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Gator-phobia and new friends in the South

Michelle and Loren travel across the deep south but refuse to camp out in bug, gator-infested Fla.

Posted: June 6, 2009 5:42 p.m.
Updated: June 7, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Loren makes friends with Pam, a park ranger, in Panama City Beach, Fla.

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Editor's note: Signal feature writer Michelle Sathe will be taking a seven-week sabbatical to promote homeless dog adoptions. She is taking a rescued pit bull, Loren, along with her as a companion and mascot during their cross-country trip. The Signal will be following Sathe's and Loren's trip every Sunday with a column on their latest adventures.

The lush highways to Alabama were a breeze to navigate, only 133 miles from New Orleans, which was a jaunt compared to the 350 to 400 mile trips we took through Arizona and Texas.

We checked into our budget motel and were happy to see the hardwood floors and subdued linens, giving the place a retro feel rather than a hyper-tropical one. While doing laundry, I saw two pit puppies in the parking lot, tied to fence.

Was this my worst fear coming true, finding strays and not knowing what to do?

When I came closer, I saw they both had tags and collars. Their mom, a young brunette, came out and looked at me suspiciously.

"I hope you don't mind, I just wanted to make sure someone didn't dump them," I said.

She smiled. "No, I don't mind, but we would never dump them, they are our babies," came the reply with a sweet Southern accent.

Angel and her husband T.J. got their pit bulls, one who looks a lot like a baby Loren, from a breeder and plans to breed them. I told her she really shouldn't as there are so many in shelters who need homes and she raised a skeptical eyebrow.

"Where?," she asked. "Shelters won't adopt pit bulls out around here because people fight them. I've checked."

I didn't know how to reply.

It was getting late. Hungry for dinner, I consulted my handy "Roadfood" book and programmed Gidget the GPS for "The Brick Pit."

The smell hits you as soon as you enter the parking lot, delicious, tantalizing smoke. We pulled into a shady spot in the back and I went in to order, with a camera around my neck - like a total geek tourist. With my order placed, I started perusing all the reviews hanging on the walls when a man poked his head out from the kitchen.

"Someone got a dog out there?" Oh, no. "Yeah, what's wrong?"

He smiled. "Your dogs done up to jump out the window. She's setting off the alarm," he said. I started panicking about the exit and he directed me to the employee area. "You can come out this way."

I ran out to greet my nemesis, Miss Thang, who was sitting upright in the driver's seat. I clicked off the alarm and sighed. "It's great to travel with a dog and it's a pain to travel with a dog. You got dogs?"

"Yeah," he said. "Two pits."

I smiled.

"She a pit?" he asked me.

"Yeah. You want to meet her?" I asked.

Loren jumped out and promptly jumped all over him.

His name was Keyon and he agreed to let me take his photo with Loren, after I told him what we were doing. This is a gift. I'm sure Keyon and I would have never struck up a conversation had Loren not been with me. She is a catalyst for making friends.

We drove through the ritzy part of Mobile, Ala. on Government Road, looking at all the mansions. Huge brick estates with pillars and mammoth wrought iron fences - beautiful. Intrigued by a cannon in the middle of an intersection, we stopped and went for a 15-minute walk at Memorial Park.

It hit me as we were driving back to the hotel and I saw a sign for Montgomery - we are in the deep South! This is the place I read about as a kid, about Martin Luther King, about segregation, about police dogs and sit ins. This is the real deal. Incredible.

May 28 - Panama City Beach, Fla.
A huge thunderstorm ushered us out of Alabama and into Florida. This was a storm unlike anything I've seen in California, a THX-surround sound, cracking, splotching, lightning-filled stunner that kept me in fear behind the wheel for two hours.

The sun started poking out around 45 miles from Panama City Beach. We pulled up to our campground in fine spirits - I had given myself a pep talk that I could indeed put up a tent and that we were going to enjoy roughing it. The friendly campground officers, Pam and Donna, assured me that it was a safe, fun park. This after Loren had jumped into Pam's cart and tried somewhat successfully to make out with her. Pam was a good sport. "Are there alligators around here?" I asked. They looked at each other, then at me. "Yeah," Pam said. "Like, in the campground?" I continued.

"Well, they usually don't go into the campground, but they're sometimes on the outskirts. Just look out for them around bodies of water," Pam replied casually. Umm, hello .. usually? I sucked it up, determined not to let this info freak me out. We went to space 32, which was conveniently located near the beach, with a beautiful view. Problem: No shade. Except for a little patch in swampy grass near a body of water. This simply wouldn't do.

I went back to Donna and asked for a shady spot. Problem: Campground was full. She suggested I buy a tarp. I got in my truck, turned on the AC and frantically looked for hotels online. After checking into our $125 per night hotel (over budget!), we went to a little fresh fish market and restaurant up the street. Barnacle Bruce's. A lovely surprise awaited us - around the corner from the modest storefront was a bit of peaceful patio paradise with a colorful garden, soothing water fountain, and a gorgeous floral scent in the air.

A woman and her daughter spotted Loren as they came out of the building next door. "Is he mean?" the lady asked.

"No, she's really friendly. Come over and pet her," I said. Loren was wagging her tail frantically against the post - thwack, thwack, thwack. They did so and she made her usual introduction with a ton of sloppy kisses. The little girl sat on a makeshift couch and Loren jumped into her lap as if she were a Yorkie rather than a 50-pound pit bull.

My order came up - a half pound of steamed shrimp with Cajun seasoning, a half dozen oysters baked with butter, garlic and Parmesan. The seafood was so fresh - succulent, sweet and spicy and satisfying.

Sherry, our waitress, has several rescue dogs of her own, as well as a sister who volunteers at the local Humane Society. "You should have seen the dogs here after Katrina hit," she said, placing her hands on her chest. "It was heart wrenching."

"I bet," I replied, briefly imagining the catastrophe, then blocking it from my mind. I expressed my desire for Loren to find a home when we return, that I didn't want her to go back to a kennel after experiencing having her own person for seven weeks.

"I will pray for that tonight," Sherry said.

"Thank you," I said, touched, and promptly screamed. A huge black bug of some sort had landed on my arm and almost gave me a coronary. Sherry and a gentleman eating at a nearby table laughed.

"I hate bugs," I told them. "I hate alligators. I think I'm in the wrong place. Hey, are there alligators in that pond out there?" Pause. "I can't tell you no," Sherry said.

"OK, I'm not down with that," I said. "We have our problems in California, but alligators and massive insects are not part of them."

To follow Loren and Sathe on the trip visit their road blog at www.dogdaysbook.com.

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