As a white car pulled to a stop in the middle of a Huntington Beach street, Eric Hough said to no one in particular: "He's here. He's really here."
After a three-year wait, Hough's pit bull was finally arriving home -- all the way from Florida.
Twenty-one individuals and pairs volunteered to drive the dog from a shelter in
FOR THE RECORD:
Missing pit bull:
A story in the July 9 LATExtra section about a pit bull found in Florida and returned to California said the dog was photographed crossing the border from Florida into Mississippi. The two states do not touch. The dog was photographed as it was being driven on one leg of its journey from Florida to Mississippi.
The Sunday evening reunion unfolded quickly. Hough immediately knelt in the middle of the street as the 65-pound, grey-blue pit bull ambled from the car.
"Yeah, you remember, don't you?" he said to his pet, stroking him and speaking to him in low tones.
One of the dog's three drivers passed Hough his leashes, and Hough led him through the white picket fence into his new front yard.
The dog, originally known as Smoke, smelled the mailbox, left his mark on it and reacquainted himself with Hough's other dog -- and his old friend -- a Chihuahua named Molly.
"Are you happy to be home, buddy?" Hough asked his pet.
Smoke had disappeared three years before from Hough's previous home in Echo Park. He went missing the same time a roommate was asked to leave, Hough said.
Hough said he filed a police report and attempted to confront the former roommate about allegedly stealing his dog but had not seen Smoke since.
Everything changed several weeks ago, when Ryan Gamache, who volunteers with Missing Pet Partnership, began trying to link the dog in the Florida shelter to his California owner.
An implanted microchip listed him as belonging to an "Eric Hough," but the contact information for Hough was outdated, Gamache said.
Gamache ultimately reached the correct Hough, a 30-year-old professional BMX rider, through Facebook.
Then a question arose: How would Smoke get home?
Heather McNally, a transport coordinator for a nonprofit called Kindred Hearts, has been the mastermind behind Smoke's trip. She began working with the organization, planning similar trips, in April.
When McNally read on Facebook last week that Smoke's owner had been discovered in California, she offered to help Smoke get home free of charge.
McNally divided the drive into 30 shifts and solicited drivers for each.
Smoke's 2,784 mile journey began Thursday at 7 a.m., when Florida shelter staff were just arriving to work.
"He loaded up into the first vehicle, no problem," said Tracey Breen, rescue coordinator for Brevard Animal Services.
Described as calm and gentle, Smoke settled into the back seat of the first car with his head in the lap of a passenger riding along, Breen said.
"I think pretty much everybody has fallen in love with him," Breen said. "It's impossible not to."
Volunteers shared photos and videos of the pit bull's journey online.
On the first day of travel, the dog's drivers snapped pictures of Smoke with three new rope toys as he approached DeFuniak Springs, Fla.; of him wearing a blue bandana as he crossed the border from Florida to Mississippi; and of him sleeping soundly in Baton Rouge, La.
Smoke stuck his tongue out near Oklahoma City and stared out the window near Shamrock, Texas.
"Go Smoke Go!!" commented one Facebook follower.
"Woot Woot!!!" wrote another.
Peri Bennett, who has volunteered with Kindred Hearts since February, drove Smoke from Vicksburg, Miss., to Oklahoma City on Friday.
She called Smoke "a perfect passenger."
He rarely made a sound, except when he snored, Bennett said. Throughout most of the trip, he slept on a blanket in the backseat of her car or sat on the floor behind her seat, putting his head on the center console for her to pet him.
"Nothing seemed to faze him too much," she said. "He was a sweet, sweet dog, he really was."
By the time Smoke arrived in California, he had acquired a pile of gifts from his drivers. Among his new belongings were several bones, a peanut butter biscuit and a stuffed crocodile and dog and bird toys.
Hough had prepared a sleeping space for him in one corner of his living room. He had painted over old marker scribbles with two pink splotches of paint. Over one pink area, he wrote in white chalk: "BRING SMOK3 HOM3"
Sunday night, Hough lay on the blue-and-white-checkered blankets he had placed on the floor in the corner. He beckoned his "big boy" into his arms, and began to rub his belly.
His drivers noted that Sunday night was the first time they'd seen Smoke's tail wag.