Sunday, November 8, 2009

There are more good people than angry dogs (Piedmont & Thorngrove)

There is a small country store in Piedmont, TN with a wooden bench and two barren gas pumps standing sentry outside, relics of a bygone era. It was the only public bench I had seen in miles, so I decided to cool myself and rest in the shade.

As I sat on the bench a steady stream of locals entered the store. With each group of two or three we would exchange a pleasant hello, their eyes sweeping over me and my bag as they wondered to themselves who I was and where I came from.

A middle aged woman came outside and had to squeeze past me to get to a small whiteboard I hadn't noticed. She erased what was there and wrote today's lunch special - pork chops, green beans, potato salad and sweet tea. My stomach rumbled. I knew there wouldn't be another lunch spot in a five mile radius, so I slipped back into my shoes and ducked inside.

I sat at a long folding table with three gentleman dressed in work clothes. They were still waiting for their food so they struck up a conversation with me about my journey. The informal set up of this country store didn't favor private conversations so like a forest fire the topic of my walk jumped from table to table until all 12 or 13 people present were asking me questions.

The local pastor was there and he asked me who I had stayed with the previous night in Morristown. There was a woman sitting by herself who asked where my journey had started and was excited to learn it hadn't been far from Schenectady where she had lived for a number of years before moving to Piedmont. One person asked me if I was married. I told them I wasn't and that turned into a couple minutes of good natured jokes about husbands and wives and the many combined years of "putting up with each other" represented in that room. They warned me about certain parts of Knoxville and I listened politely, always preferring my own experiences to other people's judgments. I changed the subject and brought up college football and sure enough everyone in that room bled big orange.

The talk continued as I worked my way through lunch, delivered on a paper plate with a huge plastic cup of sweet tea. When I described my experience so far to my assembled lunch mates one of the men at my table summed it up rather nicely. "There are more good people out there than bad," he said. A few minutes later, as if to punctuate that point, the local pastor and his friend paid for my check on their way out.

Exactly a day later I was walking on another country road in nearby Thorngrove, TN. There was no country store in sight, just winding road, country homes and the sounds of Terry Gross in my headphones. Let me back up for a second here and make a general observation about Eastern Tennessee. The people here have been wonderful. The dogs ... eh, not so much.

I am aware that dogs aren't the smartest of creatures. Country dogs have evolved to a place where they don't bark at every passing car. I can attest, however, that they most certainly do bark at every passing walker. I'm cool with that. I've been walking for nearly 70 days and the truce I have expertly crafted with canines had held firm.

These are the terms of the truce. When I see a dog that isn't fenced in or tied up, I cross to the other side of the road. It sees me and inevitably starts to bark. It often comes to the edge of the property line or runs back and forth in the yard like it's possessed, but as long as it doesn't come out into the road, we're cool. Then there is the small subset of dogs who aren't inhibited by the road I've put between them and me. That is when I have to make a judgement call. Certain such calls are easy, such as the dog who has a few initial barks to wish me hello and then comes trotting out into the road a few paces behind me to get my scent and follows along for a spell. I sense only friendship in those instances and not danger.

However, there is a final scenario that I always am hoping to avoid and it has become more and more common now that I've been in Eastern Tennessee. Here is how it goes: I'm on a small country road and a free ranging dog sees me. I cross the road but it starts barking and comes charging out of its yard and into the street, stopping maybe five feet from me and barking ferociously. That is when I have to morph. Not into the dog whisperer, but into the dog growler.

Leading up to this past Friday that has happened about six times in 70 days. In all such instances when I turned around and faced the dog in the street and barked back at them they would quickly retreat another five feet to bark at a safer distance. That was good. I knew they were scared of me and I could continue on knowing the dog was mostly bluster.

Unfortunately, all truces come to an end. Without seeming like some sort of Shaman I have to admit that I have developed an inner knowing on this trip which kicked in on Friday when I saw a large muscular black dog up in the distance easily wandering across this country road in Thorngrove. I knew it was going to be trouble. Something in its gait belied its danger.

Before the dog ever saw me I took off my headphones and sheathed my only defense mechanism - my cylindrical aluminum canteen with a plastic screw cap that slides into the crook of my index finger. I felt like young David marching inexorably toward the Philistine battle field. I crossed the road, still hoping the truce would hold, but sensing it would be fruitless.

When I was almost parallel with the house they saw me. It turns out there were two of them. Both barked but only the black one came bounding out into the road without hesitation. It was barking and growling with its incisors showing. On a narrow country road it stopped right on the yellow line, only five feet separating me and it.

I barked back and it didn't budge. A car came up and couldn't pass because the dog was in the center of the road. The car blew its horn to try and scare the dog off but it had no effect. Instead it started to inch closer to me, continuously barking. Well, I said to myself, adrenaline coursing through my veins, I guess it is "go" time.

The aluminium canteen was poised on my index finger and I took a few warning swings in front of its face. The dog was unbowed and only moved to try and take a different angle. The car kept bleating its horn but the dog only seemed to become more bold. I made a steely calculation. I paused for an extra second to let the dog make its fateful decision and then I had it "say hello to my LITTLE friend!"


In what can best be described as an expertly placed Federer forehand I smacked the dog right across its jaw as it lunged at my leg. The dog let out a loud yelp and immediately turned on its heels and fled back to the safety of its porch.

Game. Set. Match.

I walked on and the car pulled up next to me to make sure I was all right, wanting me to know they were honking at the dog and not me. I thanked them and continued on, glancing back just to make sure the canine Goliath didn't want to go a second round.

It didn't. I doubt that I will have another run in with a dog on this trip which comes to violence. Just like there are many more good people in the world than those who wish harm, there are far more kind dogs who just want to bark and carry on rather than try to take a piece out of my leg. For those who do have designs on my flesh however, let this be a lesson for you.

I might speak softly, but I carry a big aluminum canteen.