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Dispatches : Adventure

An Ode to My Bad Dog

I knew I had a special dog when he attempted to undress the first two women I introduced him to, not counting my mom. (He's got good taste: one became my girlfriend.) Named after the jazz musician and my childhood dentist, Walter Ray Miles Davis Jr. likes the flavor of blouse buttons and the dangle of lady garments. He humps when he gets nervous, which is often. Once his tan forepaws wrap around a leg, you need a bucket of cold water or a rack of ribs to pry him off. As you try, with whatever implements are at hand, his pleading hazel eyes look up at you, as if to say: "Can you just give us one more minute of privacy here, boss?" I've considered buying a human blow-up doll for Miles, but I fear it wouldn't survive his affection.

I knew Miles was special, in a very different way, before the disrobing and humping began: he had a white scar around his skinny rump when I first saw him last Spring, after a breakup. He bounded around the backyard of his foster family in Clarkston, Georgia, like a huge, deranged rabbit. When he finally stopped, he let me touch the scar. Then we went inside and wrestled on the floor.

Allowing me to touch him there was a rare show of trust; the drooling, however, was standard issue.

I can't explain why he chose me any more than I can explain why he won't run at full speed on a leash or eat those expensive rawhide bones I bought in bulk when he arrived at my home with the small yard in the middle of downtown Atlanta. But he did, and nothing has been the same since.

Miles is seventy-five pounds of muscle, three years old, and prone to sinuous wiggling fits. Dogs like him get the worst pens at the "shelters" in Atlanta's Dekalb County, where he was on death row two years ago, sharing a tiny cell with cockroaches and rats.

His crime: a blocky head, compact body, short coat, triangular ears and a rat-like tail. All of these traits are, sadly, synonymous with violence: if not perpetrated by these so-called "pit bulls," than that which is committed against them by humans. I'll never know the exact cause of Miles' scars, or (god knows what I'd do with it) the names and addresses of his abusers. But it's clear that Miles was wrapped up with a sharp wire that left him looking—if I'm in a mood to joke about it—like he's permanently wearing a garter belt. He was nearly cut in half.

According to Ken Foster's folksy and personal celebration, I'm a Good Dog, the term "pit bull" is used to describe ten to twenty percent of the dogs found in the United States. These dogs may or may not be kin to the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier or the English Staffordshire terrier, breeds that share some combination of the physical characteristics noted above. To most media and lawmakers, they are all simply "pit bulls," and a threat to the public.

Anything resembling such a dog is banned in Denver, and cannot be kept in most apartment and condo buildings nationwide. Even PETA and the Humane Society advised that the pit bulls that narrowly avoided death at Michael Vick's hands be killed. Imagine that sentence being handed down to maimed yellow labs.

In truth, the range of dogs referred to as "pit bulls" make incredibly gentle, loyal companions. Historically, they've scored very highly on the American Temperament Test of dog breeds, outperforming many more popular dogs. According to the ATT, they're better tempered, on average, than the ballyhooed Golden Retriever.

The dogs we call pit bulls arose in England, Scotland and Ireland in the mid-1800s, where they helped round-up large prey, often in so-called "bull pits." From this original mixing, we've gotten everything from the French bulldog to the Bull Mastiff. The United Kennel Club defines the American pit bull terrier—what most of his mean when we say "pit-bull"—as "a dog that combined the gameness of the terrier with the strength and athleticism of the Bulldog. The result was a dog that embodied all of the virtues attributed to great warriors: strength, indomitable courage, and gentleness with loved ones."

"A pit bull is American," writes Ken Foster, "and like most Americans, these dogs are a jumble of DNA and contradictions, which is, naturally, what pit bull lovers love most about their dogs." Which takes us back to Miles, who has contradictions aplenty.

He'll face off against a 140-pound Mastiff at the dog park, but he won't get near a hula-hoop. He'll let me hog-tie him, lay on him, and turn him into a toothy lawnmower, but if he doesn't know you or your dog, well, you'd better heed my doormat: "A fragile and very sensitive big-ass dog lives here."

On my way to Mexico to climb Pico de Orizaba this past January, I got a voicemail from my dad, who was taking care of Miles. "We've had a little incident here," he said gravely, "involving Lucky and Miles." My pit had gotten the best of his pit in a fight over a bowl of kibble. Since both are rescues, locked in eat-or-die mode, we'd carefully socialized them over the first five months I had Miles. They played rough—often approaching the cusp of simultaneous canicide—but never before had they both gone for the jugular.

"Lucky has a deep cut down the middle of her chest," dad continued on the phone. "Mary"—my step-mom—"is pretty upset."

Miles wasn't welcome back for quite a while after that, even once Lucky's stiches were removed. But to Mary's credit, they've been allowed to reunite with close supervision—I keep a spray bottle of water handy at all times, ready to give a reprimanding spritz to the muzzle—and have played for many hours since, without incident. (Observing this "play" still takes some getting used to: it is to normal dog romping what the UFC is to the WWF.)

But pax canis did not last long. Over the next few months, Miles suddenly started nipping at people every once in a while: a pool guy, a neighbor, my girlfriend's older sister and a cat-loving pal of mine were among those scared shitless.

None had done more, it seemed, than reach down to touch him. But in some unknown way, I thought, they must have reminded him of his abusers. Smokers perhaps? Yankees fans? Cat lovers? These incidents left me having to explain this fact again and again: Miles lashes out in fear because he's been abused, not because he's a "pit bull."

And was he even a "pit bull"? My father spent seventy-five bucks on something called the "Wisdom Panel Insights Doggie DNA Test" in order to find out. He sent off a swab of Miles' saliva, and few weeks later we got an email: he's a 'Boxer mix' crossed with 'American Staffordshire Terrier,' it said. From the email: "The Wisdom Panel® InsightsTM computer algorithm performed over seven million calculations using 11 different models (from a single breed to complex combinations of breeds) to predict the most likely combination of pure and mixed breed dogs in the last 3 ancestral generations that best fit the DNA marker pattern observed in Miles Davis." So he was half pit, whatever that meant.

I found this passage in Foster's book: "For better or worse, the adage goes, our dog's behavior is attributed to their DNA ... making it, inevitably, a great family dog, a great hunter, or an alert guard dog. But most of these people are just repeating notions that have been handed down like folklore, rather than via the study of genetics. It is a notion of predicting behavior that we would never claim in humans." Well, almost never. But the point is well taken: behavior is more than genetics.

This summer, Miles scaled his first mountain—Georgia's second-highest—almost entirely off-leash. This freedom owed more to the remoteness of the trail and the absence of dogs/humans to tangle with than any great advances he's made in socializing. I was surprised he made it up the three miles and one thousand feet of elevation without bonking, given how he reacts to a ten-minute city jog. But as he sat atop the observation tower, collapsing in the lone sliver of shade, I got a little misty thinking how far he's come from that Dekalb County cell.

As I type this now, he's curled up in the backseat of my car, in the space not occupied by a cooler full of steak sandwiches.  We're on the way home from Texas, the seventh state we've visited together. It was a solid 18 hours from Atlanta to a 300-acre ranch in the hill country outside Marble Falls where we'd meet much of my girlfriend's family—Miles reacting poorly to only one of them—but I wanted him to come. A dog needs to roam, and Miles hasn't roamed nearly enough.

Free to explore the ranch, he was constantly amazed: the sun was hotter, the prickly things pricklier, and the animals diverged from the squirrel, dog and cat categories he knew. In seventy-two hours, he saw (and chased or ran from) coyotes, lizards, deer, feral pigs and three bikinied sisters. He rolled around in the dirt, howled at the moon, briefly disappeared in pursuit of a pig. So now he's exhausted in the back seat, dreaming about whatever it is that dogs dream, and I'm planning our next trip. I think he'd like the feel of a canoe.

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2014 Ice Climbing Essentials

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Riders on the Storm: Colorado Cyclists Come Together After Floods

Clad in our best pajamas (mine, it must be said, floods), we shifted our feet in the rising water, drowning our anxiety with gossip. I hadn’t ridden my bicycle since the sky had cracked, and I worried aloud about my training plan. I secretly hoped, if only for a moment, that my basement would flood, too, so I wouldn’t be consigned to the trainer.

My Front Range roadie friends and I are going crazy. The Boulder and Larimer floods have turned our premier rides—the veinal canyons that rip the Rockies—into huge culverts, wiping out roads, homes, entire towns. The inconvenience is temporary and trivial for those of us merely put off our favorite roads. It may even be callous to mention. Yet so much of serious amateur athletics is selfish. We don’t acknowledge the oxymoron. What are America’s fittest cities to do if they can’t out-Strava one another on steep canyon climbs, or engage in daily, unofficial stage races?

A relatively recent convert to cycling, I bridged the gap to middle age and a post-divorce life by becoming a fervent amateur racer, a Cat 4. I used to bench twice my bodyweight; now I’m lithe, legs shaved and shiny. The Front Range—if not all of Colorado—has a way of turning otherwise sane, productive people into obsessives and weight weenies. Moderation’s for flatlanders.

Shut out of our beloved hills, our tribe has been forced to improvise. One local triathlete is preparing for the Virginia Triple Iron by doing seven hours of a 16-minute loop, drilling himself into the ground. A Boulder racer gets his interval and hill work, normally supplied by long, creek-side grinds into Sunshine and Lefthand Canyons, by scaling the two miles to the National Center for Atmospheric Research—12 times a ride. Others respond with a 13th repeat, eleven-plus-minutes a pop.

Sullen Cat 4s in skinsuits line up outside my gym. They want to be first inside to lay claim to the best spin-class machines where they form an echelon in the crosswind of the instructor’s fan. Burying themselves in pretense, the high C in the instructor’s song becomes the sprint sign at the crown of the false flat. Their classmates stand on the pedals and do the prancing pony. I’ve never been called a “Crash 4” indoors.

Many of us are fanning out on the eastern plains, discovering new roads in the places we thought we knew, particularly the flat, seemingly endless ribbons of dirt that unspool through the grass. But the canyons remain our proving grounds. Everyone knows the meaning of the mailboxes and who is and who isn’t the KOM.

Recently, before the deluge, I was hammering up Lefthand when the air got abruptly humid. A pack from New Zealand’s PureBlack race team blew by—a churning, steaming train producing its own weather. I hopped on and sucked the last wheel for close to a mile before getting spit out the back. I pedaled faster than I thought I could, then all of a sudden much slower. “Hammering” became a bluntly relative term. Again. I was old and fat, but also inspired. The Kiwis and I shared chocolate chips at the general store at the top, swapped stories about shaving a minute off personal bests and how someday the Tours of Utah and Colorado would lead to France.

If all ditches want to be creeks, and all creeks want to be rivers, and all rivers want to be floods, then all rec riders want to become racers, and all racers fantasize they’re pros. But something strange has happened in the wake of the floods: We’ve been busted out of our narcissistic training bubbles. The fastest guys trying to drop everyone else in the canyon are now helping us all work together, pulling each other to the summit.

Even before the rain had settled to a steady drizzle, the leaders of our Lycra-clad community had started soliciting cyclocross racers for donations—offering up even bigger brats, better beer, and barrel-roasted s’mores at the start of the otherwise free ‘cross races. Cyclists 4 Jamestown, a grassroots group, is partnering with local teams Naked Women’s Racing and RealD Amgen as well as Bissell Pro Cycling, to host another fundraiser later this month in support of one of the many mountain towns cutoff and devastated by the flood. Through the sale of area trail maps, Fort Collins and Loveland’s Peloton Cycles is coming to the aid of a fellow shop, Redstone Cyclery in Lyons, an enclave on the Lefthand and St. Vrain loops that awoke one morning during the rain to find it had become an island.

The money can’t begin to impact the millions of dollars in repairs the region faces, but it’ll help a few families who’ve lost their homes or worse to the water. Eventually, with cooperation, there will be gravel through the canyons again. Then hard surface. Maybe we’ll remember the best part of racing is the fellowship, that the best training plans put us into position to help a teammate and, depending upon circumstances, a stranger.

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A Jungle Murder Mystery Heats Up

Ann Bender, the multi-millionaire accused of killing her husband in their sprawling Costa Rican compound in January 2010, will again face trial for the murder. Last January, Ann Bender was acquitted of the crime. (Ned Zeman wrote about the crimein our June 2013 issue.) But a three-judge panel in Costa Rica recently overturned the acquittal, calling for a retrial.

Ann and John Bender had lived in Costa Rica since 1998, building a sprawling nature preserve on 5,000 acres in the Costa Rican jungle. John had made a multi-million-dollar fortune trading options before he cashed out, renounced his U.S. citizenship, and built his dream home with Ann.

On January 7, 2010, John Bender died of a gunshot wound to the head while in his bedroom on the fourth floor of the couple’s sprawling, open-air 120,000-square-foot living space. Almost immediately, his wife was considered a suspect by the police there, and within weeks they had formally charged her with the crime.

The rest of the case reads like a paperback thriller. Both Ann and John suffered from bouts of depression and mania that sometimes lasted years. John had been injecting Ann with home remedies meant to heal various, undefined ailments. When police entered the home, they found 550 Tiffany lamps and $8.5 million worth of jewels scattered around the home. After John’s death, Ann discovered that his fortune had been wrested away from her by the lawyer in charge of his trust. 

When a Costa Rican court acquitted her in January 2013, Ann felt that she could finally start over. She was ready to move near her mother in Florida. She thought the courts would soon return John’s money to her, as well.

But this September, all of that changed. After the acquittal, the prosecution appealed the decision. (A tactic not allowed in the U.S., but legal under the Costa Rican judicial system.) Last month, the court overruled the acquittal, calling for another trial. The panel determined that the judges in the initial trial had neglected several “inconsistencies.” Among them:

• That there was “clear indication that (Bender) was found in a sleeping position, which is strange because it does not fit with those who commit suicide.”

• That “there was no gunpowder found on the victim’s hand, which brings doubt to him firing the weapon.”

• And finally, “although the accused did not have sufficient gunpowder residue on her hands, the judgment itself says she wiped her hands on napkins which did have gunpowder on them. They were found on a chair on the second floor.”

“This is a persecution against me,” Ann told a Costa Rican website in Spanish after the ruling. “And not just against me. Against my husband, against our dream, and against our life together. Why? I don’t know. What I do know is that this is not justice.”

No date has been set for the new trial.

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