The people in The City think that they are the Californians, so they call where they live Northern California. They think this because they are always looking toward where all the people are in Ellay, and San Diego, and Mexico; or east where all the tourists are in Tahoe, and Las Vegas, and Yosemite. They don’t think to look behind them. But the truth is that Northern California is really in the middle of the state, and to the north of Northern California, where the people forget to look, is a whole second California the same size as the one with all the people, that is filled with mountains and farms, lakes and rivers. The only time that Californias remember this half of California is when it catches on fire. This week, Mom and I decided to turn our tails on the people’s California visit the Secret California.
We drove up the night before and pulled over to sleep once we were out of human territory where no one minds if you leave your car with a human and dog inside it behind some trees overnight. When we woke up and could see the world around us, we realized that we’d been here before. Last year, Mom and I had discovered long, dirt mountain roads for the first time in this corner of Secret California. Back then we didn’t know about how The Witch could memorize maps before you went into the wider-ness, or how to drive miles up a mountain on dirt roads, or how you could find free places to sleep on the sides of those roads. But now we’re back country experts and know how to overcome all kinds of nature problems. Or so I thought, anyway…
One lesson we’d learned was the importance of reading recent reviews on AllTrails. This could tell you things like whether the trail was overgrown, still covered in white dirt, or other unexpected problems you might run into. So when the dirt road to the trail suddenly disappeared into the white, frothy river, Mom didn’t get upset. She pulled over the Covered Wagon, gathered our stuff, and jumped off the dirt embankment that the road left behind when it went for a swim. “Where are you going?” I asked, looking over the edge of the drop and seeing that it would be a tricky dismount for a bowling ball.
“The most recent review said you had to go through the creek to get to the trailhead. It must have been talking about this landslide. Come on, it should just be a little ways along the riverbank, and then we can walk on the road the rest of the way to the trail,” she said as she carefully put her foot on a rock that fell away down the dirt slope under her and splashed into the river. “The trailhead’s only about half a mile away.”
So I followed her down the bank and into the dense brush and wobbly rocks at the edge of the river. But the road did not start again on the other side of some bushes, nor the bushes behind those bushes. We fought our way through bushes and vines that reached out and grabbed every part of our bodies and held us back. Even Mom had to use all four of her paws to balance on the wobbly rocks while she fought her way through the bushes. We found many signs of danger in the bushes, including the skull of something the size of a wiener dog, a spaghetti monster skin, and an evil plant called “poison oak” that reached out from all directions and grabbed at our faces and shoulders and legs. Finally, after a distance that would have been the space between two streets in The City, I gave up on Mom and the poison oak, and went down to walk upstream through the river instead.
Soon, Mom followed me down to the bank and sat down on a rock so that she could take off her shoes and socks to protect them from the river. Then, she followed me into the river. The thing about shoes is that when they’re being protected from rivers, they can’t protect the feet that belong inside them. Mom’s tender paws weren’t used to walking without shoes like mine were, and the little river rocks dug into the pads of her flat feet as she walked, so she had to walk very slowly and carefully. It took her forever to cautiously wobble another city block up the stream. Finally, she stopped walking and looked up at the bank. “I don’t see a road up there, Oscar. Do you?” she asked. Then, still standing in the middle of the river, she pulled The Witch out of her pocket and started poking her for an explanation. “Wait, this review says something about a parking lot!” Mom said. She looked back toward the poison oak. “What parking lot?!”
“Haha! Fooled you!” The Witch said. “The entrance to the trail is from the north, not the south. I don’t know what this is, but I can’t wait to see your face once all that poison oak sets in. Your face is going to be so messed up that I won’t have to recognize you for weeks when you try to wake me up.”
Mom was upset at The Witch’s dirty trick, but we needed her mapps to find our way around in the wilder-ness, so Mom did not throw her into the river like she wanted to. There was nothing to do but tiptoe back up the stream, and then back through the poison oak back to the car. As we crashed through the bushes for the second time, Mom looked down to place her foot carefully in a poison oak patch and she saw her sunglasses sitting in the middle of the leaves of three. One of the evil branches must have reached down and knocked them off her head without her noticing “Don’t…!” I started to say as she snatched them up.
“Why fight it?” Mom said, putting them back on her face and kicking more poison oak out of the way.
When we got back to the Covered Wagon, we climbed back inside and drove a few miles further down the main road and reached the trailhead from the other direction. When we got to the car kennel, Mom parked the Covered Wagon at the top of another steep bank that fell down to the river. Than she looked across the river. Then she looked to the Witch. “Oh crap. We’re going to have to cross that creek to get to the trailhead,” she said. So for the second time that morning, Mom led me off the road and down a steep river bank, and then she sat down on another rock and took off her shoes and socks. I watched her walk into the river from a safe distance. The rocks here were big and flat enough for her weird floppy feet to stand on top of, but they were slick and slippery, so she had to reach down into the water and use her front paws to balance against the fast water. In the middle of the creek, the water rushed past the middle of her legs and flapped the bottom of her running shorts. She stopped in the thigh-deep water and looked at me. I was anxiously watching from shore, and I wagged my tail to tell her I was okay when I saw her looking at me. Then she sighed and came back to my side of the river. “You’re right,” she said. “It’s too deep for you to cross without a leash or something to keep you from getting washed downstream.” So she sat down next to me on the rock and put her shoes and socks back on again and we climbed back up to the Covered Wagon.
We looked around the car kennel and saw a small trail leading into the woods. We followed it, and a short ways away it brought us to a different spot on the creek that was a little slower and a little shallower. For the third time, Mom sat down and took off her shoes and socks and walked into the river. This time, she got across by carefully bracing with her front paws every time she had to place her back paws on a slippery rock lying under the sucking water. Once on the other side, she carefully set her shoes and socks down on a dry rock and then turned and called me to follow her.
I walked out onto one rock, and then another. But after that, I couldn’t find a way across without getting wet. I cautiously put a paw into the river, but it was cold, and deep, and pushy, and not at all the kind of adventure that I wanted to be on. “Come back!” I barked. “Come get me!”
“Come on, Oscar!” Mom said, encouragingly. Then impatiently. Then angrily. I tried to follow her, but no matter how I tried I couldn’t find a way to get across the river without getting that nasty creek on me.
“Nah, I’ma go back,” I told her. When I was back on dry ground I barked across to her, “Well? Aren’t you coming?”
“Oscar, come on! You can do it,” she said, wading out a little deeper into the river to get closer to me.
“Good job, Mom! You can do it. C’mon back!” I barked. Then, to be supportive, I hopped out to the first stepping stone to cheer her on.
By this time, Mom was back in the middle of the river. She was standing in water up to her knees, and was leaning on a big rock so she wouldn’t get knocked over by the water sucking her downstream. “Come on, Oscar,” she encouraged. “You don’t even have to swim. Once you get into the water up to your chest, I’ll grab your collar and pull you across.”
“Oh, no. I think you’re confused. I’m out here to help you come back,” I barked, wagging my tail in encouragement and doing a “Down Dog” bow to invite her back onto my riverbank. Mom stood in the river chirping my name for a very long time, until I was sure that the cold water had washed all the oak’s poison off her legs. Finally, she crossed all the way back to my side of the river. “Good girl!” I barked in excitement, and started running back up the trail to the Covered Wagon.
“No, Oscar. I came back to get you.” She grabbed my collar and we looked back at the river together. Mom planned our course for a second, but quickly realized that with one of her paws holding onto a squirming, confidently hesitant dog, that balancing would be even harder and that she, The Witch and I might all land in the drink. She signed again. “Okay, fine. You and I would probably be fine if we fell in, but my phone wouldn’t make it. You win. I give up.” So I showed her the best way to run back up the trail to the Covered Wagon. “Hang on a second,” she called after me. “I can’t leave my shoes and socks on the other side. Someone will think that I drowned.” Then she pointed significantly at a poison oak puppy sprouting out of the dirt on the trail. “Anyway, I can’t walk on that trail without shoes.” So Mom went into the river yet again and came back a minute later with her shoes and socks. Then she sat down on a rock for the final time to put her socks back on her wet feet.
Now we were in a bind. We had the whole day ahead of us and no idea where to adventure. We were in the middle of Secret California, hours from the nearest place where The Witch could reach the sky mapps for trail shopping. We would have to use our wits instead. “I remember seeing plenty of signs for trailheads off the highway back there,” Mom said. “Let’s just drive until we find one, and see where it goes.”
The first sign we saw was to a place called Boulder Lake Trailhead, and took us eleven miles up a dirt road that twisted up a mountain. When we finally reached the trail an hour later, the sign at the head was so rotten that the map had fallen on the ground. Someone had put rocks on it so that it wouldn’t blow away, but nature had come up from underneath and eaten whole mountains off the map. Mom twisted her head to try to read where we were going, but then shrugged and started into the woods.
The trail climbed steeply through the trees for about a mile until we reached the ridge, where the white dirt was still crouching down tight to the ground to wait out the summer. I lay down to roll in it, but it didn’t give way to hug me, and I slipped down the slope like a todoggan. I sprinted and skipped across the mountain, showing Mom the way to go when the trail was hidden under the white dirt. Soon we reached a little stream that dumped into a little lake. This stream was only a few inches deep, so I splashed triumphantly across to show Mom the virtues of getting your socks wet. “I give up,” Mom said, and followed me through the stream socks and all, and getting her paws just as wet as mine.
We walked a little ways around the lake to see if the trail would take us up the rocky peaks we could see on the other side, but soon the trail disappeared under a thick shell of white dirt that seemed determined to sit out the summer. As far as we could see through the trees, the shell of white dirt looked the same in all places. This may not have been the end of the trail, but it was the end of the trail for us.
We walked the two miles back down to the Covered Wagon, and then rode the Covered Wagon the eleven miles back to the highway. Before we left the wilder-ness, Mom pulled over next to a big lake and we walked a short way down a hill to the water. Mom threw a very exciting stick into the lake for me, but after I realized that I couldn’t reach it without getting wet, I stood on a rock and barked at it instead. That’s when Mom did something that really surprised me. She kicked off her driving slippers and walked out into the lake toward the stick herself. She waded in until her shorts were wet, and then she took off her shirt, threw it on the shore, and kept walking until the water was up to her belly button. Then she sat down and let the water cover up to her chest. Then she splashed the muddy blue-grey water on her shoulders and face. “I sure hope this gets those poison oak oils off,” she said, rubbing her knees and shins vigorously. Then she came out and threw another stick. “Go on, Oscar. Let’s get you clean so I don’t have to give you a bath when we get home.” This time, I went in after it.
Oscar the Riverpooch