A little over four hundred years after Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, I pulled into a small farm outside of Austin, Texas looking for a new story. At the time, I was six months, thousands of miles, and tens of thousands of words into a narrative which felt old and plagiarized.
A man, a dog, an adventure. Travels with Charley. A Boy and His Dog. Where the Red Fern Grows. Lassie. Take your pick. This same story has been told countless times. As I toured with Eko, writing about our time on the road, I worried my journey was a tepid imitation of a familiar tale.
In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck crossed the country in a custom-made camper dubbed Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse. Eko and I rambled around in a bright red rental car which my dad suggested we name Clifford, after the Big Red Dog. Even my means of transportation felt like a childish parody.
At the farm, I guided Clifford past a pair of watchful miniature donkeys and parked at the end of the dirt driveway. Up to that point, Eko and I had stayed in just about every dog-friendly motel, hotel and inn the country had to offer. I craved something new, so I rented the farm’s small guest house for a long weekend. I hoped new scenery would help me find a new story.
The farmer greeted us warmly. The miniature donkeys less so. The elfin equines gave Eko and I the same once-over look which said, “Well, I guess we’re not the biggest pair of asses on the farm anymore.”
I proved the diminutive donkeys correct when I flippantly asked our host, “So…what exactly is the point of miniature donkeys?” I expected her to say they pulled miniature carts or plowed miniature fields. The farmer had a more existential view.
“What’s the point of your dog?” she replied with a laugh. “Or better yet, what’s the point of you?”
“I’ll let you know when I figure that out,” I said.
“Well, in the meantime you two should enjoy the farm. Feel free to let your dog loose. The pen is locked so he won’t be able to give Don Quixote and Sancho Panza any trouble.” As she spoke, the two donkeys rested their heads against the gate.
That’s right. Donkey Don Quixote, a classic colored gray whose head reached only just above Eko’s. And Sancho Panza, his slightly rounder, brown and white splotched companion. I giggled at the brilliant foolishness of their names. The farmer, sensing my childish delight (and having experienced my childish intellect), allowed me to feed them each a few carrots.
Eko at least had the good sense not to ask the farmer any dumb questions. He sniffed the donkeys from the other side of the fence and probed the edges of the pen for a closer look. It thrilled him to discover that if he sprinted towards our four-legged hosts they’d dash the other way. Eko looked every bit the purposeful hunter Rhodesian Ridgebacks were bred to be.
Before the game of tag got too rowdy I called Eko back around to the guest house. He laid on the porch while I unloaded the car and surreptitiously googled, “What is the point of miniature donkeys?” I found some helpful answers but unfortunately had no such luck when I googled, “What is the point of me?”
The story of Don Quixote (the man, not the donkey) wrestles with that same central question of purpose. Alonso Quixano, a retiree dissatisfied with his life, dubs himself Don Quixote and sets off to rewrite his story through heroic, if delusional, acts of chivalry.
During our weekend on the farm I felt a lot like Don Quixote (again, the man). Not because I thought myself gallant or knightly, but because I felt the world saw through my ill-fitting armor. Saw that I was not the writer, traveler and person I claimed to be. I wanted to tell stories about giants but it seemed I only knew stories about windmills.
Eko and I spent much of the weekend lazing on our small back porch. The sun crept slowly across the wooden boards underneath us as we savored the quiet serenity of our view. Fittingly, the only movement we saw most of the time was the turning of a decorative windmill at the edge of the property.
On our last afternoon I had the presence of mind to appreciate my lot. I had my health, it was a beautiful day, and I was relaxing in a rocking chair next to my loyal pup. I didn’t find the grand new story I sought but I discovered a small refreshing moment of peace.
Or so I thought. Don Quixote (enter, the donkey) had other plans.
It began with the faint sound of hooves.
“Hm, that faintly sounds like hooves,” I sagely remarked to Eko, who had already propped himself up –ears rotating in full radar mode.
As it turns out, the faint sound of large hooves precisely matches the proximate sound of small hooves. Which is why both Eko and I were taken aback when Don Quixote and Sancho Panza stormed across our picturesque view in full gallop.
There is a chasm between the moment you recognize an unfortunate truth and the moment you accept it. I immediately recognized the pint-sized pair but I struggled to accept their presence.
“But I just saw them in the pen…” one half of my brain said.
“Someone obviously left the gate open.” the other half replied.
“Maybe it’s a different pair of donkeys?” the first sputtered.
“Do you think he cares if these two have different names?” the second inquired, dragging my eyes down from the donkeys to look at Eko.
Ah yes, my unleashed dog. Lightning fast and primed with vim and vigor to hunt the very creatures running past us. I instantly accepted the truth of the situation and moved to grab Eko. Unfortunately, there is a second chasm between acceptance and action. Well, at least in humans there is.
Eko spent the infinite moment of that second chasm looking into my eyes. It was the look of a person who had won the lottery, walked into his manager’s office, and was about to flip over his boss’s desk before walking out.
The brain is a marvelous instrument. On a good day, mine is only moderately out of tune. However, under extenuating circumstances the strings just snap. Which is why as I struggled to simultaneously yell “Get over here!” and “No!” it simply came out as an incomprehensible mush which sounded a lot like “GO!”
Eko licked his lips, ducked under my reaching hand, and bolted after the gallivanting equines. Instinct propelled him. Fear propelled me as I leapt off the porch in hot pursuit. I was terrified Eko might hurt or kill the donkeys and equally afraid a powerful hoof might do the same to him. With my full concentration directed on the chase in front of me I was quite surprised to hear the farmer’s voice over my shoulder.
“What the hell are you doing!?” she yelled, closing in on me with deceptive farmer speed.
I felt the situation quite self-explanatory so it seemed like an odd question. But I suspect there are few reasonable questions when you’re a farmer chasing a man chasing a dog chasing two miniature donkeys.
In retrospect, the question does make sense. I later learned that while standing in her kitchen the farmer saw the donkeys run past, then saw me run past, but she missed the low-flying-Eko-shaped blur in between. She thought her idiot Yankee tenant decided to spend his last day on the farm chasing livestock. By the roar of her voice I could tell she had every intention for it to be my last day on the farm and my last day on the planet.
It’s a bit difficult to explain yourself when involved in a multi-party, multi-species, high-speed chase. (Miniature donkeys are surprisingly fast, especially when chased by a Rhodesian Ridgeback.) Panting and pointing as I ran, I convinced the farmer we were on the same side. Thus began the Scooby-Doo portion of the hunt where all four parties seemed at one point or another to be chasing each other.
After the initial shock of fright, I experienced an exhilarating cocktail of emotions. Yes, there was still fear, but mixed with awe. I’ve seen Eko run fast, I’ve seen Eko happy, but I’ve never seen him faster or more joyful than he was in that moment. I was afraid, but I smiled as I ran, recognizing the insane humor of the chase. It was literally a dog and (almost) pony show!
Luckily for him, the donkeys, the farmer and myself, Eko had no intention of catching his prey. His rapture was in the hunt. He drove the donkeys back and forth across the field, looking back periodically to make sure I saw him in all his glory. Realizing we’d never catch canine or equine on our own, the farmer and I funneled the chase towards the pen. In one long, final sprint, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza returned through their gate, having tasted more than enough freedom for one day. A farm hand who heard the commotion quickly, and guiltily, closed the gate behind them.
Eko trotted backed to me, tongue lolling, irrepressibly happy. By all accounts I should have reprimanded him. But how do you discipline bliss? I wrapped Eko in a hug, thankful he was safe.
“Well that was something.” the farmer said as she met us outside the guest house.
Both the sheepish worker who left the pen unlocked and the farmer offered their apologies for the mayhem. They hoped the incident hadn’t ruined our stay. I truthfully said it was the best stay, and in the end, the best day we’d had in a long time.
Before departing the farm the next morning we convened an interspecies United Nations at the edge of the pen. Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, Eko and I shared a handful of carrots, each of us happily munching on the peace offering.
I gave one last wave to the donkeys as I turned Clifford off the dirt and back onto the road. I had found a story alright, but that wasn’t why I smiled. I smiled because as I reviewed our escapade I finally realized that every story is an old story. In life, we all feel like we are chasing and being chased. We dress up as who we wish to be in order that we might become who we need to be. We are ill equipped, frequently delusional, and fail more often than not. But we persevere. This is the story of Don Quixote (the man), the story of Don Quixote (the donkey), and the story of everyone who seeks their place in the world.
This same story has been told countless times. When we arrived on the farm that fact made me consider staying silent. But as we headed west I couldn’t wait to tell the story again. The story may be old, but each of us lives and experiences that story in a new way. And no one can share the joy and pain of your experience but you.
That’s the point of me, I decided in answer to the farmer’s question. Not to tell a new story, but to tell my story.