“NO! BAD DOG!!!” The 10,000 Mile Bike Trek

I camped out for the first time on my bike journey at McConnell State Recreation Area on the Merced River

I camped out for the first time on my bike journey at McConnell State Recreation Area on the Merced River.

There’s this thing about my body: it’s tough. Bouncing back from the second day of my bike trip is a good example. Once my body and its fat cells learned there were no options, they resigned themselves to hitting the road. It helped that I would be cycling over flat land. Make that flat, flat, flat.

I attribute my body’s toughness to working hard as a kid. This isn’t an Old Fartism; I didn’t walk five miles to school through a blinding snowstorm and five feet of snow. I lived a block away from school and we were lucky if we had five inches of snow once every five years. But starting at 14, I worked in the fruit orchards around Diamond, and it was hard, grueling labor that I somehow found fun. Both my body and mind learned that hard work didn’t kill me— and that there is a certain satisfaction from meeting hard physical challenges. It was a lesson that served me well in my years of backpacking and bicycling.

Leaving Escalon, I had some 250 miles of the Central Valley of California ahead of me— five days to get in shape before tackling the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The Central Valley is one of the richest farm lands in the US, and, indeed, the world. I saw a lot of walnut trees, fruit trees and grapes. If you are a farmer, this is exciting stuff. If not, well the first three hours of cycling through grape orchards might be interesting. After that, it is good to have other things to occupy your mind, like dogs for example. They are always good for a few seconds of heart-thumping entertainment. Loose dogs are the bane of bicyclists. Here’s what I had to say in my journal.

3/15/89: It was a long day through raisin land. I must have had 20 dogs ranging in size from Chihuahua to Doberman decide they wanted a piece of me. I varied my tactics depending on the size of the dog. I slowed down for little ones, cycling just fast enough to keep ahead of them while telling them what good dogs they were. I would speed up for mid-sized dogs and get away. The big ones were the problem. First I would try a sharp, “No! Bad Dog!” If that didn’t work, I would calculate my chance of escaping. Having a down hill helped. If all else failed, I would get off my bike and have a discussion with the dog. Bending down and picking up a rock was a language that most of them understood. One particularly large brute didn’t get the message. I yanked off my air pump and prepared for confrontation. All that stood between us was my bike. He issued a deep, hungry growl while I waved my pump around ninja style. Only a whistle and then demand from his master saved the day. Reluctantly, very reluctantly, he returned to his house.

One road, Conejo, was by far the worst. I think that there must have been a requirement that each house have at least one large dog, that it be loose, and that it have a strong belief that cyclists were wild game to be chased down and eaten.

Congo Road featured this market as well as big dogs. The graffiti is a modern addition.

Conejo Road featured this market as well as big dogs. The graffiti is a modern addition.

My journey from Escalon led me down the west side of the Central Valley following Santa Fe Drive, a road with railroad tracks on one side and farms on the other. Traffic ranged from being busy with big trucks to isolated with a few tractors and pickup trucks. One 18-wheeler brushed by my bike and sent me scurrying off the road, causing my first flat. That was the bad part of the day, followed by some very bad words.

Cycling down Santa Fe Drive featured long, straight stretches, fruit trees and a train track.

Cycling down Santa Fe Drive featured long, straight stretches, fruit trees and a train track.

Train tracks meant trains, which I always considered an excuse to get off my bike and watch them pass.

Train tracks meant trains, which I always considered an excuse to get off my bike and wave at as they passed.

The good part was ending up that night at McConnell State Recreation area on the banks of the Merced River. Stately cottonwoods and other trees provided shade while a variety of birds provided music. It was my first camping out on the trip. When I unloaded my tent, Bone fell out. Apparently, he had been napping. A friend had slipped him into my pack. That night, I wrote letters by candlelight.

(Wi-Fi, Facebook, blogs, texting and cell phones and other forms of modern communication were not yet available in 1989. Except for pay phones, letters were the only way I had to communicate during my six-months of travel.)

The Merced River as it flows through McConnell State Park. When Peggy and I drove through there a few weeks ago, a sign warned swimmers that there were leeches in the water. We didn't go swimming.

The Merced River as it flows through McConnell State Park. When Peggy and I camped there a few weeks ago, a sign warned swimmers that there were leeches in the water. We didn’t go swimming.

After the park, I continued my journey down Santa Fe Drive, passing Castle Air Force Base and its impressive museum (A blog special). Next came dodging traffic in Merced followed by more lonely miles on Santa Fe Drive. I spent the night in Chowchilla and then crossed Highway 99 and made my way around Fresno and down to the town of Corcoran.

Castle Air Force Museum features over 60 vintage airplanes.

Castle Air Force Museum features over 60 airplanes dating back to World War II and up to the present. (I am going to give it a special blog.)

In the tiny community of Raisin City, I stopped at a grocery store and discussed cycling with its Indian owner. He told me his job in India as a young man had been to carry water on his bike with 20 gallons (167 pounds) on each side. It made my carrying 50 pounds of gear seem like child’s play.

Raised City reflected the poverty faced by many farm workers in the Central Valley... a poverty not shared by the majority of farmers.

Raisin City reflected the poverty faced by many farm workers in the Central Valley… a poverty not shared by the majority of farmers.

Much of the history of California as been marked by battles over who gets water.

Much of the history of California has been marked by battles over who gets water. California’s drought has brought this battle to the forefront once again. Farmers consider more dams to be the answer to their problems.

When I rode into Corcoran, the big news was that Charles Manson was being transferred to the state prison there on that day. He had been held in Folsom Prison from 1972-76 near Sacramento where I lived. At the time, one of his followers, Squeaky Fromme, had come to town to be near him. In her spare time, she worked a plot of ground at the Terra Firma Community Garden. The garden had been created by the Ecology Information Center where I had been Executive Director. Squeaky took a liking to my friend Steve Crowle who was the Exec at the time. (He had intense dark eyes, like Manson.)

On the morning of September 5, 1975, Squeaky laid off cultivating her garden, put on a red dress, and walked down to Capitol Park where she made history by pointing her pistol at President Gerald Ford. Shortly afterwards, the FBI showed up on Steve’s doorstep. Fortunately, he hadn’t had a clue who she was when she had been working at the garden.

I am going to conclude this blog with a bit of a rant. I promise to get back to the fun of cycling in my next blog. Here’s the rant: my bike trip down through the Central Valley took me by a number of cattle feedlots where thousands of cattle were penned up in small enclosures. The smell and sight of these lots is enough to turn your stomach, but that isn’t my point. My point is our inhumane treatment of animals. Let me put this bluntly, how would you like to stand around in your poop all day? There has to be a better way to raise cattle, even if it means we pay more for beef.

A feedlot steer checked us out. His feet told the story of his incarceration.

A feedlot steer checked us out. His feet told the story of his incarceration.

This photo tells another story about feed lots.

This photo tells another story about the tragedy of feedlots.

Maybe I am adding a human interpretation, but I can't help but believe that these cattle standing out in their fields are much happier than the cattle locked up in feed lots.

Maybe I am adding a human interpretation, but I can’t help but believe that these cattle standing out in their fields are much happier than the cattle locked up in feed lots.

Next Blog: I will slip in a special on Castle Air Force Base Museum.

41 comments on ““NO! BAD DOG!!!” The 10,000 Mile Bike Trek

  1. I’m with you about the feedlots, and about cruelty to animals in general. I don’t think we’ve evolved very much, if at all 😦
    I’m also with you about learning that hard work not only doesn’t kill you, but actually feels good. There’s no better feeling that a healthy body in full purposeful movement.
    And loose dogs! Aaaaaargh. The bane of my life. I’ve learned to ignore street dogs but it gets scary at times.
    Alison

    • If we wait around for evolution to civilize us, I suspect we will be history, Alison. I agree that street dogs can be very scary, especially when running in packs. Many would be quite happy with a little love, however. –Curt

  2. This is an area I know very well and I thank you for noticing and writing so honestly about this part of CA, called the Forgotten CA by Mark Arax in his superb book The King of California. I so, so much agree with you about the feedlots. I’ve met people who insist that the cattle is happy there. No! I grew up in Normandy where cattle grazes on pasture. That’s how they should live to produce healthy milk and meat. And yes, it means paying more. But don’t people agree to pay gas at any price for their cars? Food is the fuel our bodies need. Better make it good quality.
    And the war on water is a farce. Tragic. There is always water for the big farms and the small ones have been closing or are struggling. The workers…
    Don’t get me started.
    Great post on a part of the state that is geographically stunning (although flat away from the Sierra!) but neglected by our politicians, except for the huge land owners.
    I wish you and Peggy a beautiful safe trip.

    • Thanks Evelyne for your thoughtful commentary. I have been bothered by the feedlots for years and had to say something about them. As for the water issue, the southern San Joaquin Valley comes close to qualifying as a desert, and yet the agriculture industry insists on using vast quantities of highly subsidized water to grow crops there. And it would have us continue to build dams on all of California’s beautiful rivers. –Curt

  3. I couldn’t agree more, Curt. Your story is fascinating, as always, but your rant really hits home. I am disgusted and horrified by the treatment to which these wonderful, lovely animals are subjected. The cattle raised in the mountain pastures of Virginia get a pretty good life, comparatively speaking, and I love seeing them graze. Thank you for reminding me — pay a little more — get the grass fed. Am I a hypocrite?

    • Nothing hypocritical there at all, Alice. One can like meat (as I do), and still wish/demand that animals be raised and treated humanely. BTW… we saw some very contented cows on the Virginia portion of the Blue Ridge Highway this week. –Curt

      • thanks so much Curt. You say it so much better than I ever could and you words are comforting. How much longer will you be in Virginia? We just got back, but would love to hustle back on down if you all could make a detour. We’d love for you to stay a couple of nights.

        .

      • Darn, so sorry to have missed you and Bill, Alice. Along with Gary and Sally, you two are my favorite cousins on Peggy’s side of the family. And we always have a good time when we get together. Tomorrow we are off into Maryland and after that we will be shooting up to Maine. –Curt

  4. Great shots of the animals. Sorry about the 18-wheeler! A relief you survived it and it could’ve been worse. Mr. Wayfarer was just in that area. He drove down straight from WA to Southern CA this past wknd (I’ve been a single parent.) =(

    “hard work didn’t kill me— and that there is a certain satisfaction from meeting hard physical challenges.” YES!! YeS, says Korean Mom.

    • I think ‘single parent’ definitely qualifies as hard work, D. 🙂 How did you let Mr. escape? On the other hand, driving form Washington to So-Cal also qualifies as work. Not much joy in that although there is plenty of scenery along the way. Big truck encounters were always more scary than big dog encounters. (Most truck drivers are courteous.) –Curt

  5. Some of our best cycling stories come from dog encounters. Our anecdotal experience reflects that each country comes with a different dog personality. The Greek dogs could have cared less if a cyclist road by with a pork chop around his neck. In Turkey the only safe thing to do was to throw one’s legs up on the handlebars when a dog came within 200 feet.

  6. Bet those cows don’t taste good! No wonder the dogs chase people!

    Your usual mix of lively description, telling pictures and interesting opinions. May your pedalling be peaceful …

    • You certainly wouldn’t think they taste good, Dave, but we still pay a premium price for steaks, and the majority come from beef raised in feed lots. And thanks… I try to keep things interesting. 🙂 –Curt

  7. I know what you mean about labour. I always feel better if I have been engaged in some physical work (not on your scale, of course) and never mind the prospect of it. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments at the end. My vegetarian son-on-law gave me Jonathan Saffran Foer’s Eating Animals a couple of years ago. I already bought free-range meat, but since reading that, we eat less of it and only from a very special farming co-operative, where the welfare of the animals up and including their death is a major concern.

    • It may be that the outcry over mistreatment of farm animals will lead to major changes. I found it interesting that Walmart is now insisting that the chickens it sells be raised cage free. The emphasis on treating animals well may also lead to more of a return to small farms as opposed to industrial operations. I hope. Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments, Hilary. –Curt

  8. Curt, I’ve done a bit of bike touring myself, and our experiences with loose dogs sound exactly the same. (RANT ON) I hate the bastards. And, I would also extend my rant to cover loose dogs and joggers. Between cycling and jogging, like you, I’ve been chased by every size and type of dog imaginable. I contend that country dogs are worse than city dogs because they seem to have a larger territory (and they’re in better shape and can run faster). When I can’t outrun them, I resort to the old tire pump as well. In fact, I had a little dog nipping at my achilles tendon on a jog about a week ago – with the owner standing in the yard saying: “Oh he won’t bite.” To which I said: “Put your damn dog on a leash.” (RANT OFF). Thanks for the chance to vent. 🙂 ~James

    • Yeah! for your joining in, James. I am not sure it is so much about bad dogs as it is about bad owners. Leashing, fencing in and training are all important. –Curt

  9. Oh, I am with you about the dogs. Even walkers can have their confrontations. The husband of a friend here was out walking their dog when a pit bull came roaring out, knocked him down, and did enough damage to require skin grafts. On the other end of the scale, the only dog bite I’ve ever had came from a little terrier-type that was barely taller than my ankle: where he chomped down.

    It was fun to be reminded of travel and communication in that era, too. Telephone credit cards, pay phones, calling person-to-person, asking for yourself, and not being there — we used them all. There’s one pay phone I used to use still left at the side of a gas station in south Texas, but they’re almost all gone.

    I saw the same kind of feedlots in Kansas and Nebraska — they exist in Texas, too. Hogs and chickens face the same kind of life. But honestly? I think things are changing. It will be slow, but as more people become willing to pay the price for humanely-raised meat, more farmers will join in. I hope.

    • I’ve really been lucky with dogs, for the most part, Linda. And again, I have a hard time blaming the dog. Admittedly, some breeds are much more prone to violence than others… As for feed lots, I agree with you. If I can help the process along… 🙂 –Curt

  10. Oh, I get real grouchy about feedlots, too. I’m still ‘off my feed’ from viewing some last year in Texas, and I actually feel much healthier for it. This coming from a woman who embraced being a carnivore with zeal since my first bite of very rare steak at age 4.

    Enjoyed this post very much. Thank you. 📮

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