Tom Coyne, author of Paper Tiger, made his way around Ireland on foot in 2007, playing every seaside hole in the country. What follows is an excerpt of the book he wrote about his adventures, A Course Called Ireland: A Long Walk in Search of a Country, a Pint, and the Next Tee. Learn more about it at TomCoyne.com.
The dog was going to be a problem.
I had already faced off against a gang of galloping livestock, gone toe to hoof with a mountain goat, and narrowly escaped the nip of a mother swan. I had climbed my way out of sandy pits and thorny ditches, scrambled up stone walls, splashed my way through deep and icy waters. I had felt speeding cars brush the hair on my knuckles. I had lowered my chin into a month-long rain, peeled the blisters off my blisters, watched my feet turn to piles of soggy porridge. I had chafed. Over the last four months, I had encountered quick and flying fists, smelled the sour breath of a hundred lost men, fought my damndest not to become one of them. I took on the British Army. I dodged the police. And I felt the despair of every man who ever chose to walk alone, then found himself dreaming he could go back and choose differently.
But with just a few hours to go, and just a few paces left on my journey, I met a growl in the middle of a quiet country road, and it sounded just like the last thing a person might ever hear.
The dog was tall as a Harley with paws the size of pancakes. His skin was taut and caked in mud as if he'd been resurrected from a bog, and a winding scar cut up his face like a map. A redness leaked from his eyes, and in his stare I recognized a disquieting certainty about how the next few minutes were going to proceed. This wasn't an animal I was looking at, I told myself. This was an inevitability.
I hadn't seen a car for twenty minutes when I rounded a bend and found this dog lying in the middle of the asphalt, unnatural-it was as if I'd left the car road and come upon his. It was like the automobiles knew, and they knew better. I watched the dog lift himself off the gravel, peeling back his lips to bare a craggy ridge of yellow teeth. He dropped his right paw in front of his left, moving in my direction. The low rumbling growl — I could feel it in my feet.
Loping like an elephant, the dog slowly drew closer. I inched backward, my feet endeavoring an about-face, but my back refused to show itself to what was coming. The dog's stride was twice my shuffle, and a separation of thirty yards quick became twenty, twenty paces turning to fifteen, and soon I was close enough to see frothy brown gums where his mouth was torn at the corners. I turned around, and when I did, he barked. And when he barked, I felt a spontaneous warmth in my high-performance, quick-wicking boxer briefs. Tears squirted from my eyes like juice from cocktail fruit. That bark didn't sound like nature. If I was going to have to sacrifice an ankle, so be it. I tossed my bag and turned around and I ran like a dog. If only.
Behind me came a frenzied scratch of long nails on gravel as the dog scrambled its way up to speed, and I estimated another twelve strides before I would be curled up on the pavement, begging mercy from a dog whose breath smelled of my shin bone. But just then, like a cart girl driving toward you in the midst of a six-hour round, a miraculous vision appeared on the horizon. A blue Nissan was headed my way. The dog pulled up at the sight of the car, and I hopped and flailed like a drunken ballerina, bringing the car to a reluctant halt. The driver's side window cracked an inch. A teenager with prickly black hair sat behind the wheel, a girl sitting next to him, smoking a cigarette. They both eyed me with predictable suspicion.
"You have to help me," I pleaded. "I can't get past this dog. I'm stuck out here-the thing chased me down the road. I need a lift, just until it's out of sight." The driver looked to his passenger, and his passenger looked at him, their faces screaming step on it.
"Please, I'm desperate, I haven't seen another car in an hour," I protested. I abandoned bravery, and put all my chips on hopeless cowardice. "I'll pay you. I'm serious. This is dangerous, this dog is not well."
Meanwhile, the growl started up again, and the roadblock resumed his steps. The girl put down her cigarette and, evidently some sort of dog whisperer for the barmy, she rolled down her window and said, "Shoo. Go on, you dog. Get out of here."
For her contribution to the crisis, I could not have been less thankful. I began to question the caliber of this miracle. This was an obvious open-the-door-to-a-stranger situation, and not only had this couple failed to do so, but one of them tried to shoo Cujo. Could they not see that this was not a shooing sort of dog, that this was a maiming, tearing, saving-the-torso-for-breakfast breed of canine?
The driver looked ahead to where my gear was lying in the road.
"Is that yours?"
"Yeah. The dog was chasing me."
"Are those golf clubs?" he said.
For the first time in our short and heretofore one-sided relationship, the kid with a locked blue Nissan looked me straight in the eyes.
"What in the hell are you doing out here with golf clubs?"
It wasn't the time for that particular question. But it was still a pretty damn good one.
Golf trip. Years after spring break and bachelor party had lost their promise, golf trip still tingled with possibility in the minds of so many. For millions of like-minded men, the golf getaway remained one of the few excuses for husbands and dads to get giggly about bunking up with one another in modest accommodations, forking over thousands to lose golf balls and sip canned beer and feast on meals from a Myrtle Beach fryer. If your interest wasn't piqued by blasting venison, if you were able to see camping for the non-vacation that it was, then golf remained your last bit of glue, holding former roommates and old neighbors together. Rare was the chance for men to make dinner reservations for one another, then share a pleasant nightcap where even a fleeting reference to the opposite sex played as a betrayal of their own. It was an opportunity to feel athletic, manly, even, before taking a steam with the brother-in-law you never really liked. Not until that week at Pinehurst, of course, after which you continued to call him bro, sans the dripping sarcasm.
In the dozens of failed and wonderful and yet-to-materialize golf trips I had been a part of, all the swaying palms of Florida, all those dollops of green icing in the Arizona desert-it all seemed sleepy when considered against the links of Europe. Golf played elsewhere was but a limp imitation of the battles being fought along the edges of Europe's western isles, where golfers forsook the safety of the clubhouse and embarked upon character-rattling slogs, where it was not about playing perfect, but having played at all. If you had ever leaned sideways into the breeze with a sand wedge in your hands, staring through windblown tears at a golf ball entombed in four feet of fanged thistle, clothes soaked through to the skin, fingers like an overworked fishmonger, and yet you couldn't bring yourself to stop smiling — then you got it. And you might soon understand how I found myself on that road, hauling golf clubs and contemplating a hospital stay, in a quiet and wooded corner of Ireland.
From A COURSE CALLED IRELAND by Tom Coyne. Published by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2009 by Tom Coyne.