Dog in a ditch on a country road
Wide tongue waggin’ as winter wind blow’d
Dirty on his body from his chest on down
He’s the most zen dog from here to town

[Sung with the voice of singer Billy Bragg channeling Woodie Guthrie from Mermaid Avenue.]

I composed this brief ditty while driving along Seybold Road on a December morning, en route to work at Fence Stile Vineyards and Winery in Excelsior Springs. As my car reached the peak of a hill, I spotted a dog on the right as it stood in a ditch lined with brown and gold weeds and mud. The dog’s mouth was open, its pink tongue unfurled like a carpet. The dog stared as my car raced past.

I had never seen this dog before on my travels to and from the winery. Based on its size, shape, and long red-brown fur, the dog appeared to be a brown golden retriever. What struck me most about this dog was its sudden presence.

When driving on a familiar route, my mind goes on auto-pilot to navigate while thinking about tasks ahead, a memory, or other fleeting thought. It’s a common phenomenon, where we don’t actively have to think about each twist, turn, and stop on the drive from home to work and back. This auto-pilot mode enables the mind to wander. Senses register different details that break up the monotony of familiar sights.

That’s why the dog in a ditch stuck out. It was a new character in the middle of a book I had read and reread, where the outcome, scenery, and characters were engrained in a linear progression from point A to B. Suddenly, here’s a fresh presence that makes a cameo and interrupts the well-worn action scene. Will the dog appear again? I have not seen it since that first brief encounter. A crack in the facade of the usual opens, allowing the possibility of something or someone unexpected to enter the scene. For a time, my senses are alert to the possibility of spotting the dog again on subsequent drives. When the moment doesn’t manifest again, the mind reverts back to auto-pilot on a mundane drive.

Of course, from the dog’s perspective, it was preoccupied with ditch-related matters until I came along to disturb the peace on a sunny day. The dog decided to investigate the muddy, weedy confine of the ditch safe from passersby on a blacktop road. I was a curiosity, maybe, and that’s presupposing a lot, to the dog. An unusual, unfamiliar creature in a red Ford Focus sped by and missed the opportunity to see, smell, and experience a ditch, farm fields in winter repose, and other wonders of the countryside.

Perhaps that’s what struck me most after the initial surprise of spotting this ditch dog – its zen-like presence while grounded in the moment. Pale sunlight gave the dog’s red-brown coat a subtle glow in contrast to weeds and mud. As I glanced in the rear-view mirror, the dog’s head dipped and returned to its exploration.

We may never share the same space alongside road and ditch. In a sense, the ditch dog becomes a yeti or sasquatch, a creature spotted but not captured by any technological means to prove its existence other than my first-person account. While dogs, ditch-bound or not, are a common presence, I like to think that this dog was legendary. If it never sees me again, just maybe, the dog in a ditch might think the same of me.