In a lyrical love letter to guide dogs everywhere, a blind poet shares his delightful story of how a guide dog changed his life and helped him discover a newfound appreciation for travel and independence.
Stephen Kuusisto was born legally blind—but he was also raised in the 1950s and taught to deny his blindness in order to "pass" as sighted. Stephen attended public school, rode a bike, and read books pressed right up against his nose. As an adult, he coped with his limited vision by becoming a professor in a small college town, memorizing routes for all of the places he needed to be. Then, at the age of 38, he was laid off. With no other job opportunities in his vicinity, he would have to travel to find work.
This is how he found himself at Guiding Eyes paired with a Labrador named Corky. In this vivid and lyrical memoir, Stephen Kuusisto recounts how an incredible partnership with a guide dog changed his life and the heart-stopping, wondrous adventure that began for him in midlife. Profound and deeply moving, this is a spiritual journey, the story of discovering that life with a guide dog is both a method and a state of mind.
Have Dog, Will Travel Prologue People ask: “What’s it like?” “What’s it like walking with a guide dog?” “How does a dog keep you from harm?” Or they say, “I don’t think I could do that, I mean, what’s it really like to trust a dog that way?”
Truthfully it’s not like anything else. There’s no true equivalent for the experience.
My wife is an equestrian. Years ago she was a guide-dog trainer. “On a horse,” she says, “you’re hypervigilant, aiming to avoid accidents by controlling your animal. Sometimes you and your horse will find a meditative rhythm. But you can’t count on horses to look out for you.”
A guide dog is not like a horse. She looks out for you. All the time.
What’s it like? I can only help you imagine what a guide dog feels like.
Say you’re in Italy in a swirl of motorbikes. It’s Milan with thin sidewalks, confusing street crossings, and barbaric drivers. Montenapoleone Street is crowded with what seems like all the people in the world.
Let’s say you’re walking at night to the Duomo with Guiding Eyes “Corky” #3cc92. Corky does her thing and relishes her job. She pulls you along but the pull is steady and you feel like you’re floating. Her mind and body transmit through a harness an omnidirectional confidence.
Why are you going to Milan’s famous cathedral with a dog? One of your favorite books is Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, which contains passages so beautiful you sometimes recite them aloud. Of the Duomo Twain says it has “a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath! . . . The central one of its five great doors is bordered with a bas-relief of birds and fruits and beasts and insects, which have been so ingeniously carved out of the marble that they seem like living creatures—and the figures are so numerous and the design so complex, that one might study it a week without exhausting its interest . . .”
Now it’s just you and your dog. You’re going there to touch the birds and fruits and beasts and insects carved from marble.
Not only are the streets teeming with people, there are skateboarders. Now your Labrador eases left. You hear a clatter of wheels. You think how Milan must be dangerous for skateboarding with its jagged paving bricks, broken sidewalks, and Vespas like runaway donkeys. Motorbikes plunge through crowds. Someone does a dance with death every twenty feet. The city is a fantastic, ghastly place. In the midst of this your dog is unflappable. Trained to estimate your combined width, she looks for advantages in the throng and pulls ahead because the way is clear or she slows suddenly because an elderly woman has drifted sideways into your path. Sometimes she stops on a dime, refusing to move. Which she does now.
There’s a hole in the pavement. It’s unmarked—there are no pylons or signs. A stranger says it’s remarkable there aren’t a dozen people at the bottom of the thing. Corky has saved you from breaking your neck. She backs away, turns, then pushes ahead.
It doesn’t feel like driving a car. It’s not like running. Sometimes I think it’s a bit like swimming. A really long swim when you’re buoyant and fast. There’s no one else in the pool.
Yes, this is sort of what it’s like, but there’s something else—a keen affection between you and your dog, a mutual discernment. Together you’ve got the other’s back.
Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a professorship in the Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
“Kuusisto…give[s] readers and animal lovers terrific insight into not only his experience with blindness, but also the unshakable bond between a guide dog and its owner.”—Publishers Weekly
"Never before has the subtle relationship of a blind person to a guide dog been clarified in such an entertaining way. That Stephen Kuusisto enables us to see the world through his blind eyes as well as through the ‘seeing eyes’ of his dog is this book's amazing, paradoxical achievement."—Billy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate (2001-2003)
“A perceptive and beautifully crafted memoir of personal growth, and a fascinating example of what can happen when a person and a dog learn to partner with one another.”—Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human
“Have Dog, Will Travel is both an intimate memoir of one man’s particular experience of blindness and a beautiful tribute to the devotional, unconditional love of a dog. Funny, moving, and joyful.”—Dana Spiotta, author of Innocents and Others
“I fell in love with Corky, of course, with her goofiness and boundless affection and heart-stopping wisdom. Truth be told, I fell in love with Steve too for how he dove into his new, broken open, adventurous life with her, and the way he processed his experiences through the lens of his reading life, and his compassion for others and for his own late-blooming self.”—Ona Gritz, author of On The Whole: A Story Of Mothering And Disability
"A celebration of Corky and guide dogs everywhere."—Library Journal
"Kuusisto tells the poignant story of a midlife rebirth that led to self-acceptance and also celebrates human/animal interdependence and a “companionship [that] was intimate and richer than poems.” An eloquent and heartwarming memoir."—Kirkus Reviews
"[An] irresistible portrait of his first guide dog, Corky...Kuusisto’s ever-lyrical writing pulses with lush imagery and unflagging curiosity. There’s no doubt: Kuusisto’s love for Corky, and love itself, become a filter through which to perceive the world—and what a deeply compassionate, beautifully observed world it is." —Booklist