Friday, December 8, 2017

Pint-sized Monsters on the Attack

Portland, Maine to Troutville, Virginia (10,720 - 11,620 miles)

Made me smile.

My legs burn, especially my calves, and I breathe so hard I have to stop and rest. I'm on a Connecticut hill, this one so steep I started pushing halfway to the top. I dismount and lean on the bike, take a step, then another, rest again. My journey has been like this since I started south from Portland, Maine, the terrain a succession of grueling speed bumps that slow my average to thirty miles per day.

That figure has my attention.

Yes, I'm out of shape from the seven week layover in Vermont, and yes, I'm cycling with a heavy load, but still . . . thirty miles a day is a pathetic average for someone who is more than three quarters of the way through a two-year trip. I think the problem is my left lung. It's not inflating fully. Maybe I have COPD. I don't know. I rub my neck and pivot my head to the right, then the left. Raising my handlebars helped my neck pain. I still get it a few times a day, but it's moved away from my spine into the muscle and is manageable with stretching exercises.

Frowning, I sigh at the twenty yards of asphalt between me and the top of the hill. I feel the need to jettison weight, push my Specialized Rockhopper another few steps. I glance back at my full-length Thermarest, which rides lengthwise on my rear rack, know I could save over a pound if I exchanged it for a ¾ Z-Rest. Thing is . . . the Thermarest was a gift, and I'm sentimental about gifts. I also don't have the funds to buy another pad.

Then there's the baggie full of change in my right rear pannier. That baggie must weigh three pounds. I had planned to use the change for morning coffees at convenience stores, but it's a pain to dig out that baggie and I usually open my wallet instead. So the change is still there, still weighting me down. . . . If I'm not going to use it for morning coffee purchases, I need to take it to a bank and exchange it for paper money. I'm such a procrastinator.

Will this hill ever end?

I strain upward, breathing deep, trying to get my lung to open all the way up. Maybe I have cancer. I worked in the phosphate mines in my youth, breathing in toxic dust, and the exposure may have caught up with me. I take an extra-deep breath, which irritates my lung, stop and cough a couple of times. I rest for a minute, push the bike up the hill.

I sniff an armpit and wrinkle my nose. East coast exercise, with its humidity, produces smells much worse than when I cycled out west. In states like Montana and Wyoming, I could go days without showering and not smell half as bad as I do now.

So tired . . . .

Am I getting enough calories? Drinking enough water?

I stop, chug a quart, push onward.

Almost to the top.

I've been worried about toothaches, so I haven't been eating chocolate, which has been my go-to energy food ever since I began long physical journeys. When I was thru-hiking, two Snickers a day was a mainstay. On this trip, I've been eating M&Ms, which are less susceptible to melting in the heat. That's what I need. Some M&Ms. That or a new body, preferably one with two good lungs.

Devon, Warmshower's host who made pasta for dinner.

It's a fall harvest, the time of plenty.
Beautiful lunch spot.

Bike trail inhabitant. 
A delicious mango paw paw I found on the C&O Canal.
Potomac River.


Up ahead, to my right, six dogs sprawl in the grass in front of a trailer set back against the woods. I'm on a rural route south of Buchanan, Virginia, cycling sans grizzly pepper spray, hope to rely on my machete to fight back canine attacks. The pack hasn't spotted me, but it's so close to the road there is no chance of outrunning it. I dismount, unsheathe my machete, push my bike forward. This technique, walking past dogs, sometimes defuses the situation.


I draw closer and try to assume the air of a casual pedestrian, a man out for a stroll, just enjoying the morning air and the soft yellow sunlight. Yes, that's me. Mary Poppins with testicles, benign, a nice guy, not somebody to raise a fuss about.

An ear cocks and a black head swivels my way. Beady eyes stare. I send telepathic sentiments up the road.

No, no, don't get up.

No need to greet me.

Passing through.

Be out of here in two shakes of a lamb's tail.

I love dogs, I really do.

The first yap sounds, anxious and shrill, and dogs leap to their feet. Which isn't as dramatic as it sounds. These are short dogs, and their bellies are only a few inches above the grass. They're mutts with Chihuahua bloodlines, which makes them believe they're armor-plated and three-feet tall. They spin in circles, leap into the air, grow so frantic at my approach they begin to fight among themselves. I suspect they are establishing a hierarchy, with the winner awarded the first bite out of my ankle.

They condense into a ball of frantic fur, nipping and clawing, ducking and jumping. Smiling, I push my bike up the road. The idiots have forgotten about me completely. I draw abreast of the pack, walk a little faster. The fighting stops and the dogs turn toward me.

I love dogs, I really do.

No, really, I love dogs.

They spread out in a horizontal line and bare their teeth, soldiers readying themselves for the charge, and I walk a little faster. A brown and white dog, not a foot tall, yips and launches himself forward. The pack leaps after him, maintaining their separation, and I white-knuckle my machete. Hackles come up like porcupine quills, ears lay back against tiny bobbing skulls. The pack slides to a stop at the edge of the road, leaps forward another foot and toenails click against asphalt. The yipping reaches a crescendo and I walk faster.

I love . . . I . . . I love . . .

I stretch out my stride, keep my bike between me and the pack. The dogs dart in and out, closer and closer, and I start feeling like I'm in a horror novel. I can see tomorrow's AP snippet.

Chihuahua Horde Allegedly Kills and Consumes Touring Cyclist

TJ Forrester, a cool guy who cringes even when he kills a mosquito, did not survive yesterday's dog attack in the Virginia Appalachian Mountains. A passerby discovered his bike and skeleton alongside the road. Six dogs slept nearby. According to the passerby, who is a highly-respected deacon in a local church, “Their bellies were so full they couldn't walk away from the scene of the crime.”

A dog jumps up and claws a pannier.

I go from Mary Poppins to Braveheart in about the time it takes a yip to reach my ears. I'm on a public road. I have a right to be here without a dog pack trying to eat me and my gear. I scream a primal scream, raise my machete and think about dropping my bike and wading into the pack. Each dog steps back a foot and a jubilant feeling comes over me.

Let that be a lesson to you.

That's right, I'm the boss here.

They glance at each other, almost as though they are calculating the odds. There are six of them and one of me. I might get one or two in the ensuing maelstrom, but they'd win out in the end. I push my bike a little faster. They charge again and I sense this is the big one—pint-sized monsters determined to wreak havoc at any cost—and I lash my machete through the air. I drag the point violently against the asphalt, and the dogs pull up short. I catch a blur in my peripheral vision, a seventh dog, a beagle running full tilt around the rear of my bike. Oh, so that's the plan—the pack attack is a diversionary tactic, designed to draw my attention while a fleet-footed assassin assails me from the rear?

The beagle focuses on my right ankle, never wavering, and without a doubt he intends to rip out a portion of my flesh. I bend my knees and loop the machete backward, a powerful swing that catches him on the nose with the flat part of the blade. The impact spins him 180 degrees and lays him out. He scrambles to his feet, tucks his tail and runs away without looking back. The pack goes silent and their heads turn toward their hero, who is still running as fast as he can in the other direction.

Go home.

It's over.

For the first time, my thoughts seem to have an effect. Hackles go down and ears unpin. Teeth disappear behind relaxed lips. The pack mills around, drifts away from the road. I sheathe the machete and get on my bike, cycle to the south. The miles roll past and I soon forget about the dogs, loll my head back and forth. Neck pain is no longer an issue, but my left lung still holds me back when climbing the steeper hills.

I'm not going to worry about it.

The freedom I feel on the road more than makes up for life's little annoyances.

Fellow tourer.

Some bridges are cooler than others.