It had rained through the night. I slept with my beanie on and with my sleeping bag pulled over my head and when I woke I could see my breath. For a while I didn’t move. My legs ached from the twenty-seven miles we walked the day before.
Savannah was curled in the corner. She was using my down jacket as a pillow. Her side rose and fell as she slept.
When I finally stirred Savannah awoke, stretched, then stood with her nose at the zipper to leave.
I unzipped the tent to let her out, then I opened her food bowl and sat it in the damp grass. With the tent unzipped only enough to let Savannah outside, she disappeared from sight. The grass muffled her footsteps, but I knew she went to the side of the hill where I had chucked last night’s pasta. An eggplant and pepper purée I’d bought thinking was pasta sauce turned out to be inedible in large quantities.
I packed the things inside the tent then crawled into the free mountain air.
I pulled on my waterproof gloves and zipped my down jacket to my chin. Then I spread out my tarp to protect my things from the wet ground and unpacked and repacked my cart. The sound of water falling through the trees made for a peaceful morning. The forecast claimed it would be cloudy through morning but sunny in the afternoon.
As I was nearly finished packing Savannah meandered back to camp. I bent to greet her and she pushed her head against my stomach as she was want to do.
“Hello, my love. You find some pasta?”
Her tail wagged in low, uneven circles. Even as a puppy she wagged her tail oddly, as though she’d never been taught how to do it properly.
I gave her a pat on the side and she went over to her bowl and laid down to eat. When I was finished packing she was still eating so I leaned against a pine tree and looked down the hill to town and the plains beyond it.
Just a couple hundred years ago the land had been a more severe desert. Temperatures still rose to simmering highs in summer, but forestation and modest agriculture had tamed the landscapes harshest impulses. Now there were villages stretching to the horizon.
I felt a pat on my calf and turned to see Savannah wagging her tail.
“You have a good meal?”
I reached to pet her but she ducked my hand and bolted away, beginning a sprint in circles through the grass.
Her bowl was still half full. Even if she hadn’t found the pasta that’s all she would have eaten. Somehow she never needed more than a single bowl of food in a day.
Once Savannah was satisfied with her sprints she came back over. I clicked her leash on and we followed a dirt trail until returning to the road. We had climbed twelve-hundred feet the night before but had another two thousand feet in ascent still ahead of us.
The road consisted of a dozen switchbacks winding to the summit. I resolved to cover two switchbacks at a time. That broke the ascent into manageable chunks and forced me to push beyond where I would have stopped if I was being easy on myself.
As I pushed uphill I felt sweat building across my back. The muscles in my upper body were tense from pushing the cart, my calves strained and my lungs heaved in the sharp mountain air.
Savannah trotted easily beside me. She had no knowledge of the battle I was waging. Her tail was raised jauntily as she explored the interesting scents around her.
Switchback after switchback we rose higher, pushing deeper into the clouds. Soon the cloud cover was so thick I could see little more than a few feet in front of me.
When we finally summited, and the road flattened out, I let go of Savannah’s leash and dropped myself on the ground.
Sav went to sniff around while I laid on my back to catch my breath.
As I laid there the warmth of my body was quickly overtaken by the cold air. The condensation from the clouds sharpened the cold so that it cut easily through the down, fleece and wool layers I was wearing. I could have laid there another half an hour but I stood and got walking to stay warm.
Atop the mountain the road undulated in small hills. When ascending I had to unzipped my jacket to cool off. When descending I was gripped with cold and needed to pull my jacket to my chin.
I walked in a sort of panic. It was too cold to stop. And being fully bundled, with my hood up and my buff pulled over my nose, walking through dense cloud cover, I could barely see or hear.
Shadows of restaurants and cafés lined the road, but all of them were closed.
Amid the fog I passed three men standing outside a restaurant making tea over a coal fire. I could see them as dim silhouettes. An underfed dog darted away with its tail between its legs when it spotted Savannah.
The men called out to me.
“Baku!” I said, not understanding Azeri, but assuming they were asking were I was headed.
One of the men rose to his feet which caused me to stop and wait for him.
He was a laborer of some sort. I could see it in the hard skin of his face. He said something in Azeri.
“I don’t know. English.”
“Baki,” he said, then made an ‘X’ with his arms.
“Baki.” He held up his arms in an ‘X’ again.
“Oh, okay. Thank you.”
“Today. No Baki.” He wagged a finger.
“Thank you,” I said.
He nodded. The men behind him watched as still as statues, their hands held frozen above the glowing red coals.
Baku being closed was a bad sign. I thought I might outrun Covid-19 here. The virus had shuttered Italy and was hitting the shores of the US, but in the Caucuses there were only a handful of cases. If the countries here began taking precautionary measures and closing their borders I could get stuck. But Kazakhstan was still open and I was only five days from the ferry. If I could make it there I’d have at least another two weeks of walking before reaching the Uzbekistan border and needing to reassess.
Savannah and I charged forward. I was taking long strides and Savannah was practically running. I wanted to get to the descent as quickly as possible.
A German shepherd materialized from the clouds and charged at Savannah.
Savannah darted behind me and I tightened the leash to keep her close. Just before the German shepherd reached her I got my foot against the its neck and held him back.
With a second to process things I realized the German shepherd was friendly. It had appeared so quickly Sav and I turned defensive, but the dog’s tail was wagging and he was well-groomed and collared.
From the clouds appeared a man. He stopped a few feet away and waved. He called to his dog and they both disappeared as quickly as they came.
Sav and I continued in their direction but they were already gone.
A car rolled slowly by. I heard it coming but its weak headlights were only visible once beside me.
We hurried on. All covered up and walking frantically I couldn’t tell how much time had passed until we cleared the clouds.
Things opened all at once. Just like that the cloud was behind us and I could see the road leading to two men working on the roof of a small restaurant. The restaurant was surrounded by trim green grass and pines farther on. The world had appeared so eery and unwelcoming just minutes before. Now it was almost bucolic.
As Sav and I followed the bend in the road I waved to the men on the roof and they waved back. I unzipped my jacket and let my hood down. A weak sunlight fell across my face.
Across the street a lanky street dog appeared to bark at us.
“It’s alright,” I said to Sav.
The dog started forward then was pushed back by a passing car. It wasn’t a mean dog. After thousands of encounters I had learned to read dogs incredibly well. I’d be able to scare this dog off just by turning towards it or pretending to pick up a stone.
But a second dog slipped under the guard rail and I knew at a glance it was not the same as skittish street dog which had called it. This was a mean one.
It was a Kangal – meaning huge. Its white hair was dirty and it drug behind it a long broken chain which rattled as it approached.
I bent over the rail to my left and found two large stones.
I curled her leash tight around my left hand so I had better control over her. If she ran it would set off the other dogs. We had to move slowly.
The Kangal barked as it crossed the street to us.
I pretended to pick up a stone. The street dog darted back but my action only enraged the Kangal. It barked louder and leapt forward on its front paws.
As the Kangal crossed the lane line I saw in its eyes that it was the sort of dog I had not encountered in a long time.
It snarled and bore its teeth and meant it. If given the chance this dog would tear off my arm and kill Savannah.
Savannah was pulling wildly on my left arm but I pulled back with equal force to keep us moving slowly. To our left was a guardrail and steep drop-off so there was nothing to do but get to the other side of this dog’s territory – wherever that may be.
As the dog snarled and barked, edging closer, the chain behind it rattled an ominous music.
Soon the dog was so close it needed just two pounces to be at my leg.
My focus was trained on its teeth. It bore them with such malice. I knew from the determination in the dog’s eyes that the large stones in my hand were just bluster, even if I hit the creature square in the teeth it would only come at us more viciously.
I needed a car to pass to scare the dog and put some space between us.
Maybe one was coming, but I couldn’t know. I was too concerned to look away. If the dog charged I’d only have a small window to kick it. I’d have to be accurate; I’d have to get it right under the chin.
Sav and I worked our way down the road one half-step at a time. I wasn’t paying attention to Savannah and didn’t feel my feet moving, but soon we were directly across from a shack across the street. Most likely the shack was what the dog was guarding. If so it meant we were halfway to safety. We just needed to get a little farther until the alarm in the dog’s head settled down.
But the dog grew more confident. It must have realized I wasn’t going to throw the stones at it. It neared closer, just three feet away. When the dog snarled I could see the skin of its snout wrinkle to pull back its nose. I could see its gums and each exposed tooth with perfect clarity. Then it leapt forward, snapping at the air in front of me. I nearly swung a foot to kick it, but I hesitated, not wanting to expose myself or incite the dog further.
The dog withdrew, then lunged forward again, snapping at the air just a foot from my shin.
As the dog clamped its teeth down, time held still.
From years of experience dealing with territorial dogs I’d been able to maintain a cool head, but at that moment I realized I had no framework to deal with this dog. For the first time, the severity of my situation dawned on me.
The realization was visceral. I felt a hit of adrenaline. I felt it in my chest and felt it warm my ears.
I saw the dog moving in slow motion, pulling back from its probe. I saw that for a moment the dog settled on its hind legs and when it did it was still and I had an opening to throw a stone at its teeth.
But I didn’t throw one.
Instead my mind was cast back nearly five years to when I was attacked by two dogs in Georgia. I had no experience of how to handle them so I circled my cart to keep it between me and them until I got far enough from their territory that they left me alone.
I hadn’t done that since. I had learned more effective strategies. I made wide circles around some dogs. I could balance groups of them by pretending to pick up stones. I’d even become adept at pushing dogs back with a foot to the neck if they turned nasty after getting too close to Savannah. But somehow I had never needed to use my cart as a barrier after that first time.
Now it was the only option remaining.
I stepped to the side of my cart so I was walking backwards, facing the Kangal. Savannah was pulling frantically on my left arm so all I needed to do was rest my right hand on the cart to keep it moving.
The dog adjusted so it was in direct pursuit, walking parallel the guardrail. I pulled the cart in tight so there was only a foot of space between the cart tire and the rail.
The dog bore its teeth inches from the tire, but seemed reluctant to attack in such a tight space.
As I took small steps backwards I tried to leave the space between the cart and the rail just wide enough to keep the dog from changing strategy. I didn’t want it ducking under the rail or circling around to force Sav and I back in the direction from which we’d come.
Finally a car passed.
The dog jumped back out of instinct and that was enough to stop its pursuit.
It snarled and barked, but it didn’t follow us. It seemed satisfied we were out of its territory.
When we were far enough that I knew we were safe, I turned and flung the stones downhill as hard as I could.
“God fucking damnit! Fuck!”
Savannah was pulling hard on my arm so I yanked her back.
I looked down the road to see the two men on the roof watching. The dog was far away now.
I sighed and rubbed my face.
“Sorry. I’m sorry, baby girl.” I rubbed Savannah’s head. “You did a good job. You did a very good job, Savannah.”
I bent down and brought her over to me. She put her head against my stomach while I scratched her back. She wagged her tail in her low, awkward way.
“Great job, Savannah. Great job. You did so good, Savannah.”
I grabbed Sav by the head and kissed her on the forehead. Now that the trial was over I was exhilarated. Adrenaline was still pumping through my veins.
Sav and I walked a long while. Time was a blur as my mind ran through what I’d done and all the possible things I could have done differently. We passed through town and upon spotting a decent restaurant I felt exhaustion catch up to me.
What time was it? How long had we been walking through the clouds? How far had we walked since encountering that dog?
The restaurant had a large covered patio. I parked the cart against a wall and tied Savannah to it then gave her a pat on the head and went inside.
A short, well-dressed man was there to greet me.
“Do you have food?” I pinched my fingers together and put them towards my mouth to signal eating.
“Yes. What would you like?”
“You speak English.”
“So-so. More Russian and Turkish. And Arabic very nicely.
“Lots of languages.”
“That yours?” He pointed to Savannah.
“That’s my girl. From Texas.”
He turned and I followed him to the kitchen. He opened a freezer and pointed to the different options.
“Chicken, kebab, lamb.”
The chicken, sitting in its own juices, didn’t look particularly appetizing so I pointed to the kebabs which were freshly skewered.
“Good. How many?”
“Three. And some vegetables, and a coffee, please.”
“Very good. Please, have a seat.”
I went to the back corner of the restaurant, nodding to a group of men who looked at me as I passed.
When I sat down I felt a tremendous relief wash over me. It was warm and there was no wind. My fingers stung as they came back from the cold.
The owner sat a cup of instant coffee in front of me.
“Very cold, today.”
“It is. Can I have three pieces of lamb as well? The ones with the bone.”
“Three kebabs and three pieces of lamb.”
“The lamb is for my dog.”
“Ah. Very good. No problem. Three kebabs and three pieces of lamb.”
The owner went off. I curled my hands greedily around the warm cup of coffee. I still wasn’t sure how far Sav and I had walked that day, but it felt like we’d come a long way.