Writers on the Range: Walking the dog in a changed community | SummitDaily.com

Writers on the Range: Walking the dog in a changed community

“Leash your dog, Wilke.” The phone message was innocuous enough. The only problem being I didn’t know the man’s name or phone number, and five minutes earlier he’d threatened to kill my dog.

Our first encounter was last spring. I walked my dog, Ricky, through the block of condo subdivisions west of my home, as I have every morning for years. A nondescript man yelled across the parking lot at me. He had a gruff voice and wore a hooded sweatshirt and colorless canvas pants. He shouted that I should leash my dog, because his dog was vicious. “He’ll rip your dog to shreds,” he said.

Although it annoyed me to leash my kitten-licking dog while this man’s fighter remained loose, I chose to protect my dog rather than argue an inherently unreasonable point. Every day I put Ricky on a leash through that section, until I realized I hadn’t seen the stranger in weeks. I figured he’d moved on, as condo residents frequently do, and once again let Ricky run free. (I don’t believe a dog can get adequate exercise while leashed, and have always found niches where my dog could run – even in California.)

Then one morning the man and his wiry dog were back, and coming toward me. “Should we just finish this now!” he screamed. “He’ll rip him apart!” I grabbed Ricky and pulled him through a hole in the fence, to safety in a different subdivision. Then I turned back towards the stranger.

“Should we just finish this now!” he yelled, walking toward me. “No,” I said, “I’d like to resolve this.”

“Keep your dog leashed,” he yelled, meaty face flushed. “I’d like you to do the same,” I replied. “Kiss mine!” was his rejoinder. At that point I realized there was no reasoning with him, and turned and walked away. He continued shouting. All the way home I racked my brain for how best to deal with this. He had warned me. Once. On some level, he was just protecting both our dogs. But his fury was frightening, and I didn’t want to endanger — or ingratiate — myself. But when I got home, there was the phone message. It was like having the raging whacko right in my kitchen. How had he gotten my name and number?

I reported him to the police. The officer acknowledged that my town wasn’t little anymore, and that the dense, somewhat transient population within the condos was also problematic. He offered to go talk to the stranger, said he was probably just an angry person. But I didn’t want to push any more buttons, didn’t want things to escalate further. I preferred just to have something on record.

Moving away wasn’t an option, so I decided my best bet was to never walk there again. It was crushing. This was the very daily walk that I committed to during chemo treatments the summer before, the walk that helped me survive. And I was furious that he’d won, even though I knew I had no need for a power struggle with an angry stranger. I tried to believe my rationalization that I operated on a different level, was deflecting the stranger’s rage back onto him.

The next morning I looked for a new place to walk in the neighborhood, bringing a leash just in case. I found a shorter path in an abandoned back yard. Ricky rolled like an otter, a bevy of partridges flushed out of the weeds and I discovered I’d moved onto a deer trail right in town.

Now, several months later, I realize that I don’t miss my condo walk at all. I’ve found safer haunts on the fringes of the world that surrounds my home: the edges of wheat fields, a half-finished commercial zone, empty lots behind the abandoned yellow house, and (if I have time to drive a little) Hedvig’s Trail, a fenced 35-acre space created for exercising friendly dogs. Ricky enjoys the change as much as I do.

In a way, I have the stranger to thank, though he still represents the dark side of this community. I didn’t enjoy feeling vulnerable and threatened, or losing my turf, and I can’t afford to spend a lot of money on gas to walk my dog. But it took his short and violent fuse to help me realize how unlovely my former walk was – no matter now convenient – and to discover I didn’t have to accept those particular limits.

Joanne Wilke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the author of Eight Women, Two Model Ts, and the American West and lives and walks in Bozeman, Montana.

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