I woke up in a little hovel in my hostess-with-a-shotgun’s house. It felt like the most comfortable bed I had ever woken up in. I could hear it pouring rain outside. I went back to sleep for another hour.
An hour later I woke up again and it was still raining hard. This wasn’t a resort, I told myself, so I forced myself to get up. I made coffee with the little four-cup pot she had left for me on a table.
I rolled my bike out into the yard, curious what I would see. In the yard there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of little figurines. I wish I could remember what they were – elves and gnomes and who knows what else, but it was a miniature fairytale land. I thought back to the night before, and it seemed like a dream.
Booneville was blowing my mind.
I rolled slowly to the first convenience store, raining pouring down. The guy who owned the place was a former truck driver who had driven all over the country; he asked me lots of questions and it turned out he had driven most of the places I told him I had been.
“God bless you,” he said in this thick Kentucky accent, looking at me standing there, dripping wet and holding a second cup of coffee, “But you’re CRAZY.” Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t argue.
I set off into the Kentucky hills in the rain. On the descents I kept having to stop because so much water was spraying onto my sunglasses that I couldn’t see. There were some big climbs to be navigated between Booneville and Cow Creek and Buckhorn. Long, steep grinds shrouded by dripping trees shrouding the roads on either side, sometimes obscuring the sky.
Around mid-day, I rode the dangerous highway gauntlet near Hazard, coal trucks flying by spewing exhaust at high speeds and way too close for comfort. Then there’s this lovely winding flat road that travels through a set of tiny, middle-of-nowhere towns – Dwarf, Fisty, Emmalena, Carrie, Hindman – alongside a river called Troublesome Creek.
It’s hard to describe the remoteness of the Eastern Kentucky Appalachians. The mountains create a rugged blanket of green, and then little towns, or burgs, are just tucked down in whatever habitable spaces exist between them. Most of the towns are poor coal mining (or former mining) communities, and every one of them feels solitary, unconnected to any other place. In 2016, in fact, I met a woman in Dwarf who had never been to Hindman, 15 miles down the road. Despite the scavenging of the earth for mining and rampant mountaintop removal, it feels to me like people went up against the earth here, and the earth won.
Dogs run wild in these parts, and even those that are pets run like they are wild. It was mid-day when I rolled through Pippa Passes. It was just on the far side of town that Evan said he had been bitten by the pit bull, and I was prepared. I had been sprinting away from barking dogs for a couple of hours already, and had my strategy down: When I saw the dog start to run out from a house, I would start shouting at the top of my lungs and sprinting. This often seemed to work, but if it didn’t, I also had a handful of rocks that I could throw, which so far had deterred the remainder.
Just north of Pippa Passes, I picked up a new tranche of rocks. There’s a series of about three steep climbs just past town, and on the approach to the first one I passed a set of trailer homes. There was a blue one on my right, and three people were standing outside. Suddenly, a streak shot out from somewhere just behind me. I heard one bark, and then a dog lunged and, when I looked down, its teeth were dug into my right calf and its body was just dangling there in the air.
The force against my body was so strong that I was lucky I didn’t crash, but I managed to clip out with my left foot, brake hard, and come to a stop. The dog released, and then snarled and sank his teeth into my calf again. The two bites happened within about ten seconds, but it was one of those slow-motion ten second moments, and I remember thinking, “Is this what it feels like to get bit by a dog?” Yes, it was what it felt like to get bitten by a dog, and then I started yelling (sprinkled with obscenities that I won’t repeat here) at the three people who were standing, motionless, outside the house. They were all frozen, their eyes wide.
It seemed like it took forever, but finally one of the guys walked out onto the street and called the dogs off. By this point, the attacker – which, sure enough was a pit bull matching Evan’s description – was surrounded by three or four other dogs that were all in a semi-circle, snarling at me. My leg was bleeding pretty well by then, and the dogs slunk off back to their houses.
So many things were going through my mind at that moment. Am I going to die? and Is this the end of my race? were banging around equally inside my head. The guy was saying “sorry about that,” and he did seem sorry (though maybe not sorry enough for my liking). I asked him about the dog. He said it was a stray they had found earlier in the week but he “hasn’t caused any problems until now.” I told him that, yes, he had bitten another racer two nights earlier (I found out later he had also bitten Jon Lester the night before). I said there were about 100 racers coming through in the next few days and he’d sure as hell better lock that dog up. He nodded and said he would.
I called my friend Sheree, my go-to medical consultant. She answered right away and first said shit, then told me to clean out the wound, get the guy’s personal details, and call our friend Sean, an infectious disease doc. I dumped alcohol into the wounds, which were open punctures, and wrapped my calf up tightly. I got the guy’s name and number and I put it in my phone. Then I rode off up the hill. I figured, like everything else these days, I would sort out next steps while riding.
I called Sean while I pedaled slowly up the big climb, past more barking dogs, trailers, and rickety homes. He told me in no uncertain terms that I had to go to a hospital and get a rabies shot. I said, I know that’s the quote-unquote recommendation, but you have to understand my situation. He said he understood my situation, and that I needed to understand that, if I got rabies, I would die. Can’t I risk it? He said no, and was very firm on this point. I hung up and called Evan, but his phone was off. Evan is a doctor too, and I thought he might have a different medical opinion. At this point, I was searching hard for another point of view.
I descended the hill to the next little depression in the earth where there was a stand of houses and the route takes a right hand turn. I took the turn, but then something told me to make a U-turn and I headed back. There was a man outside his house in the yard, and I rode up into his driveway. I asked him if I could come in to use his bathroom and wash out the wound with soap and water, and he said of course and told me to come inside. I laid my bike down in the yard.
This race reminded me so many times about how undeserved kindness from strangers is a real thing, and this was perhaps the most notable example. The man’s wife showed me into the bathroom then told me that her sister was a nurse, and asked if I needed any medical attention. After several phone calls, she came back to tell me that there was a clinic within 30 minutes’ drive that had the rabies vaccine. She offered to drive me there.
The emergency room at that particular clinic had just had an influx of patients from a car crash that had just happened nearby, but after several more calls, she managed to locate a second clinic and drove me there. When we arrived, I rushed into the emergency room, barefoot, and started talking a mile a minute to the receptionist.
HimynameisJanieandI’m doing the TransAmBikeRace, it’sabikeraceacrossthecountry andIjustgotbitbyadoganditwasastraypitbullandIneedtogetarabiesshotbutcanyoupleasehurrybecauseIaminthirdplaceandneedtogetbackonmybikeasfastaspossible.
Despite my entreaties, the rabies vaccine was administered in Southern time, not Trans Am Bike Race time. First there was a consultation with a doctor and a clinician, and then there was cleaning and examining by two nurses. Then the nurses left to “prepare” the vaccine, and I was in the room for such a long time that the woman who had driven me there came in to check on me and berated the nurses for taking so long. “Do you know that she is in a bike race across the country?” I heard her asking at the nurses station outside.
I talked to Evan, and then Lael called me. She told me to get back on my bike as fast as I could because she wanted me to break her record.
“I know you can do it!” she told me. “You’re riding so strong.”
I told her I was so tired and I just wanted ice cream. “Eat the ice cream on your bike!” she practically shouted into the phone.
Another doctor finally came in to administer the rabies shot. The “shot” was several huge syringes of liquid that had to be injected all around the wound. Before every injection, the nurse would hesitate and sort of cringe, and look at me with a sad face and say, “I’m so sorry.” I told her that this vaccine could just take a number in the long line of things that were causing me pain, and if she could just do it as quick as possible I’d appreciate it.
We were finally finished, and we drove back to the house. My bike was still laying in the yard where I left it, and I thanked the couple profusely and said I wished I could do something to show my gratitude, but they said don’t worry, it was nothing. The woman hugged me goodbye and said, a little bit sternly, “I guess you’d better just get a Red Bull and ride all night, then.” I laughed and said she should be in the Trans Am Bike Race. Maybe next time, she said.
I pedaled off to finish the hills before Elkhorn City. One of them was so steep that, even standing and cranking as hard as I could, I came very close to falling off my bike. The adrenaline from the whole dog-bite fiasco had long since worn off, and I was just left feeling exhausted. It was the longest stop I had taken off the bike without sleeping since the race had started 17 days before, and it had made me realize just how very tired I was in so many ways. My leg was wrapped tight, but throbbing underneath.
I laughed thinking about Lael’s enthusiasm, yelling into the phone, “Eat the ice cream on your bike!”
There’s a long descent into Elkhorn City after the last of the steep hills. Elkhorn City is the last town before the Virginia border, and the mountains of the race’s last state begin. Coming down the hill, I inexplicably heard my name being called from a car, and stopped pedaling.
I looked over and there were my friends Fred and Paige, who I knew from my days living in Austin but who now lived in Chattanooga. They had been following my dot, and had seen my post about the dog bite on Facebook. There they were, five hours drive away from home, to make sure I was okay.
Fred had his bike and he rode with me from Elkhorn City, across the Virginia state line, to the Breaks. I was getting so tired, and despite being worried that all the time off the bike was going to cause me to lose my place in the race, I knew I had to sleep. The Breaks Hotel was not open (I tried several of the doors after hearing from Jimmy that the previous years one of the riders had found a room randomly open), but there was a little covered balcony on the second floor with a rough carpet.
It was about 11pm by now. I had only made it 130 miles that day, but was glad not to worry about dying from rabies in my sleep. I rolled out my sleeping bag, ate a Subway sandwich, and set my alarm for 2am.