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  • Ken Ilgunas

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.

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