“My name is Tillie. I am not a stray. I live next door. Let’s go for a hike.”
The short message on 13-year-old Border Collie mix Tillie’s tag is a quick snippet of what became Tillie the Indian Fort hiking dog’s legacy. Tillie loved the outdoors, and Tillie relished making new friends on the winding trails near her home.
Since 2003, Tillie has been a guide, companion, friend, and confidant for hundreds of hikers on the towering Indian Fort Mountain trails about 35 miles south of the Lexington, Ky., area. Outdoor enthusiasts from all over the country would travel to Kentucky just for a chance to join Tillie on a hike.
And that’s just what Tillie’s fans did last month shortly after it was announced that the best trail guide on four legs had developed a growth inside her bladder and would likely pass within weeks. ABC 36 News described these final hikes as a kind of pilgrimage of people hoping to share one last memory with the dog who really belonged to everyone on the Indian Fort Mountain Trail.
In a 2011 article about Tillie, owners Ron and Bhana Deaver explained how their Border Collie mix became the unofficial trail guide, the dog who would make as many as 10 trips a day up the idyllic mountainside.
How Tillie became a part of the Deaver’s family reads like an act of fate. One evening, 10 years ago, Ron remembers seeing Tillie for the first time. The black-and-white dog was a stray on the wooded campus of Berea College, Ron and Bhana’s alma mater and Ron’s current employer. Near the end of his shift at the college’s Public Safety Department, Ron approached the dog, who was wearing no collar or tags, and spoke to her.
“I was getting off work and said, ‘Would you like to come home with me?’ I put a piece of string around her neck, and she walked right with me and got in the car and came home,” Ron remembers. “She has been here since.”
Bhana was hesitant to take Tillie in at first, but quickly warmed up to the new dog. Bhana explains their family’s dog was hit by a car and killed just the morning before her husband brought Tillie home.
“Tillie just happened,” she said. “We weren’t looking for a new dog, because we’re not people who go out looking for replacement pets.”
It was Tillie’s winning personality and low-key temperament that won Bhana over in the end—and got Tillie started on the trails, happily escorting groups of hikers through the woods and up the East Pinnacle of Indian Fort Mountain.
“Tillie is a very cool dog. She’s so easy-going. She’s the most non-neurotic, low-maintenance dog I’ve ever met,” Bhana says. “Hiking with people, it kind of evolved naturally. She just went out and started doing it.”
“She sees that as her job,” Ron says of Tillie’s trail excursions. “She’s totally dedicated to Indian Fort hiking. There are so many different people who she knows and know her.”
Crystal Wylie, news writer for The Richmond Register, shared her own special memories of Tillie just before the famous hiking dog’s death. Wylie, who’d spent her childhood as a Girl Scout, hiking in the Berea College Forest with her mother, remembers following Tillie up the Indian Fort Mountain trail on a hike with her college friend. After spending the night beneath the stars, Wylie says she awoke to find loyal Tillie standing beside their makeshift camp.
“Tillie was still there,” Wylie writes. “And from that moment, I knew Tillie was a very special dog.”
Wednesday, the Deavers posted a poignant message announcing Tillie’s passing.
“[Tillie] has left her tired pain-filled old body behind,” the post begins. “Tillie died on Tuesday, July 23, at 2:30 in the afternoon. There was a birdsong overhead, and from the parking lot next door came the sounds of vehicles and car doors and people’s voices — some of Tillie’s favorite sounds. She was lying on cool green grass, surrounded by loving family and friends. Her passing was quiet and peaceful.”
One fan touched by memories of hiking with Tillie wrote a short and sweet message on the Tillie of Indian Fort Facebook page after learning the famous trail dog had succumbed to her illness, a message that is surely resonating in the hearts and minds of the hundreds of hikers Tillie met during her lifetime.
“Maybe we can go hiking again in another world, one day,” the post reads.