Most years mountain season has started by now, but in this year of Februaries the mountains still have their white dirt blankets pulled over their heads. That meant that Mom and I couldn’t climb a big mountain for the long weekend like we wanted to. Instead, we found a trail lower down and closer to home where the mountains’ feet stick out from under the blanket. That meant that we didn’t have to spend as long in the car, and we could be close to a Walmart and a Starbucks – both things that make Mom very happy. In fact, the trail’s parking lot where we slept was so close to the freeway that we could hear the cars on the other side of some trees driving to exotic places like Pennsylvania and Kansas City.
In the morning, I was snoozing and Mom was enjoying a fresh mug of poop juice while we waited for The Witch to finish packing up on the charger, when suddenly Nickleback pulled into the parking lot. Nickleback parked their big, growling SUV a couple of spots away, and then their friends Tim McGraw and Black Sabbath pulled in and parked their pickup truck and Subaru in opposite corners of the little parking lot, surrounding us.
Sometimes famous people are different from how you expect, and I was surprised that the rock stars were actually a dozen scrawny people puppies with little packpacks, and a handful of dorky mom-men with big packpacks, floppy hats and those hiking pants with all the pockets. They really ruined the peace of the morning because they all needed a thorough barking at while they explored the parking lot and hogged the bathroom. Mom and The Witch and I hid like commandos in the Covered Wagon waiting for them to find the trail and go away, and when they finally did we kept hiding a little longer so that we wouldn’t catch up to them on the trail. But then Lil Wayne clamored into the parking lot in his Nissan Leaf, and Mom decided that we had better claim our place on the trail.
Mom dislikes sharing nature, which is silly because that’s where there’s the most space for people to spread out. What makes it hard is that you’re supposed to pretend like the other people aren’t there, and help them pretend that they don’t see you either. Since they’re invisible, you can’t run up to them and tell them how excited you are to see them and sniff their crotch to find out how their hike is going. Instead, you have to step off the trail and sit tra-la-laing in the brush like that was your plan to begin with, while they wince, mumble, “hey” and walk by without telling me what a handsome boy I am. Mom’s way of doing things means that we spend a lot of time listening for other hikers rather than paying attention to the nature.
Hiking in the shade felt like we were hiking under Saturday morning blankets. In the desert everything is rough and hard and sharp, but here in the foot-mountains everything is softer, even the air. The trees wear dark, fuzzy moss sweaters, and the rocks are nestled deep into soft dirt like teeth in strong gums, and then covered in a floofy tartar of dead leaves. Even the mountainsides cover their rocky skins in a fleecy wool of trees and bushes, and the air around them has the blur of sprouting clouds in it.
Soon we came to a place where the trail split in two directions, and a sign said that hikers should go one way and bikes the other. We took the hikers’ trail, and soon we heard the Black Sabbath hiss of a waterfall. As we got closer, I realized that the waterfall was smashing itself right on the trail and then running across as fast as it could to jump off another cliff. Mom studied the river, and I studied Mom, trying to figure out what to do next. We could have maybe gotten Mom’s socks across safely, but with the bum in her knee I worried about her falling in if she jumped. We could splash straight across like a Jeep commercial, but Mom’s socks would have to be sacrificed. “What now?” I asked.
“Let’s try the bike trail instead,” Mom suggested.
“But wouldn’t that be turning our back on adventure?” I asked. “We’re not wusses, are we?”
“Adventure isn’t about being reckless, Oscar. Just because you picked a fork in the road desn’t mean you have to commit to it. If the other way is better then you should take it, even if it means going backward a little bit.” So we walked back up the trail and took the other route.
The bike trail crossed the river on a long, flat rock that even an old person could cross without endangering their socks. Mom, her socks, and I all got across safely and continued down the trail to where the cozy trees opened up on a very long, very deep George. At the bottom of the George, a white and grey river the color of fresh mint gum drew a line between the mountains. All through the hills, secret veins of water raced down the hills to escape the mountains and ride away in the Listerine River. We hiked into the George for miles, with the rushing water cheering for me the whole way. When we looked down from above, we could see all of the rocks at the bottom of the river. Some were small and the river flowed over them peacefully like mouth wash, but in other places there were bigger rocks that swished the river until it was frothy like toothpaste spit.
Finally the trail rolled to the bottom of the George and bumped into the river. To my dismay, Pearl Jam, Black Sabbath and Tim McGraw were having a picnic in the spot that we had been heading toward all morning. “Mom, they’re hogging the pretty part. We walked all this way, and now we don’t get to see it,” I said, staring down at the invaders from the trail above.
“Aw, that spot’s nothing special,” Mom said. “Everyone hangs out there. There are miles of riverbank that we don’t have to share with Troop 916. Let’s use our artistic eye and find a different spot that’s even better.” So Mom and I kept walking until the trail dove back under another river wannabe. There were plenty of dry rocks for crossing, but right in the middle was a sock trap where the water made a smooth, glassy helmet over a key stepping stone.
“I guess we should turn around now, huh Mom? Because of better alternatives and all?”
“If you always follow the path of least resistance, then you’re always going to wind up with the same experiences as everyone else and never have anything interesting to talk about at parties,” Mom said. Then, instead of leaping over the wet spot, Mom smashed the smooth water helmet and marched right through the water, deliberately ruining her socks.
“You don’t even go to parties,” I pointed out as I shook the river out of my chest and leg hair. “I bet you could have made it if you jumped.”
“Why fight it?” Mom shrugged.
“So let me get this straight: Your plan for making friends is to get your socks wet, because you think that people will want to hear about it and invite you to parties?”
“Yeah, something like that…” Mom said.
We climbed over the rippled rocks next to the river for awhile. The water rushed by like it was part of a different movie in fast forward. “Okay,” I said. “Now what?”
“Um, I suppose we go back, I guess.”
“But we came all the way down here and ruined your socks just to find the perfect stopping spot. Aren’t we supposed to do something special down here so that you can tell the story about your socks?”
“Not every great moment is better if you hit pause,” Mom shrugged. “Some moments flow. I guess this is one of them.”
As we climbed out of the canyon, there were more and more people coming down the trail that we needed to ignore. I explored as far as I could in a minute of freedom, but Mom kept calling me back in case there were strangers around the next bend in the trail just waiting to pop out and tell me how cute I am. When she called me, I had to drop everything and run back to her as fast as I could. If I didn’t dilly-dally, she gave me a few bites of my breakfast that she was carrying in her pocket. Then, as long as there weren’t other people to ignore, I got a smack on the butt and I was free to return to sprinting and sniffing and exploring at doggo pace. If there was a stranger, we performed a magic trick for them. Mom held some pieces of breakfast tight in her paw and I tried to lick the kibbles through her fist while we walked past, so it looked to the stranger like Mom was leading me by a ring in my nose like a bull.
Soon I had eaten all of my breakfast, and the ghost hikers kept coming down the trail, so we needed to do a different magic trick for them. For this trick, Mom called my name the moment the “I see an Oscar” smile appeared on the stranger’s face. The second she called my name it was like she changed my channel, and I had to look away, and then show them my perky butt as I ran back to check on Mom. People liked this magic trick even better than the other one, and so more and more of them told me what a handsome boy I am, but Mom was jealous and kept me all to herself.
I was busy ignoring a couple of old, grey humans when one of them broke the rules and talked to Mom like humans talk outside of nature. “Your dog really listens to you,” said the stranger.
“Yeah, after 6.5 miles of hiking, he’s finally calm enough to pay attention,” Mom explained. I have my Masters in obedience school, but bragging is rude.
“It’s commendable,” said the greybeard lady, looking into Mom’s eyes. I didn’t know what commandable meant, but I guessed that it meant a dog that knows all of the really hard tricks.
“The truth is,” Mom admitted, finally giving me credit for being a good boy, “we’ve done a lot of work on it. He can be a pretty scary guy when he comes running at you all excited and barking.”
“I would never think that,” said the human, who would need to call in reinforcements if she were attacked by a hummingbird.
I don’t really know how to end this story, so I’ll finish it with an After-word. On our way between the trail and Starbucks, a man came to the window of the Covered Wagon and stuck a boot menacingly into Mom’s face. “Stick ’em up!” he didn’t say. “We’re collecting money for the Grass Valley Fire Department.”
Mom took in the situation: here was a hunky hero whose stories about boots and saving California from wildfires would make Mom’s adventures about socks and water sound boring. What if someone threw a party? No one would want to hear Mom’s stories about socks when this guy had such an enormous boot to talk about. We had to get this churl out of our face before the bandit invited us to a pasta dinner with his merry band of thieves or something.
So Mom waved me into the back and gave him his hush money. She emptied the whole treasure chest of coins that had been living between the coffee cups into the boot, and then fled to Starbucks which is a great place to hide because everyone is annoying and you never have to talk to strangers.
Oscar the Pooch