Story ideas are like dogs nipping at your heels…

In February I was flying to Geneva from San Francisco to teach a workshop at the Geneva Writers’ Conference. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, sitting in an aisle seat in the center row of a Boeing 777, with three vacant seats between me and the nearest passenger in the other aisle seat. The flight to Frankfurt, all eleven hours of it, was going to be a pleasure. Just two weeks earlier I’d made the arduous trip from Melbourne, Australia to San Francisco via Auckland, New Zealand and L.A. with my wife and two daughters (four years old, and 18 months). Anyone who has traveled with children knows how taxing flights of this duration can be. But today I was alone, with no one to care for, nothing to do but whatever was my whim. I could read any of the dozen books I had with me, eat my meals in peace, enjoy a glass of wine, or a martini, without guilt; I could sleep without worrying that someone needed a book read to them, help drawing a picture, or a diaper changed. In short, I was free to pass the time in peace, getting a rare stretch of time to read, write, reflect, or vegetate.

I glanced at the man sitting four seats away and we shared knowing looks. We made an unspoken agreement about territory. The seat next to me was mine, the one next to him was his, and the middle seat we would share as we both began to spread out our belongings. We each removed our shoes and placed them in our respective territories beneath the seat in front of the middle seat, then sat back and got comfortable.

A moment later I thought I saw movement out the corner of my eye down by my shoes, but when I looked there was nothing. Another moment passed and again I thought I saw something, but no. I opened a book and began to read and again it happened. I began to think I was hallucinating. But the fourth time I noticed movement I looked and sure enough, something was there: a furry snout poked out from beneath the seat and then withdrew. What on earth was that? I leaned over to get a better look and the snout reappeared, this time followed by eyes, ears, and the full head of a dog. A dog! Beneath the seat! On the airplane!

Had I been sitting in a café this wouldn’t even have registered, but on an airplane? I was so startled I wondered if in fact I really was hallucinating. But when the dog reached out its paws and clawed its way over my shoes, into my row, my territory, I knew it was real. I leaned forward and tapped the shoulder of the only person sitting in the row ahead, a young woman.

“Excuse me, but it seems there’s a dog back here. Is it yours?”

A friendly face turned toward me. “What? Oh!” Comprehension. She looked beneath her seat and began tugging on the leash, and with some effort succeeded in dragging the dog back to her row.

“I was wondering what was so interesting to him under there,” she said, smiling innocently. “You know, I don’t really like to buy men’s shoes, I prefer to buy women’s shoes. I’d hate to see him make a chew toy out of one of those. Would you mind moving your shoes?”

Her request was more startling than the appearance of that snout beneath the seat. She was sitting alone in a row of five seats, with five seats in front of her beneath any of which she could stow her dog for the next eleven hours. And she was asking if I would move my shoes. I was silent for the briefest of moments while turning over in my mind the best response. There were so many, one of which was “You must be joking. Move your dog!” But finally, I said, “Sure. OK.”

I moved them under the seat next to me, then sat back and marveled at this odd turn of events. And suddenly a whole landscape of story possibilities arose before me. This incident would be the perfect lead for an article about airline pet policy, and all I had to do for great detail was observe where and how the woman “walked her dog” during the flight. Or it would be a great lead for an essay on cultural differences, on European sensibilities and American approaches to the simplest things. Or an opening to a series of odd encounters in my travels throughout the world. Or the springboard to recounting a misadventure that this incident triggered in my mind. Or even, at its simplest, the beginning of an examination of my response to this unlikely request, and what my reactions told me about myself, my state of mind, my openness on the road, my ability to engage serendipity or flow with the currents that travel sends my way.

I haven’t decided yet. For now, it’s a lead that could go in many directions, an anecdote to tell my friends, full of possibilities only because a dog began to nip at my heels.

About Larry’s Corner:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on and on As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.