Travels with Charlee

In an update of the Steinbeck classic, a woman and her dog hit the road for parts unknown.
By Sarah Kilgallon, January 2019
Photographs by Sarah Kilgallon

Photographs by Sarah Kilgallon

In July, I experienced the Colorado Vanlife Gathering just outside of Aspen, in Basalt. We camped alongside the Frying Pan River, on the pristine grounds of Dallenbach Ranch. A unique array of converted vans, buses and food trucks revamped into homes complete with kitchens, beds, couches, closets, water storage, battery units and gear space littered the field.

People congregated outside their doors, eager to show off their tinyhouse wonders. Each van spoke to the owner’s vibe: hippiefied Tibetan themes; ’70s shag motif; sleek, modern wood-grain floors and marbleized countertops. These homes-on-wheels had everything, including dogs.

I walked by a newer Dodge cargo van: snub-nosed, extrahigh, commonly associated with a delivery service. Two dog bowls sat in the doorway on a woven mat. I stared into the mini kitchen with its single-basin sink, white cabinets, wood flooring and a flowering plant in the outfacing window. “Would you like a tour?” the woman asked as she stepped into view.

She introduced herself as Kayt, and the little Cairn Terrier mix in the crook of her arm was Charlee. Her homey mobile digs had throw pillows, artistic prints and a bed that once also served as a kitchen table. After four months of sleepless nights on thin cushions that served as both mattress and bench pads, she said, she finally bought a futon. She didn’t miss using the table, or the extra work of rearranging her bedroom into a dining room every morning.

Later in the evening, Kayt and I met again at the gathering’s potluck shindig. The food was laid out on upturned wooden cable spools, giving the event the feel of an open market. I grazed on mini hotdogs, homemade lentil salad and pita chips. Kayt loaned me a plastic cup and we helped ourselves to the free red wine.

Four months earlier, Kayt remarked, she and Charlee had said goodbye to Atlanta and hit the road. As I drained my cup, it occurred to me that they were the contemporary equivalent of the Steinbeck classic, Travels with Charlie.

Kayt’s last name is Wolfe, both names she chose after ending a 12-year relationship. “I needed a life change,” she said. As a personal health and life coach, she knows that pushing one’s comfort zone is a necessity. “I can’t coach other people to change their lives and yet be afraid to change my own.

“I had been waiting for over 10 years to get my next dog, and I had a detailed image of what he was going to be like—breed, weight, color.” Kayt had always been a dog lover. As a child, her family had Schnauzers, and in keeping with the tradition, she wanted a Giant Schnauzer for this next chapter in her life. Then, in 2013, Charlee came along.

Or rather, Charlee showed up at a city park where Kayt taught an early-morning women’s fitness group. Cold, wet and forlorn, she stared at Kayt from the top of a stone wall that separated the park from a cemetery. No tags, no collar and no bigger than a shoe box, the puppy was shivering from ears to tail. Kayt bundled her up in a blanket and settled her in her car until the end of the class. She then took her to a vet’s office, where she discovered that the little dog wasn’t microchipped. Kayt took her home, a temporary solution until her owners were found. She had no plans to keep her; this sad puppy in no way resembled a regal Giant Schnauzer.

That didn’t stop her from naming the little dog, however. “When I first found her, she had such male energy. Plus, the name just suited her personality. Can you have such a thing as a tomboy canine?”

Charlee is now five and weighs in at about 14 pounds. Her coat is a mix of smooth, fawn-colored fur and wild locks of shocking white. The tuft on the crown of her head resembles a mohawk. Her coffee eyes are affectionate and bright. “She’s just what I needed,” Kayt tells me.

Five weeks after Kayt found Charlee, a woman called, claiming the lost puppy was her mother’s dog. Kayt didn’t believe this woman’s story, but she did believe Charlee’s, which she’d figured out before the phone call. During the time Charlee was with her, the weather had begun to cool down, and Kayt’s wardrobe changed from shorts to jeans with a belt.

The first time Charlee saw the smooth leather slide out of the belt loops, she threw herself to the ground and curled into a furry ball. Stunned by the dog’s reaction, Kayt repeated the act of taking off her belt, and Charlee twisted herself up even tighter, as if to disappear into the carpet. Clearly, someone had hit or threatened Charlee with a belt.

Long before the phone call, Kayt had made the decision that no one would hurt or scare Charlee again. So, her response prepared, she coolly told the woman, “I’m sorry. Someone claimed the puppy weeks ago. The puppy seemed so excited and happy to see them. I don’t have further information.” Kayt laughs, “As if I’d return Charlee to someone like that? She’s mine. I call her ‘the child.’ And it’s me and her from now on.”

On a walk along the Frying Pan River, Charlee sprinted through the field, investigating the river bank and braving the frigid water. A week earlier, she’d stepped in a prairie dog hole while she and Kayt were taking a run and injured her back leg. Like most dogs, Charlee was stoic about her injury, giving little indication that running on three legs was unusual for her. Though Kayt tried to keep her exercise to a minimum, “She’s a Terrier. I kept her quiet for about half a day after seeing the vet. There’s just no keeping her down.”

Kayt’s former dream dog is known to be a loyal and fierce guardian, but Charlee has firmly established that it’s all about attitude. “Despite her diminutive size, she is quite the protector, and makes me feel safe. One day, we had parked along the seafront in Long Beach, Calif., and when we came out of the side door, this guy was leaning on the side of the van. Charlee turned into Cujo and lunged for him! The snarling and barking were pretty impressive.”

Today, Charlee senses no nearby threats. She takes her antler chew from the doorway and sidles underneath the van for a nap. Kayt washes the coffee cup and plates in the sink and sets them on a cloth towel. Another Vanlifer stands outside her door, waiting. Does she like her van conversion? the woman asks. “Yes, but there are some things I’d have done differently,” she replies before stepping aside to let the woman photograph her bedroom. “It’s still a work in progress.” Steinbeck once said that finishing is “a little death” for a writer, so maybe the perfect van can only exist once the journey ends.

Unlike Steinbeck, who returned to New York to resume the routine of his life, Kayt and Charlee’s road will take them south toward Mosca, Colo., and then to Santa Fe. At least, this is their plan. But as Steinbeck wrote in his classic travel book, “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” Kayt echoes his sentiment, admitting, “Living in a van with a dog during the summer can be quite challenging, but we’ve managed just fine. It’s all about her and her needs. There are things I don’t do because of her, but it’s no hardship. I’m grateful to have her and can’t imagine my life or this journey without her by my side.”

To stay in the know about Kayt and Charlee’s travels, plug into their Instagram account @vantravelswithcharlee

Sarah Kilgallon is a Boston-based writer, photographer and dog trainer. Find her on instagram: @walkabout_dogs

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