dogs of war
A raw wind blows in my face and pushes hard against my progress - this is the reality of riding a bicycle on a gravel road in Iowa in early April. The sunshine promised for this afternoon is somewhere up above the low ceiling of dirty-gray clouds - this is the reality of weather in Iowa in early April.
It’s not a very nice a day, but at this time of year, I take the outdoor opportunities as they come and I am grateful for them. The next weather system is on its way and will bring snow for the weekend. Dammit.
The road itself is solid and dusty up the middle - still frozen underneath - so that’s where I ride. The edges are soft and damp where it is beginning to thaw and I only go over there to let traffic pass.
It’s hard labor moving forward out here in the cold gravel hills on a bike so heavy I named it Porky. The sum-total of all of this is that my eyes are watering, my nose is running, my back is sweating, but my hands and feet are freezing and I’m working my ass off and only averaging about eleven miles per hour.
A cloud of dust building over the next rise tells me there’s oncoming traffic and it’s moving fast, so I slide to the right onto the squishy stuff and immediately lose another 2 miles per hour.
Over the crest hammers an old 1980s flat-nosed Freightliner dragging a grain trailer at about Mach six. It’s the same dirty gray color as the sky. The vertical grille is taller than I am. The narrow windshield is about ten feet off the ground and it looks like a gun slit. With the black diesel exhaust and the trailing cloud of dust, it is positively Mad Max-ish and coming right at me.
The driver sees me and brakes to slow, which causes the trailer to squirm around a little, but I appreciate the gesture of slowing down because getting hit by flying gravel is like getting shot. He waves at me as he passes and I wave back. I’m not afraid of trucks.
I ride the gravel roads when I am alone because I feel safer on gravel roads than I do on pavement, where there is more traffic and faster traffic and the drivers seem less attentive. Most gravel traffic is local traffic and locals usually drive in a way that respects their neighborhood.
But there’s a trade-off to the traffic safety of gravel roads and that trade-off has four legs and teeth. As I said, I’m not afraid of trucks, but farm dogs are another story. Along the quiet dirt roads, a good many of them are allowed to roam freely and they consider the road itself to be a part of their territory. So as I ride these gravel routes I keep notes in my head of which dogs just bark and which ones seem inclined to bite.
There’s a Shepherd-mix about the size of a grizzly bear just north of Hwy 20. He’s old and mostly deaf and can’t hear me coming as he lounges on the front steps of the farmhouse. I’m almost past when he sees me. With the air of someone who really doesn’t want to be bothered, but feels obliged to fulfill his duty, he pushes up to a standing position and stumbles his arthritic hips down the steps to the yard. It takes him so long to do that that I’m well beyond the driveway and he decides I’m not worth any more effort except for a deep, assertive woof that sounds like a fog horn as he settles back down into the dry, brown grass. Good dog.
But I ride this route a lot and I know that in about two and a half miles it will be a different story.
On a rise just before you get to the little Lutheran church, there’s a house on the left that has a dog that has bothered me for years. This one comes all the way out on the road and snarls and slobbers and bites at my ankles and chases until it can’t keep up when the road heads downhill again. That damn dog has chased me for a good half mile before.
I don’t know if the dog is male or female, but I’d hate to think I’m being bullied by a girl, so for the sake of telling the story, we’ll call it “He”.
He knows his business, this dog. He’s a pro-level bicycle chaser. He’s smart. If he doesn’t know I’m coming and I surprise him when he’s way back by the barn, he can do the geometry and work the angles as he beelines across the yard on a perfect intercept vector.
And if I don’t surprise him - if he knows I’m coming - he’ll hide in the ditch and stay down until I’m past. Then he’ll cross the road behind me and sprint up on my other side where I’m not expecting him and just about the time I think I’ve made it … there he is with his teeth and his frothy mouth and crazy eyes right beside me.
So today I don’t really stand a chance. I used to ride this route on a much lighter and faster bike, and my primary defense has always been pure speed. But today I’m riding a heavy bike into a headwind and on the uphill approach to the dog house I feel slow and weak and vulnerable. Unless the dog is indoors and asleep, we’re going to tangle today.
I’m alert as I pass the corner of the farmyard. I’m now in his territory. All is quiet, but with this dog, that’s not necessarily a good sign. While some dogs will bark their damn fool heads off, this one is smart enough to stay silent until the moment of the kill.
There’s not a single sign of life anywhere as I crank my way up the hill. Looking left - right - left - right- where is he? The mailbox which marks the summit is inching its way toward me. Maybe I’ll make it past after all.
And then, there he is. The corner of my left eye catches the movement. I turn and there’s the dark shape, coming out of the fence line, crossing the road behind me: low to the ground, tail down, hair up.
I can’t climb any faster - there’s no point in even trying. I go through my dog-defense checklist. A water-bottle squirt seems too weak because this is an animal that wants to take me all the way down. I don’t carry a tire pump to hit him with.
He’s now over by the right ditch behind me and beginning his sprint. The distance closes quickly. I unlock my right foot from the pedal and prepare to kick him in the teeth. My mountain bike shoes have metal spikes on the bottom and I don’t care if this dog is someone’s beloved family pet - if he attacks me on a public road I will kick the shit out of him.
He’s right here next to me and starts to growl - snaps at my ankle and misses. I could feel his breath. I try a backward kick and miss him, too. If he actually bites me before I get to the mailbox, then this will be a real fight - I’ll have to stop and get off my bike and have it out with this dog. He’s winding up for another lunge.
As a dog, he’s a natural predator and a protector of his territory. I understand that he is just doing what dogs do, but he’s doing it rather aggressively. Up until now, I’ve been acting like prey: attempting to flee. So I try taking authority.
A quick squeeze of my brake lever brings me almost to a stop which catches the dog off-guard. With my finger, I point directly at him and in my most authoritative voice shout “NO!”. It was a tactic of desperation on my part and I was thankful my voice didn’t crack and squeak like it sometimes does when I’m mad or afraid.
To my absolute utter amazement, the dog immediately flattened himself against the gravel and looked up at me in a submissive posture. It was exactly what I had hoped would happen, but, frankly, the last thing I expected.
I kept my finger pointed and my eyes locked on his for long enough to make my point as I continued to soft-pedal up to the mailbox and then I got the hell out of there.
This is one of my favorite riding routes so I’ll be back and I expect the dog will be, too. But maybe now we have a new understanding of each other.