Shortly before Douglas LaBarge retired in 2016, he and his wife, Donna, planned to see the United States while showing Branson, their Belgian Tervuren. The herding dog completed his championship in Ventura, California, and the couple had big plans for Sierra Champagne Kissed By A Billionaire (Branson’s AKC registered name).
“During our careers working for Apple in Silicon Valley, we had traveled all over the world, but we hadn’t seen much of this country,” says Donna.”We wanted to take Branson on an Americana road trip between entering him in dog shows along the way.”
After racking up 107,000 miles on her Jeep Grand Cherokee, collecting a bundle of dog-show ribbons, and scrapbooking photos of Branson, Donna LaBarge has stories to tell.
They began with a change in plans. Three weeks before the couple began the first step of their adventure, Douglas retired but passed away unexpectedly. Six months after her husband’s death, Donna made the move they had been planning from Sunnyvale, California, to South Lake Tahoe, and she knew she had a mission.
“To honor what Douglas and I were going to do together, I decided to pack up Branson and enter our dog in as many conformation shows as I could find. I set out to drive the 12 western states by myself,” says the breeder-owner-handler. “Suddenly, I felt like jumping in the car and hitting the road, but at the time, I didn’t realize how far this journey would take us.”
Since Douglas did all the driving throughout the couple’s 23 years together, choosing routes and how to manage long miles alone behind the wheel were Donna’s first challenges.
“I began by checking out what I wanted to sightsee in different places near dog shows,” she says. “I mapped out my drive time to 8.5 hours a day, although sometimes the miles stretched to 10 hours.”
Donna decided early on that she didn’t want to rush any of her trips and chose to stay in the moment and enjoy the places she visited. “There’s so much of America to see, so I didn’t think I would get bored and run out of interesting places to visit.”
To help her navigate her expeditions and find places to visit within 30 miles of dog shows, she relied on an app called Road Trippers. “If I saw a dog show in Albuquerque, I’d use the app to find the best route and nearby attractions,” says Donna. “It helped me find Arches National Park, in Grand County, Utah, which I had never known about.”
Once she hit the road, she felt safe traveling with her big black, fawn, and mahogany dog. At night in their hotel rooms, Branson, in perfect watchdog mode, took up the guard position and slept by the door.
“We were always a team before we set out, but, at every stop, our bond became even stronger as we relied on each other,” remembers Donna.
Along their travels, the pair encountered all types of new and extreme weather conditions, including dense fog and balls of hail. Mostly, Branson handled all the travel like a champ, although he didn’t care for the torrential rainstorms, thunder, and lightning rattling the car. When the duo encountered high winds en route from Montana to Nevada, the dog shook with fear.
“With ice on the windshield, it was frightening and I didn’t know what to do. But when I saw other drivers on the road in their four-wheel vehicles act like this was their regular commute, I knew we would be OK.”
Belting out the theme song from Rocky helped soothe the two travelers. “Several times I repeated to myself, ‘you got this girl.'”
Adventures in Wonderland
In addition to dealing with erratic weather conditions, the exhibitor survived other surprising and hair-raising episodes.
On the way to a dog-show circuit in Colorado, Donna navigated switchback roads along the state’s high elevations that tested her confidence. “I understand now why a lot of tourists drive in the middle of the lanes, but I was grateful that Branson never got car sick,” says Donna.
Sometimes after completing an especially harrowing ride, Donna and Branson would arrive at a show only to pick up the only armband for Belgian Tervurens. “We showed anyway and at least left with a ribbon.”
Ever cautious as a single woman traveling with a dog, the times when she ran out of cell phone reception posed an additional concern. “I tried to let people know ahead of time so they wouldn’t worry, but that wasn’t always possible.”
The scariest moment came in May 2018, while Donna and Branson were at the Coronado Kennel Club of New Mexico dog show at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds in Albuquerque. “I read on Facebook there were two active shooters at the show grounds, which freaked me out,” she says. The show went on “lockdown,” and, for 30 minutes, all activity stopped. “My friends knew I was there and sent me tons of messages asking if I was OK. Luckily, the police apprehended the criminals and everyone was safe.”
Ribbons and Souvenirs
Dog-show wise, Branson ended his two years of dog shows in the number two, all-breed spot for Belgian Tervurens. In the souvenir department, Donna treasures the massive poster of an oversize baked potato with sour cream on top that she picked up at the Potato Museum, built in 1912, in downtown Blackfoot, Idaho.
Her favorite spot of all? “At Four Corners Monument, which is the only place in the United States where four states intersect: Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. I had to take a picture of Branson standing in the little circle tied to every state,” recalls Donna.
Now, when she looks at the three sandstone paintings and a feathered bow and arrow hanging on her wall from that day the mementos bring back a flood of feel-good memories. “So many people took Branson’s picture, too, and he was quite the star.”
Memorializing the Journey
The pair walked the streets of Tombstone, Arizona, followed the path up to Arches National Park, and oohed and aahed through Zion National Park in Utah. Owner and canine dipped their toes and watched migratory birds in the Great Salt Lake National Park, inhaled the fragrance of the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in Mount Vernon, Washington, and, in 2018, celebrated the Year of the Snoopy Dog at the Charles Schultz Museum in Santa Rosa, California.
“To memorialize our journey, I created The Adventures of Branson calendars for 2017 and 2018,” says Donna. “Every month he’s standing in a different spot on our trip.”
For the breeder-owner-handler, one message is always on her mind: Life is short and so never put off doing things on your bucket list. “We always put off seeing the United States, and although I’m sad that Douglas couldn’t do it with me, at least I did it for both of us.”
|Ready to go on your own road trip? Here’s what you need to know:
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