Baja Stray Finds Herself a Home

A vacation in Mexico opens doors, and hearts, to a stray dog.
By Laurie Priest, June 2017
Photograph by Traer Scott

My friends knew that kayaking the Sea of Cortez was a big entry on my bucket list, so when I turned 50, we planned a February trip to Baja California to do just that. Over the years, this group of women and I had hiked and kayaked in some adventurous places, but little did I know that this trip would change my life and the life of a street dog in ways I never imagined.

When we got off the plane in Loreto, Mexico, a wave of excitement went through me as I looked at the small airport terminal with its thatched roof and felt the warm sun on my face. We were picked up by a van sent by our hotel, a small eco-tourist establishment catering to kayakers. When we reached the hotel, I noticed an emaciated dog next to the entrance.

The dog sat quietly, almost as though she knew that if she were too eager, we might be put off and ignore her. I reached into my pack and pulled out crackers I had saved from the flight and held one out to her. She took it ever so gently. Most starving dogs would have lunged, but not this one. She sat there quietly and looked at me with beautiful brown eyes. I gave her another cracker and again, she gently took it from my hand. By this time, everyone was out of the van and the innkeeper was calling us to check in. The dog didn’t move; she sat there and watched me as I entered the courtyard and hotel office.

It had been a long day and we went to bed almost immediately. The next morning, after a light breakfast, we headed into town to explore before meeting our guides. As we left the hotel, I turned to see the dog trailing our group, close to me as I brought up the rear. She was very friendly and let me pet her; in fact, she rolled onto her back so that I could rub her belly. I assumed that with the tourists, this submissive posture won her friends easily. She was very dusty and I noticed that she had recently nursed puppies.

As we got to the eastern end of town, we came upon the Sea of Cortez. It was beautiful, and I was happy that we would be out on the water soon. As we took pictures along the sea wall, the dog stayed near, always keeping us in sight.

That night, we walked into town to a small café, again with our four-legged friend behind us. During dinner, she sat outside. It was clear to me that this was one smart dog. Partway through the meal, Rose handed me her napkin filled with chicken bits and tilted her head toward the dog. I smiled as I put the napkin in my pocket. Following dinner, we gave her the chicken bits and she once again took the food with a gentle mouth. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a small grocery and bought a package of bologna, which we shared with the dog before we turned in for the night.

We left the hotel early the next morning on our way 10 miles south to our starting point. As we loaded our bags into the van, I noticed the dog sitting in her usual spot at the hotel entrance. I stroked her head and said good-bye. It is hard to describe the sweetness in her face. She had the most expressive eyes, eyes that looked through to my soul. I have never seen a dog with such a gentle way about her. It drew me in.

As the van left the curb, Sally noticed that the dog was trotting behind us, following the van as we left town. As our speed increased, the dog began running. She ran for two miles before giving up. I sat silent in the front seat, tears streaming down my cheeks, touched deeply by this dog who was chasing me out of town. It would be hard to forget.

It was a wonderful week of kayaking. We explored islands and slept in tents on scenic sand beaches. Our guides spoiled us with delicious meals and serenaded us with flute music each night. One moonlit night after dinner, we paddled out and were mesmerized by the luminescent plankton excited by the movement in the water—the sea seemed to catch fire. Every day we explored new areas, snorkeling through blue water with fish and coral in colors hard to describe. However, the street dog was never far from my mind. Her look had penetrated my heart and soul.

As only someone who’s in sync can do, Annie knew what I was thinking without me saying a thing. Our last night out on the islands, as we watched the sun set over the Baja, Annie said, “I know you’re thinking about that dog.” I sat there in silence. She asked what it was about that dog. I said I could certainly leave Mexico without the dog … sure, I would think about her for a long time, but would eventually forget. We had two dogs at home whom I loved dearly, so I wasn’t dog-deprived. “But,” I then said, “when I looked in the dog’s eyes, I saw God.” Her response was, “You had to bring God into it, right?” At that point, she shook her head and said, “You have my support whatever you need to do.” Now, there is a true partnership.

The next morning, we paddled back to the mainland and loaded our gear, trailered the boats and piled into the waiting vans. As we approached our hotel, I scanned the front entrance, but there was no sign of the dog anywhere. I thought she might appear as we unloaded our gear, but still, she was nowhere to be seen. We checked into our rooms; unpacked our dry bags; and took long, hot showers. After a late lunch, we walked into town.

I was trailing the group, likely going a bit slower in the hope that I would see the dog, when I heard Annie call my name from up the street. As I looked in her direction, I saw a dog jump up and begin running toward us. “Our” dog had been sleeping in the town square, and the sound of Annie’s voice roused her. I was never so happy to see a dog in my life, and her jumping and licking made it clear that she was happy to see us, too.

She stayed with our group for the afternoon and sat outside the restaurant during our farewell dinner, where we toasted our great friendship and another wonderful adventure. On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at a grocery store and got a can of dog food, feeding her small portions one at a time. She was still so very skinny, and I didn’t want her to get sick from eating too much, too fast. And I realized that— despite what I’d told Annie about being able to leave the dog behind—I’d made up my mind: I was going to bring the dog home.

The following morning, our group was scheduled to go to the coast to see the migrating whales. I stayed behind, knowing that getting the dog home to Massachusetts was going to take some work, including having her checked by a vet, purchasing a kennel and making flight reservations.

I asked our hotel receptionist if she thought I was a crazy gringa to try to bring a street dog back to the U.S. She quickly replied, “Oh, no! The police in our town poison the street dogs regularly because tourists do not like to see so many sick dogs,” which confirmed that my decision to bring the dog home was a good one. It was not going to be easy, and I was not quite sure what obstacles we would face, but I knew it was the right thing to do.

In hindsight, I have to say that we were blessed in our journey to get the dog home. The first blessing was that there was a feed store and veterinarian right across the street from our Loreto hotel. When it opened at 8 am, I went to check it out and the dog followed me. We waited while the lone proprietor sold feed to a few customers, and then I asked about getting the dog an examinación. I spoke very little Spanish and the vet spoke even less English, so we were left to muddle through using my informal Spanish phrases.

The vet was kind and gentle and knew what was needed. But before he started the exam, he asked for her name. I said I didn’t know, as I had not named her, although I had been calling her “honey” as a term of endearment. He smiled and said, “Miel” (Honey) and that was that. She has been Honey ever since.

The vet gave Honey her first rabies shot and noted that she was in “good health” on her medical record. Before we left, I purchased a leash, kennel, food and dog bowl for our journey home. As I was leaving, the maintenance man from our hotel was waiting outside to help me carry everything across the street. He also brought us some old shirts from the laundry to line the kennel so that Honey had a soft place to lie down. Another blessing: the kindness of strangers.

My next task was to make reservations for Honey on our flights home. We were scheduled on Aero Mexico from Mexico to Phoenix, and America West from Phoenix to Hartford, Conn. They took my credit card number and everything was good. Now, my only worry was what would be required of us when we landed in the U.S. Would the paperwork I had from the vet be enough? Would Honey be quarantined? I could not imagine what I would do if I had to leave her in Phoenix.

Our last night in Loreto, Honey shared our secondfloor room. I put towels on the floor for her, but in true street-dog fashion, she slept directly on the quarry-tile floor. We woke very early and I took her for a walk in the neighborhood, all the while worrying that someone would come by and say that she was their dog—which was crazy, since clearly, no one had been feeding or caring for her. At 6 am, we were in front of the hotel with her kennel, waiting to board our van for the airport.

The two-stage flight on an old prop plane from Loreto to Hermosillo and on to Phoenix was uneventful. When we walked off our first flight onto the tarmac to change planes, Honey was sitting in her kennel on a baggage cart, calmly tracking me as I came down the plane’s stairs. It was amazing to see how much she trusted me. I felt that we truly communicated, that she knew I would take care of her.

We landed in Phoenix and entered the airport via international arrivals. When I finally got to the customs officer, he looked at my passport and paperwork, then at me and said, “What’s this about a live animal?” I told him I was bringing a dog back from Mexico and gave him her papers. After giving them a quick glance, he pointed behind him to the area where the oversize luggage arrived and said, “You’ll find your dog over there,” then stepped aside to let us go through.

I cannot even begin to express how surprised and happy I was at that moment. We were back in the U.S. and Honey was with us. Could it be this easy? (But wait, the story isn’t over.)

As I went to the oversize-baggage area, my friends grabbed our bags and immediately rechecked them for Hartford. We had a three-hour layover and I wanted to walk Honey, so we put her kennel on a luggage cart and took her to the “pet walk” area just outside the terminal. Then we went to the America West ticket counter to check in for our flight to Hartford.

When I got to the counter and gave my name, the agent noted that a dog was included on my ticket. He asked me where the dog was, and I pointed to the kennel behind me. He looked alarmed and said, “I’m sorry, but your dog has to fit under the seat in front of you. We don’t transport dogs in the baggage compartment.” Obviously, Honey wasn’t going to fit under a seat and would not be accommodated on the flight.

My first thought as I walked away from the ticket counter was that I could rent a car and drive from Arizona to Massachusetts. That was a problem, as I was scheduled to be back at work the following day, and after being away for 10 days, could not afford more time off. My next move was to find an airline that would fly dogs in the baggage compartment from Phoenix to Hartford. Eventually, I learned that while either American or Northwest could fly us to Hartford via Chicago or Detroit later that day, a major winter storm and cold front on the route meant that neither would take the dog; airlines will not allow dogs in baggage if the temperature is below 40 degrees in the arrival city. I totally understood this from a safety perspective, but was worried as my options continued to dwindle.

While on the phone with a very patient American ticket agent, I told him my problem and asked him to get us as far east and north as possible. After trying numerous cities, the agent finally said, “I can fly you to Raleigh-Durham, N.C., via Dallas if you want.” We would not arrive until 1:09 the following morning, but there was room on the flight and I could get tickets for both myself and Honey (and Annie, who decided to join us).

The next challenge was to set up a one-way car rental in Raleigh-Durham, which I was finally able to do through Avis. Although the office closed before our flight arrived, the agent succumbed to my pleading and agreed to stay a “few minutes” so we could pick up our car and hit the road for home. He said that if it were more than a few minutes, we’d have to get the car during regular business hours.

After another trip to the airport dog park, we all checked in for the flight to Dallas, where we landed about 8 pm. We had an hour layover and wanted to be sure Honey was transferred, so I stayed to watch her be unloaded and Annie went ahead to our departure gate. To my alarm, I watched the baggage cart with Honey’s kennel head in what I was sure was the wrong direction. Panicking about Honey missing our next flight, I sprinted down to our departure gate to check in with Annie, who gave me a thumbs-up as a dog kennel was loaded onto our flight.

The main cabin door had closed and the plane was backing away from the gate when the flight attendant came down the aisle and spoke to the women directly behind me, saying, “Don’t worry, Mrs. Smith, your dog is on the flight.” When I asked him how many dogs were on the flight and he said one, I shouted, “I have to get off this plane and get my dog!”

The attendant told me to be quiet and settle down, then went to the front of the plane and got on the phone to the pilot. The plane stopped backing up. People were looking at me as though I were crazy, but I didn’t care. There was no way I could leave a Mexican street dog stuck in a kennel at the Dallas airport. She trusted me and I needed to make sure she was with us.

I looked up and saw the pilot coming down the aisle to my seat. He asked me what was wrong and I told him I was bringing a street dog home from Mexico and she had not been loaded on the flight. So, I needed to get her on the flight or get off the plane. He looked at me for a long moment, and then said, “Give me a few minutes.” Going back into the cockpit, he moved the plane forward and docked it. He then got off the plane.

I asked Annie to look out the window to see if she could see what was happening. Within about 10 minutes, a baggage cart with Honey’s kennel pulled up and a few minutes later, the smiling pilot came down the aisle and said, “Don’t worry, Ms. Priest, Honey’s on the plane.” I was so happy that I started crying. We had a dog-loving pilot on our flight that night, another blessing for our journey.

We made good time in the air, landing in Raleigh- Durham at 1:05 am, a few minutes early. Annie went to get the rental car (and give the agent a nice cash tip) and I went to baggage claim to get Honey. It’s hard to explain how relieved I was when the baggage handler brought her kennel to me. I let her out and we moved outside to the arrival area, where Annie picked us up. Honey immediately fell asleep in the back seat as we headed north. We drove for about three hours, then took a break for an hour nap in a rest stop. About 8 am, we stopped at a grocery store, where we bought dog food and water for Honey. She ate, drank and fell asleep again. We drove on, fortifying ourselves with lots of hot coffee. The farther north we got, the colder it was, and we realized that all we had were the clothes on our backs, since our luggage had gone on ahead with our friends to Hartford. Both of us were wearing sandals; short-sleeved shirts; and lightweight, quick-dry pants: perfect for kayaking in Mexico, not so great for February in the Northeast.

We crossed from Maryland into Delaware about 11 in the morning and drove into a light snowfall, the edge of the storm that had prevented us from flying through Chicago or Detroit. The snow picked up as we hit the New Jersey Turnpike, and it was soon blizzard conditions. At our next stop—a turnpike rest area—the ground was covered with two to three inches of snow. I woke Honey and opened the car door. She stepped out and immediately retreated. I put the leash on her and encouraged her to try again. When she got out of the car this time, she lifted her paws high with each step, no doubt wondering what she had gotten herself into.

It was slow going. A trip that should have taken us four hours took 10, and at times, we were in complete gridlock. The storm was affecting much of the Northeast, and we started to worry that the roads would be closed and we’d be stuck. But we persevered (slowly) and finally, finally arrived home just after midnight. There was two feet of snow in our driveway, which we were able to plow through enough to get the car out of the road.

We could not have been happier to be home. The garden walkway was covered in at least three feet of drifted snow, so I picked up Honey and carried her into the house.

Our dog sitter had already left, and our two Lab mixes, Rosie and Seal, were happy to see us. But wait, who’s this other dog? They smelled her and looked at her, and then at us. Who is this?

Our first order of business was to bathe Honey. The second was to get us all to bed. I carried her upstairs and put into our large bathtub, then soaped her up and rinsed her off. We toweled her dry and she lay down on a blanket by the bedroom woodstove, the Labs on either side of her like bookends. From the first, they accepted Honey, and there was never an issue among them. Honey was finally home.

Honey, who was about two when I found her, has been with us for 12 years. As I write this, our “street dog” is nearing the end of her wonderful, beautiful life. Everyone who knows her story says that she was one lucky dog, but I tell you the honest truth: through it all, I was the lucky one.

Laurie Priest, a retired college athletic director, teaches at Mount Holyoke College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is a trip guide for a women’s adventure travel company.