Mom woke me up this morning while it was still dark out. “Did Santa come?” I mumbled as she pulled the blankets off of my head.
“Yeah, sure,” Mom said. “But also I want to hit the trail early so that we can be on the ridge to watch the sun rise behind the mountains.” Mom turned on the heat in the Covered Wagon, and while she drank her coffee and charged her phone, I opened the only gift that Santa could fit up the exhaust pipe.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s a beef trachea…” Mom told me.
I’d never had a beef trachea before, and believe me, it’s even BETTER than it sounds.
We got to the trail right when there started to be enough light to see by, so Mom didn’t need to use my spotlight to keep us from falling off a cliff. When we looked up at the cliff wall, it was hard to tell where the trail went since from a distance (and even up close) the trail looked no different than the rest of the rocks and sand until you were on it. “Where are we going?” I asked, looking at the solid vertical wall of rock a few hundred feet above us.
“Well… this trail’s called Hidden Valley, so I’m guessing there’s a valley somewhere that we can’t see. I do know that this trail goes all the way up to the rim eventually…” We looked up at the rocks, but we didn’t see a single hole in the wall where a trail could show a handsome dog through.
After about a mile, the sort-of-stairs that we’d been climbing flattened out, and we could see more trees and big boulders lived here; things that are too big can’t live on steep slopes because they lose their balance and fall off. I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly we were in a wide valley covered in white dirt. When we turned around, we couldn’t even tell that the steep cliff we had just climbed was only a few hundred yards away. It was like we’d just walked onto Platform 9 3/4.
“Look, Oscar! The sunrise!” Mom said when she looked back across the open air.
I looked through the crack at the end of the valley and saw that the sun was coming up behind the mountains. It wasn’t just lighting up the undersides of the clouds in that way that makes Mom go gaga, but it was also poking through the holes between the mountains like a crown of spotlights. Of course Mom made me take a gajillion pictures.
I’m used to Mom taking my picture by now, and it wouldn’t have been so bad, except that today every time she took my picture she made me put on this stupid Santa hat. She said that I looked “adorable,” especially since my hat matched my new winter coat, but I hated it. Every time she put it on me, I hung my head and froze in whatever position I happened to be in when she caught me, and wouldn’t reanimate again until she took the hat back off.
Mom took her time walking through the Hidden Valley, so I rolled in, and bit, and sprinted through the white dirt until it flew up in a cloud around me everywhere I went. It was real cold in the valley, but my jacket kept me warm like a blanket as I covered every inch of myself in white dirt between sprints.
Once we had crossed the valley we were back among the rock lumps that look like humongous potatoes from far away, and flakey biscuits from up close. After that, we found the rim trail in no time. Mom wasn’t really sure where we wanted to go. There was an 8-mile loop up here, but since we’d already hiked more than 3 miles to get here, and we didn’t have any food, hiking the whole thing didn’t seem like the best idea. Anyway, we’d hiked that loop when we were here last spring, and Mom said that we should try to see new trails. “But first, let’s go take a picture at the overlook,” she said. The last time we were at the overlook, Mom screamed and practically hit the deck when I went to check it out. I was surprised she’d forgotten…
The hike up to the overlook was very, very rugged. We had to climb over big rocks, and sometimes we came to the end of a rock to find that the ground continued too far beneath us for me to jump head-first or Mom to drop on her bum knee, so we would have to backtrack until we could find a place to climb down safely. “I have a confession to make,” Mom said.
“What?” I asked. “The beef trachea wasn’t actually from Santa?”
“No, it was from my mom; your grandmother.” [hi, Mom] “But what I was going to say was that I’m not positive that this is a trail.”
That’s the thing about the desert: It’s built like a sloppy stack of books. You can walk on pretty much any of the flat bits and you can see the same landmarks from far away so it seems easy to find your way around. What you can’t see is where there are gaps between the books… until you get to the end and realize that you’re stuck on top of a Russian novel and there’s no way down. Or until you come around the side of that standing potato, and suddenly it’s as skinny as a potato chip and you don’t recognize it anymore. Mom and I climbed until we reached the end of the world, and then we looked down to where we expected to see a canyon. Only, instead of the town thousands of feel below us, there was just a sloping half-tube cluttered with rocks. “Hm,” Mom said once she worked up the nerve to look over the edge. “It’s a lot less dramatic than I remember it.”
After only a few mistakes where the trail we were following jumped into a ravine, Mom and I found our way back to the main trail. It was wide, and well marked, and every time we were in doubt about where it went we just had to look for the tire prints where confused drivers had driven their cars. After about a mile we reached a dead end where the trail dropped off to the floor, thousands of feet below. “Oh,” Mom said. “I guess this is the overlook. I wonder what trail we were on before…”
“It wasn’t a trail at all, you nincompoop,” I muttered, rolling my eyes. But I was having too much fun being an explorer to really get mad at Mom. When I looked out into the distance I could see hundreds of potato-rocks filing through the valley like they were in a protest march. Beyond the ranks of potato-rocks I could see cliffs that looked like someone had cracked the Grand Canyon in half to get a better look. It made me feel like we could just walk on and on forever, exploring our way all the way back to California.
Before we left the rim, Mom wanted to get close to one of the odd hollowed-out spots in the rock that looked like the inside of a seashell. While we were taking pictures and I was refusing to look at Mom to let her know how much I hated the Santa hat, I noticed a little cave way up high on the rock. “Mom! Mom! It’s the Grinch’s house! Do you see it??? Maybe Max will sign a paw-tograph for me!” We climbed up so that we could check to see if the Grinch was home, but when we got to the top of Mt Crumpet, the cave was only a few feet deep, barely big enough for an antler-wearing dog to sit up in. Mom snapped the Santa hat on my head and made me stay while she boot-scooted her way back down to Who-ville to take my picture.
When she finally came back up to take the hat off she said, “Well that was a convincing sour Grinchy frown…”
Finally it was time to head back through the Hidden Valley to the Covered Wagon. We left the main trail and followed the footsteps and rock piles back to the secret passageway that would take us back down the cliff. The only problem was that the trail disappeared as if by magic. We found a pile of rocks wedged under an overhang like it was trying to tell us something, but we couldn’t figure out what. We went back and forth over the same 1/10 of a mile of trail over and over, and couldn’t find anything trail-like anywhere; no packed-down snow, no shoe prints in the sand, no rock piles, not even a long stretch without things to climb over. Finally we went back to the cairn wedged under the rock, and Mom stared at it scratching her head. She looked up, but we’d already tried that route. She looked down, but we’d tried that too. She looked back toward the main trail. Yep, we had definitely come down the correct trail to get here. Frustrated, she turned around to look at what her back had been facing… and saw a whole series of cairns like a parade of little snow men. “Oh…” she said, walking toward them. “Take that as a lesson, Oscar.”
“What? Not to let you be the navigator?”
“Well I was thinking that you should always check your assumptions, but you bring up a good point. How is it that dogs can find their way home from hundreds of miles away, and you keep letting me get lost?”
“I love exploring,” I said. “Don’t you?”
From this direction the Hidden Valley was even more invisible. We got lost a few more times following something that looked like a trail but really was just a dried riverbed or bald slickrock. The problem with looking for a place called Hidden Valley is that it’s… well… hidden. Earlier we had been able to find our way to the fake overlook and back because we could always see where we were going, but since we had no idea where the Hidden Valley was in the rocks, we didn’t know what to aim for.
“Maybe it’s behind one of those hoodoos,” Mom said.
“You just made that word up…” I said. But when we walked toward them, the “trail” was swallowed by bushes and big rocks.
When we next found the trail, Mom said, “Maybe the trail climbs up and wraps around at the base of that promontory there…” But when we identified the trail again, instead of going up, it went down and away from where she was looking.
“I don’t see how you could keep losing a trail that we were just on a few hours ago…” I said. I was getting hungry and tired.
Finally we came around what seemed like a meaningless bend in the trail and found ourselves staring back down the channel of the Hidden Valley. “Oh,” Mom said. “Didn’t see that one coming… It was behind the rocks to the left.”
As tired as I was, I still found the energy to roll in the white dirt and kick up an impressive cloud as I sprinted. When I barked my excitement, I heard someone barking “Yippee!!!” back at me. I stopped and looked around for who else was there, but there was no one. Then I realized that it was the mountain enjoying the white dirt with me and wishing me a Merry Christmas.
Oscar the Pooch