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Lost dog

06/28/07 12:00AM By Caleb Daniloff
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(HOST) Commentator Caleb Daniloff and his family are moving to Boston. Before leaving Middlebury, Caleb planned to spend some time hiking around town. On a recent weekend, he ended up doing just that, but not quite the way he'd imagined. Here's Caleb.

(DANILOFF) The path was quiet at five AM. We let our dogs off leash, watching them skip over roots and muddy stones. Chris and I were walking in the Battell Woods, part of the Trail Around Middlebury, or the TAM as its known in these parts.

The TAM is a sixteen-mile loop that snakes all over town. Not just through woods and wetlands, but across Route 7, around the middle school, past Greg's Meat Market. I've lived in Middlebury for years, but have never walked the entire trail. I resolved to hike it before moving this summer.

Suddenly a mountain-biker rolled up behind us. Our Pomeranian ripped off a couple barks. But Oliver an eight-pound Chihuahua took one look and bolted. Up a rise and around a bend, impossibly fast for a set of four-inch legs. I dashed after him, but he had a good head start. And when I reached the trailhead, about a mile away, it was empty.

This wasn't good. Out in the big bad world, Oliver got spooked by grocery bags and recycling bins. Sure, his looks melted hearts in Holstein country he's white with black splotches, ears bigger than tortilla chips. But that wasn't going to get him very far with a pack of coyotes.

After several hours, we called a friend. Oliver loved Janine, surely he'd come to her. The three of us took every side trail, poked through thick overgrowth and bushwhacked across the waist-high fields that bordered the 29-acre forest. But not a whine or bark. No trampled grass or tiny footprints in the mud. Had an owl snatched him up? Was he some little girl's new puppy? I banished the thoughts.

At noon, I checked with the humane society, called the police and dialed up anyone we knew who lived near the woods. Seven hours in, we'd become such a familiar sight that deer were strolling by paying little mind. Birds and red squirrels were the only ones answering our calls.

By mid-day, our daughter had printed up posters and we hit nearby neighborhoods and businesses. Middlebury never seemed so big. The ladies at Hannafords swooned at Oliver's picture. Staffers at the Marriott and McDonalds wished us luck. A burly construction worker chased Chris down to report a sighting. Turned out to be a false alarm.

By evening, the three of us headed back into the woods with posters and flashlights. The forest sounds were changing, growing muted, the light more ominous as animals sought out safe places to bed down. Chris was tacking up a flyer when a twig snapped behind us. Another chipmunk, I thought.

"There he is," Chris cried out.

Then I saw Oliver's sad little face poking through fallen branches. His chest was scraped up, his black snout covered in pollen. I scooped him out from under some brush, limp as a dishtowel. But after twelve hours and countless miles, it was over.

Later that night, I called people back - their relief almost as deep as ours. I began to realize we'd been trekking a second trail that day, a trail within Middlebury, a shadow path that runs through every community in Vermont. Built on hope and kindness from way back and twisting through condo developments, farms, back roads, shopping plazas, side streets and Main Street. And maintained by all who've ever lived or worked there.During our time here, Chris and I had become part of it, too - by stopping for a stuck motorist or shoveling a neighbor's drive or just chatting up a sad-looking cashier. Minor everyday acts provoked by small-town life.

I will miss that path. My feet will never be the same.

Caleb Daniloff is a freelance writer.

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