Biking with Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!
One of the best parts of any long bike trip is getting to meet all the animals. It’s a well-known fact that animals LOVE cyclists. This includes mammals like stray dogs, skunks, and raccoons, and also smaller creatures like mosquitoes, gnats, and slugs. Sometimes these animals love us because they want to eat us. Other times they love us because they want to eat our snacks. And every now and then, they really do just want to be friends and snuggle. (Or at least that’s what I tell myself when I’m being chased.)
When I lived in Costa Rica, I was chased by all sorts of stray dogs. I used to ride out of town over a small mountain in the rain forest. The road was steep and rocky and had an old graveyard at the summit. The wind blew hard across the ridgeline so when I got to the top I always imagined the ghosts drifting out of their graves and floating away on the breeze. I don’t know what the place was called, but I called it Ghost Mountain.
The graveyard was guarded by a little blind dog. As soon as I pedaled by the first gravestone, the dog always walked toward me along the edge of the road. It had scraggly gray hair and one sunken white eye. It never barked or tried to bite me — it just followed me until I got to the other side of the graveyard. Even though it couldn’t see me, it always knew where I was.
After the graveyard, the road swooped down and wound around the ridge. When I reached the edge of the next town, I started pedaling faster. Soon one dog would bark, and then another. One by one the dogs sprang into the road, growling and chomping at me. By the time I reached the town center, I was surrounded by a whole pack. On good days a woman with flowers in her yard would hear us coming, run out with a hose, and spray the dogs in the face so I could escape. On other days I just had to sprint hard and hope for the best.
Once, two friends and I decided to load up our bikes and ride to Panama. We pedaled out of town, and within a few miles, I heard the familiar sound of dogs barking behind us. But this time, the barks were high and squeaky. When I turned my head, I saw that we were being chased by a pack of adorable puppies. It was the best day of my life! And it reaffirmed something I had long believed — that animals just really, really love cyclists.
This belief has led me to plan several long-distance bike trips based on what kind of animals I would like to be chased by. Before my first bike tour around Iceland, I became obsessed with long-haired sheep. When I arrived in Iceland, however, I was startled to see how many sheep lay dead in the fields. I hopped over a fence to look at one of the hairy white mounds on the ground. But when I bent down and poked it, I realized it was just wool. Icelandic sheep shed their hair in huge, matted clumps, so the hills were dotted with half-naked sheep and piles of their abandoned coats. The wind was so strong that sometimes I thought I could see the sheeps’ coats getting tugged off their bodies into the breeze. None of these sheep ever chased me, but as I pedaled I often imagined that they might, and this got me through many windy miles.
My desire to be chased by hoards of adorable, hairy animals is often tempered by a fear of being eaten by them. Sheep and puppies are unlikely to eat cyclists, but a lion might. When I pedaled across Colombia and Ecuador, I came to expect strange creatures in peculiar places. I saw llamas nibbling laundry off a clothes line, guinea pigs crawling out of knapsacks, and golden vicuñas bounding across misty páramos. However, I was still surprised when I rode into a city in Ecuador and came across a very large lion.
The lion was in a cage in the back of a truck. It had a full mane and paced from side to side, glaring at the crowd that gathered around it. A woman with a big belly and a tight shirt walked up to the corner of the cage and stood, staring. The lion walked to the same corner and crouched, returning her gaze. The metal bars of the cage seemed so flimsy. If that lion had busted out and eaten all of us, I really wouldn’t have blamed it. I pedaled away and felt grateful that that particular animal was not chasing me.
On another notable occasion, I was also happy to not be chased by bears. When I rode from Alaska to California, I was very excited to meet some bears. But I was also aware that bears fall into the category of animals that “love cyclists for our snacks.” As I pedaled, I often saw bears romping through the forest, standing on the side of the road, and prowling along riverbanks. Once, I watched a bear run after a car. Each day I pedaled with my bear spray lashed to my handlebars, and each night I took special care to hang all my food high out of reach in tree branches.
Somewhere near the Yukon, I was pedaling up a long hill and saw a car pull over at the top. When I got there, a guy got out of the car and handed me a box of cookies. Free snacks! I devoured the whole box and flew onward, high on sugar and possibilities. After that, a lot of people stopped on the road to take pictures of me riding up steep hills. And each time, I got excited — THERE COULD BE SNACKS! No one ever gave me more cookies, but I never stopped believing that they might. I’m living proof of what happens when you feed animals, even just once. This experience made me really sympathize with bears’ interests in humans, cars, and cyclists’ snacks. It also made me double down on my resolve to never let a bear get a taste of my cookies. Sugar really does addle the mind.
Sometimes, if I’m not sure what kind of animals I’ll meet on my bike trips, I take my own tiger with me. The tiger is a large stuffed Bengal named Diamond. Tail to ear, he’s over a meter long. One summer, I brought Diamond to the farm I work at, and my friend Geoff started taking him out for rides on the tractor. Then one day, I tied Diamond to my handlebars and pedaled him to the seaside. When we arrived at the beach, I set Diamond down on the sand and realized he made an excellent pillow. After that, I started taking him with me on overnight bikepacking trips. He is a quiet, thoughtful companion and an excellent bird watcher.
My love of animals makes my long-distance solo bike tours feel much more social. I often stop to chat with turtles. Sometimes I look up and wave at flying, feathered friends. Once, I unzipped my tent to watch a moose crashing through a lake. Another time, I had to encourage a skunk to exit my tent fly. When you’re outside, you’re never really alone. And if you pedal far enough, it’s almost guaranteed that eventually something will chase you. Animals just really love cyclists!