Surprises on our back-road strolls

The dogs and I meet all kinds of colorful characters and creatures as we wander down country lanes.

Petr Josek/Reuters/Newscom
Companionship: A man and his dog walk through a birch forest near the town of Hradek Nad Nisou, Czech Republic.

I love leisurely hikes through the many natural areas that dot my part of central Wisconsin, but taking three dogs with me, all hooked to leashes, makes walking through brushy forest a little like untangling fishing line every few feet. So we've found a host of country roads that allow easy foot travel. Few houses – to avoid unrestrained canines seeing us as interlopers – little traffic, and wide shoulders so that if a vehicle does come over the hill, all four of us can be off to the side.

I love my solitary wooded hikes, but for interest, my dog-walks on asphalt rival more rustic strolls on an almost daily basis. Scenery changes and wildlife, especially birds, are always part of the landscape, but it's the surprises that make our road tours by foot memorable.

Small towns mean people who probably know you in some form, and my dog, Lucy, what I call a "beaglemation" (part beagle, part Dalmatian) has a smallish reputation.

"I know that dog," was the cry from the man who stopped his truck in the middle of the road after passing us and jumped out. "She was in the paper."

Yes, Lucy was in the local paper modeling a St. Patrick's Day jacket made for her by a friend. What ensued was a lively conversation about dogs, the Irish, and my late father who grew up in what is now also my neck of the woods and who was known by this man. He casually waved a tractor and truck around us as we visited in the road. The drivers both politely nodded and waved as they drove part way into the ditch to go around his truck, no doubt also recognizing Lucy from the paper. My "blabsset," Howard, (part Labrador, part basset) also is sometimes recognized along our routes while Delta Mae, who is too many breeds to combine into one name, remains mostly incognito.

While we usually don't have people pull over to talk with us on our walks, it does happen occasionally, and where they are off to is often of interest. Like the longtime resident who, after stopping to chat with us for awhile and to ask, just out of curiosity, why we were out walking on that particular road, cut our talk short after glancing at the rising sun and announcing he had to get going to collect the deer urine in the snow before the temperature rose too high.

He uses deer urine to make a scent sought out by deer hunters far and wide that is said to lure a buck from the next county.

It's not just people who come out of their homes to talk with us or who pull over to chat. Once a goat leaped over an electric fence to look us over and after finding no human home at his house, we left him standing on the front porch, hoping he wouldn't follow us. A trip back later in the car showed him back in his fenced pasture, safe and sound.

The roadside yields surprising delights at times. Pussy willows for a vase, interesting and colorful stones for a basket, and, once, two pockets full of yellow onions fallen off a truck driving from a muck farm and hauling them to a remote packaging shed. We had onion pie for supper.

Our favorite roads take us past mountains, now just outcroppings of rock worn down over millions of years by wind, glaciers, and rain. We pass wetlands where migrating wood ducks and mallards flap into the air, voicing their dissatisfaction with being disturbed.

We see the first bluebirds of the season and listen intently for the first song of the oriole. Sandhill cranes step delicately over cornstalk stubble, and I pull Lucy back when she almost disappears down a badger hole. We've given up moving every woolly-bear caterpillar off the warm asphalt, leaving each there and hoping it lives to turn into a tiger moth.

Red-winged blackbirds sing, wild turkeys fold in their fanning tail feathers and file into the woods when they sense our presence, their heads ratcheting in time to their strutting. We all stop, breathless, as a rare white fox eyes us and then darts into a pine forest. Lucy and Delta Mae want to follow, but Howard and I pull them back.

You don't need the Sierra Madre to find the grandeur of nature. You only need a country back road in Wisconsin. You don't need a bohemian urban neighborhood to find colorful characters; you only need to take dogs from the pound on a walk down a rural route, and those characters will find you. I still enjoy my solitary hikes in the wildness of the woods, but give me a lonely asphalt road, and I can have the company of Lucy, Howard, and Delta Mae while we discover treasures of many kinds.

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