True Tales: Close Encounters of the Malodorous Kind

Why an evening jog became a mad dash.  

In my teenage years, before the smothering grip of real-world responsibility monopolized my waking hours, the athletic arena was my realm. I was always training for one sporting endeavor or another. Lifting weights, doing pushups, drinking protein shakes—I spent countless hours trying to put muscle on my wiry frame. We lived in the foothills near Hyalite Canyon, and behind our house an irrigation canal meandered for several miles, its grass-covered banks serving as the perfect training ground.

One evening, I set off down the grassy path, wearing my sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, Rocky-style, with my Sony Walkman strapped precariously to my waist, a fat rubber band encircling it so the cassette wouldn’t pop out if I took a particularly jarring step (I had learned this the hard way). What I was listening to, who knows, but there was a good chance it was Billy Idol—I played that tape until it wore out, literally.

My trusty Old English sheepdog, Suzy, was by my side, as always, her charcoal-and-white, woolly body to my left, then behind, then in front, then underfoot (damn dog!), then in front again, but always in sight. Always, until, uncharacteristically, she found another gear and took off ahead of me.

On a scent, I guess, but no matter. She would come back. I settled into to the rhythmic meditation of the run. Breathing deep, sweat beading on my forehead, running through an evening hatch of tiny insects swarming in the final days of their tiny lives. Intoxicated on the feeling of running free, like my primal ancestors had done in pursuit of big game, then grimacing as a stitch began in my side, then moved mischievously to the area between my left shoulder and neck; and the high was gone, and I fell back to the earth, my sneakers heavy on my feet as I pushed myself forward: right, left, right, left.

It was quite dark now, and I chided myself for leaving the house too late that evening, but not too harshly; I was seventeen and invincible, and what was a little darkness? I knew the route with my eyes closed. As a came around a bend, I saw Suzy, my sheepdog, and she saw me and moved toward me, albeit with an uncharacteristic gait, dissimilar from her usual energetic trot. She grew closer, and I sped up a bit to close the gap, happy to have my big travel companion with me again, as it was getting uncomfortably dark. She was just ten feet away, then just a few, and I slowed my pace and reached down to pet her shaggy head.

“Hey Suzy, hey old girl,” I said. It was then, my hand mere inches from her woolly coat, that I realized that before me was not my dog but the largest black and white skunk I had ever seen. Its tail was arched high in the air, its hair stood out on end like it had stuck its paw in an electrical outlet, and its red eyes burned a menacing glare (or maybe I just imagined that last bit; it all happened so fast, and it was many, many years ago).

And that was the night I set the world record for the 100-meter dash, a record only recently come close to, but not broken, by Jamaica’s Usain Bolt.

Did the skunk spray? I don’t know. Like the winged feet of Mercury, my feet flew down that dark grassy path and I never looked back, and I never felt the hot, stinging, foul fragrance splash across the back of my neck. I can only speculate that it was either a skunk with extraordinarily bad aim, or a skunk with pity in its heart for a foolish young biped. I can tell you that when I finally made it home, heart pounding, face dripping with sweat, who should greet me but my sheepdog, and let me tell you, she and I had a one-sided discussion where more than a few choice words were used!

Let this tale be a warning to all of you late-evening joggers out there on off-the-beaten-path Montana trails: When the sun sets and the world becomes dark, make sure it’s a dog you are petting, and not a skunk!