looks when needed, and made sure I ate all my green vegetables.

When I strayed from home, she kept her nose close beside me. She was always alert, always guarding. If she could have dressed me for school and packed my lunch she would have.

She was the toughest thing I ever knew. She survived two snakebites. Both nearly killed her. And once, she ate poisoned food from a local farmer who would leave out bowls of spiked dog food for the coyotes.

My father said she once walked across an icy pond and fell through the middle. He watched her swim straight through the ice, thumping her paws like riverboat paddles, breaking ice sheets with each stroke. After 10 minutes of struggling, she crawled onto a frozen shore and collapsed from exhaustion.

The one thing I know about Chessies is that they are not your casual everyday dog. This is not a dog who wants to spend its days watching “Wheel of Fortune.” Chesapeake Bay retrievers are dogs you write folk songs about.

She is powerfully built. She is proud, calculating, and she can endure anything except boredom. She is your gundog’s gundog, with sedge-colored fur, a muscular chest, and two summer-wheat eyes that could drill holes into American steel.

She is not overly polite to strangers, she is protective of her family, and she would step in front of traffic for the boy she loves. That is how she was bred. And I know this first hand.

“Can I pet her?” I ask the old man.

“Go ahead,” he says.

When I place my hand on Brownie’s curly coat, she presses her entire wet body against me for a full-on embrace. She is warm. Sweet. And it makes my heart sore.

“Huh,” says the man. “Never seen her do that before. She must really like you.”

Maryland ain’t so bad.

24 comments

  1. Sandi. - September 14, 2020 8:24 am

    Nice post, Sean. Animals can sense when a person truly likes them. Brownie knew.

    Reply
  2. Meredith Smith - September 14, 2020 10:09 am

    Thank you for your kind comments about my state, Maryland ~ aka Merlin. If you wanna say it correctly. So happy you came across the wonderful Chessie to greet you, they’re the most wonderful dogs! Maybe you need another puppy?

    Reply
  3. Shannon Moore - September 14, 2020 10:31 am

    I had a black lab once named “Chess”. We got him from someone else who couldn’t handle his energy. I always wondered where the name came from–now I know. I’m sure he wasn’t a full breed “Chessie”, but your descriptions of their demeanor, protectiveness, and toughness perfectly described my Chess that also helped raise me and my brother. He survived being shot at, being run over by cars multiple times, and an arrow that neatly sliced through the skin at the top of his head and wedged there between his skull and skin. He walked up to me smiling one night with an arrow sticking through his head! He would sit at the road waiting for my brother and I to get off the bus. I lived on a high traffic road and the bus driver had a terrible time of people neglecting to stop for us. He would, I kid you not, sit there and bite at the car tires if they ever moved when the bus was sitting still. If I was walking to the store, or to school, he would push me off the pavement and make me walk in the ditch. We called him our guardian angel dog.
    I could go on forever. He died when I was 20, and my family mourned for years. There’s never been another “Chess” in my life, though I’ve tried many times to find one. Thanks for bringing him back to me for a few minutes.

    Reply
  4. Virginia Russell - September 14, 2020 10:47 am

    The picture looks like a male dog. I guess you didn’t draw it.

    Reply
  5. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - September 14, 2020 11:42 am

    They have crab cakes too. Maryland ain’t so bad.

    Reply
  6. Katherine Kempf Jones - September 14, 2020 11:53 am

    Sean, Thank you so much for your wonderful column! I’m gonna foward it to my two dear friends in Columbia, MD.
    In point o’ fact, ‘Merlin’ may be right – cud be time fo you to find and consider adopting a new ‘chessie’ to help complete your quarantine & recovery from these complex times. You just never know how the Lord’ll answer when you ask with an open heart. (No pressure.)
    Here’s to you both safely completing this wondrous adventure, to enjoying that you are able to do it together, & to making great memories & documenting wondrous events along the way.

    Also, I hope you’ll be able, or will take the time, to explore the town of Harper’s Ferry en route. The whole town is a National Park and National Historic Site. It’s one of my favorite east coast sites and well worth the trip!

    No matter how you go, keep on writing & being your fine and fun self. – Take good care – DiAn

    Reply
  7. Hope Thamert - September 14, 2020 12:21 pm

    You really did it today Sean. I too was raised by a Chessie in Maryland. Her name was Champ. She guarded me and my mother and I believe helped teach me to swim. Thanks for the memories

    Reply
  8. Brenda - September 14, 2020 12:46 pm

    Hope you have Maryland 🦀 cakes!

    Reply
  9. Beth Ann Chiles - September 14, 2020 1:49 pm

    Aww. She knew you were a very special person, didn’t she? Thanks for a bit of Maryland history today –I had no idea!

    Reply
  10. Susie - September 14, 2020 2:02 pm

    Yes, Maryland crabcakes, the only kind. And the very best😄 You all are in my neck of the woods.

    Reply
  11. thouse1001 - September 14, 2020 2:13 pm

    Dogs just seem to know innately when people are dog lovers. 🙂

    Reply
  12. Sharon Brock - September 14, 2020 2:17 pm

    We had a mutt named Gus. He was part beagle, part basset, and part bloodhound (vet told us the rest was left up to God)and could track anything that moved with a derp, mighty howl. When my parents were gone, he slept upstairs with all six kids. My parents returned from a date out one night. Gus heard the door open, raised up, and quietly woofed at Mom. Dad was wearing an overcoat and a hat, Gus charged the door, teeth bared and hackles raised. Dad had to remove the hat and coat before Gus would let him in the house. Tickled my father no end.

    Reply
  13. Steve Winfield (Lifer) - September 14, 2020 2:18 pm

    Funny how (most) dogs just know dog people. I’m so fortunate to be one too. Over the years so many dogs that are usually shy have just taken to me immediately. I do this thing I call the “brain scratch” where I put both index fingers in their ears & rub around. Yet to meet a dog that didn’t love it.
    Glad y’all are out enjoying life again.

    Reply
  14. REBECCA BARNES - September 14, 2020 2:58 pm

    I can vouch for their protective nature. A good friend had one and as I walked my dogs by their house they were sitting on the porch. His Chessie came off that porch, and all I could think was we are going to be killed. It was like a Grizzly bear in slow motion. Lucky for me and my pups, his master had him trained and with a whistle the old dog stopped and went back to his spot on the porch. I will never forget that! Good article Sean.

    Reply
  15. REBECCA BARNES - September 14, 2020 3:21 pm

    The following is from my friend who had a Chessie: Reminds me of Gurkha, my Chessie of years ago: iron constitution, shrugged off a water moccasin bite during a duck hunt, guarded my duck boat and equipment at the landing if I went in the convenience store, most unfriendly with strangers, and utterly, absolutely loyal to me and me alone— a loyalty higher than any I’ve had with any other dog. And I’ve had a lot of dogs.

    Reply
  16. Bjean - September 14, 2020 4:31 pm

    Love this story about how a dog loves and how we love them right back💗

    Reply
  17. Linda Moon - September 14, 2020 5:02 pm

    I laughed at the old guy’s corny joke, maybe because I own one of those guys myself. I once owned a dog named Brownie, too. But enough about me. The Appalachian you’ve been on will be “home” for a gingerhead I know and love who happens to be a lot like YOU, Sean. Your Chessie did a great job raising you after your father died. My gingerhead had lots of “Chessies”, too. I’ll remind him to take notebooks with him as he hikes the trail so we can read stories of his adventures. And I’ll send a few of them to you so you can reminisce about YOUR adventures there with Jamie!

    Reply
  18. Chasity Davis Ritter - September 14, 2020 7:16 pm

    Dogs always know. My husband is an animal guy. Dogs and cats (I’m lucky like that). He does Heat and AC work. When he goes to houses with pets they will do this with him and the owners are always like wow. It makes my heart smile.

    Reply
  19. MAM - September 14, 2020 10:23 pm

    Our daughter and hubby have a wonderful, regal, self-assured Chessie. He’s their 13-year-old kid. And he has a melanoma in his mouth and won’t be with us much longer. It will be so sad for the whole family. He’s just the most wonderful dog ever. We’ve had black labs, and love them, but Chessies are simply special!

    Reply
  20. Elizabeth - September 15, 2020 1:30 am

    I love reading about when an animal that is there, loving the one like that.

    Reply
  21. Michael - September 15, 2020 2:33 am

    Got it right about MD. You are near where I live, a few miles off the trail you are on. Near Boonsboro, rich in history and home of author Nora Roberts. Email me if you’d like me to buy you a brewskie at Nora’s son’s taphouse. Should your whistle need wettin’.

    Reply
  22. Melanie - September 15, 2020 4:06 am

    Please thank Jamie for planning this trip. An adventure like this is essential for the soul. And so happy you are making new doggie friends along the way. Look forward to reading more.

    Reply
  23. Nancy M - September 15, 2020 4:15 am

    Two questions: if Canton and Sailor were both St. John’s water dogs, weren’t their puppies also St. John’s water dogs? and, Was Nana, the dog in Peter Pan, a Chessie? Because that dog took care of the Darling children like a mother!
    Loved reading about your dog, and about Brownie!

    Reply
  24. R. K. Martin - September 15, 2020 1:09 pm

    Lovely article about our lovely corner of the world. I’m from Cumberland, and live there part-time. The GAP trail is two blocks from my parent’s house, I can jump on every day the weather’s good. The Chessie is the state dog, jousting is the state sport, and the state flower, the Black-Eyed Susan, grows wild on my hay fields. A beautiful place with some great, hearty people and dogs.

    Reply

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