CHINO VALLEY, Ariz. — Rusty Reed's home used to be always just over the next horizon. Now, it sits at the end of a country road.
He and his traveling companion Timber, a 4-year-old shepherd mix, are still adjusting to the palatial feel of their 700-square-foot single-wide mobile home, which sits where a one-lane dirt path disappears into monsoon-fed vegetation.
The 63-year-old military veteran can walk upright in the new house, a strange feeling after he spent so many years with his 6-foot-3 frame hunched over in the homemade camper shell on the back of his 1975 Ford pickup. And Timber can chase toys without the former limits of his leash.
The home, sitting amid trees and low shrubs, resembles many in this rural area. But it is the only one with the name "REED" written onto a metal sign tacked to a tree stump, a dog stretched along the front-window ledge.
Just a year ago, Reed was in quite a different place — on his knees in his camper, hands clasped, praying for Timber's return. The dog had disappeared as Reed camped near Loa, Utah, and when Reed had to leave the area due to encroaching wildfires, he felt sure he would never see Timber again. But thanks to caring strangers and the powerful reach of the Internet, the two would eventually be reunited in Boulder, Colo.
As Reed and Timber now settle into their new home, that time seems long ago. Reed is able to lease the two-bedroom, one-bath home by paying 30 percent of his military pension toward rent and utilities as part of a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Gone is the stress of living in his camper, moving every two weeks to adhere to no-loitering rules imposed on federal lands. Reed said his back feels better, his hands don't shake as much as they used to and his health is improving; his former diet consisted of foods that could keep for months.
When Reed learned in May he'd been awarded a voucher from the HUD-VA Supportive Housing program targeting chronically homeless veterans, he wasn't sure he was ready to put down stakes.
It has been 16 years, Reed said, since he's lived in one place for a year. He paused, overcome by bittersweet memories of a home shared, a love lost.
"We bought some land near Tombstone, built it together," he said. "But it just wasn't meant to be. And that's all I'm going to say on that."
But life on the road wasn't particularly easy. And the more Reed thought about it, the clearer his next step became. When he found out he could live in Chino Valley — a community that was not too large, not too hot, just right — Reed was convinced. And when VA caseworker Bob Gorelik showed him this unit, a modest mobile home surrounded by trees and hemmed in by corrals, Reed knew his days on the road were over.
As the current tenant showed them around, Reed envisioned a vegetable garden out front. He could fence in the area along the side, giving Timber the one thing all dogs love: a yard.
The two moved in a month later. All of Reed's worldly possessions barely filled the bookcase that was there.
The home came with things that most people consider essentials but that Reed really had never missed. A refrigerator (jars and cans had been just fine), a washer (all he had needed was a creek and a large, flat rock), and an electric stove (if fire restrictions did not allow him use of his wood stove, Reed would let his oatmeal or ramen sit in water for a few minutes).
There certainly are advantages. Fresh vegetables, for example. And the ability to cook meals with no regard to fire restrictions.
"I wake up now to roosters," said Reed. "At 6 a.m., donkeys bray from over there. At 6:15, more donkeys bray from the other side. It's perfect."
And one of Reed's very favorite things about having a home — ice cream. He already had a gallon of it in the freezer, the only thing there besides ice cubes.
But it is not easy going from 60 to 0 overnight. After his first day in his new home, Reed felt a strong urge to go out and sleep in his truck, where he would feel secure and comfortable.
He knew it would be better to adjust sooner rather than later, so Reed made the effort, sleeping somewhat uncomfortably on the dual-recliner couch in the living room. And when he spread Timber's blanket in a cozy niche between the couch and the wall, it felt more like home, especially when the shepherd mix curled up there to gnaw on a bone.
While Reed and Timber are the home's only occupants, they are not alone. Not really.
Even before they had moved in, housewarming gifts were waiting, sent by some of the many people who followed their story of loss and reunion last year through a popular travel blog.
Cardboard boxes arrived filled with pots and pans, glasses and dishes, comforters and sheets. And dog treats, many bags of dog treats.
There was even a dinette set, delivered and assembled by two of the many people whose heartstrings were tugged as the story of a man, a dog and an Internet miracle unfolded last summer on rvsueandcrew.com (since changed to rvsueandcrew.net).
Vicki and Larry Reighard of Paulden had just met Reed for the first time, but they chatted like old friends as they assembled the table and four chairs, which fit perfectly in the kitchen.
"We were just heartbroken last year when we found out Timber was gone," Vicki Reighard said. "But to know how it turned out was so amazing. Now we're just happy to help them settle in. It was the least we could do."
The Reighards are among the thousand-plus regular visitors to rvsueandcrew.net, where retiree Susan Rogers shares stories of her life on the road. (The crew consists of Spike and Bridget, Rogers' two dogs.)
Rogers first met Reed and Timber while camping in spring 2012. It was later, around the Fourth of July holiday, when the dog was lost. A month or so later, Reed happened to tell Rogers that he had lost Timber, and she wrote about it on her blog. Her readers rallied to the cause and, by the end of that same day, would find Timber in Colorado with the man who had found him in the forest.
At one point, the blog received more than 10,000 hits as Rogers detailed Reed's reunion with his best friend.
"My blog readers love Rusty and Timber," Rogers wrote in an email.
Rogers and Reed have stayed in touch, and in fact were camping near one another when the VA contacted Reed about finding him a home.
"What a roller coaster of emotions Rusty rode as he tried to reconcile himself to the idea of leaving a life on the road to living in a stationary house," Rogers said. "Now he's like a kid at Christmas!"
Thanks to gift cards sent by Rogers' readers, Reed has been able to buy a small TV and a full-size bed. He sleeps in the smaller 8- by 8-foot bedroom, devoting the larger bedroom to one of his few hobbies — electric trains. It is nothing more than an oval track, but over time he hopes to add buildings, trees and a few homes to give it a lived-in look.
First on Reed's to-do list, however, is fencing the rear yard so Timber has a place to safely roam. Then, he'll plant a vegetable garden where weeds now grow.
Each day, the house is becoming more a home. Even Timber is starting to recognize it.
"Just the other day I said, 'Home, Timber, home,' and he went to the house instead of the truck," Reed said. "First time."
They say home is where the heart is, but Reed has a better definition.
"Wherever me and Timber are together," he said. "That's home."
HUD-VA Supportive Housing
What: Program aimed at providing housing and support to homeless veterans.
How it works: Regional Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing programs receive a certain number of housing vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Qualifying veterans pay a portion of their pension toward rent and utilities. Caseworkers work with veterans to arrange counseling, health care and other clinical services to aid in the transition from the streets to a house.
Results: From 2008 to 2012, 48,385 housing vouchers were issued, according to HUD (hud.gov).
Details: For more more information on the HUD-VASH program, visit www.va.gov/HOMELESS/HUD-VASH.asp. Homeless veterans in need of help may call 877-424-3838.