Years ago I spent some time in Europe, pack on my back, guitar slung over my shoulder, traveling through about 15 different countries. Eventually, I found myself walking through the desert of Eastern Greece, heading to the Turkish border. Then on to Istanbul. I’d been hitch hiking all day. I was out in the middle of nowhere. Alone. There were very few cars. Two or three an hour. No one would stop. But I had a good sense of direction, and in the early evening decided to leave the road and cut cross country on foot. If I was going to end up walking all the way to the border, I’d at least cut down on the distance. It was flat, and I figured I’d be OK. I pointed myself in the right direction and began the long trek through the desert. I walked for hours. It was very dark. And I was very tired. I could see the faintest of lights way off in the imperceptible distance. So far away that I wasn’t exactly sure if I was really seeing them at all.
I was living a hard trip. No frills, no pampering niceties. Alone for days, and weeks on end. Walking, carrying my life on my back. Intermittent company, but no one I wished to be around for too long. Evaluating my life, my circumstances, my future. Some concern with all of that, but overshadowed by my immediate concern about getting to Istanbul.
And now, it was the middle of the night, well past midnight. I was walking with the dead, practically counting myself among them. Then I began to sense a presence. Never a good sign. At first just faintly, then stronger, until I was sure I was no longer alone. It was then that I began to wish I was. It felt now as if it were getting closer. And closer still. And then a sound. Over here. And then over there. And there. And there. I couldn’t tell if it was different sounds in different places, or if it was just one sound that my own fear was moving around like manic thoughts in a bad dream. Then the sound was close enough to see. A dog. Not a friendly dog. And another. And another. And another. These were big dogs. And they were wild dogs. I was surrounded. I was prey. I was going to be dinner. Never been that before. This was a gang without guns. The pack moved with me as one. They moved around me, darting in briefly to challenge me, to test me, to frighten me. Then out. One, then another. Then another. Growling, grunting. Frenzied, but deliberate. Building their confidence, working their strategy. Scaring me to death. This was no hallucination. And it was not a situation I could talk my way out of. I knew that better than my own name. I’d been in bad situations that I could talk my way out of. This was not one of them. I was frantically swinging my guitar around, trying to keep them at bay. My mind flooded with rampaging thoughts that my family would never see me again. That I would never see them. That they would simply never hear from me again. That I would have, in their minds, simply disappeared, deserted them somewhere across the world, never to be a part of them again. My survival instincts kicked fully into gear. High gear. I would live. Dogs be damned.
I was quickly taken by vivid memories of old black and white Cowboy and Indian movies I’d seen on TV as a child. Pictures that came to me as clearly as the danger I was in. I remembered in the old movies that when the wagon train was surrounded, with the settlers hanging on for their lives, they’re final hope would come down to whether or not they could shoot the Chief. If they killed him, all the other Indians would retreat. If they were unsuccessful they would perish. Yeah, I know it was a stupid Cowboy and Indian stereotype, but it’s the only image I had to hang onto at the time. It’s the image that came to my rescue.
I had a strong sense of which dog was the leader, the Alpha male, whom the others were taking their cues from. He would dart in quickly, and the rest of the pack would do likewise. When he’d back off, they would as well, momentarily, but I saw the pattern. I attacked him full on. I yelled like a crazy nut job in a ‘B’ movie, and ran at him full force, attacking him head on with my guitar. I was not trying to scare him, I was wanting to hurt him. But it did scare him, and he backed off, as did the others, a little further each time I came after him. The dogs would regroup and make subsequent attempts to penetrate my defenses, but as time went by the attacks became more half-hearted than vicious. I continued walking through the night with the dogs consistently holding position around me, still moving as one, for hours, but in a gradually widening circle. Time passed like molasses. By morning light they were gone.
I offered a humble thanks out loud.
I was exhausted, both mentally and physically. I took psychic inventory to make sure I was OK, then laid myself down in a quiet place, under a tree, and fell off to sleep.
In Istanbul they told me about wild dogs in the desert. Dogs I’d already met. Not the kind of friends I want to have.
I’ve been seriously threatened by gangs on three different occasions in my life. In Amsterdam, in Harlem, and outside a clinic where I worked in San Francisco. Had a gun stuck in my chest and the hammer cocked. Twice. Been surrounded by men who considered killing me simply because they could. Been more moderately threatened on a couple of other occasions.
I have never been as frightened as I was that night in the desert, alone with the dogs. I have never felt more abandoned or forlorn.
And when I awoke later that morning, under that tree, in that small quiet place . . . . . . . . . . .
I was never more alive.