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Omaha Magazine

The Beautiful Road Trip: One Man’s Cross-Country Journey Becomes A Novel Idea

Apr 20, 2020 01:26PM ● By Andrew J. Nelson

Photography by Amanda Hoeneman and Rob Kugler; Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

Rob Kugler had suffered a lot of tragedy in his life by 2015.

He was recently divorced. His grandmother died. His sister died. His brother was killed in Iraq. His own deployment with the U.S. Marine Corps had been difficult for his family. 

Then, he discovered devastating news about his dog from a veterinarian. His chocolate Lab, Bella, had been a great comfort through much of that, essentially becoming his best friend.

So when the veterinarian told Rob that 8 ½ year old Bella was suffering from bone cancer and would either need to be put down or have her front-left leg amputated, Kugler could barely contemplate life without her. But he had to. Because amputating the leg would only buy a few more months.

Kugler, now 37, opted for surgery. When it was done, he and Bella hit the road.

Kugler chronicled the tale of their cross-country travels in A Dog Named Beautiful: A Marine, a Dog, and a Long Road Trip Home, published in 2019 by Flatiron Books.

Forbes named it one of the top seven travel books of the summer. In July, Kugler was interviewed by Willie Geist and Jenna Bush Hager on the Today Show.

Kugler spent most of his early years in Broken Bow, Nebraska, where he lived with his mom after his parents divorced. Upon graduating high school, he joined the Marine Reserve unit in Omaha on the encouragement of his older brother, Mike Doheny.

In 2007, he was alerted for deployment to Iraq. Before he left, he and his then-girlfriend got Bella as a puppy.

While Kugler was in-country, Doheny wasn’t far away, working as a contractor in Iraq. He was killed when his convoy was hit with an improvised explosive device. Kugler came home for the funeral and returned to finish his tour. He left the Marines after returning to Nebraska in 2008. 

“When Mike died, he left a letter with me that told me to chase my dreams,” he said. “So I did.”

Kugler had long wanted to become an actor. So he and his new wife moved to Los Angeles.

He took improv classes at The Groundlings Theatre & School. He started getting small roles and money started to trickle in. But friends were hard to make, especially when he would often end up auditioning against them.

Bella and Kugler grew close in LA. When Kugler was about to say something, Bella would look at him and tilt her head and wait for him to speak.

“She was very in tune with me,” he said. “She was, for all intents and purposes, my therapy dog.”

The California life wasn’t for Kugler’s then-wife. She wanted to move back to Nebraska. Kugler did not. The couple divorced. Kugler got the dog.

“I split my family up just to chase a dream, which may have been the dream of a kid…who didn’t want the life of the actors, but wanted the life of the characters,” he said.

Kugler moved back to Lincoln in 2014. 

Bella developed a noticeable limp the following year. The veterinarian treated it as a muscular injury. But when it didn’t heal, Kugler took his dog to another veterinarian, who took X-rays, and informed him Bella had cancer.

It had spread to her lungs. Taking the leg would relieve her of much of the pain, but also only give her three to six months. 

It wasn’t an easy decision, but Kugler described it as the best he ever made. After the surgery, Bella simply hopped out of the vet’s office as if it wasn’t much of a problem. 

Once he confirmed she was healthy enough to travel, Kugler decided to embark on a road trip with Bella. The idea was to hit all 50 states–or as many as possible before she passed.

“My brother died while serving this country and I wanted to explore it,” he said. “I wanted to do it with my best friend while she was still there.”

So they set off in Kugler’s black 2003 Toyota 4-Runner, nicknamed Ruthie the Runner.

 The first stop was Chicago, where he witnessed the protests of Laquan McDonald’s death.

Then Detroit, with its blighted areas and dilapidated storefronts. 

Kugler likened his experiences to those of Forrest Gump.

“I saw a much different narrative in person, traveling the country, than I saw on the news,” he said. “People with different views still treated each other well.”

They traveled to Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie in Ohio and Arcadia National Park in Maine, where they saw the first sunrise of 2016. 

“We watched as many sunrises and as many sunsets as we could together,” he said. “It’s just really weird how that can connect you with the earth.”

Knowing Bella’s diagnosis was terminal was a real gift, Kugler said. Such knowledge forces you to focus on the relationship because time is limited. 

On a hike in the Adirondacks, Kugler saw how tough Bella was, and how she had learned to cope with only three legs.

“One of the most beautiful things about this was watching her make the decisions on how she was going to make it up (Bald Mountain)…It just kind of drew me into another level of her intelligence.”

They hiked to the very top, where Bella rested, her head on Kugler’s lap. “We just sat there and looked at the trees and the clouds rolling over.”

They went down to the Florida Keys and swam in the ocean. Bella once hopped out of a pond to escape an alligator. 

It was in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, among bison and wild mustangs, that Kugler noticed a growing bump on Bella’s gums. In Loveland, Colorado, he took her to a veterinary clinic and learned that the cancer had spread to her mouth, was eating away at her gums, and beginning to shut down her lungs.

On Oct. 28, 2016, he held Bella as the vet euthanized her. She lived 18 months after her diagnosis–much longer than anticipated.

Kugler has spread her ashes in some of their favorite places, and at locales he had still planned to visit with Bella. He packed a pinch of her ashes inside a snowball and hurled it over the Grand Canyon. 

Kugler now lives in a rented cottage near Hood River, Oregon, with his life partner Kristen Beatty. They have two rescue border collies, Max and Jasper, as well as “a little mutt named Ginger,” who was rescued from a trash can in a lakeside town outside of Guadalajara, Mexico. “Kristen’s mother works with a rescue down there,” he said. “And [she] knew that Ginger would be a fit in our pack and arranged for her to come here and join us in the PNW.” 

The ever-growing crew loves taking road trips when they can afford it. “That’s kind of our jam,” he said. Though things may change a bit when their new addition arrives in July—a baby girl, who is due on Kugler’s birthday.

“If there is something that is tugging at you…if you are always thinking that you should be doing some other thing, maybe it’s worth figuring out why,” Kugler said. “You may be able to find yourself if you just go for it.”

In a follow-up email, Kugler added a note to those reading the story:

Thank you to everyone who took the time to read this article. It’s an honor to be featured in such a great publication in my home state of Nebraska. I always feel fortunate for the opportunity to answer questions when being interviewed by writers, but I often request a chance to send in a bit of writing myself, as my spoken words can often be rushed or jumbled. Especially when that question is ‘If there is one message that you’d like to send to readers from your and Bella’s story, what would that be?’ With so many experiences, and countless lessons learned along the way, it’s hard to narrow it down to just one message. So, I let that question ruminate for a while, driving up into the woods with my dogs and looking out over the northwest mountainscape I now call home, and I believe I found the answer that best fits. 

“Do not be paralyzed by the fear [of] death, rather let it be the most influential teacher to understand and embrace the gift that we’ve been given to experience life on this incredible planet. And rather than competing for the acquisition of more things or arguing with our neighbors over whose opinion is correct, cherish every moment we have with those we love and see as much of the natural world as possible.  

Life. As far as we know it, is a rare thing in this universe. It would be a shame if we were always preoccupied acquiring things, too busy fighting with each other, or simply too afraid to actually live it.”

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This article was printed in the May 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.