Saltzman at Night: I did not anticipate the teeth.
I can see the dog’s teeth.
What strikes me is not that the teeth have the potential to puncture skin, but that I can actually see them.
It is pitch black, the cold winter trees of Forest Park blocking out the moonlight. Moments earlier I’d been alone and flying. Descending a slippery dirt and gravel road in a light rain, with a small ache in between my shoulder blades from having been folded into the drops for so long. The bike loved the road. The road loved the bike.
I was following a cone of light into corners that revealed themselves at the last minute. I knew the road well enough to anticipate them, and I’d grown bold. My thin, knobby tires hugged the slippery leaves that coated the path.
What I did not anticipate was the dog.
I’d noticed the light up ahead, with two curves notice. It was not as bright as mine and bobbing in place, indicating that it was attached to the head of a human being on foot. Not on bike.
I’d slowed coming out of the approaching corner, aware that a renegade speeding cyclist in the middle of a rainstorm might spook a night hiker. The woman was surrounded by dogs. Six of them.
Perhaps she imagined that six unleashed dogs in the middle of a forest night might spook an otherwise unsuspecting cyclocrosser, because she called them close to her and, when they edged toward me to investigate, told them to “leave it”.
Her voice had sounded sure and the three that had been coming my way retreated, so I’d been convinced I was going to clear the group without incident. I’d bid her good evening, continued to roll past slowly, and cooed at the dogs to let them know that I was a friend.
Then I’d looked once over my left shoulder, released my hold on the brakes, and stabbed down on my crank. The bike resumed speed and the next corner made an appearance.
Then the teeth.
The teeth are attached to a dog, of course. A big one, with a medium, dappled coat.
The dog is fast and despite the fact that I am descending most of the hill without brakes, I can’t drop him. He runs to my left, within a foot of my line, barking. This is a game of chase, but I never said I wanted to play.
I wager that I can outride the dog – how long can a dog really run this fast, I wonder. He swerves toward the front of my tire and I hold my line, finger poised over the brake. If the dog runs in front of me, then I at least plan to maim him while he takes me down so as to avoid being eaten alive after the crash.
Prior to this, I’d been riding in the other direction – up this very road – Saltzman, and before that, Leif Erickson. Both roads rise up from the lowlands of Portland’s northwest district toward Skyline, which runs in a quiet undulation at the top of the ascent. Leif is bumpy and meandering, Saltzman is slippery, smaller, and rises with more aggression. I prefer Saltzman, but both ascents have taken something out of my focus.
I’m tired. And the dog will not give up.
I slow less than I should into corners, afraid that my would-be attacker will be able to lay claim to a calf muscle during the lull. The ground moves underneath me while the tires slide. My head is full of calculations as to whether a crash will do me more bodily harm than a dog attack.
I decide that if I’m going out, it will be in a blaze of glory. My fingers moves off the brake.
I am not known for my ability to descend at speed and the dog must know this because the chase persists. The forest is filled with the sound of my tires through mud and leaves, punctuated by a low, aggressive series of barks.
“Keep barking,” I think, “That barking will slow you down.”
Still, the sound of the dogs voice goes straight into my heart. I am concentrating too hard to be truly afraid, but I am also aware that my physical being is in imminent danger.
Corner after slow corner with the dog’s breath on my leg. Spin, spin, spin. Moving legs are hard to bite, that’s my theory.
I’m astounded by this canine persistence. How far have we gone? How far is the gate? Where is that crazy dog woman to call her crazy dog? How did she let this one get away?
I think of her up on the road above us with the other five. She’s wringing her hands and walking down the path as fast as she can go. She might as well give up, because we’re at least a mile away and moving ever faster.
Time for a new tactic.
Sweet-talking. “You’re such a good doggie. Hi sweetie, it’s just me. I’m so nice and I don’t taste good at all.”
My sing-song voice only makes the dog bark louder.
Finally, I am blessed with a few consecutive straightaways. I push my biggest gear (which isn’t very big) and begin to pull away. The dog is starting to fatigue.
I sense an imminent getaway and find more speed.
Just as suddenly as the teeth had appeared, they are gone. I look back over my shoulder and see the dog standing, panting hard. Dejected. Beaten. Conquered. In retreat.
Two turns later I see the bottom gate and realize that we’ve covered even more distance than I thought. Feelings come back to me in pieces. I’m exhausted. Then freezing. Then relieved.
My computer tells me that my heart rate is higher than it should be. I’m ten miles from home and it’s raining. Highway thirty is a late night death trap worthy, perhaps, of more fear than an encroaching set of incisors.
I ride home faster than I should and arrive on the front porch of my house breathing hard, soaked to the bone, with the fine grit of mud still grinding and crackling between my molars.
“How was your ride?” Sal asks.
“Ask the dog.”
“I’ll tell you after my shower.”
The hot stream of water is sweet relief and I offer a special, silent thanks to the cycling gods for the long stretch of smooth, intact skin on my left calf.