Despite the title of this piece, it isn’t a story about an uptight businessman (played by actor Steve Martin) struggling to travel home to Chicago for Thanksgiving but about a lost dog struggling to make his way home for Valentine’s Day.

Forget Martin and John Candy. They were perfectly cast in the 1987 comedy Planes, Trains & Automobiles. And, yes, they made a great road movie. But the real road hero? Charlie the beagle.

During his 30-hour journey through some of the roughest parts of Chicago, 3-year-old Charlie, or @beagleboycharlie as he’s known on Instagram, jumped over barriers (well, I think he did), looped on and off busy freeways, and ran through snow and mud, crossing active train tracks—all while scared out of his wits not only by speeding automobiles and mighty locomotives but freezing temperatures, as well. And all with the pads of his paws worn to the bone. Thus pains instead of planes in my title.

The story begins with my son and his wife (Charlie’s owners) at work. Around lunch Wednesday, the day before Valentine’s Day, my son learned that Charlie was lost in the West Loop of Chicago while in the care of his dog walker. It turns out the dog walker had opened the rear door of her van for another dog, which allowed Charlie to escape. The walker had desperately tried to find Charlie for several hours before contacting my son. The delay was a poor decision. 

If you’re familiar with Chicago you know that the West Loop covers a lot of territory. It lies along the western bank of the Chicago River, quite a jaunt from where Charlie lives in Lincoln Park. But the West Loop is where the initial search began.  

With an operation befitting a cherished family member, posters were plastered on every major street corner. Leads started filtering in shortly thereafter, including one that came from a policeman who spotted Charlie near Halstead and Adams, not far from where Charlie escaped. The officer tried to catch Charlie but could not. Another person said he saw a beagle near North Avenue and I-90/94. Yet another called after supposedly spotting Charlie at one of his favorite places, Oz Park, just seven blocks from my son’s townhome. 

Despite these leads, which seemed to suggest that the heroic Charlie was making his way home, 24 hours passed. And then the leads stopped coming in. But what really worried us was the weather. It had been in the mid-twenties Wednesday night but temperatures were expected to plummet significantly after dark Thursday. No way could a dog survive that—malnourished, freezing, lost. So we had a fleeting window to find Charlie. We had to move fast. 

Thursday morning, Valentine’s Day, friends and family—without any rest and glued to their phones—walked and drove virtually every street within a 2-3 miles radius of where Charlie was reportedly last seen. We searched like we’ve never searched before, stopping to talk with mail carriers, people walking their dogs, high school and college students, animal shelters, shop owners, and delivery people. Someone remained at home at all times, of course, in case Charlie showed up there. We’d put out several pieces of bedding, knowing that dogs rely on familiar scents to find their way back home. In fact, they say a 10-mile distance isn’t that far for a dog—especially a beagle with one of the best dog noses in the world—to follow a scent if the conditions are right.

With Valentine’s Day coming to an end we faced what seemed a heartbreaking reality. Dogs are lost everyday and owners find them everyday. But unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes the circumstances are too momentous and some dogs don’t make it home alive. 

As I made my rounds taping Charlie’s face to tree trunks and lampposts, I was reminded that Charlie is a purebred related to Uno, the first beagle to win Best in Show at Westminster. From certain angles the dogs are perfect likenesses. If we couldn’t have Charlie back, I prayed someone else gave him a home. Better that than coming across his frozen remains in a dirty alley. Besides, Charlie has an implanted microchip ID that could lead to his return someday—even if someone else wanted him for themselves. 

As darkness approached and the winds started to pick up, I called my son for an update. He clearly had little sleep and I could hear the sheer exhaustion in his voice, and thinking that tears were probably hanging just behind his eyes. All this made me want to find Charlie that much more. 

So I pressed on.

Soon after, the call came. 

It was a few minutes passed 5:00 P.M. and the air was just begging to turn colder. I was standing on a corner when a familiar SUV approached. My son was alone and he yelled something—something about Charlie being spotted near railroad tracks. I figured he wasn’t talking about anywhere close, but it was hard to tell. 

My son rolled up his car window and left—with the speed of a jet aircraft it seemed. His wife raced after him in her sister’s car.

As it turns out, more people than I could have ever imagined—including Chicago TV personality Cheryl Scott who herself owns a beagle—had posted flyers that Charlie was missing to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit. And those flyers were being shared over and over by countless others. I’d learn later that a young man on a Metra train who had seen one of the flyers had spotted Charlie running over train track far from where we’d been searching. To help catch Charlie, the man had gotten off his train and took a cab to the spot. 

To everyone’s relief, my son and his wife found Charlie around 5:45 P.M. not near where he’d escaped and not near any of the locations we’d been searching but at a railroad yard west of the city. My daughter-in-law relayed the great news in a message on Instagram.

“Thank you to everyone for saving our Charlie. He would not have survived another night here, where we found him, limping and running down the tracks.”

Instagram post that Charlie was found

In contrast to what some may think, panicked dogs often will not come to their owner and instead bolt in fear. That’s the case here, all right: Charlie was frightened by their voices, like a mouse hearing the hiss of a snake, and ran away. Luckily he was cornered in a fenced-in area.

Hours later I heard the story that my son, broken down with emotion, helped Charlie into his SUV, where he took his beloved beagle onto his lap. Apparently Charlie tried to wag his tail, then licked my son’s face once and settled into his arms. That’s the story, anyway. 

As a precaution, Charlie was taken immediately to the vet. Besides a limp and some scratches—and signs of dehydrations—he was otherwise in good shape. 

It’s tough to imagine what was going through Charlie’s mind those 30 hours alone, how he fought the frigid night, what he ate, if he slept, but you can be sure it was nothing pleasurable. Maybe he was hanging around trains because he lives across the street from the L (short for elevated train, as Chicago calls its municipal railway) and he associated the sounds of trains with the sounds of home. 

In any case, unlike Planes, flights were not cancelled, trains didn’t break down, and cars didn’t go up in flames. But like the movie’s plot the idea was to get home. That was Charlie’s goal. 

Social Media Saves Beagle
A courageous beagle in the hands of his owner flooded with relief

On his extraordinary journey Charlie fought courageously—imagine having feet like raw ground beef sticking to your ankles, using them to painfully dart in and out of rush hour car traffic and between commuter trains, all while battling every indignity Chicago’s freezing temps can inflict on you. Sounds unbelievable.  

But what’s even more unbelievable are the odds that a young man riding the Metra would know that Charlie was missing, much less spot him running down the tracks.

While I may not be the smartest or most talented person in the room when it comes to social media, I am now totally amazed by its power. If the man had not called the phone number listed on the flyer we would have continued to search the wrong area instead of searching where Charlie actually was. And Charlie would have spent another night alone, this time in single-digit cold. It’s doubtful he would have survived.

The point of this piece is this: Every once in awhile, something happens—something that logical reasoning would tell you is either impossible or that the odds against it happening are quite literally astronomical. And yet these little miracles happen in the digital universe everyday. That nearly 80% of Americans are on social media partly accounts for the reason.  

Charlie’s story is so remarkable that it deserves repeating: a dog walker lost a beagle on the cold, snow-covered streets of Chicago. Thirty hours later a sharp-eyed young man was riding a commuter train when he spotted a beagle running across railroad tracks on a freezing day when temperatures were falling. The man made a call and the owners found the dog. Impossible? Not in the social media-verse.

Some will say finding Charlie was a Valentine’s Day miracle. Pure luck, lining of the stars, whatever you chose to believe, the facts are we would not have been in the area where Charlie was found had it not been for social media. For those believing in angels, you can’t help but think there was a greater plan in all of this. 

A generation or so ago, owners who lost a pet were pounding the pavement and posting flyers. They still are, but many have turned to social media. In Charlie’s case, a few clicks helped a brave pup find his way back home for Valentine’s Day. There would have been no happy ending if we had not spread Charlie’s face all over social media. Despite the beagle’s heroic nature, it’s almost a sure bet that he would not have survived. Instead it all worked out better than our wildest dreams. 

Social Media Saves Beagle
Charlie starting his day with a breakfast for champions

In case you are wondering how Charlie is doing today, after his visit to the vet many of us went to my son’s townhome for salad and pizza, and it was difficult for Charlie to walk, mostly because he was exhausted but also because he was dehydrated and his paws hurt. But that was last week. If you saw him today, bursting with energy and stamina, howling up a storm, and playing with his favorite toys, you would hardly know anything happened. What a life you live, @beagleboycharlie. You’re one tough beagle.