The fourth of July is a day when people in The West celebrate our independence. Independence is the kind of freedom where you do something because you want to, not because someone else wants you to do it. An example of independence is like when Mom leaves you alone in the car while she’s in the bathroom, and you pull the package of beef jerky out of the snack bag and decide to eat the whole thing all by yourself rather than having it as a treat later.
Mom and I decided that the best way to celebrate our independence would be to go to a wild place in the Icy Era. Being wild is different from independence, but not very. Independence means you make your own rules, but when you’re wild there are no rules. Being independent means that you don’t need anyone else, but they’re there if you want them. Being wild is being independent without a safety net. It means not only hiking a path alone, but being okay with making your own path where no one has made the path to where you want to go yet. That’s why it’s called wilder-ness. Wilder-ness is a place, but it is also a way of living. It is the opposite of being tame.
Based on the reviews, it was hard to know how wild we would need to be in this wilder-ness because they let anyone use the internet, even numbskulls. The reviews from the numbskulls who had taken a hike on the wild side before us said that either the trail was hard to find, or that the trail wasn’t that hard to find, or that it wasn’t really a trail at all but more of a “track” (whatever that means…).
“It means that we will walk wild over the land, and navigate by dead reckoning,” Mom explained. “Or, I guess not ‘dead reckoning’ because that means that you don’t use a map or landmarks. But it sounds cool, so if anyone asks then we’ll tell them that’s how we found our way around.”
The person who said that the track-which-was-not-a-trail was hard to find might have been the kind of numbskull who couldn’t find a trail unless it had arrows pointing which way to go every quarter mile. Then again, the person who said that the track was easy to find might have been a real wilder-ness badass who could find their way around by real dead reckoning and other navigating skills that Mom and I don’t have. When dealing with people on the internet, though, it is always safe to assume that everyone is a numbskull. So Mom predicted that it would probably be easy to find the track-not-a-trail and we would be fine.
At first the trail was a road, because someone forgot to unlock the gate for the summer. So Mom and I walked an extra mile past cabins that locked their trash in safes to protect against bear thieves. After we had reached the trail and walked on it for a little while, Mom looked at her phone and stepped off the clearly marked dirt path onto a big, open floor of rock.
“Mom, where are you going? The trail is this way,” I pointed out helpfully. “See the dirt with the rocks along it like a picture frame? That’s how you know where to walk.”
“The map says it goes this way,” Mom explained.
I looked up the mountain where Mom was facing. It was made of fold after fold of rock that was the same rough grey color as Clint Eastwood’s face. “But how will we find our way around so we don’t get lost?” I asked.
“Come on, Oscar! Where’s your sense of adventure? We’ll just check the map from time to time and make sure that the blue dot is near the trail… or track, or whatever. If we get off course, then we’ll just point ourselves in the direction of the trail and keep walking. We’ve done this plenty of times in the desert. It’s not that hard.”
Mom seemed to be forgetting that walking wild in the wilder-ness is always hard, but hard in the way that when you get home you feel like you’ve done something really special that you want to share, but no one else will ever understand in a way that brings it back to life the way you want them to.
So we left the trail behind us and walked wild over the mountain, following the wrinkles and folds of Clint Eastwood’s craggy chin. Just like Clint Eastwood’s face must look very different to a flea walking through his 5 o’clock shadow, the mountain looked different when we were standing on it than it did when we looked at it from a distance. There was a stubble of bushes that grew in the cracks and in the most inconvenient places, and climbing from one granite wrinkle to another sometimes meant climbing rocks as high as Mom is tall. Every so often, we would find rock walls that were too tall to climb, so we had to pick one side of and walk around rather than walking up and over. Reckoning the wrong side of a wall could mean that we walked a long way in the wrong direction before Mom checked the map and figured out we had to go back.
Suddenly Mom stopped in her tracks and patted herself all over. “No! No! No! Duck!” She patted her hips and chest and packpack again. “Where’s my phone?!” she asked looking around wildly, and then she let fly a whole flock of ducks. If Mom had lost her phone in the wilder-ness then that really was a problem, because not only could she not take pictures of her very handsome dog, but also she wouldn’t be able to navigate on Clint Eastwood’s blank face and we might find ourselves up his nose with no way out or something. The phone must have fallen out of her pocket not long ago when she jumped off a rock, but when we turned back and walked around on the rocks looking for it, all the rocks looked the same, and were covered in phone-swallowing bushes. We could have panicked and circled round and round until we were so lost that we didn’t know where we’d been, but we have been wilder-ness explorers enough that Mom knew how to handle our independence. She climbed all the way to the bottom of the rock, which was the last place that she’d checked the map. Then she climbed back up the rock, pretending like she’d never seen it before and trying to make the same navigating decisions. We paid attention to what Clint Eastwood’s face was telling us until we had to jump off the same rock into the same bush. When we landed, there was the phone sitting in the branches. We were saved!
Clint Eastwood was also sweating, or maybe crying because there were rivers of water running all down his face. Sometimes the rivers were so small that Mom could walk through them without getting her socks wet, but other times they ran over the rocks in rivers and waterfalls. The first time we had to cross a big river, we spent a long time making a strategy. We walked a long ways up the bank, through thick trees and bushes to see if the track was trying to trick us, but after awhile the track ended in a clump of trees and a rock in a way that was final. Mom climbed a tall bunch of rocks that stuck out into the river to get a better look at where was the best place to cross. Three or four feet below her and across only about a foot and a half of very deep, very fast water there was another rock on the other side of the river. We could have jumped, but after a minute or two of planning, Mom decided that there would be no way to get her wilder-ness companion to follow her if he decided that it was unsafe. So she chickened out.
Next, Mom found a log that crossed the fast water at a bend in the river. After a few moments of hesitation and wobbling, she remembered that her balance isn’t as bad as it used to be and walked across without falling in, or even wobbling all that much. But when it was my turn to cross, I put one paw on the log and then decided that being a log dog wasn’t for me. After that it was just a matter of waiting for Mom to yell herself out before she would come back to save me. She came back with the leash, but when she dragged me to the log she hesitated again. The chances of a very brave dog trying to pull her back to the bank or barreling through her legs was too high, and she would surly fall in the river if she had to share the log with an anchor or a bowling ball. “Fine,” she sighed. “We’ll go back.”
But that was a lie, because a moment later she stopped and stared at the river. It was only a couple of inches deep and flowing over a wide, flat area on the rock so it wasn’t angry or white or loud. To my surprise, she didn’t even pause. She just walked right in, socks and all like the river wasn’t even there. When she got to the other side, she turned and called me, but I wasn’t in the mood. “I thought we were going back!” I grinned at her across the water.
“Oh come on. This is like the easiest river crossing ever in history. Quit being such a baby.” But I wasn’t being a baby, I was being independent. She walked back across the river, and I thought that I had won my independence until she pulled out the leash and led me to the other side of the river with it.
Knowing that we could hike with wet socks felt like a kind of freedom. Now that both of our socks were wet, Mom and I splashed back and forth across the river without hesitating whenever we needed to. We climbed up the naked granite face of Clint Eastwood Mountain until we could see the notch that led back to the trail, and walked straight for it over the naked rock.
It wasn’t until we were almost to the tippity-top that we found the white dirt, but it was friendly white dirt that let wild dogs and humans walk on it without swallowing their legs or making them slide down on their booties like todoggans. Mom had to be careful walking on the white dirt with only two legs, so I sprinted down the mountain after a critter that could have been a squirrel, or a beaver, or a woodchuck, or a wolverine. “Halloooo!” I called as I dashed down the snow after him. “Are you local??? I’m just a visitor. My name is Oscar. What’s your name? What sort of critter are you?“ Even though he wouldn’t introduce himself, he showed me the lake where he lives, and also where the “real” trail bumped into the wilder-ness. On the trail there were signs and rocks piled in a way that let us know where to walk. Even when Clint Eastwood’s tears ran right down the center of the trail and we were river hiking more than land hiking, it felt easy because we knew where to go. Wilder-ness is exciting, but sometimes it’s nice to have someone show you the best way to go and what to do while you’re there.
After the white dirt had disappeared into the mountain and there was nothing but rock and sand and water again, we turned a corner and found a man who was dressed like one of Snow White’s dwarves. He was carrying a shovel in one hand, and had all kinds of metal tools hanging from his belt. “Mom, what’s he doing?” I asked through doggie telepathy.
“I’m not sure,” she telepathically whispered back. “Do you think maybe he’s mining for gold or something?” Then she spoke to the giant dwarf out loud. “Looks like you’re ready for a hard day’s work…”
“Hopefully not,” the man said. I was a little bit surprised that he didn’t sound like a crazy person. “Have you seen any downed trees or anything blocking the trail?” he asked.
“What?” Mom asked, but in that way that means that she heard what he said but didn’t understand what he meant. Then she squished up her face at him like she was trying to see what he looked like under his beard, which is what she does when she’s trying to use her memory*. “You know, I don’t honestly remember but I don’t think so.” Then she thanked him about 500 times and kept walking down the trail.
“That’s what independence is really all about,” Mom said once the Giant Dwarf was out of hearing range behind us.
“What? Gold mining?”
“No. I mean that man is wilder than us, but he is using his wilder-ness to protect the people who aren’t as wild as he is and want to explore anyway. He could walk all over this mountain and see whatever he wants, but he uses his superpowers to chop up blowdowns, lay big rocks along miles of trail to make it easier to find, and throwing boulders and logs into the river so that people can cross without getting their socks wet.”
“If he could be independent, why does he use his wilder-ness to do all those nice things for other people?” I asked.
“I think that people declare their independence so that they don’t have to share the world with anyone else. But once you’ve had independence for awhile, you want to share the world with other people. Then you realize you’ve grown up since you declared your independence, and independence was the easy part. Independence doesn’t take any work at all, but you need experience and responsibility to be truly wild. Once you have independence and experience, then you can take on some of the responsibility for the people who are just trying out independence. Without wild people like that man protecting us, then we would probably have a lot more people dying of independence by backing into canyons while taking selfies or getting lost in the desert.”
Oscar the Wilder-ness Pooch
*Remembering is hard for her, which is why I’m the one who writes the stories.