It’s supposed to be Mountain Season, which is the time of year when the mountains sweat off the white dirt that covers the trails all winter and a dog can get away from the heat by climbing into the sky. But February refused to leave when its permit expired this year, and winter has been junking up the sky and leaving a mess on the ground all week. Mom and I searched the weather reports for all of the mountains and foothills down the spine of California for a mountain where it wouldn’t be February. But February planned to dump more white dirt down the back of California’s shirt all weekend.
“I guess that means we’re going back to Palm Springs,” Mom said with a sigh.
“Which one is that?” I asked. “Is it close?”
“No. It’s 500 miles away.” In case you’re not good at math, that meant it was going to take eight human hours of Wagoning just to escape February.
Another danger that we try to avoid whenever we go to the desert is the huge Wagon trap that Mom calls “Ellay.” Ellay is a no-no place on the butt of California where you can’t stop to sleep for hundreds of square miles because it’s jammed with bright billboards, private property, and so, so many cars. Even though we left The City early and drove late into the night – past dinner time, and past our bed times – Ellay followed us almost all the way to the desert. So instead of camping in the cool desert under a full moon, we camped in a freeway rest stop under a full street light.
The desert looked like a giant had walked through carrying a ripped bag of kibbles, and wagon-sized kibbles had fallen out of the bag in piles. Rocks like this always excite the imagination in Mom’s legs and eyes. She likes to climb with me on the smaller piles to see what a handsome dog looks like from angles that she’s not used to. While we hike, she also likes to look at the taller piles from a distance and imagine what it would be like to climb all the way to the top, and if she would have to turn around before she got there. After a few minutes of hiking, we found the first rock formation that inspired Mom’s imagination, and Mom walked off the trail and up the steep sand pile that made a pedestal under the interesting rocks.
I followed her and watched where she was going so that I would know where to climb and what rocks she wanted me to jump “up-up” onto. Mom was climbing like she was walking through a dark room; putting her paws carefully on the ground and holding on to rocks like she didn’t expect the ground to stay where it was. “Mom, what are you doing?” I asked.
“I’ve been sitting on my butt for like two dog years. I guess I’ve lost my sense of balance. It’s like I can’t feel where my legs are. They don’t feel like my legs.”
“Well that explains why you’re walking like Frankenstein. Maybe when you were asleep the vet sewed on someone else’s legs?” I looked closely at Mom’s legs. “That would explain why they’re so much more jiggly than before…”
“No, these are still my legs. I’ve just reached that age where I’ve got to use it or lose it.”
“What do you mean? Are your legs going to fall off if I let you take more days off from running?” This seemed serious indeed.
“Not exactly, but as you get older your body is like those condemned houses at the beach. A house at the beach needs more cleaning and more coats of paint. If you don’t do the maintenance, then it falls apart faster than a house somewhere else. If you’re ignore it for long enough, it may collapse and becomes unsafe to use it at all. Then you’re condemned.”
It sounded like maybe Mom was exaggerating, but she did look like a horror movie monster lurching through the sand between the kibble-rocks. I was glad that there was no one else in this desert to see her, because they would probably take one look at that Frankenstein walk and try to set her on fire. I wondered if an old person had hiked here once before and hand’t been so lucky. That would explain all of the black wounds on the dead sand worms, and tree skeletons that were so black and shiny that they looked like they were made of glass.
Mom had packed me a special outfit for this hike, but much to my relief, the cape didn’t fit right, so she only made me wear the hat. “What is it?” I asked, as the hat tentacles blew in my face like Mom’s face fur sometimes does.
“You’re a piñata!” Mom said.
“It’s a toy filled with sweetness and happiness…” Mom explained.
“Oh, well that’s nice! That sounds just like me…”
“…And children beat the crap out of it with a stick until it breaks open and all the treats pour out.”
“They do what?!”
“I bought it for Cinco de Mayo, but then I didn’t want to make a political statement.”
“What’s Sink-o de My-o?”
“It’s the anniversary of when we took The West from Mexico,” she explained. Apparently The Pioneers didn’t like living in places where it could be February any day of the year; they wanted a place where they could have nice weather and pretty scenery without checking the weather report. The Pioneers were real jealous of Mexico because The West had all those things, and Mexico had The West. So the Pioneers beat Mexico up like a piñata until it burst open, and then the Pioneers ran in and claimed The West as their own. Mom says that we can’t really judge at dead people for what they did 150 years ago, especially since it’s her favorite part of the country.
It wasn’t summer hot, but there was no shade for a fine black dog to lie down in and cool off. The heat made me pant like a trance drum beat, and I hiked behind Mom so that my gasping and heaving could inspire her like a good playlist. We were trying to keep track of the trail as we pushed through thick, tall weeks when we found it lying under a scummy puddle. “Oh goody! An aid station!” I said.
“Oscar, no! Don’t drink that. That’s gross,” Mom said.
I stopped drinking and looked into the water. Behind the grey-green fluffy scum there were little puddle-flies. “What are those?” I asked.
“They’re tadpoles,” she said. “Don’t…”
But whatever Mom was about to say, it was too late. “Move over, boys! I’m coming in!” I said, flopping my cute butt into the puddle with the tadtrolls and the pond scum. Mom made me get up a second later, but the pond scum clung to my butt fur and kept the cool in for the next mile or so. Totally worth it!
I was tired from the heat and the distance over rugged terrain, but I didn’t want to show any weakness in case the bunnies were “use it or lose it” finks. I chased every bunny I saw, chipmunk and lizard I saw like my legs depended on it, but my robust and powerful legs just aren’t as interested in bunny sprints as they used to be. So sometimes when a chipmunk dove into some weeds, or a bunny ran high up in the hills, I pretended like I’d lost their scent and came back to Mom before sprinting through the wild desert.
When we got back to the Covered Wagon, I lay in bed panting so hard that the whole wagon rattled like an earthquake. Even though I’d used my legs just like Mom told me to, I felt like someone had come and stolen them anyway and replaced them with someone else’s wobbly jelly legs. I also felt like someone had beat me with the tired stick like a piñata. I had to spend the entire ride home getting a head massage with my head in Mom’s lap, and slept right through Mom dropping bits of her dinner on the floor when we got home. I feel like I could sleep for two dog years, and I hope that when I wake up my body hasn’t been stolen and replaced with some other dog’s body.
Oscar the Pooch