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.
“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.