The Sweet Smell Of Ignorance

By Pennie McLaughlin

Fear has a smell. I learned this at age 11, as I delivered a newspaper down a long driveway with my younger sister on foot. At the end of this driveway lived a family with a big, mean dog. Ordinarily, we walked quickly and quietly to drop the newspaper near the front door without being discovered by this oversized Doberman Pincher mix. As we neared the first turn, I reminded my sister to stay completely still if the dog came out and to not show fear. Sure enough, we heard the loud bark just before seeing the giant dog sprinting at us. I froze, taking my own advice, and was stunned to see my sister screaming and jumping up and down, fear oozing out of every pore of her body. The dog took a nip of her behind, and barely registered my presence. I felt helpless, and sprung into action yelling in a loud deep voice for the dog to scram. The damage was done though, and so began my sister’s lifelong fear of large dogs. We ended our newspaper delivery to this address, realizing that the monthly 75 cents tip was not nearly worth these chance encounters.

As a runner in upstate New York through high school, running along narrow streets with unfenced yards guarded by the family pet was commonplace. At times, I picked up a large rock before getting close to certain houses along the route, silently hoping that I would not have to trust my seasoned underhand pitching arm to avoid an attack. This was just part of the landscape, aggressive dogs that gave chase. I took to sprinting when not armed with a rock, and found my voice, as I shouted loudly to alert the owner and to scare off the dog. I managed to get through many hundreds of miles over the years without a bite. I learned about a dog’s sense of fear, and trained myself to not show the slightest sign of this emotion. As people, we witness fear- a look that crosses a face, a frozen moment in time where a split second can feel like long minutes. A panic, hysteria or other instinctual survival reaction that just happens with little forethought. Animals though, just smell it and sense it without fail.

I have never been described as a calm person, and am more often equated with possessing an endless amount of energy. Life to me is one long adventure, and in every city I visit, I seek out the wilderness, or at a minimum, a groomed dirt trail along a local river or stream. In Phoenix in June a few years back, I rented a car to drive to a sandy mountainous park where I found miles of looping trails off to the side of the paved road perfect for cycling. At sunrise, I was out on the flat canal path that unfolded for miles as the sun and temperature rose together. In New York City, both the east and west side held dirt pathways for easier running, and in Boston, the running routes are many and varied, with plenty of trails in and around the urban center. Running alone in these places just goes with the territory, as most of my invitations for others to join me at first light go unheeded. This has never stopped me, though I have heard my share of warnings.

A couple of years ago, I reluctantly left my quaint beach neighborhood in La Jolla with English-styled cottages with small patches of grass and bright flower gardens and headed a few miles inland. I landed in a tract home community where the lack of diversity of architecture matched the lack of diversity of the residents. I was not thrilled with the change, but with my new marriage to a man with kids attending school thirty-one miles away, it was a necessity. My daughter was easily convinced to attend a nearby Catholic private school once she toured the college-like grounds. We were starting our life together as a recently combined family and the change in scenery helped make the new space home to each of us.

While searching for our family home, I noticed a sign that was the type announcing a trail entrance. My heart leaped and I pulled over and walked down a small hill. The trail went in two directions, and I began to see hope in these new surroundings. The next day, I arrived dressed to run in the late afternoon, after dropping my freshman daughter off to her new school’s volleyball practice. It was August when the sun was still high enough in the sky to form a sweat just yards into a run. I was ecstatic! I began quickly, anxious to see what awaited, and no sooner than three-quarters of a mile into the run, I came upon a patch of small rocks that I had to cross. Crossing these hot rocks was a large snake, most likely a rattlesnake, given the dark and tan coloring and its size. My breath caught at the same moment I found myself leaping into the air and over the snake as it continued to makes its way across unbothered by my passing. I let out a sigh, and remembered all of those warnings about running trails alone. I soon forgot about that though, as the trail continued on for a few miles. With every step, I held out hope that the path would be long enough to make runs here worthwhile. I got my wish, and soon covered six miles over an out and back course with many turns left to discover and distance to add.

It is now over two years later, and I have run every step of the miles of trails whose small-signed entrance stands just over half a mile from my house. I am at home here, and have learned to connect segments to stretch my runs even farther. I miss the waves, the sunset walks with my dogs along the beach and the older neighbors that had interesting pasts and stories to share. On one particular run mid-morning on a sunny Saturday, I brought along my two dogs on a four mile run-hike. These two dogs are not ordinary; they run and walk off leash without crossing a street until permission is granted; they are easily called off a rabbit on the trail; and have never engaged with another dog, leashed or unleashed without a go ahead from me or my husband.

Jake is the Chocolate Lab, and Enzo is the newest family member added to help ease Jake into our new surroundings. Jake had grown accustomed to sitting out on our front stoop being greeted by many people and dogs throughout the day on their way to the beach. Now, he found himself alone behind a solid fence with no visibility to the front, but with a large yard with plenty of sunny spots and shaded ones for his daily naps. Enzo was discovered as the last of a litter of 8, sitting alone in his pen at a local shelter with the name “Barry” written on the sign. His solitary state was enough for us to have the attendant open the gate and let us meet him. We knew within a minute that we would be taking him home, lacking the coldness required to have him placed back into the large empty pen. He took to Jake, and his new name, instantly and was trained within a few weeks to wait to pee outside. We gradually eased him into walks and he imitated Jake, while showing his instinctual herding traits. It did not take long for him to sit at the corners, and eventually, to go off leash without a hitch. Enzo joined Jake in his obsession with chasing a tennis ball, and loved the long way to the dog park through a trail with four hills.

On this particular Saturday morning, we opted to go in the opposite direction of the dog park. We took the interior rocky trail that paralleled the more popular groomed path. Jake and Enzo were off leash and made it to the top of the rough path ahead of me, as I had run ten miles earlier that morning without them. They were both off to the left, smelling bushes and peeing in new spots to mark their territory. I made it to the top of the hill behind them and looked ahead to see a beautiful, muscular Ridgeback-type dog coming towards us at a full gait. I admired its muscles, and the way it easily covered ground. I thought it was strange that this dog would stay so glued to the trail and run along upon it, instead of off to the side. I looked behind me for its owner, and saw no one. It closed more distance and I glanced at my dogs, thinking nothing of their continuation of smelling the leaves and cactus-like ground cover. The Ridgeback got closer and we passed right next to each other. It had beautiful eyes and a handful of freckles across its forehead. I noticed that it was not wearing a collar. I did not do anything except look at it and continue my slow jog along the trail in the opposite direction, knowing my dogs would soon catch up. As I continued the run, I surmised that it must have been a strange coyote-dog mix, which would account for no owner and no collar. I still puzzled at why it ran along a trail as if on a trek to get from one point to another all alone. I thought of my dogs out there alone, and could no more imagine them sticking to the straight path without any deviation that I could imagine them passing up an abandoned tennis ball.

Later, I described the strange dog sighting to my husband. The more I thought about it, I realized that it did not resemble a coyote in the least! I turned on the computer a few days later and brought up a photo of a coyote, and planned on searching dog-coyote mixes. I stopped after the coyote though, realizing that its gangly look and long hair were nothing like the 100-pound plus muscular animal I encountered. I next tried bobcat, and ruled that out, given its smaller size and spotted body. I typed the word mountain lion into the google search box, and in seconds, I was covered in goose bumps. There, staring right at me, was my Ridgeback mix! I looked at a few more photos of mountain lions and realized that it was exactly the animal that had run past me on that trail. I suddenly felt both lucky and thankful; thankful that my dogs are so well trained to not pay attention to a passing animal and that they were not leashed next to me to notice that it was not a dog; lucky that I was so ignorant of wildlife that I did not realize it was a mountain lion running toward me to share the same narrow pathway. Therein lies the sweet smell of ignorance, the smell that seemingly saved my life.