As I’ve mentioned here and there, running is not my favorite form of exercise. Not by a long shot. I can name several other workouts I’d rather do. However, I do run, and when traveling, it is often my only form of calorie combat.
I haven’t had too many negative running experiences on my travels. The few I have had almost always involve dogs. Usually it’s a dog charging at me from his yard, barking wildly and nearly sending me into cardiac arrest, stopping just short of my tasty shin bone only because of invisible fencing (I presume), actual fencing, or the owner mildly admonishing the dog—”No, no Fluffy.” Then, “Don’t worry, he wouldn’t hurt a fly.“—clearly oblivious to the distress that Fluffy is causing me, poised as he is in a pre-lunge crouch, growling ominously and baring his fangs.
Once, in rural Belgium, I was chased by a whole pack of farm dogs. They were a motley crew of sizes, shapes, and breeds—almost like something you’d see in a Disney® movie. In fact, it would have been funny if it hadn’t been so terrifying. The clever way I evaded them was to run up the berm alongside the rural road. The berm had been stripped of whatever had been growing on it (wheat? corn?) and what was left was what I like to call “crop stubble”—the hard, knee-high stalks left behind after the harvest. Standing among the stubble was no sweat for this bipedal human, but would have been like a thousand knife-pokes in the belly for the canine gang, and they knew it. So, after we glared at each other for a few seconds—they, trapped down on the dirt road, barking madly, and I, trapped up on the berm, heart rate in overdrive—I started to pick my way over the stalks back the way I had come.
The four-legged bullies, now deprived of a human target, turned to go harass rabbits or terrorize squirrels or whatever bored farm dogs do when they aren’t chasing runners. Then, suddenly, the husband’s footfalls sounded behind me. He had been a ways ahead of me and somehow gotten through the menacing horde unscathed on the outbound leg of the run. Now, retracing his steps, he ran right through them a second time, simply ignoring their renewed yapping and threatening street gang demeanor as I stood there, mouth agape. (I think he was employing that show no fear technique I keep hearing about but can’t quite master.) This group of terrifying wolf relatives, though still barking up a storm, basically dispersed as the husband ran straight through the pack, like Moses parting the Red Sea. They were all bark and no bite, the little bastards.
But in Colorado this past summer, the dog wasn’t the problem. It was his human.
We had arrived at our campground on the outskirts of Colorado City, right where the pancake-flat plains first meet the mountains. Once settled and sated with the local cuisine, we inquired as to whether the frontage road between the campsite and the interstate was good for running. Yes indeed, an employee confirmed. It went around a foothill behind us and then circled back to the campground. In all, he said, about seven miles. Geez, seven miles. As I mentioned, I don’t really like running, and I have a “bad knee”, which I conveniently use to get out of doing any run I deem too long. Seven miles was pushing it, but I had just eaten the most delectable—and large—tamale meal (with requisite margarita) and I had to combat those calories somehow. Besides which, this was a road trip, meaning a lot of sitting in the car. Also, I usually save my crapping-out-of-exercise for the last several days of any trip, and we were just starting out. Ergo, I reluctantly agreed to run with the husband.
The next morning we got right to it. We ran and ran and ran around this never-ending hill. The scenery was nice, we were chit-chatting pleasantly, and I was in Colorado, so that gave me the mental boost I needed to endure longer than usual. Still, after a while I began to wonder where the damn interstate, and thus our frontage road, was. Finally, we saw it in the distance, miniature semis zipping back and forth, confirming its existence.
The relief didn’t last long. As we got close to the interstate, two things went wrong in quick succession: first, I was forced to hurdle a snake sunning itself in the middle of my path, then we discovered that there was no frontage road. Our road simply went over the interstate and kept on going, back into the hills. Surely it had to circle back to the highway and become a frontage road on the other side, we thought. So we kept running, though my bonhomie—six miles in and post-snake-encounter—was starting to wane.
After several minutes of jogging on the road that continued to snake back away from the highway, tempers were starting to flare. We were caught in an one of those impossible situations: do we go back the way we came, guaranteeing a 12+-mile run (when the most I’d ever run at once in my life was a 10K, or 6.2 miles) or keep pushing on, hoping to find a road that would round back to the highway but which had the potential to be disastrous if it just kept twisting back toward the mountains?
Before we could make up our minds, we noticed a vehicle coming down the road in our direction, a cloud of brown dust puffing up around it. As the ancient pickup came to a halt in front of us, the window lowered, revealing an old, crotchety-looking man with a face like a well-worn catcher’s mitt and his little Toto-like dog.
Me: Excuse me, sir, do you know if this road leads to the highway, or do we have to go back the way we came?
Old Man: (eyes squinting at us suspiciously) You have to go back.
Me: (making certain he understood our dilemma – I did not want to retrace the miles we’d already run) So we have to go back? There’s no way to keep going and meet the highway?
Old Man: That’s right. Now git the hell out!
Me: (stunned) Uhhh… are… are we on private property?
Old Man: Yes, now git the hell out!
Sensing that we now had a much worse problem to deal with than an overly long run, we quickly transformed into our most harmless, innocent-looking selves, explaining how the man at the KOA gave us bad directions and we were just out for a jog and we only wanted to get back and we were really, really sorry, and no, we didn’t see a closed gate or a no trespassing sign and again we were just so, so sorry.
Softening slightly, the old man (still clinging to his grumpiness) pointed over his shoulder and said he would give us one-time permission to climb that there hill, which would eventually take us to the highway. During a momentary pause when we were silently considering whether to be grateful for or wary of his offer, he caved further, saying we could climb in the back of his pickup and he would take us to the perimeter of his property. That is, back to the closed gate and no trespassing sign we had so obtusely missed.
Instantly recognizing that this was a much better deal than climbing that there hill—though we’d still have all those miles to contend with once we got out—we jumped in and tried to get comfortable among the tires, gas cans, and cow feed. We bumped along for a bit until we came to the gate. It was wiiiiiiide open, almost beckoning joggers to enter. The old man got out, grumbled something about how it was supposed to have been closed, and then grumbled some more about how the sign was down in the ditch. (We looked and saw nothing but grass.) As he closed the gate, we got to asking him a few questions. We found out he was a rancher and chatted about ranching life for a few minutes. Turns out new-fangled ranchers use four-wheelers to rustle up their cattle. Not him—he goes out on horseback. We genuinely marveled at this, given that he had to be 110 years old by the look of his wrinkled face that was not unlike a raisin left behind on the counter for three days. (I’m not being mean—he just looked really old. The husband picked up a saying back when we lived in Montana: ridden hard and put away wet. That was our rancher-chauffeur to a T.)
Concluding now that perhaps we weren’t government spies in disguise, he suddenly offered to drive us back to the KOA—in the back of the pickup, mind you. (His dog was busy using the front seat.) Feeling certain that riding down the highway in the back of a pickup is definitely illegal, we hunkered down so as to avoid being seen and endured a good 7-10 hair-raising minutes, first on more bumpy dirt road, then on slightly less bumpy, but much windier high-speed interstate, clutching whatever seemed least likely to go flying out of the truck bed, which for me was a tire. After what felt like the longest short ride ever—during which I yelled at the husband several times for sitting up and looking around—we felt the truck slow and lean as it exited the interstate. Moments later we gingerly climbed out of the truck, bruised but not broken.
Coming around to the side of the car where the old man sat, I asked him his name. With just the slightest bit of suspicious hesitation, he told me: Jack. “Do you mind me asking how old you are, Jack?” Eighty-six. Then I thanked him not only for the ride, but also for a great adventure. I finished by introducing myself and the husband and telling him he’d given us a great story to put into our Christmas letter.
With that, he actually smiled.
I would have loved to have gotten a picture of Jack to show you all, but I knew better than to ask. Given his reluctance to reveal even his first name, I knew that if I had pulled out my cellphone and aimed, he would have grabbed it and smashed it with the butt-end of the rifle that surely lay under the bench seat of his aged truck. (I’ll admit to applying a bit of a rancher/cowboy stereotype here.)
Three weeks and 5500 miles later, back at home, I did some research on highway codes. Turns out riding down the highway in the back of a pickup—though incredibly dangerous—is perfectly legal in several states, including Colorado!
So what about you? Do you have any running stories from your travels? Ever been chased by a dog? Yelled at by a rancher? Some other adventure? The comment box is waiting…