Dogs have scared me ever since I was little, when a German shepherd got loose from its abusive owner and terrorized our neighborhood. I'd worried about dogs a little when I was planning the bike trip, but I hadn't expected the problem to be a big one.
At first it wasn't. In the first two weeks of riding I was chased by growling mongrels every so often, and I wasn't too scared—I'd just pedal fast. Then I got into the hills, where it wasn't possible to out-run a dog if the grade was steep. I discovered that the smaller the road, and the more rural the area, the more dog-infested it was.
The day I left Charlottesville, six mangy canines chased me—barking, snarling, and nipping at my ankles—for what seemed like miles. When the pack finally veered off into the bushes and disappeared, I stopped my bike and sobbed hysterically. The day had been trying enough, with gravel roads and several map reading mistakes, and I decided that I was sick of riding.
“In fact, I don’t want to ride tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that!” I said to no one in particular. I quickly told myself to be quiet. I wanted to be having fun on this trip, darn it!
But after that day, I never really stopped thinking about dogs. The fear had taken hold inside of me, and was becoming larger than life and somewhat irrational. As soon as I heard a bark or a growl, my body would stiffen, the adrenaline would shoot through me, and I’d be reduced to a hyperventilating mess. My automatic response had started to be Pedal as Fast as Possible, not always the wisest or safest tactic. Dogs had become a monster to me.
“Aren’t you afraid?” “Isn’t that...dangerous?” So many people wanted to know if I was scared before I left.
*Well yeah, I am scared lately*, I realized one night. Ironically enough, everyone had thought humans would be the menace to look out for. People were the least of my concerns.
I managed to bury most of my fear and confusion about Dogs until the end of my stay at Sterling Mountain Community. Then, Sunday night, I couldn't keep it bottled in anymore.
"It will be cold tonight, and they’re predicting snow," Lou had said, earlier that evening. "Ellen down the hill has an extra bed if you'd like to sleep inside." The wind was chill and whistling in the eaves as I walked down to Ellen's apartment, and I wrapped my sweater tight around myself. It almost smelled like snow. I shivered then, not only because of the cold—I was remembering that tomorrow was D-day: departure day, and time to deal with dogs again. I shoved the thought out of my mind with as much force as I could muster.
I sat on Ellen's bed while she made dinner, and we chatted about the weather—chance of snow tomorrow, and can you believe this wind!“…We’ve been so interested to meet you,” Ellen said as she strained the pasta. “How is your trip going?”
That was the question I was dreading.* How is my trip?? Should I say I hate dogs? That I don't want to ride?*
Instead I said generically, “It’s been an amazing experience."
*After all*, I told myself fiercely, *Why should I have anything to complain about?*
“I’ve met lots of great people. And yet...”
I realized with embarrassment that I was starting to cry. “It’s so hard!” Then I was sobbing, like a dam had burst inside of me. Ellen was standing over me in a moment, and through my tears I saw her face, with its high cheekbones and concerned eyes.
“Can I give you a hug?” she asked.
“Oh yes!” I cried, and I reached out to her. She held me for a long time, and I cried out tears I’d been holding in for weeks. “I’m so scared of the dogs. And I feel awful that I come to places like your community and act all sad and self-centered. I'm not always like this!
“I miss getting hugs. And I’ve been thinking about how hard it'll be to go home—how I’m not gonna be a kid any more and sometimes I don’t want to give that up. I’m scared of the future, because I don’t know what it is. I told myself I wanted a ‘vision quest,' to test myself—but I feel like I’m missing the point of the trip, somehow. What's the use of it? I push myself and push myself, but I don’t know if I can do it!”
I stopped for a breath, and continued more slowly, "It's all turned into dogs lately—mostly I'm always afraid. Maybe I'm covering other things. But oh, it all feels stupid and I'm so tired!” I buried my face in Ellen’s sweater.
“Thank you,” I said after a long time. She understood.
My tears had slowed to a trickle, and now Ellen talked. “Maybe you’re pushing yourself too hard,” she said finally. “Have you thought about going home early? There's no dishonor in that—I don't think…”
“No,” I said, finally, “It wouldn't be right to stop now. I know it wouldn’t.”
We sat there on my sleeping bag, arms around each other, far into the night.
My mom's advice, when I called her the next day, was to accept my feelings.
"I can't!" I wailed into the receiver. "I feel horrible!
"I just mean that traveling isn't going to be a bed of roses all the time," Mom said. "After a while, on a trip this long, euphoria wears off and it's life again. The trip'll have fantastic moments and awful ones. But you shouldn't think that because you're on the trip of a lifetime you have to feel good all the time. That's what you need to accept—that you feel horrible, and that's okay. Then you can move on."
From where I was lying, I saw the bird feeder outside the window whipping around in the wind, rhythmically clacking against the shingles. The sky was even grayer than yesterday. I was shivering even though I wasn’t cold, and I pulled the blankets around me. After I hung up the phone, I slipped into a dark, dreamless sleep.
That night, I remembered the quote by Eleanor Roosevelt:
You must do the thing
you think you cannot do.