Happy Birthday, everybody! That’s the greeting that Mom gives me every March 17, and now I’m teaching it to you. Birthday is a special day for dogs when they get to eat as much of their favorite foods as they want, and do some of their favorite activities. I think that Birthday is the best day of the year.
We started our family observation of Birthday ahead of time, because my Birthday celebration would take special preparation. After work, we left The City in the Covered Wagon and drove until late at night, and when we woke up we drove for even more time. Mom said that because of the bum in her knee she needed to be creative about my Birthday celebration and we had to travel really far to find the sort of adventure that a daredevil like me and a bum like Mom could enjoy together. “I think you’ll be really surprised when we get there,” Mom said. “I think you’ll like it a lot.”
We drove almost all the way down to where the movie stars live, but turned inland at the last moment so we wouldn’t bump into Oprah (which would be so awkward, because I’m such a good life coach and she might be jealous). Then, when the mountains started to grow white hats, we turned between two of them and came out in the real desert. Then, we kept driving until the white-hatted mountains were gone and we could see the brown, naked mountains where California turns into Arizona and Nevada. And then, as suddenly as if someone had changed the channel, we went from the desert I have explored to the kind of desert that I thought only existed on TV and in that one confused spot in New Mexico.
This desert had no cactupi or palm trees, no canyons or rock decorations, no tumbleweeds or mitten gods. It was nothing but wave after wave of naked sand piled so high that it made miniature mountains. “Mom! Are we in Star Wars?!” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen it,” Mom said. “I think it looks like Lawrence of Arabia or the desert in Super Mario.”
“Never heard of them,” I said.
Even where there is nothing but empty sand, humans still divide things up so that they can make rules. Some of this land was “BM” land, which is a kind of public land where we could buy a permit to do dangerous things like shoot guns or drive golf carts like maniacs. The other kind of public land was the wilder-ness land. The wilder-ness is called that because it is even more wild than the BM Land and you can do whatever you want without getting permitten from anyone. We had to (sensibly) drive the Covered Wagon a couple miles down a dirt road before we saw the post that marked the edge between the BM land and the wilder-ness, and then we parked on the wilder-ness side of it and I took off my leash.
There was no trail, so Mom just started walking into the desert. I hung back. “Mom, aren’t you afraid we’ll get lost with no trail to follow and no landmarks?” I asked.
“I was thinking we’d just navigate by dead reckoning,” she said.
“I don’t know what dead recon-ing is, but I don’t like the sound of it,” I said.
“It’s where you navigate without a map, or landmarks, or GPS,” Mom said.
“Sure, that makes a lot of sense for the part where we’re looking for adventure. But what happens in the part where we’ve wandered around in the sand for awhile and we need to find the car and take a nap?”
“What? You think I can’t do it?” Mom said, offended. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
I smelled a trap, but I couldn’t figure out where it was. Mom had a terrible sense of direction and could get lost even if she had a map. But also, Mom is a girl, and girls don’t like to be told that they’re wrong. “It’s not that I think you can’t do it, Mom. It’s just… well… don’t actually think you can do it and I don’t want to die before Birthday…”
Mom pointed at the choo-choo train that was chugging by. “We are parked next to the train tracks…” she explained. Then she pointed off in the distance, “The train tracks run parallel to that big mountain range in the distance…” Then she pointed up, “…and we’re also directly under that radio tower that you can see from far away. If we can’t see the van, then we can see the train tracks, and if we can’t see the train tracks, then we can see the mountains. So we’ll always know which direction we’re facing. And if we find the train tracks, but we’re in the wrong spot, we just have to look up and find the radio tower to know which direction to follow the tracks.”
“Oh, you were joking about the dead recon-ing,” I said. “I knew that. I just have a dry sense of humor. That’s why I wasn’t laughing. But I definitely knew you were joking.”
“Anyway,” Mom said. “I also put a pin on the GPS map, just in case. Stop being such a worry wort.”
Now that I knew that we were being safe, I kicked up my heels and started frolicking in the sand. It didn’t really matter where I ran because everywhere was basically the same, so I ran everywhere to see what the sand looked like when I looked uphill at it, and downhill at it, and while at full speed, and close up at the end of my nose, and upside-down while rolling around on my back. It turns out that the sand wasn’t totally the same after all. The sand piled high in what are called “dooms,” as bajillions of tiny grains climbed on top of each other in a race toward Arizona. The dooms looked like they had solid edges from far away, but close up I could see that there were ghostly herds of spooks that appeared with the wind and slithered along the sand, leaving the stripes behind them before they disappeared. The stripes were like tiny dooms for flea hiking.
Mom and I explored the dooms, always making sure that the wind was blowing sand in our left ears so that we knew that no matter how many circles zoomed in, and how many times we turned to look around, we were always traveling in the same direction. On the dirt road where we’d parked the Covered Wagon, life had already started to eat away at the edges of the dooms; there were bushes and small trees and pointy leaves that poked right out of the ground. There were also bunny holes, and little lizards that ran along the sand so fast that I felt like I was only seeing them out of the corner of my eye even when I looked right at them. But the further we walked, the more the sand took over until there was no life on it at all.
Where all the plants had given up, some of the dooms were very tall and steep. The steep sand swallowed half of my leg and dragged me back down the slope when I tried to run up them. To get to the top, I had to explode my paw out of its sand trap, and run up faster than the sand could sag down. When I ran back down, I could ride the sand with each step and then burst down the doom in giant fearless leaps.
Mom got to do a little racing too, although it wasn’t nearly as bad ass as exploding through the sand. Every once in awhile, a gust of wind would come along when she wasn’t ready and blow the hat off her head. When the tried to pick it up, the hat would roll away and then pause just out of her reach. When she got close enough, she would reach out carefully, and just then the wind came along and blew it just out of her reach again. “Wait, wait, wait!” she said out loud as she waddled and stretched after it. When she finally caught it, she shook most of the sand off, and then put the hat on her head saving the rest of the sand in her fur for later.
After a little while, we were totally covered in sand and were beginning to become a part of the dooms ourselves. There was sand in my nose, my eyeballs, my fur, caked into my paws and snout, and especially in my left ear. So we turned around to let the sand blow into our right ears for awhile and leave before we became sand spooks ourselves. We walked back toward the mountains, and the railroad, and the radio tower, and the Covered Wagon as gradually the dooms got shorter and the desert came back to life.
When we got to the Covered Wagon, Mom took off her shoes and turned them upside-down. So much sand came out that I don’t know how she had room for her feet in there. But don’t worry, we still had plenty of souvenirs from my Birthday in our fur, and our ears, and the wet spots in the corner of my eyes, and stuck to Mom’s sticky skin. Now our souvenir doom is in the driving chair and all the bedding in the Covered Wagon, where it will stay forever to remind us of my fifth Birthday adventure.
Oscar the Birthday Boy