Sunday, October 14, 2012

FAQ Check

When people find out that I rode my bike across the country, they ask me lots of questions. Often the same ones. So in today's post--the first in a planned series--I'm going to answer one: "Were you chased by dogs?"

I was in Prescott, Arizona, sitting in a booth wedged into the corner of a Mexican restaurant, a little hole-in-the-wall place that didn't serve alcohol but let you bring in your own. The owners provided some help to the handful of diners who entered with bottles and paper sacks: hanging on the wooden posts throughout the place were corkscrews and church keys. I had just made use of one myself, prying the cap off of an icy cold Sierra Nevada that a guy named Dave had passed to me.

I'd met Dave about three hours earlier. He'd been out for an afternoon ride and was coming down the switchbacks south of Prescott as I was heading up. I was at the tail end of a long day of climbing. Dave, a seasoned tourist, took one look at me and my loaded rig and made a laughably off-the-mark assumption. He thought I knew what I was doing. Later, over dinner, the truth of my inexperience came out. I was a guy who knew a little bit about biking and even less about touring, and I was trying to forget how little I knew with a string of Sierra Nevadas.

Still and all, Dave was interested in my trip, and he fired all kinds of questions at me. Eventually, the conversation zeroed in on the hazards of the road.

"Been chased by a dog yet?"


He leaned back, smiled, and raised his bottle as if he was making a toast. "Don't worry. Before this trip of yours is over, it'll happen."

He was right.

But before it happened--and holy shit, it happened a lot--I'd thought about what to do. My original plan was simple: in my handlebar bag was a pepper spray fogger that I figured would work on dogs, provided I could dig it out in time.

But then the advice started rolling in from people I met along the way. Dave showed me his hand pump, which he strapped to the top tube of his bike. The pump was a little bent, and it got that way beating back an unleased Rotweiller in Kentucky some years before. The clubbing approach was a popular one; two days later, when I mentioned to a ranger at the Grand Canyon that I was going to cut through the northeast corner of Arizona, she told me to be sure I had a stick. "For the rez dogs," she said.

In Utah, at a gas station, a guy approached me as I leaned against the building and wolfed down a package of Twinkies. After he asked about flats, he asked about dogs. He'd done some biking himself and favored a water bottle--not for clubbing, but for squirting. "A good shot of water in the face'll turn 'em every time."

A lot of advice came from Colorado bikers. A young guy that I met somewhere between Durango and Pagosa told me that whenever he saw a barking dog ahead, he'd pedal right at him and "back the sonofabitch down." It made sense, but I wondered how it might work in a flank attack. Another guy was brief and direct: "Pedal your ass off." Two days later, a couple I stayed with warned that I should never try to outrun them because it just makes them charge harder. The thing to do, they advised, was to stop and let them know that I wasn't scared. But what if I was? I thought. Any dog worth his kibble would see right through that shit.

And in eastern Colorado, on a stretch of road where the mountains had melted into plains, I met a young guy who'd been on the road for a few months. The back of his bike was stacked high with supplies, all covered with brown tarps and trussed tight with bungee cords. A crumpled cereal box poked out of the top. Sun and rain had faded its multi-colored four letter name into a single, sickly hue of pinkish-gray, but I could still read it: life. Under a clear sky, train tracks to our left and alfalfa fields to our right, he told me that dogs were pack animals, so they always obey the top dog. "Just bark at them," he said. "They'll back down if you're louder." It sounded reasonable to me at the time, but it turned out to be the single worst piece of advice that I received on my trip.

I kept waiting for a dog to charge, even in remote areas. I didn't want to be caught unawares. I made sure that I could unclip my foot quickly, in case I had to deliver a quick kick to some mutt's chops. On empty stretches of road, I'd practice my barking. I felt like I was honing myself into a combat-ready biker, prepared to meet any and all canine challenges. God help the dog that dared attack me. My tactics were spiritual, too: whenever I stayed with someone who had a dog, I'd make a point of becoming its best friend, trying to build up good doggie karma. This plan led to some unwanted leg-humping, but I endured it in the name of appeasing the four-legged, tail-wagging gods.

It wasn't until Kansas that I got the first chance to try out my bark. A big red chow came through a hole in his fence, making a beeline for my rear tire. Or foot. It was hard to tell. I turned on him and started to bark--a staccato burst of ugh-ugh-ughs that I'd sharpened into what I thought was a perfect announcement that I was Top Dog, Leader of the Pack, the One Who Must Be Obeyed.

It wasn't.

He looked up at me and began to snarl and slobber in earnest. As our eyes locked, an unmistakable message passed from his to mine. Now I'm going for that ankle, you sonofabitch.

Three things worked in my favor: it was early (so I had energy), the road was flat, and this chow had no doubt been living a cushy life of couch naps and snausages on demand. I resorted to instinct. I pedaled like hell.

It took a brown boxer in Missouri, three pointers in Illinois, and a golden retriever in Kentucky to learn a very simple lesson: never, ever, never bark at dogs that are chasing you.

Sometimes dogs would appear out of nowhere, as if materializing out of the land itself. Other times I'd see them coming and have all kinds of time to chart their angry trajectories. Still other times I'd hear them behind me, and I'd force myself not to look and see how big, how close, how fast and angry and committed they were.

Is it too much to say that when you're alone on a bike and contemplating the world and your meager role in in it, that dogs take on a higher significance? That, like some of the disasters that befall us, they're small and manageable? But like others, they roar out of nowhere and scare us shitless? That we can go crazy trying to figure out how to deal with them, but in the end, all the advice is just useless talk? There are no shortcuts or easy solutions; only experience provides what we need to face all of those things out there that mean to do us harm.

I finally figured this out when I hit North Carolina. It was my second day in the state; I'd spent the first day climbing for six hours, and my ass was thoroughly kicked. That morning, though, seemed more promising. I was heading through the Nantahala Gorge, on a road that was just starting to fill up with canoe-topped jeeps and SUVs. The sun was out, but the gorge was deep--so deep that the shade forced me to take off my sunglasses. Right after this, as I rounded a bend, I saw them.

Two big dogs--one dark brown and the other with spots. If I was standing next to them, they would have easily come to just under my waist. They were leashed together with a chain, but not to anything else, and between this crazy configuration and their studded black collars, they looked like characters from an all-dog version of The Road Warrior. As soon as they saw me, they started barking and lumbering down the hill to my right, picking up speed. I thought for a second about the damage that the two of them and that chain stretched tight between their thick necks could do to me.

And then I thought about the nine states behind me. About crossing the desert and climbing the Rockies. About those Godawful Kansas winds and Ozark rollers. About eight straight days of rain through Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky. About climbing back up the eastern part of the country--the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee and the Appalacians.

And these two fuckers thought that they could take me on?

I slowed as they charged.

"No," I said. I didn't shout. My voice was even and clear and sounded a little strange to me.

Amazingly, they pulled up about twenty feet away and stared.

"No," I said again, and like the first time, I heard--no, felt--something in my voice that I hadn't before. A conviction that these dogs had no choice but to stop, and if they didn't, I was going to show them what almost fifty days on the road, a human brain, and two opposable thumbs could do. If it's true that dogs can smell fear, they didn't catch any scent of it from me that morning.

They looked around, at each other, and then circled each other and whined. The chain snaked between them, clinking over itself in the low grass. Dark Brown noticed something in the weeds to his left and ambled over. Spots followed, not that he had much choice.

And that was the end of my dog problems.

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