Monday, July 4, 2016

Hell Hollow in Eastern Kentucky

Damascus, Virginia to Berea, Kentucky (1930-2,192 miles)

Damascus is a small mountain town, a merge of hiking and cycling trails, and I stop at several residences and say hello to friends. I spend the night at Roy's house, a long time AT hiker. Roy is a naturalist and knowledge-seeker, and it's fun to sit in his living room and visit over a cup of coffee.

In the morning, I loosen the clamp on my seat post and shift my Brooks saddle downward. I suspect the adjustment will help the hyper-extension in my right knee. The ligament issue is another matter, and I am under no illusion that it will get better any time soon. I ride out on Highway 91—a two-laner through rolling countryside—and twenty minutes later an approaching car veers across the yellow line.

In my direction.

Straight toward me.

The driver's holding up her phone, staring at it, oblivious that she is about to flatten a cyclist. I can't see her features well through the windshield; she's just another faceless idiot who texts while driving. There is no time to curse, pray, or jerk the bike out of the way, no time to do anything except grimace at the hurtling car and hope for the best.

She glances up and I see the whites of her eyes, the shock that lines her face when she jerks the wheel and veers her car into her lane. My blood is up, and I glare as she speeds past. She's still holding her phone up, stupid, stupid, stupid, and I wonder if she realizes how close she came to ending me.

I shake off the near-death experience and navigate the hills, enjoy the breeze on my face. The hills turn into mountains and I shift into my granny gear and inch up a 1,500 foot climb out of Hayters Gap. This stretch is make it or break it for my right knee, and I force the issue, pedaling harder than necessary. I swelter in the heat and high humidity, crest the pass and roll downward for a few miles. Then it's up and over another mountain, to the town of Council. I've put in 52 hard miles and decide to spend the night at the community center. And wouldn't you know it? A family, the Wilson clan, is having a reunion and they bring me food and grape sodas. I eat and drink, watch the kids bombard a favorite uncle with water balloons.
A friendly visitor who wanted to share my meal. Thanks for cleaning my bowl!

After socializing for a bit, I stand and flex my knees. Mmmm. . . . though I feel tightness, that's about it. No fiery ligament pain, no hyper-extension, nothing to indicate this trip is about to end. On the contrary, I feel pretty good considering the toughness of the day's route.

In the first Kentucky hollow the dogs attack one at a time, as though they are exploring my defenses and intend to relay them to their comrades down the road. I prefer to brandish my machete when under attack—a screaming Genghis Khan on the rampage—which is usually enough to deter most canines out for blood or fun, but they are on me so quickly there is no time for bluster and I pull out the pepper-spray from the holster on my hip. Dogs leap off tilting porches, crawl out from beneath rusted cars, lunge out of open windows onto hard-scrabble yards. The area is poverty-stricken, and my attackers are small, scurrilous creatures that look like they rarely get enough to eat. They charge so quickly I barely have time to remove the trigger guard and point the can. I carry Counter Assault Magnum 290, grizzly pepper-spray, which empties in 9 seconds if I hold the trigger down that long. If I spray in half second spurts, I'll get about 18 dogs to the can, which, by my estimation, will run me out of pepper-spray before I get through the third hollow. I aim at a brown dog with chewed-off ears, watch him close the distance one leap at a time. He growls and snaps, teeth bared, as though he intends to gnaw a hole through my leg. I pedal upward, straining, holding back because I don't want to waste spray, but then he lunges inside the 3 foot range and I pull the trigger. A fog blasts him in the face, and he hauls himself to a stop on the asphalt, slinks toward a clapboard house. He moans and shakes his head as though he's trying to sling off the pain.

That's one dog that won't chase a cyclist anytime soon.

And that's how it goes in hollow after hollow.

But there is one hollow that sticks out from the rest. It looks the same, steep slopes on both sides, houses crammed together, porches close to the road, rust-bucket vehicles in the yards—all of it merging in an air of pride and resignation—except this one particular hell hole has a human who wants to get in on the "fun." He stands in front of his shack, arm propped against a broken-down washing machine. A slight man, he's dressed in overalls, no shirt, and tobacco stains his jaw. I nod respectfully and coast downhill at 7 miles per hour, expecting a friendly wave or a cheery hello. Okay, a cheery hello is a little much to ask out of these reserved mountain people, but most of them will at least nod in return. This guy grins wolfishly, and I feel like I've been transported to an adventure novel where the bad guy is always looking at someone with that kind of expression.

He snaps his fingers.

"Get him," he says.

Dogs stream out of an open door behind him, a black cavity that leads into what looks like a living room in a one bedroom house, and I whip out my can. I count five attackers and give up, think there's at least seven, decide to get out of here as fast as I can. I pedal harder and harder, yowling pack at my heels, and a black dog closes in on my left side. He runs inside my 3 foot defense zone, and I almost let him have it.


The wind is blowing in my face, which means not only will I spray the dog but I will also spray his owner. Okay, the owner deserves it, but this is eastern Kentucky, where the locals are the law of the land and this guy could jump in his beater truck and hunt me down. I have no desire to become fertilizer for his tomato plants or dog food for his dogs, so I refrain from pulling the trigger. I shout in a deep voice.

"Go home!"

The dog must be deaf.

I shout again, then one more time.

He's in a full out run, two feet away and gaze locked on my churning leg, and I wonder what it feels like to have teeth rip into flesh. The sinking in of the points, deeper and deeper, the dog seeking the hot pulse of my blood, ripping and tearing, saliva from his mouth slinging into the air as he shakes his head back and forth—all of it makes me cringe inside.

Screw it.

I hold the can horizontal to the ground and spray downward, hoping to spray only the dog and not his owner. The dog runs into the fog and scrambles to a stop that sends him in a tumble down the road. The attack breaks off, the guy is still propped against his dead appliance, and I make my escape laughing like a madman. For a guy who loves dogs, spraying that one made me feel awfully good.


My knees?

Moving the saddle down apparently fixed both the hyper-extension and ligament pain. There's hope for Ride between the Stars after all.


The land opens up, houses set farther off the road, and dog attacks become less frequent. Five days after leaving Damascus, I cycle into Berea and camp behind a fire station. I fix supper and think about resting tomorrow. Then again, I've taken so much time off that this journey has become a race to beat winter and resting a day might not be such a good idea.


  1. You had my heart pounding on that one! I'm glad you're safe.

    1. Thanks, Elle! This ride is turning out to be a wild adventure. I'm loving it.

  2. Ohh my Goodness! These are the horrible experience. Remember safety at all times.
    By the way, really appreciate your efforts for sharing this information.


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