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"Of the many stories that will be born out of the challenges faced in the global pandemic, this one is ours, mine and Zeke's — the rescue dog."
Zeke the rescue dog and LOVE mural

Letting Go The Leash is the first-hand true account of a man who copes with having to take care of a rescue dog no one wants while dealing with a crumbling career and a changed world, from 9/11 through to a global pandemic.

Stephen Ellis Hamilton took these pictures of empty streets while writing his book. The pictures are reproduced as an archive record of the 2020 lockdown, and feature Zeke, the rescue dog.

The text is comprised of extracts from the book.

Rescue Dog Zeke and wings

 … That night when the dog and I returned home, both of my sons safe and accounted for, I started a journal. Things needed to be said. I imagined sitting on Granddaddy Edgar’s porch telling him about the dog, 9/11, the shifts and turns my life had taken, a possible felony I had mistakenly committed, the tornado, and this new pandemic, to name a few. He had survived the pandemic of 1918, had a successful marriage, knew the value of a good dog and a sturdy flat-bed truck. I could have used his council.

Two Rivers Dog Park is closed

As the pandemic emptied the streets, I saw my future bottom out and could do little else but stare at the walls, with not much else to do but follow the dog as he took the lead through my silent city by day, I recorded my recollections, conversations, flashbacks, everything I wanted to bring into focus by night. My journal grew into the pages of emotions that became this book.

Of the many stories that will be born out of the challenges faced in the global pandemic of 2020, this one is ours, mine and the dog’s.

Rescue Dog Zeke at Tooties

Linda called early one morning in the beginning of May. It was good to hear from her.

“So how are things, I mean outside of Armageddon?” I quipped.

Hesitantly she answered, “Well not too bad since they have the VPN thing straightened out. Getting docs back from clients has kind of been a nightmare but so far so good. How are things with you?”

Always optimistic I answered with a too-loud voice, “Great. The dog and I have been sequestered so long together we’re finishing each other’s sentences.”

She did not laugh, “Well, I have some bad news for you.”

Rescue Dog Zeke and mural
Rescue dog Zeke in Nashville

We celebrate Zeke’s birthday every December on the 9th. That is the day, according to the shelter, that he was born. How could they know that? He was supposed to be a Catahoula too. His rap sheet from multiple shelters was probably about as accurate as my action plan.

News began to trickle in about the Coronavirus in China which had now officially become a pandemic. There had been no cases reported in Tennessee, but that was to change on March 8th when a man who had travelled from Boston to Memphis had been diagnosed with the strange and deadly disease. There was a second in Nashville, and on March 12th the governor declared a state of emergency.

Zeke and author
Empty city and skyscrapers

The next day I corralled Zeke to the car, rolled all the windows down and drove to the largest park in the city. It was hundreds of acres with many trails to follow. I put Zeke on a twenty-six-foot retractable leash and let him lead. I noticed a different quickness in his step. He was in his element. When we passed other dogs and people, Zeke did not give them notice. He seemed intent with purpose, perhaps he was brought up in the sticks somewhere that looked like this. He went up and down dry riverbeds on a mission, his head was on a swivel. When he pulled me up steep banks, I was just a load, nothing else.

“Hold on buddy this ain’t a race.”

I Googled “Life jackets for dogs” and found them at my local PetSmart, so I put Zeke in the car and off we went.

He opened the automatic doors to the store himself and walked in on his leash. The salesperson showed us the life jackets and helped us with his size (just give me the biggest you got) and took it up front for purchase.

Rescue Dog Zeke and waterfall

It was getting late and I was out of bourbon, so I threw the rest of my cigar in the glowing embers and added a large log to light the camp up again. I checked the area for trash, careful to store all the food in dry sacks inside the tent to keep away the nighttime varmints. Minutes later Zeke and I were laid out next to each other listening to the crickets, and every fifteen minutes, the yip song of the coyotes. Shortly after getting comfortable, Zeke quietly rose and settled by the door. I started to call him back to my side but was too sleepy to care and promptly drifted off.

Until the sounds outside our tent woke me. “YOOOOOYIPYIPYIP!! Yeeeepyeeeep. YOOOOO!!”

How many were there?

Rescue Dog Zeke on empty street

My daily commute was a combination of cussing mixed with prayer through an all-out no-holds-barred bumper car race to the safety of the building garage. The goals given to me were twenty calls a day, twenty appointments per week to bring in one million dollars in assets a month to keep management off my back. Then I would limp home to do it all again.

Rescue Dog Zeke on the corner of the block

My numbers were horrible. I might have looked like a big shot, but I was burnt out. Washed up. I could barely afford parking. My salary was only going to last until June. And although I had some savings, I was near to being priced out of my own neighborhood.

Coming into the lobby I got a few nods from the white shirts, walked down the long corridor of doors, and found mine. As soon as I unlocked it the phone was ringing.

Rescue Dog Zeke and a monument
Rescue Dog Zeke and sports stadium

Lost hikers have starved lying within feet from a buffet of plentiful food sources. The ability to identify edible plants, insects and saprophytes can separate one from life or death in dire circumstances. I’ve made it a hobby to test myself, snapping pictures of live subjects on tree bark, guessing its name, and googling it when I got home for accuracy. If a deer has chewed on the plants or mushrooms, for instance, it is usually a good sign that the species is not poisonous.

It was wet and creepy and just what we needed. A trickle of water dripped into a small clear puddle in an otherwise dry bed. It took forever but I managed to get five liters of precious water in the bladder and bottles I had unfolded out of my pack while Zeke explored the cave. That tiny trickle would prove to be the only water source we saw on the whole eighteen-mile trip.

Rescue Dog Zeke watching the world
Rescue Dog Zeke at Opry Mills

When we finally came to a stop on the tarmac, we were immediately boarded by soldiers with weapons drawn. Gathered outside in a single file line, we were escorted past armored military vehicles and sequestered in a large sealed off room surrounded by soldiers with machine guns or MP7’s. I spoke to others in my best German trying to find out if anyone knew what was going on.

I found the following short note on my pillow.

USAIRWAYS 015 München-Philadelphia

Dear Passenger,

A Major National Incident has happened in the United States this morning.

The Federal Aviation Authority of the United States has suspended all air travel to and from the United States until further notice and closed all airports in the U.S. […]

Stephen Ellis Hamilton

STEPHEN ELLIS HAMILTON is an avid hiker, a private pilot and a lover of dogs. Born in Nashville, he grew up on the two farms of his grandfathers in West Tennessee. After earning a B.S. in Chemical Engineering, he spent thirty-four years as a Financial Advisor before turning to his love of the outdoors and writing. He wrote this book during the pandemic of 2020 as a memoir to document his feelings when he gave up a career to follow his dog. In his own words, “I received my finest wealth education alone, lost in the hills of East Tennessee, guided by the stars and the sun, with the love of a dog beside me and thirty-five pounds of all I needed on my back.”

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