Remember when I said that I wished we could just walk across the desert forever? Well… I changed my mind.
Mom and I had tried to hike in Red Rocks the last time we came through Las Vegas, but the campground was full and we had to drive more than an hour into the bush before we found a place to sleep. This time we are wiser and more experienced and just parked the covered wagon by the side of the road. When they unlocked the gate in the morning, Mom and I couldn’t believe our luck. The weather was beautiful and clear, and we could see all of those spiky striped candy corn mountains to one side, and the lumpy pinstripe mashed potato rock formations to the other side. When people say that the desert is ugly, they just don’t know where to look. You can almost never see the best parts from the interstate.
Everything was going beautifully, and mom and I were strolling down a well marked gentle trail through the scrub when mom turned off the main trail onto a trail-like pattern. Instead of packed dirt with frequent signs, now we were walking in deep, deep gravel and around big boulders. The first time we had to stop and use strategy to get over an enormous boulder, I started to get a little worried. Later, I tried to jump on up a high rock that was up to Mom’s chin, but only my front half got to the top. I tried to push myself up with the powerful muscles in my back legs, but my paws couldn’t find anything to push off of. My nails were scratching against the rock as I kicked space, and I was about to give up and drop back down when Mom grabbed me by the legpits and hoisted me up. “Are you absolutely sure this is the trail?” I asked once I had checked that all 4 paws were back on solid ground. “Since we turned off the main trail I haven’t seen a marker or Karen or any signs that humans have ever been here. It seems like we are just walking aimlessly into the desert. That never works out well for the dead bodies on CSI.”
“I know,” mom said. “I wouldn’t believe it either except that I have been checking the GPS every two minutes and we are definitely on the trail. I think that we just follow this wash most of the way up the mountain.”
“What’s a wash?” I asked, taking a step away just in case this was an elaborate ruse to get me to take a bath.
“It’s a dry river. This is what the inside of a river looks like when the water is gone. Those big rocks that we have to scramble up would be waterfalls. Not big ones, but pretty enough to take a picture.”
The further up we went, the more waterfalls we had to climb. Sometimes I couldn’t figure out how to get up, so mom had to show me the places that I should jump. Sometimes, I didn’t understand which of her paws I was supposed to follow, or I would forget the sequence and had figure it out as I climbed. A few times, I missed and to keep myself from falling I had to jump back down, bouncing off of rocks on the way down like a pinball. If I was really confused, I just stood at the bottom of the Oscarfall and barked until Mom came down and showed me again, tapping on each step of the route and standing by to spot me. A few times, Mom tried to give me a boost but I’m no wussy dog and so I made her go the long way around to find a new route. There were times when Mom could have gotten through by gripping and pulling with her front paws, or spreading her back legs and climbing up opposite walls like a monkey, but no one who hikes sensibly with four paws on the ground could follow her so we would backtrack and find a different way.
Pretty soon we weren’t really following a specific trail anymore, we were just charting a course in the right direction. We would come to a flat spot and Mom would check which general direction the trail went, and then we would pick out a route to the next flat spot in that direction. It was like going through a maze. I didn’t know that it was possible to be an explorer on a route that was already mapped, but I was starting to figure out that being an explorer was harder and scarier than it seemed from a distance.
After about 2 miles we found ourselves facing a waterfall that was about four Oscars high. The only way up it was to use that funny four-legged climb that Mom could do and I couldn’t. Even if I had used Mom as an elevator, she was not tall enough to lift me all the way to the top. Mom looked for another route, but there were nothing but sheer walls on both sides. “I think this is the end of the road for us, buddy,” Mom said gratefully. “Let’s head back.” Even though we were definitely still on the trail, this adventure was starting to get the stink of a very bad idea, and we were both happy for an excuse to go back.
So we started picking our way back down the mountain. The way down presented its own problems because sometimes things that were easy to climb up were harder to climb down, especially if you happen to prefer climbing with your front legs first and leading with your noggin. We had just picked our way down a very challenging and confusing waterfall to a flat spot when, mom looked at the map to see what direction to go next. “Oh crap,” she said. “This isn’t the trail; the trail was up there.” We looked back at the waterfall we had just come down, but couldn’t see a way for me to get back up it. We spent about 5 minutes trying, and then Mom climbed back up to see if there was an alternative route. She looked like a fly climbing up a wall with all of her paws. When she came back down, she said, “Okay, let’s reframe this. Our problem isn’t really getting back to that trail, but finding a way back to the car. Maybe the easiest way is to take the long way round.”
Mom studied the map and figured out that if we followed this new river a short way, then we would find another trail that could take us on a 2 or 3 mile loop back to the Covered Wagon. After not too much scrambling we were back on the civilized trails and feeling happy again. The sun was out, it was warm, the scenery was beautiful, and we were going to have an easy walk back home.
Everything was going well and all the trails were exactly where the map said they would be until we reached the last 0.7 mile trail connecting us back to the route to the Covered Wagon. This trail was even worse than the other one: all waterfalls with almost no flat spots in between. I was sure that this time we were definitely climbing rocks randomly into the desert, except that on the map Mom showed me this was an even more clearly marked trail. What’s more, we started to meet other hikers who were coming down. This death trap was crowded. First, we met what looked like a tour group people hiking in clothes that they had bought at Marshalls and Ross Dress for Less rather than REI or the outdoor store. Next came a group of fat humans whose faces looked like tomatoes and were shiny with sweat. They looked like they were going to have twin heart attacks. If these two John Candy look-alikes could do this trail, why were two experienced hikers like Mom and me having so much trouble? Next we met a group that had a people puppy that was about my age and size, and a dog! “Take me down with you!” I barked at the dog.
“What? This is nothing! Haven’t you ever been hiking before?” said the other dog. Sure, I’d been hiking before! Lots of times. But even when we were very, very lost I had never had to hike something so difficult and dangerous. Why didn’t this trail carry a warning? You may think that everyone in Las Vegas is a murderer, or a murder victim waiting for their turn, but they are also tough! They go out and look a painful and frightening death in the face for fun, and see nothing remarkable about it. As Mom and I scrambled pile of rocks we could hear the people puppy wailing behind us. I was too tired to bark at the noise, but I whatever had happened to the people puppy, it made me feel better. As tough a day as I was having, at least I wasn’t howling.
In one spot, Mom and I spent about 15 minutes trying to figure out a safe route for both dogs and humans. Mom first tried the human-friendly route, but there weren’t enough intermediate spots for me to put all four paws to jump to the next step. Next, she tried the slickrock route, but the rock was too slippery and steep. If one of us fell the drop was high enough to break a dog’s or a human’s leg, and then we would be howling like the people puppy until we expired. Making matters worse, I could smell that Mom was starting to get scared. We were going to have to climb down 30 or 40 hard-won feet to try a different route, and what if this was the only way up? As we came down, we met a couple of humans and a grey-beard dog who were trying to decide which route to take. “It’s not this one,” Mom said, helpfully. So all 5 of us set off together in a different direction.
With our new companions, it was much easier for me to get up the tricky stuff. When it was just me and Mom, I wanted to keep an eye on Mom at all times, which meant that she always had to go up things before me. But now that I had the human lady and greybeard dog to follow, I could let Mom and the man walk behind me. When it was just the two of us, I had given in and let Mom give me a boost in a few spots where we were really stuck, but now if I faltered, The Man could grab my tight little butt and give me an an ally-oop, which really helped.
The greybeard didn’t needany ally-oops. She just got a running start, and bounced her way up vertical walls. “Psst. How old are you?” I whispered to her.
“Twelve,” the greybeard told me matter-of factly, as she climbed a route that I needed a boost to get up. Twelve! Like I said, the hikers from Las Vegas are the toughest in the world. I bet the 4 3/4-year-old dogs here can fly!
With the help of about about 100 effortless ally-oops, we crossed a distance in about 10 minutes that it would have taken Mom and me an hour to figure out. The Woman said, “I think this is the top!”
“I love you!” Mom blurted out.
It had been thirsty work climbing all those waterfalls, so we stopped for a drink of water at the top. But now that we were at the peak, the weather had turned nasty. An icy blast of wind almost blew Mom’s hat off her head, and the sun was gone. “Is that snow???” Mom said.
We still had a couple of frigid miles to hike back down to the Covered Wagon, but there was very little scrambling, and we only had to backtrack a few times. We hardly noticed the backtracking anymore. After what felt like 100 lifetimes and seven harrowing miles, we stepped off of the gravel wash and back onto the main trail. Mom clicked the leash back into place, not like it was necessary. My exploring was done.
After a long morning of wondering if we were going to die, it was a shock to be back with regular people. Next to us there was a clump of 3 humans all stuck to an impossibly old fourth human. The old human seemed to be having trouble with this flattest and smoothest of trails, but she kept repeating, “I’m a team player!”
“What’s a team player?” I whispered to Mom. “Is it someone who is lost in the desert and needs help?”
“I think it’s more like someone who agrees to something that they don’t want to do out of spite, so no one else can enjoy the experience either. There’s a team player in every family.”
We left the clotting humans behind and caught up to a bunch of dude-bruhs. One of the dude-bruhs had the witch in his phone playing music that sounded like static from far away, and sounded like angry static when we got close enough to hear it better. “Dude,” said another one of the dude-bruhs. “It’s so hard to text when your fingers are cold.”
“Yeah, bruh,” said the third.
Thomas’s Mom, one of my second favorite humans in the world. was going to be in Las Vegas on Sunday, and Mom and I had been thinking about sticking around in the low desert to go on a hike with her. “Do you want to stay?” Mom asked. “We can do a walk on the strip, and relax in the Covered Wagon with the heat on, and maybe get a fancy dinner at McDonald’s for you…”
“Nah. These flat landers are gross. I don’t want to be near them.”
“I agree. Well, do you want to come back here tomorrow and do an easier hike? Something with a real manicured, maintained, and marked trail?”
But after such a big expedition today, an easy hike would just feel like a walk, and I knew we would spend the whole time staring up at the rocks and wondering what it looked like from up there.
“Well, we could go to Joshua Tree. Or Death Valley… Mojave?”
“Nah.” The truth is, I was adventured out. I would need a really long cooling off period after this one. So we did what we do after all of our road trips: we hurried home as fast as we could and spent the whole drive trying to think of a way to live on the road for the rest of our lives.
Oscar the Free Solo Dog