Saturday, December 29, 2012

Day 108: Christmas in Kansas

I was walking down a country road in southern Kansas when I spotted a big dog trotting toward me. It kept its body low to the ground while keeping its wolf-eyes trained on me, moving with the sleek-bodied stealth and confidence of a hungry lioness. It was the size of a German Shepherd, but wore a shiny, jet-black coat.

As soon as it got to the gravel road it took off on a full sprint toward me, snarling through its white fangs. It stopped just feet from me, and then lunged at my ankles. I thrust both my trekking poles at its face. It backed off, but continued to closely follow me as I sped forward, always just a few feet away, separated by the short length of my trekking poles that I kept pointed at its face.

This wasn't the first time I'd had to deal with crazy country dogs in Kansas. Most times, I'll just ignore them and keep walking. They'll prowl behind me for a bit until they get too far from home. Sometimes, when I can tell the dog is merely bluffing, I'll "baby-talk" it out of its rabid fervor, and have them nuzzling their heads against my thigh in no time.

This dog, I knew instantly, wasn't the sort that could be baby-talked. It was savage and bloodthirsty, probably bearing a ferocious love for its family, but a dim-witted hatred for everyone else.

It followed me for several minutes, gnashing its teeth and sprinting at me whenever I turned my back to it. My only thought was to keep moving and not let it get in front of me. I used my trekking poles to keep it from going at my legs, but I felt my jackknife glowing in the right pocket of my pants. I knew, if it bit me, I'd let it have my arm or leg while I aimed to pierce a fatal blow into its chest or neck.

"Pedro! Pedro!" a little boy cried to the dog from the front porch of the home the dog had run from.

Hearing the little boy's calls seemed to incense the dog even more. Pedro followed me for a fifth of a mile, and didn't turn back until the man of the house came out and screamed for Pedro to return.

Once I was a good distance from the house, I put my pack down and retrieved the canister of bear spray in the back of my pack that I'd mostly forgotten about. Now, when I walk country roads, I have the bear spray strapped to my chest, ready to be deployed. Between Pedro and the other snarling country dogs, I now get nervous whenever I approach a home on a country road. Traveling in constant fear, I can say, takes the fun out of travel. Now, I eye all country homes -- and all dogs -- with fear and suspicion. Prejudice is as simple-minded as a demon dog.

I made it into the tiny town of Potwin, Kansas on Christmas Eve. A woman saw me walking down the road. I asked her if she knew any of the pastors in town. She said she did, but that they wouldn't be in town until the evening service that night. She invited me into her home where she fed me chili and cookies. I attended service with her family, took communion, and slept on the floor of the church balcony.

On Christmas day, I continued south to the medium-sized city of Augusta. It was 20 degrees outside with blistering 25 mph winds. My map said the country road I walked along would lead me over a creek, but when I reached the creek, which was wide, deep, and frozen, I saw that there was no bridge leading over it. I heaved a large dead branch into the air, and when it fell upon the ice, I felt encouraged when the ice maintained its solid form. I began to walk over it, but after two steps, fault lines spread across the ice from the force of my foot like cracks in a broken mirror. I quickly turned back for shore, where I'd begin my long detour to another road to find a way across the creek. When I hopped over a tall barbed wire fence, my maps fell out of my back pocket and were carried away in the brisk wind like crispy fall leaves, destined to decompose under a foreign, faraway trunk.

I walked straight east along a road, took a southeast shortcut over a cow pasture, and then head south along a new gravel road, which was a creek-less, river-less route, according to the map application on my iPad. On the road, two dogs rocketed out from beneath their porch and charged after me. Their barks were terrifying at first, but once I sized them up -- a small white chihuahua and a young black lab -- I knew I had nothing to worry about.

The lab kept running after me, but once I parried its barks with baby-talk, it let out a relieved whimper and ran up to my legs. It put its two front paws on my hip, I petted its head, and it let out a deep guttural moan, like I was finally giving it some long withheld pleasure. I sat down to have a snack and fed it a slice of buffalo jerky. It followed me for the rest of the day, 10 miles, all the way to Augusta.

I enjoyed the company for the first half-mile, but once I realized that it wasn't going to turn back home, I resolved not to look or talk to it, except to angrily yell at it to go back home. But each time I yelled at it, it only fell on its back submissively.

I secretly adored the dog, and had thought up a name for it ("Kansas"), but dared not utter it aloud, for fear that -- by giving it a name -- I would allow this nascent friendship to evolve into something more. Despite my fantasies, I quickly determined that Kansas was not the best companion for a long walk across Oklahoma and Texas. He was too small and too timid to be able to defend himself against big, angry dogs. And he was stupidly fearless around cars and roads. I knew that, eventually, he'd get run over and meet the fate of Peter Jenkins's dog (from the classic A Walk across America).

I did well to maintain my vow of silence, but when we reached a busy bridge with narrow shoulders, I knew I had to again acknowledge the dog's existence. I knew the dog would follow me over the bridge, and would very likely get run over, so I had to do something.

I made a leash with a thin orange tent guy line and began walking Kansas toward the bridge. Kansas was confused and resistant: not because he was stubborn, but because he clearly had never before had a leash put around his neck.

"Let's practice a bit first," I said to him.

We got off the bridge and walked back and forth along the grassy shoulder of the road. He got the hang of it, and we successfully crossed the bridge. After that, I determined to train it not to go anywhere near the road, casting discouraging invectives at it when it went to cross the road and lavishing it with warmth when it hung by my side. By the end of the day, I wondered if he might make a good companion after all. He wasn't the smartest dog in the world, but he clearly had a good pair of legs and a lot of perseverance: which was about as much as I could say about myself.

I brought him to the Augusta police station, where I explained who I was, what I was doing, as well as the dog situation.

They told me they were going to take him to the pound, where he'd remain for three days unless the owners claimed him. Then, they said, they'd "put him down."

"Put him down?!" I said.

What have I done?

Another cop showed up. He put a leash around the dog's neck and tried to pull him into the back seat. The dog wouldn't budge, so the cop asked me for help. I grabbed its body and struggled to shove the dog and its flailing limbs in the back. The cop closed the door, and I looked at the dog inside -- looking as innocent as always -- and said, "Bye Kansas."

The cop called churches for me -- to see if they'd lend me a floor for the night -- but none were open to receive me. The cop offered to buy me a motel room, but too prideful to accept money, I declined, even though I wanted more than anything a warm place to stay on so cold a night. I walked downtown to the local movie theater, where they were showing The Hobbit in 3D. It was freezing outside, and the theater had yet to open, so I went into a gas station, where I hoped to buy some coffee and stay warm in a booth for an hour or so. The owner -- a middle-age Indian man -- who was the sort obsessed with rules and protocol, approached me, as I drank my cappuccino in the corner of the store, and told me to leave.

I walked to the movie theatre, and knocked on the door, hoping someone would let me in. The owner inside, preparing for the movie, said that she was all alone inside and that I couldn't come in.

I felt kind of pitiful standing out in the cold, with wind blasting in my face, on this dark lonely street with no place to go on Christmas. But from this trip I have received so much kind treatment from so many that it was was impossible for me to feel upset or frustrated. It's as if I have a stockpile of goodness in me, so any sort of injustice or cool treatment has little effect, as nothing can make me doubt my renewed faith in humanity. Someone could shoot me and steal my belongings, and in my dying moments I will think only of the goodness of man.

Eventually, the theater opened and I watched The Hobbit. I got more than my $8 worth, but I wondered if the film would have benefited from more darkness, more humanity, more reality. Where were the moments of crippling fear? The raw emotion? The knee-buckling pain? Where's the traveler's grime or the hiker's hobble? Much of the darkness -- the reality -- of the original trilogy has been removed to make for a family friendly cartoon full of impressive -- but forgettable -- visual spectacles.

The owner of the theatre was so worried about me camping out in the cold that -- during the movie -- she called the police station and urged them to let me sleep at the station, which I ended up doing.

In the morning, I packed my things and got ready for my day's walk south, but I was held back by my conscience. This trip has become so much about love and compassion that I couldn't let the dog die in the pound. I determined to wait in town the three days so I could adopt it and take it along with me, but first I had to see if I could contact the dog's owners. I showed the police where the dog had come from on a map, but they said they didn't know how to get the phone number. I decided to put my internet stalking skills to good use, so -- through much googling -- I found the phone number of a neighbor of the dog owner and explained the situation.

Later, I got a call from the owner. "Thank you so much for taking care of our dog," she said. "A dog of ours died last year and many tears were shed. We'll be very happy to have him back."

And with that, I head south through Kansas, on to Oklahoma.


Kansas used to be an oil giant, but now, it seems, it's a dying industry with just a few rusty pump jacks.

My bear spray, ready to be deployed at a moment's notice.
Christmas packages in Potwin, KS from family and friends.
Some guilty pleasures.

Christmas Eve service in Potwin, KS.

Kansas the dog.
At the police station.

3-D goggles.
My police station room.
Another stupid sign.



Pat said...

I've made it to the present. I've read your whole blog from Duke to Acorn Abbey to Alaska and along the pipe line. Can't wait to read your book. Stay warm and dry. I'm in your corner.

dissed said...

You couldn't leave the dog because your heart is as big as Kansas. Be careful out there.

Anonymous said...

Peabody Pete

I was worried that you were out in the Kansas cold and wind during Christmas and New Years and sure enough, you were. I live in the Peabody area and I have driven many times down those roads that you were on from Marion to Potwin and Augusta and points south into Butler County during the construction phase of the Keystone pipeline. TransCanada could not hide the fact that they were burying a major pipeline. All I had to do was drive the country roads and I could see what and how they were doing it. I even took similar digital photos of the old abandoned, wooden oil storage tanks. You and I know the same road, but I saw it while the pipeline was being buried and you saw it after the fact. I know where they buried the pipe in a marsh at Kansas Highway 254 and River Valley Road, where they drilled under the Kansas Turnpike to push the pipe from one side to the other UNDER the Interstate, that they temporarily closed off county dirt side roads to bury the pipe heading north to south on down through Butler County and that they left several nice blacktop roadways with huge potholes and long term damage. The TransCanada operation was like a military invasion, it was done fairly quickly and efficiently. If I had not read about this project in the local newspaper in 2008, I would NEVER have known it existed. However, you have already walked past all those places that I know about and are on your way to new adventures down into Oklahoma. What you experienced about Kansas, the good and the bad, was true and real. Us Kansans live it every day. Good luck with your adventures and thanks for writing the details. You are a true adventurer.

Unknown said...

merry christmas, ken. its a shame you couldn't keep the dog but it seems it was for the better. i just finished reading you're "keystone chronicles", as i like to call them and can't help but admire you're perserverance and good attitude. I can't wait to do what you do some day, thank you for inspiring me to make a radical change in my lifestyle and may you continue to change lives.

Tesaje said...

You tell a good story. Your agony across that icy river made me laugh even tho I know how brutal it is walking in icy water! You are one tough hombre!

The mistake you made was giving that dog food. He looks young and is obviously untrained. As soon as you made friends with him, he decided you were his and faithfully followed you. It could be that he isn't being given enough attention at home or is new to them and hasn't bonded with his owners yet. You really treated him well but once you got a quarter mile away from his home, he had cast his lot with you and it was too late to tell him to go home. He just got confused. I'm glad he got returned to his owners. You did the right thing by him. He looks like a sweet dog. I hope his owners give him some training.

The attacking, snarling dogs are a different problem and baby talk is the wrong way to deal with them. The best way to treat them is to face them with a commanding stare right into their eyes. Say no in a loud, deep, and firm voice making yourself as big and dominant as you can. A step towards the dog helps too. Most of the time, a dog threatening and not actually on his property will back down. Turning your back and walking away looks like prey to an aggressive dog and encourages him to chase. You would do better walking slowly backwards while exerting as much imposing dominance as you can. Bear spray is good too if you have to. Giving a sit command works a lot of the time. Most dogs do get taught sit if nothing else. Keep your eyes on the dog. Looking away means the dog won in dog speak. Most dogs will look away as a sign of ok you win. If they don't, they are dangerous but you don't want to tell the dog he won. Dogs understand body language much better than speech but you have to do it in dog language, not human. Beware the dog who slinks away circling but gives you hard fearful looks. Those can often sneak back and bite you. We call them fear biters.

In my cycling days, I would turn around on the bike and start towards the attacking dogs ready to hit with my pump. Never had a single one continue the attack and I'm female. They always turned tail and ran back home. Reading dogs correctly is important for safety.

A woman alone in a theater is a bit vulnerable and is understandably wary of a strange man wanting inside before opening. Most of the time it is ok but then predators also use a con that looks the same. It is difficult to be generous when you are a bit scared and alone. It was nice of her to get the police to give you a room. It takes a bit of interaction to decide you are not some crazed rapist and just what you say you are. Good luck. This is a fascinating trek.

Anonymous said...

Get yourself a small slingshot. It wont do any permanent damage and most dogs will back off.

Lori Fischer said...

When you told me you were trying to be neutral as writer when I met you at the hearing in Nebraska I had to smile in my heart. It was not what I saw in your eyes as you said it. I could believed that might have been your intention at the start of your journey. But because of your intelligence I thought it would be impossible for you to logically justify any possibility of staying neutral once you saw the Tar Sands mining. Or educated your self on all the different aspects it effected and involved in building it besides the money and profits. Every step your were taking was bring you closer to the truth and an interesting way to express it.
I did worry if your youthful inexperience could comprehend or understand how cruel greedy men can be to get what they want with out regards to their fellow humans when I had first learned about your blog. After all your were crazy enough to think your could actually walk the entire length of the pipeline path with out comprehending all the dangers and hardships you could face along the way. In the beginning I under estimated your capabilities. Or even the need for your involvement past the desire to write a book.
Your blog shown me your capacity for understanding and how this fight has become personal to you. Most likely from the very start but you didn't know how to connect your self with the situation in a way that any one would listen to since its not in your own back yard. I hope I am right about why you walked so far just to write a book. For you to express your feelings and thoughts to others is by experiencing it first hand. Now I can't wait to read your book to learn about all your first hand adventure and learning experience.

Juanita said...

Dearest Ken: If only you had taken Thay (dog) for company!! BTW I totally disagree with the confrontation tactic proposed: never look a hostile dog in the eyes unless you intend to fight with it (i.e., bearspray). Ignoring is the tactic used by superior dogs, and then a quick snarl'get away' and go on (on guard.) Of course, dogs trained to be vicious are vicious. Bear spray is justified. Poor things. Thanks for caring for Kansas the dog so much. I have wept reading your trials--weather, closed doors, closed people, rivers, dogs, weather. And then there's ...Transcanada as an example of the all-out war on the world by profit. Love you. Rick brought me honey!!! What a treat, from the R Diamond Ranch. We are all rooting.
And sending love, gratitude, admiration. This trip has been so much more than you perhaps bargained for...more good, more real danger. Love your comments on the romanticism of The Hobbit!

Anonymous said...

Carry dog treats. good dogs like them the bad dogs run when you throw them.i walked 3200 miles the last half i carryed dog treats it worked great.

Ken said...

Pat and dissed and Frank--Thank you for the kind words..

Peabody Pete--I thought about turning back to Potwin in that weather, but once I started heading south, and *with* the wind, I was actually pretty comfortable. Despite a few setbacks, I think back on my time in Kansas with much fondness.

Tesaje--Thanks for the dog advice. Normally ignoring works for me, but I suppose not all dogs are the same. I usually don't turn back until I have to. As long as I can keep walking, I know I'll be okay; they never like getting too far from home. And yes, I definitely screwed by giving the dog jerky.

Juanita--Nicely put.. I'm tickled and touched that Rick brought you honey. I think nostalgically of that big dinner and our lovely evening together.