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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Chasing the Yorkie

I’ve been running lately. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that this is a big deal. I’m a recovering ex-runner, after all. Even just the smell of freshly cut grass is enough to put a pit in my stomach — it reminds me too much of high school cross country meets. They stressed me out beyond belief.

But there were some parts I liked: namely, Panther Creek State Park (all the cool kids just called it “Panther”), where our cross country teams had practice five times a week, running too many miles in the brisk autumn Tennessee air. The park is a dense, hilly forest sprinkled with labyrinthian trails, many overlooking our beautiful (but strikingly brown) Cherokee Lake.

It was just across town, and we were incredibly lucky to have it so close. When I was a kid, I thought there was only one state park per state, and for years took immense pride in the fact that our town — with its meager population and abundance of cowfields — got the one spot for Tennessee. Eventually I learned that’s not how state parks work, but the gratitude remained. It’s the most beautiful place, perfect for clear-your-head runs, picnic table takeout dinners or high-speed hikes with your hyperactive Ausiedoodle named Clyde.

Courtesy of Evan McKenna

So when I shipped off to school in flat, ugly Indiana (sorry, Hoosiers), I was left with a Panther-sized hole in my heart. It wasn’t until this fall, though, that I decided to do something about it. I booted up my maps app and began the search for a worthy trail. After just a few underwhelming escapades, I stumbled upon Boot Lake Nature Preserve.

Boot Lake Nature Preserve is not Panther Creek State Park, but that’s alright. It’s flat and it’s marshy, spanning 300 acres but offering less than five miles of trails — but still, the limited routes traverse forest, field and farmland. The farmland smells intensely of manure. And it’s in Elkhart, Indiana, of all places, boasting a grueling 45-minute round-trip drive from campus. For the humans, there’s a small gazebo and a low-capacity parking lot that’s never full. 

But it’s not about the humans. Boot Lake Nature Preserve only does what it needs to do: It preserves nature. Being able to run on its trails is merely a bonus. Just happy to be here, honestly.

And even though it’s not meant for me, I appreciate Boot Lake because it reminds me of Panther — and by extension, it reminds me of home. Running these trails, lakeside and under an oak tree canopy, it all feels familiar. I’m back in Tennessee, in my dumb boring hometown that I somehow still love, in our sprawling state park that we don’t deserve, on a trail I could run with my eyes closed. It’s why I brave the 45-minute drive.

So this is where our story begins: Boot Lake Nature Reserve. It’s early October, about 7 p.m., and I’m sweating up a storm. I’m about halfway through my four-mile run. I’ve never regretted anything more.

The trail leads me into a field, oval and surrounded by trees, with a winding path cut into the tall grass. Running in wide open spaces is objectively the worst — you always see exactly where you’re going, and exactly how long you have left. The endless stretch ahead of you burns into your eyeballs. It taunts you.

The reserve technically closed at 6 p.m., and I’m parked illegally outside of its chained-up entrance, so I’m nervous. I’m catastrophizing. My car could get towed. The sun could set, and I’d get lost within the 300-acre landmass. At any second, an angry park ranger could leap from the tall grass and piledrive me.

So I’m nervous and I’m sweaty and I’m dying. But at least no one else is here to see me in this state, right?

Wrong. That’s when a microscopic brown blip appears on the horizon ahead of me. It must be a quarter mile away, and it’s moving. I’m not here alone.

And the blip grows legs. It’s hopping along the path, and it’s moving away from me. Overcome by curiosity, I run faster.

And suddenly, the blip takes shape: It’s a Yorkie. I rub my eyes. It’s still a Yorkie. A whole Yorkshire Terrier, in the flesh, gallivanting across Boot Lake Nature Preserve. It’s got a collar, but there’s not a human in sight.

And before I can even think about it, I start chasing the Yorkie. I don’t know what it is — a kindhearted urge to save a creature in need, my inescapable impulse to pet every dog I see or just my brain activating its fight-or-flight response — but I’m after this Yorkie like it stole my wallet. 

And as soon as I start sprinting, the Yorkie stops in its tracks. It turns around. It sees me, its eyes filled with pure terror. And it starts running away from me, bounding down the path, even faster now. But I don’t care; I’m picking up speed and I feel powerful. I’m going to catch this Yorkie if it’s the last thing I do.

Just a quick life lesson for you: Yorkies are fast. You could probably beat one in a fistfight, but don’t get too confident about a footrace. They don’t look like much, but somewhere inside those tiny bodies, they’re hiding jet engines. Turbo boosts. 300-horsepower motors. And to make matters worse, you have two legs — it has four. You do the math.

After 30 seconds of intense pursuit, I’m barely hanging on. I’m cramping. I can’t breathe. My legs are ready to give out. I think this might be the end.

But this Yorkie has never been better. He is an Olympian. He is Usain Bolt. He is the P90X instructor that’s somehow never out of breath even though he’s been talking the entire time. He is Rocky Balboa, running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The pain becomes unbearable. The only thing keeping my body from collapsing is pure adrenaline, flowing from the primal desire to catch this damn dog. But adrenaline can only last so long. 

So I wave my white flag. I stop, gasping for air, hands on my knees. It’s October in South Bend and I’m wearing short shorts but I am drenched in sweat. I’m nearly dead. I’m fighting for my life on the Boot Lake Nature Preserve.

The Yorkie is running on its two hind legs now, I think, just to taunt me. He’s never been happier. He is reveling in my pain. He disappears behind a curve, and I never see him again. 

That day, I left Boot Lake Nature Preserve less of a man than I was when I entered. That Yorkie took away my dignity, and I’ll never get it back. He slammed me into the lockers, called me a nerd and took my lunch money. He plunged me back into the heart-pounding pressure of high school cross country meets — and for that, I’ll never forgive him.

But I’m a good person. In the face of injustice, I rise above. That night, after I got home, I put in the work. I called the Humane Society of Elkhart County. They were closed. So I found the next best thing: a Facebook group called “Elkhart County Lost and Found Pets,” a vibrant community of pet owners and allies uniting for the common good. I told them about the Yorkie — and two days later, he was reunited with his owner. May God bless her soul. 

This isn’t the first Inside Column I’ve written about strange encounters with animals — three months ago, I witnessed a goose collide with a car on the interstate and lived to tell the tale. I don’t know what it is about me that attracts these animals, and I don’t know why said animals are always in danger. I’m like Snow White, but more depressing. Definitely the Brothers Grimm version.

Naturally, this second run-in with the animal kingdom led me to think about the significance of these events. Is there some meaning to all this? 

Let’s see if we can find an analogy here. Maybe the secret to surviving senior year and adulthood at large is hidden somewhere within this runner’s high fever dream. So if it’s all a metaphor, who am I in this situation?

Maybe I’m the Yorkie: lost and afraid in an unfamiliar world; running away from the people trying to save me; small; cute; incredibly athletic.

Maybe I’m the Yorkie’s owner: losing an important aspect of myself but not sure where to find it; searching far and wide for what’s missing; finding solace in my Facebook friends.

Or maybe I’m … myself: confused but still trudging forward; chasing after a goal but not sure what I’ll do when I catch it; exhausted; sweaty.

Tag yourself — I’m the Yorkie.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.