We moved to the South Carolina Lowcountry because of two dogs: Hank the Handful, a wild terrier/pit mix; and Otis, a dignified, dachshund/terrier rescue.
My husband and I were teetering on the edge of retirement and had created a spreadsheet with the criteria we wanted in our forever town.
We had made the same want/need spreadsheet when deciding upon the characteristics we wanted in a dog after the heartbreak of putting down our beloved 18-year-old Alabama mutt.
Both spreadsheets were as useless as you might imagine.
Before making my dog list, I paid an elite trainer to suggest breeds that were low-energy, mellow, sweet-natured and attached to me over all others. Hank, the rescue we found at an adoption event, was everything we had painstakingly researched not to choose.
I spent massive resources and time training him, but he never adjusted to city life. A therapist friend diagnosed him as being on the spectrum. My father said to send him back. My husband reminded me he never wanted another dog. The trainer said it was the combination of high-energy terrier mix and likely traumatic early life in a kill shelter.
No matter. I was determined to drag him into a semblance of my spreadsheet dog. We were living in historic Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia where aggressive city squirrels tormented him and conniving ducks lured him into the Potomac River. Once, he pulled away and leapt into the icy river swimming after a family of ducks. People watched, horrified as the mother duck swam ahead of him to the middle of the river in an attempted homicide by drowning.
But he never drowned. Nor did he even whimper when a city snake bit his face or shiver after falling through weak ice. He ate a poisoned rat and survived. He ran into traffic and lived to run another day.
I never gave up on him, but it was hard. He didn’t like me. At all. If I came into the room where he lay snuggled with my husband, he’d give me a hard, cold look and stalk out with a sigh of contempt.
I loved him like a woman loves a bad boyfriend. I showered him with treats and threw tennis balls until my arm ached. I believed it was my fault he didn’t love me back and was determined to win his affection with long runs, toys, and lavish attention.
As our work world came to an end, we started looking at websites with titles such as, “How to Choose the Right City to Retire In.”
We knew we wanted to be warm and near salt water and close to our two daughters who lived in the South Carolina Upstate. We traveled to places in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina, spreadsheet in hand as we looked for places with access to boating and fishing, live music, restaurants and arts, airport, good medical system, university vibe and the southern DNA we were most comfortable with.
While away on a city tour, Hank the Handful went missing from the dog sitter’s back yard and was never seen again.
Losing Hank leveled me. I often thought it would have been easier on me if he’d died from a snake bite or drowned in a river than the ambiguous loss of never knowing his fate. Was he with someone that kept him tied up in a back yard? Was he now part of a dog fighting ring? The not knowing was excruciating.
Then, on one of our speed-dating city tours, we detoured through Beaufort, South Carolina so I could step into the literary center devoted to my favorite author, Pat Conroy.
That’s when a little brown and white dog named Otis (Redding) trotted up to me, nudged my foot and followed me around the exhibits. His owner, a docent with kind, brown eyes, told me a sweet lie. “He never takes to someone like he has to you,” she said. And invited us to her home in the downtown historic district.
Once there, he climbed in my lap and stayed while I tried to answer her question, “Do you have a dog?”
We began dog sitting for her while we checked out Charleston, Savannah and other coastal cities that marked many of the boxes on the spreadsheet.
The allure of Beaufort began to creep up on us. We took Otis to Hunting Island, a beach so wild and beautiful it stabs you in the heart. He trotted alongside me through long walks through downtown, under live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, the air perfumed with a soupy mix of wisteria and tidal marsh. He spent time sitting with me with on the dock of the bay. Really.
He slept with me, nosing his way under the covers until his warm body heated my legs.
And so, we moved to Beaufort, South Carolina, a town that marked off the salt water, marshland box on our spreadsheet, but also included a dog who clearly loved me.
Otis stays with us when his owner travels. I keep a stash of treats, toys, water bowls and blankets here for this funny, sweet fellow. He follows me from room to room, anxiously waiting to see where I will settle, checking on my health and well-being.
He’s not my dog but he brought us to his town where we have found a community that revolves around literature, fly fishing, boating, history, and people who don’t even know we once lost a dog.
Author’s Note: Otis’ mom Nancy Ritter wrote a book, Slack Tide, inspired by the loss of Hank the Handful, that will be published in March 2023 by Evening Post Books.