It’s Utah, it’s winter, and it’s cold. Three weeks in the snow — that’s a record for this California girl. Something about this wintry landscape makes neon signs seem warmer and more welcoming than they already are. For weary travelers like me, signs like these are roadside beacons in hues of warm red, bright yellow and electric blue. Almost every little motel in every little town along Highway 89 has one, and each glows with an authenticity that makes me daydream about living a quiet life among broken-down cars and dilapidated buildings in some tiny Western town. (Preferably one that’s not as cold as southern Utah in February.)

—Jill

Photos by Scott Dunn

When entering an unfamiliar situation or a work environment that isn’t suited to my skill set, I find blunt candor is the best policy. It lowers expectations, eases nerves, breaks the proverbial ice. So when I walked into volunteer orientation at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary (10 minutes late), I laid it on the line for the tall woman who shook my proffered hand.

“Listen,” I said, easing into a grin I imagined to be sheepish, “I’m going to be the worst volunteer y’all have ever had.”

My salutary declaration was part candor, part joke. But the last part didn’t seem to register.

“Why is that?” the tall woman asked, unsmiling. She had Upper West Side style and finishing-school posture, both of which took me aback. After touring the sanctuary a day earlier, my snap impression was that an Avon salesperson would go hungry in this place; every woman I encountered wore high-waisted jeans and a cat sweatshirt, and their most stylish accessory was a belt-loop key chain. Now, here I stood, in front of Best Friend’s answer to Carol Alt or Wendie Malick. She was not whom I expected, and she was intimidating.

“Um, well, I haven’t spent much time around cats,” I said. “I’ve never even cleaned a litter box. I’m not even sure how a litter box works.”

“That won’t be a problem,” the tall woman said. “Litter boxes are cleaned during the morning volunteer session. The afternoon session, which you’ll be taking part in, mostly involves socialization.”

I nodded, signaling solemn understanding if not outright regret. On the inside, however, I figuratively pumped a fist like Tiger Woods after sinking an eagle putt (or scoring the phone number of a Vegas cocktail waitress, whichever you prefer). No kitty litter for me.

What’s $39 million between Friends?

Volunteer orientation at Best Friends did not take as long as I expected. It consisted of reading a few laminated sheets about the sanctuary’s rules and then signing a legal waiver stating that I understood I might be clawed, bitten, kicked, gored, trampled, pooped on or exposed to zoonotic disease during my four-hour volunteer session, and that I promised not to hold Best Friends Animal Sanctuary responsible for any bodily harm I might suffer.

Following orientation I had more than an hour to kill before my expedition to “Cat World” commenced. The tall woman suggested I visit the sanctuary’s vegetarian cafeteria, but I figured a burger in town might better satisfy my carnivorous tendencies. Jill had dropped me off earlier, so I unpocketed my phone to request an impromptu lunch date. One problem: There is no cell service in Angel Canyon. So I walked to the Welcome Center reception desk, which was manned by the woman who escorted Jill and me on the tour a day earlier. “Do you mind if I use your phone?” I asked.

“Is it a local call?”

“Actually, no. It would be to my wife’s cell, which is a Phoenix number.”

“I’m sorry. We only allow local calls. But you can get cell service at the mouth of the canyon. It’s a short drive.”

“I’m kind of on foot.”

“It’ll take you about 15 minutes then.”

I briefly considered telling the receptionist my call was an emergency — that in my shirt pocket was a critically ill mouse that needed an immediate blood transfusion. But, heck, it was a sunny day and I like to walk.

The stroll through the snow-encrusted canyon was pleasant, made more so by all the friendly motorists who passed by. Each one drove at a respectfully slow speed and offered me a wave — just like back home in Tennessee. Unlike back home, however, most of these motorists drove Suburu Foresters adorned with “Coexist” and “Peace Monger” bumper stickers rather than F-150s with decals championing SEC football teams and the National Rifle Association.

Best Friends employees have reason to be cheerful. Most do work they are sincerely passionate about in a beautiful southern Utah setting. The sanctuary’s human inhabitants include veterinarians, trainers, landscapers, accountants, marketing managers, corporate-relations specialists, and a communications staff that produces a 200,000-circulation magazine.

And all appear to be generously funded.

According to Best Friends’ most recent annual report, the sanctuary’s total revenue in 2008 was $39 million — nearly $36 million of it in the form of monetary donations. I was floored by that figure, so I did a little online digging to see how the sanctuary’s revenues compare to those of charities for neglected children. If you’re keeping score at home, Best Friends annually receives twice as much public support as the Orphan Foundation of America and about $10 million more than the Children’s Defense Fund.

These days I have less money than time, so the latter is what I donated to Best Friends’ cause — although “donated” might be too generous a term in my case, considering Jill coerced me into servitude at the sanctuary’s cat shelter in the name of our dastardly, kitty-mauling dog.

91 special-needs cats, 1 special-needs volunteer

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary provides shelter to more than 700 cats. They live in groups within several different houses. My volunteer services were employed at Benton’s House, where most of the 91 inhabitants have long-term medical conditions that require special diets or treatment. There are blind cats, one-eyed cats, three-legged cats, two-legged cats, incontinent cats, cats with spinal injuries, cats with neurological disorders, cats with birth defects.

I arrived at Benton’s House with a paper bag containing a book, a camera and package of beef jerky. Like a kid facing his first day at a new school, I was a little nervous.

If you tabulated all the minutes I’ve spent around cats in my 38 years, the sum would fall far short of four hours. If you tabulated all the cats I’ve met in my life, the sum would not amount to 91. I admitted these facts to Judy, who manages Benton’s House. Thankfully, her calm and confident demeanor put me at ease. Judy escorted me into each of the house’s five rooms and introduced me to every cat that took note of my presence. She seemed to know all 91 by name.

Judy is obviously attuned to anxiety in mammals and recognizes a “dog guy” when she sees one. “We have a cat who likes to go on walks,” she told me. “Would you like to take him outside?” I surveyed the cabal of incontinent felines before me, then I gazed out the window; the sun shone through juniper trees weighted with crystalline snow. “I’d love to,” I said.

Within minutes Judy had harnessed up a fluffy gray cat named Kit Kat and handed me his leash. “Have fun,” she said. “If you’re gone more than an hour, we’ll send a search party.”

The weirdness of walking a cat on a leash is difficult for me to express in words. It became immediately apparent that Kit Kat, oblivious to my own inertia or gentle tugs of the leash, regarded me not as companion or master, but merely faceless resistance at the end of 5 feet of braided nylon. He wandered, I followed; he stopped, I waited; he looked around, I looked at my watch.

A car passed, and Kit Kat freaked out, leaping and spinning, his snake-like green eyes crazed. The car’s driver raised her hand in an awkward wave. I waved back, a little too late.

Try as I might, I could not get Kit Kat to follow my lead. Granted, I did not try with much might. While the vibe at Best Friends is hippyish and communal, I got the feeling that, were I to yank too hard on Kit Kat’s leash, dozens of women in high-waisted jeans and kitty sweatshirts would leap from behind juniper trees and Tazer me.

Kit Kat eventually wandered toward the outdoor enclosure of another Cat World house. (The rooms in each house connect to open-air pens where cats can explore a playground of ramps and ladders, paw at toys that litter the floor or hide in the rafters.) A middle-aged woman loitered among the cats in this particular enclosure. She wore a red sweatshirt with a Tabby on it.

“Are you walking him, or is he walking you?” she asked cheerfully.

“He’s definitely walking me,” I replied. Never has this cliché exchange between pet owners rung with more truth.

A few moments of chitchat revealed that the woman (whom I’ll refer to as “Sarah” because I cannot recall her name) was from California and had recently joined Best Friends’ staff after serving as a volunteer for nine consecutive summers. She and her husband picked up and moved from San Francisco to tiny Kanab to devote their twilight years to the sanctuary. It was their dream.

This was a trend. Every employee I spoke to at Best Friends was from somewhere else, and most had originally come to the sanctuary to volunteer. The statuesque woman from orientation? A lawyer from Boston. Judy’s assistant at Benton’s House? A dental technician from New Jersey. A dog trainer I met during the previous day’s tour? A middle-school teacher from North Carolina.

Sarah told me tales about Wall Street day traders and Silicon Valley software engineers who had walked away from successful careers to pursue jobs at Best Friends. Baptists like me might describe that sort of life decision as “answering a call from God,” and indeed there seems to be a deep vein of orthodoxy snaking through Angel Canyon. I would not be shocked if some of the sanctuary’s Suburu-driving, sweatshirt-wearing devotees kneel at night before a statue of an Egyptian cat goddess.

As I chatted with Sarah, a car approached. I pulled Kit Kat close, but he still freaked out, whirling in his harness, scared as hell.

“You know, you can pick him up,” Sarah pointed out.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” I said, and it was true.

A totally different animal

After Kit Kat and I returned to Benton’s House, I helped Judy and her assistant clear and clean dozens of stainless-steel food bowls. Judy must have noticed me standing around dumbly after this task was done, because she handed me a toy — a laser pointer encased in a blue plastic mouse.

“Some of the cats really love this,” she said, pressing a button that projected a luminous red dot onto the floor. A cat immediately pounced on it. “Just don’t shine it in their eyes.”

It occurred to me that the laser toy, like the cat on a leash, was meant to occupy my time as much as the cats’. She’s a shrewd one, that Judy. Nonetheless, I found a few cats — including a frisky one with paralyzed hind legs — that were entranced by the red dot, and I proceeded to engage them in a YouTube-worthy jitterbug. This continued until all parties involved grew bored with the affair.

When about an hour remained in my volunteer session, I asked Judy if it would be OK for me to find a quiet place to read amongst the cats. She encouraged it.

“If you want, you can read out loud,” she said. “They respond to that.”

There are some things in life you just don’t do because your granddad’s in heaven and he might be watching. Reading aloud to cats is one of them. (Come to think of it, walking a cat on a leash is, too, but that ship had done sailed.) Just the same, I fetched my book and found a sunny spot in one of the outdoor enclosures. Almost immediately a cat leaped into my lap. It was jet black, and a cartoonish snaggletooth jutted from its lower lip.

In each room at Benton’s House hangs a bulletin board covered with headshots of the cats that reside there. A name accompanies each photo, and this is how staffers and volunteers tell all the whiskered tenants apart. For most of the day I had ignored the bulletin boards, choosing instead to refer to every cat as “kitty.” But I was suddenly curious about Snaggletooth’s actual name, so I rose from the chair, cradled him in the crook of my arm, and walked to the bulletin board.

It didn’t take long to locate Snaggletooth’s unmistakable face, and below it his real name: “Scott.”

I would like to tell you that I felt a special bond with snaggletoothed Scott. That I read aloud to him while stroking his jet-black fur. That we shared more than just a name. That, ultimately, he and the other 90 cats in Benton’s House altered my view of the feline world. But I just wouldn’t be telling the truth.

To revert back to blunt candor, for most of my four hours at Cat World I was kind of bored. Don’t get me wrong: I know cats are wonderful companions, and I realize they provide immeasurable amounts of joy and inspiration to folks like Judy and so many disenchanted stock brokers who spurn Wall Street for the simple pleasures of cleaning vomit off linoleum floors in rural Utah.

The problem isn’t cats — it’s me. As I pet owner (and, if we’re being completely candid, as a husband and a brother and a son) I require adoration. My dogs live to please me. Not only do they accompany me on walks and sit with me when I read, but they dutifully follow me across rocky chasms and swim through waterfalls in my wake. Even when Isabel grossly misbehaves, chasing down a cat and returning with it in her smiling mouth, it is for me. Look how I have honored you!

Cats? Of the 91 I encountered at Best Friends, half of them didn’t even acknowledge me. Several more simply scurried away, unnerved by my presence. How many of them, I wonder, would loyally and joyfully join me on a yearlong road trip, braving snowdrifts and cheap motels and Jill’s seemingly endless catalogue of Ani DiFranco songs?

One day, when I retire to the country, I’d like to keep a few cats around — maybe some rough-and-tumble mousers that could hold their own in the company of dogs like Isabel. But house cats, for my taste, are just … pleasant. And pleasant isn’t enough, in life or in pets.

I now open the floor for angry comments from cat-loving friends and family, albeit with one caveat: For every such comment you leave, I ask that you make a small donation to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Or, perhaps, the Orphan Foundation of America. Both are worthy causes.

—Scott

It’s time for a confession. A couple of them.

Since Jill and I are traveling around the country in the company of our mutts, you might fairly assume that we are doting, softhearted “dog people.” But that’s not exactly the case.

I don’t want to speak too candidly on behalf of Jill, whose heart is much bigger and softer that mine, but I think it’s fair to state that our dog love is governed by common sense and a Darwinist view of the animal kingdom. Sure, we are susceptible to bouts fawning and anthropomorphic silliness with Isabel and Jack; but, as a rule, we do not treat dogs like children or extensions of our personalities, and people who do tend to either amuse or annoy us.

Jack

Where I grew up, in the country ’burbs north of Chattanooga, Tenn., dogs lived almost exclusively outdoors and roamed freely, sometimes in packs. They pissed and shat where they pleased, they chased cars, they swam in the lake, they ate chickens, they rolled joyously in manure, and, on occasion, they bit a UPS deliveryman or pesky, barefooted, Slurpee-stained toddler.

If you were tackled in a pile of dog shit during a backyard football game, you hosed off and played on; if your dog turned the neighbor kid’s bunny into a pile of blood and fluff, you rang their doorbell and apologized (and the kid’s parents invariably filled future Easter baskets less animate edibles); if your dog followed you to school, you scolded him in the presence of your disapproving teachers then scratched him behind the ear once you were around the corner.

This world shaped my affection for, and tolerance of, dogkind. And I guess it’s why, despite my and Jill’s residence (until recently) in downtown Phoenix, I prefer that our city dogs retain a streak of country wildness.

Without a doubt, Isabel and Jack are the best-trained dogs I’ve ever owned. They sit, they stay, they heel. They come when called (in Spanish and English) and immediately cease unacceptable behavior at not only the word “no” but angry stares that communicate the same. They do not chew what they’re not supposed to, they do not pee or shit where they’re not supposed to, and they travel with uncanny ease and gusto. I’ve never seen dogs more comfortable in a car, campground or motel room.

Isabel

Still, I cannot bring myself to train the “dog” out our dogs. I don’t mind that they jump on me when I come home from work. I don’t mind that they bark at the mail carrier and pizza guy. And I downright enjoy watching them chase squirrels and rabbits and lizards, zigzagging through a field or across the desert, cornering hard and bounding over obstacles, only to return panting, smiling and bountyless.

Which brings me to my second confession: Isabel doesn’t always return bountyless.

My friend Kreg found this out the hard way. Kreg graciously served as Isabel and Jack’s dog-sitter while Jill and I attended Sundance, and for three days he included them on nightly walks of his own dog, Sadie. Kreg and his family live in a quiet neighborhood where many nearby houses sit on big lots, some with barns and burros. One house on Kreg’s dog-walking route is home to two chunky, friendly Chocolate Labs that roam free.

Kreg’s Utah neighborhood is a lot like my old Tennessee neighborhood, which is why he’s comfortable letting Sadie walk off leash in the snow-shrouded, star-canopied solitude of night. I gave him explicit consent to walk Isabel and Jack off their leashes, too.

For me, this decision was a no-brainer. For Jill, it was grudging compromise.

For the mortified owners of a cat named Elmo, however, it was an unexplainable mistake.

It is not clear which of our dogs sniffed out Elmo, but Isabel’s scratched nose and bloody ear suggest it was she who snared him. In the chaos that followed, poor Kreg was subjected to the wails of terrified children, epithets from their screaming parents and three citations from an officer of the Davis County Animal Control Department.

Unlike two feral felines in the alley behind our Phoenix house, Elmo survived his tangle with Isabel — but not without surgery to repair a ruptured stomach and a lingering stay at the animal hospital. Kreg rightly promised Elmo’s owners that he would cover the cat’s vet bills, but Jill and I balked at that; our mutt did the damage, so we would pay the piper.

The only problem is, Elmo’s vet bill grew bigger each day he remained hospitalized. The crisis threatened to shatter our fragile budget just a month into our trip. When we left town, Elmo was still in the vet’s care. Jill gave the animal hospital our credit card number, and we crossed our fingers.

The “Elmo Situation” dominated our conversation as we drove south, following U.S. 89 past sugary hillsides stubbled with juniper trees and piñon pines. I looked in the rearview mirror to see Isabel sitting upright, her ridiculous pink tongue halfway unfurled.

“You know,” I said, craning my neck to meet her dark-rimmed eyes in the mirror, “things would be a lot simpler if you’d just finished that cat off.”

Jill gets my sense of humor, but she punched me anyway. “Shut your mouth,” she said.

We rode in silence for more than an hour. Then, about five miles north of Kanab, we passed a big sign on the left side of the road. It read: “Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.” And below that: “Tours.”

We know Best Friends Animal Sanctuary by reputation. One of our friends adopted a dog from the sanctuary a few years ago, and another friend is a fervent supporter of its mission. For animal lovers, Best Friends is hallowed ground, a place where unwanted or abused critters — dogs, cats, horses, birds, pigs — peacefully await adoption or live out their lives in a bucolic, high-desert canyon. Its tenants include 22 pit bulls rescued from Michael Vick’s dog-fighting operation.

“Turn around,” Jill said.

“Good idea,” I said, not bothering to slow down. “We can dump Isabel and run.”

“I’m serious. Let’s take the tour.”

And so we did.

The tour of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is free and guided. It takes about an hour and a half, and pets are welcome to come along. Isabel and Jack sat with us in a small theater as we watched a film about the Best Friends Society, then they rode in the backseat of an Econoline van as we explored the backbone of the sanctuary’s 3,800-acre operation.

We learned the sanctuary was founded by a group of friends from Prescott, Ariz., who shared the belief that homeless pets should never be euthanized. So in the early 1980s they pooled their money and purchased a ranch in Kanab Canyon — a locale you might recognize if you’ve ever seen The Outlaw Josey Wales or The Apple Dumpling Gang. These “best friends” renamed their canyon “Angel Canyon” and turned it into a haven for cast-off dogs and cats, and the no-kill shelter grew to be the largest of its kind in the country. These days it is home to about 1,700 animals.

Our guide mentioned that each year 8,000 people visit the sanctuary to volunteer as animal caretakers. This prompted Jill to slap my thigh, hard, which is what she often does when an idea strikes her.

“You should totally volunteer here,” she said.

“What?”

“You should volunteer. With the cats.”

“Cats?”

“Yes. As penance for all Isabel’s sins against them. It would be good karma.”

I love that my wife, with her polyreligious tendencies, can so casually mix Western and Eastern theology. But I wasn’t so sure I liked her idea.

“Karma would be Isabel getting mauled by a mountain lion,” I said. “What do I know about cats?”

“Exactly. You might learn something. Maybe you’d learn to respect them and keep your dog on a leash.”

Jill leaned forward so the guide could hear her over the road rattle. “How do you go about volunteering?” she asked. The guide said it was a simple matter of signing up at the welcome center or placing a phone call.

Jill sat back in her seat and smiled at me. It was her big, toothy, manipulative smile, the one that’s accompanied by theatrically arched eyebrows and a stuck-out tongue. Resistance was futile.

I turned to face Isabel, who was staring out the window with an upturned nose — blithe, arrogant, evil. “I hate you,” I murmured, careful to attract her attention but not the guide’s. “You are the worst dog in the world.”

—Scott

When you don’t have anywhere to be, it’s the perfect time to just stop and be. And we decided to be in Kenab, UT for a few days. During that time we called Quail Park Lodge our home. It’s a classic motor lodge, along Highway 89, that has recently seen some tender loving care. Colorful outdoor rocking chairs, vintage-looking light fixtures, and decor as cute and trendy as an Ikea showroom has replaced fake wood paneling and stodgy furnishings.

The lodge’s neon sign beckoned us off the highway, but its $50 a night rate and open-door policy toward dogs made it a keeper.

Just outside our room was a small patio where Scott cooked us a campground-style lunch and got in some twilight reading.

And as if we didn’t love the place enough, the on-site managers, Jim and Sherri, brought us a bottle of sparkling wine, a pair of plastic flute glasses and battery-powered candles in honor of our honeymoon.

—Jill

One thing I learned while visiting Bryce Canyon National Park is that people have been describing it in print since 1916, when articles about the area appeared in magazines owned by the Santa Fe and Union Pacific railroads. That’s around the same time tourists started driving their automobiles up to the Colorado Plateau to gawk at the park’s gallery of sandstone hoodoos. (A side note: According to a roadside marker on Highway 89, those old cars had to climb the steep road to Bryce Canyon in reverse because their gravity-fed fuel systems couldn’t get gas to the engine the other way around.)

My point is this: Our national parks have been around nearly as long as the combustion engine, and rivers of ink have been devoted to their wonderfulness. Ken Burns alone spent six years filming his 12-hour PBS special about the park system, and a Google search for “national parks” on the Interweb turns up 188 million hits.

Jill and I were discussing this particular reality the other night at the Canyon Lodge, in Panguitch, Utah, as we sipped cheap bourbon from disposable motel cups. After several minutes of semi-serious deliberation, we decided we are not going to kill ourselves trying to out-Burns Ken Burns. Instead, we’re going to treat our visits to national parks like mini-vacations within our “working honeymoon” and document them in travelogue style: with snapshots and narration. (Only our travelogues will be two or three minutes — not two or three hours like the ones my parents attended in the ’70s.)

To be fair to Jill, I should point out that all of the photos contained in the slideshow below were shot in less-than-ideal light (read: not at dawn or dusk), and a few of them were snapped by me using the little Canon PowerShot D10 Jill gave me for Christmas. (It’s snowproof!)

It should also be noted that both of us hate the sound of our own voices. We can only hope that Bryce’s epic beauty outweighs our aural insufferability.

—Scott