Starting May 10th, founder and Co-owner of K9 Sport Sack, Joseph Watson, is embarking on the “K9 Sport Sack’s Most Epic Ultimate Summer Road Trip” with his two dogs, Daisy and Penelope. Check back on Instagram and Facebook to see pictures and updates of their adventures in the K9 Sport Sack. This blog has been created because while pictures and captions are fun, this trip has emotional value that cannot be documented with just pictures. This is the first installment in a series of blog posts that will serve as the expanded musings of the travelers as they take their dogs on the trip of a lifetime.
This is what we hear at K9 Sport Sack:
“I can’t own a dog because it ties me down and I like to be mobile.”
“I can’t go on an outing because then I would have to leave my dog behind.“
“I haven’t been on a vacation in years because I don’t want to send my dog to a kennel or have to leave them in the car while I see the sights.”
“My dog would never be carried around like that.”
“I’m not even sure where dogs are allowed to go these days.”
We are going to get rid of all the excuses and answer all of the questions. It has been proven that canine companionship elevates health and well-being and we are out to prove that constant canine companionship will increase that substantially without being a burden on your mobility or social life.
My Dad is eccentric. Not fully crazy, at least I don’t think so, but there would have to be some sort of abnormality to drive a man to do what he has done over the last 25 years.
From 1984 to 1999 Mark Watson was an introverted chiropractor in the tiny, sleepy town of Franklin, North Carolina. There just weren’t a whole lot of clients and those he did have often paid him in fish or jam or honey or whatever that particular, humble southern patient had to offer in exchange for relief. With a small clientele and nine children to feed and clothe, he worked incredibly hard and money was still tight. Dad always liked to work for himself and even as a little boy I would hear him talking about ideas that would change the world if the right person got ahold of them.
He had his own idea for sure and he started talking about it the year I was born (1984), however, it wasn’t until Marybel came into his office that he finally lost his mind enough to do it. Marybel was from New Jersey but my open-minded Southern parents taught us not to hold that against anyone…but my goodness was that accent strange to a little boy from the woods.
She was wearing a muumuu. If you don’t know what that is, a quick Google search will show you that it is a roomy, shapeless sort of a dress with a function geared more toward comfort than aesthetics. Dad had a process: shake a person’s bones out in a way that sounded like crunching potato chips, work out any knots he felt in the back and neck area and finally place two electric pads on the affected area that constricted and released the muscles to strengthen them against future injury.
As she lay face down on the table Dad held the two electric paddles in his hands, looked at the neckline of the corpulent woman’s tent-dress and realized that there was no room to stuff his arm down the collar as he did with other patients. He explained, “ok now Marybel, to place these pads on your back I have to go in from the bottom up”, indicating the bottom hem of her moomoo. As he lifted her dress she said, “that’s foine doctah but you should know, I don’t weah no undaweahs” just in time to reveal two of the tannest buttocks he had ever seen in his life.
He would later say, “I had two thoughts cross my mind almost simultaneously. One was ‘what must this woman go through to get her cheeks so incredibly tan?’ and the other was, ‘I don’t want to touch people anymore.’”
That was it. He had snapped. He drove down to Walmart and bought a hand-held micro cassette recorder and drove off across the United States recording every single business that was within a mile of every exit on every interstate in the continental United States.
When I describe this herculean feat to people they stare blankly back at me with pasted on smiles blinking slowly as they try to comprehend the magnitude of what they just heard. “Every exit? Every interstate?” I hear this over and over and while the years have somewhat dulled the shock value for those of us who watched it performed, there are still occasions when I find myself in awe when I picture a mental map of every place that my dad has been.
Perhaps I should be the most in awe. Perhaps I shouldn’t be in awe at all. After all, there are very few people who have ridden more miles with my dad than me.
It was seven years before my dad was able to print his first edition and 12 years before he started talking about retiring from his practice and operating “The Next EXIT” full time. Yep. For seven years my dad drove thousands of miles gathering the necessary information in the hopes of compiling it into a book. He would then bring home a box of micro cassette tapes and transcribe that verbal information onto an ancient Apple computer in a linear, cohesive, easy to read fashion. It did not take long to understand the scope of this insane project especially considering that businesses come and go all the time and new interstates are built every year rendering the information he had just gathered obsolete within months.
All of this was while maintaining a full-time chiropractic office. Furthermore, I never remember him missing a baseball game or a school play (and each of my eight siblings report the same) and wonder how in the world he was so many places at once.
My dad is not a great salesman, marketer or even a really good businessman but somehow in 1991 he managed to put his x-ray machine up for collateral, get a small loan for a production run, snag a few notable accounts and turn a profit; all in year one. By the end of year two my dad was no longer cracking the bones of tan-bummed women wearing giant pillowcases.
Half of my bedroom became Dad’s office and the sound of his transcribing pedal could be heard deep into the night through the wall. We were still financially challenged but we could tell something cool was happening.
At some point during my eighth grade year my parents decided that they wanted to move from North Carolina. They had no idea how or when but they sure did talk about it a lot. I was about to enter the ninth grade when they decided they didn’t want to have to pull me out of school in the event that they moved halfway though the year. I was to be homeschooled which would kick off the coolest school year ever.
It could not have been very deep into the “semester” when my dad exited his “office” and announced, “I have to take a trip. I may be gone a month or so. Does anyone want to go with me?” I was already terrible at being homeschooled and looking back I am sure I saw this as a fantastic way to avoid learning anything so I enthusiastically packed up my stuff and got in the van.
There are only a few cars in the world large enough to accommodate a family of eleven on the budget of a boondock chiropractor but we had one with character to spare. She was a diesel fuel Chevy Beauville with a quintessential 1980’s feel about her; maroon interior, fake wooden steering wheel and all. There were two bucket seats up front for the driver and shotgun rider followed by three bench seats which, when everyone was belted in properly (which we never were), would seat three passengers. The best part though, was the six feet of empty cargo space behind the last bench that served as a nap room for the little kids in the less seat belt safety minded 80’s. It was basically the perfect home for a nomadic teenager and his eccentric father.
That first trip was one of three we took that school year, each one totaling about a month. Some of it was indeed boring; drive off the exit, record all the services, drive back on the freeway. In densely populated areas it would sometimes take days to do a few dozen exits. On rural stretches we would breeze through. I think we may have done the whole state of Kansas in a few hours. One thing was for sure, I did not understand or appreciate the magnitude of the adventure that I was on.
At Macon Middle School one’s popularity was intrinsically tied to shoes. Have cool shoes? You’re popular. Uncool shoes? Might as well not even show up. I was no exception. I knew that at some point I was going back to public school and I had my eyes out for a pair of shoes that was finally going to get me into the cool crowd for sure. I do not remember when or how it happened but at some point on that very first trip my dad introduced me to a holy place called an “Outlet Mall” and suddenly we were at cross purposes. My dad’s goal was to keep the wheels turning so he could gather his information and get home to his wife and horde of children and my goal was to stop at every outlet mall on every interstate in the galaxy.
The pattern became automatic.
I am not sure why my dad kept taking me on these trips. I would have killed me for being such a whiney little punk. I was out having the adventure of a lifetime and I was spending 40% of my time trying to figure out how to get out of a moving car at 75 MPH so I could get some shoes to impress people the names of whom I no longer remember.
A high school diploma, a B.A, an M.A and half a Ph.D later and that was still the most educational year of my life as we travelled to all 48 contiguous states and talked about everything a 14 year old boy should be talking about with his dad. Girls, Vietnam (where my dad served in the army), choices, growing up, nothing was off the table. I wish that my adolescent brain could have somehow comprehended the singularity of this school year and that I had shown the appropriate appreciation. The lessons came quickly and often and I am sure my dad thought at times he was talking into air. He would be blown away by how often those conversations pop into my head today and have influenced nearly every decision that have led me to this point.
One that deserves mention: We had travelled about 300 miles that day and the sun was going down in front of us which means that we were headed west (away from home) and still had hours to go before we parked in a Walmart parking lot and crashed in the back for a few hours. “Son” my dad started in, “one day, this business is going to make some real money. Throughout your life you are going to tell people what I do for a living and they are going to respond, ‘well, didn’t Old Man Watson strike it lucky!’ I want you to explain to them just how ‘lucky’ we have been, mile after mile, exit after exit.” The lesson was easy to catch, even for a 14 year old; that luck is created and grown through an insane amount of work.
Many people are already familiar with the story but in 2010 my wife and I found a dog in a dumpster and accidentally started a business around an idea to take her with us on bike rides and hikes that were hard for a little dog. We named her Dumpster Daisy and she has been one of the best things that has ever happened to us.
In 2017 we adopted a second dog that was rescued from a fate as a bait dog for a dog fighting ring that was broken up by Las Vegas police. My little girls named her Penelope before we got her home. These little dogs are a part of me.
We called the business “K9 Sport Sack” and it was the very first forward facing backpack dog carrier in the world. The origin story has been told many times elsewhere and can be found on the front page of k9sportsack.com so in the interest of brevity I will just say, while the birth of the company may have been an accident, getting to this point took intense, almost maniacal focus.
I will give one example although this is simply one occasion in the midst of many just like it.
By 2015 the popularity of the K9 Sport Sack was growing rapidly so we sent it overseas to be manufactured en masse after having small quantities produced in the U.S as funds provided. We had poured our own money into the first few US produced orders and had saved up just enough to order the bare minimum of 3000 bags from an international manufacturer that would allow us to order that few. We had no experience with international manufacturing and had never heard of the quality control measures that we currently implement.
Our first bulk shipment arrived and we eagerly tore open the boxes of shiny, new K9 Sport Sacks all neatly wrapped in plastic and smelling like new fabric. We had severely underestimated the amount of time it would take for this shipment to arrive and we had several hundred backorders that had been waiting for weeks. We quickly stuffed the carriers into USPS envelopes and threw them in the mail.
Within a week we began receiving feedback that the shoulder straps were fraying where they connected to the body of the bag.
We were horrified and went into full-blown panic mode. The samples they had sent us had withstood every test we had thrown at them. The design was the same as it had always been so what was the problem? We pulled out a production model and the original samples and compared them. The material seemed to be the same, however, the shoulder straps on a regular backpack attach at the top which only requires a few stitches to ensure the necessary strength. Because the K9 Sport Sack is designed to allow the dog to look over a shoulder the straps attach at a lower juncture between two strange flaps of fabric that requires additional stitching. Stitching that the new designers had overlooked.
We were lost. We had orders rolling in and no inventory. As I sat there pondering the future of the K9 Sport Sack I heard in my head, “I want you to explain to them just how lucky we’ve been, mile after mile, exit after exit.”
I knew what to do.
We had an old Bernina sewing machine and we busted it out, dusted it off and began sewing the tops of the straps so securely they would have held a Doberman. I had a full time job as a counselor for international exchange students which required that I come home at 5:00, have dinner, put the kids to bed and sit down in front of that Bernina until I could no longer see from blurry vision. Each bag took me 10 minutes and with 3000 bags to go, that was a lot of minutes in front of that machine. Over and over I saw my dad sitting in front of his stone age computer listening to his own voice so he could get all the information correct that he had gathered mile after mile, exit after exit. The complaints about fraying straps stopped immediately.
It was bad luck, a moment where we could have folded up, gone home and said it was too much to overcome. Instead, I heard my dad’s voice echoing through my head and we decided to make our own luck. How would I have reacted without those miles under my 14 year old belt?
The K9 Sport Sack is now made in three models (and counting), is sold in over 90 countries and has helped dog owners all over the world take their dogs on outings that were previously impossible. The design of the carrier has evolved to make it sturdy enough to boast an absurdly low defect rate. It is now a full-time job for many people, myself included although I no longer sit down and inspect every bag. The reason for the current level of quality? In addition to a team of quality assurance professionals we quickly learned to employ, I am familiar with every stitch on the K9 Sport Sack, an unintended and indispensable resource gained from countless hours spent in front of a sewing machine.
It has been almost 20 years since my dad and I pulled into the driveway for the last time after one of our long treks. The old man is rounding the corner to 70 and although he is still a young man who continues to run The Next Exit, he doesn’t travel like he used to and spends much of his time taking care of my ailing grandmother between trips that once energized him but now seem to tire him out. I have three kids, a full-time business and church and community responsibilities that have consumed all my time and have made my life blur past very quickly.
I would give anything to have one last ride with my dad.
To prove to him that I learned that my popularity doesn’t come from my feet. To show him how those lessons have swirled through the very fabric of who I am and have led me to this amazing point in my life. To gain redemption for every sulking episode but more importantly to show the gratitude for that which I did not fully understand two decades ago.
A few weeks ago Daisy, Penelope and I were presented with an indispensable opportunity that will require us to travel to New York City on May 17th. Sure we could have flown; but the allure of a cross-country trip, taking my two little dogs on the adventure of a lifetime, was too much to pass up.
I needed advice on the route to take, the time required etc. So, I called the man who knows more about that than anyone on the planet.
Turns out, my dad needs to do a few exits on that same interstate and he will just happen to be within a few hours of my house the day I plan to leave. His exact words, “what the heck? I might as well just go with you...”