Some days everything seems to go wrong. Other days, everything seems to go okay, but Mom tells you that everything is really going wrong and you’re just too dumb to know it. Our next day in Washington was that second kind of day.
We stayed in a real campground overnight, and before bed, the sky turned the same burning grey as the fire that Mom built. Just like humans can’t sense how scary balloons and watering cans are, sometimes Mom gets spooked by things that dogs don’t feel. Even though she usually likes sunsets, that night she said that there was something eerie about the sky and it gave her the howling fantods. Once Mom has one of her “feelings,” it’s hard for her to shake it and she makes me stay close so that I’m not gobbled up by an imaginary monster. The word for things that are only scary in Mom’s head is “mom-inous.”
In the morning Mom was eating her usual breakfast of yogurt with nuts and raisins when she made a noise and squished up her face in disgust like she’d bitten into a cucumber. Then she spit into her hand. “Oh crap. I just chipped my tooth!”
“So? I thought you liked chips.”
“Now food is going to get stuck in there until I can go to a dentist, and it’s going to be expensive to fix,” she grumbled.
“We’ll just get you a set of wooden teeth like George Washington’s,” I reassured her. “I bet wooden teeth aren’t very expensive, and you can drop them off at a carpenter’s shop when they need fixing rather than going to the dentist.”
Then Mom woke up the Covered Wagon. “I don’t feel so well,” The Covered Wagon said when it opened its dashboard.
“Oh hush! Now is not the time! You’re just being a hippo-chondriac because your gas cap sensor is broken,” I told it, because that’s what the two different car vets had told us at the two hospitals we’d taken the Covered Wagon to when it had complained a few weeks ago. I didn’t like being mean to the Covered Wagon, but given that Mom was seeing ghosts wherever we went, I wanted the Wagon to stop frightening her. “We all think we’re hungry sometimes when we’re not.”
“But what if this has to do with that huge piece of wood we hit on the freeway yesterday?!” Mom said. “We’re pretty far out right now. If the van doesn’t start or breaks down, it’s not like we can call for help.”
“See what you’ve done?!” I told the Covered Wagon. “Now we’re going to have to spend our vacation at the car hospital because of you.”
Since we were only a mile from the trail, and about 30 miles from the nearest town, Mom decided it couldn’t hurt to go on with our hike anyway. Right from the start this hike was just as mom-inous as the sunset had been last night. The mountains weren’t furry and soft like the Muppet Forests, but red and spiky like the cheeks of the stray humans that sleep on the streets in The City. Even though all the mountains had trees on them, the trees were mostly naked and the ones that still had needles smelled dry and brown. When we got on the trail and saw the trees up close, most of them were black and shiny like they were made of black glass. Every one of them was dead, so that the whole mountain was like a graveyard.
“Mom, what happened here?” I asked.
“This is what a forest looks like after a forest fire,” Mom said. “A recent one by the looks of it. Most of the ash heaps look undisturbed.”
“Is that what we were seeing in the sky last night?” I asked. It had looked like the sky was on fire.
“No, not that recent. But it must have been a pretty big fire. All the hills around here are burned out. It’s eerie walking through a dead place after a disaster, don’t you think?”
We climbed through the tree graveyard for miles. Some trees barely seemed touched, but most were covered in black ash. Even more terrifying, some trees looked normal from the outside but had black holes where the fire had burst out of them from the inside. We had to climb over a lot of huge trunks where the bodies of the trees had fallen across the trail when they died, and no one had come in yet to clean up the dead. I mostly hiked with Mom, since there was very little to chase and everything smelled like old campfires. The mountain must have been hot during the fire, but today it was unnaturally, deathly cold. Under the smell of burning, the air had that cold smell that happens between Halloween and Thanksgiving when everything is dying, and not even the sun brings warmth. Meanwhile, the smell of the “heebie jeebies” coming off of Mom was getting stronger with every step.
When it felt like we really should be there by now, Mom pulled out the map. “Whoa. We’re way off trail,” she said.
“No, here it is,” I said. We were standing in the middle of the very clear, very obvious trail. I don’t know how she didn’t see it.
“We must have missed a fork somewhere back there. I have no idea where, but I think we have to go back and look.”
So we went back down the trail, Mom looking at the mapp the whole time and trying to find the exact place where our blue dot met the red trail line again. When it did, we were standing in the middle of a giant fire pit. We walked around the hillside for long minutes trying to find some pattern in the burned logs and black rocks that looked like a trail, but we found nothing. “Perhaps the map was wrong,” Mom said. “It’s wrong about the distance, and the GPS has been having trouble finding us ever since we hit the east side of the range. Let’s go back and see where that other trail goes.”
So again we walked back down the mountain until we found the obvious trail again, and followed it back up the mountain the way we’d gone before. But after awhile the decoy trail faded away too. We were standing in a place where the pleats of the mountain came together in a steep grassy meadow. Up here there were more living things, and so I ran into the meadow to chase critters and explore while Mom turned around in a big circle trying to find the trail. She followed a bare spot along a burned log that may have been a trail, or may have just been the fire print from where the tree died. When she got to the top of the tree where the roots pointed up to the sky, she discovered that it was just a fire print and now she was standing on a blank part of the mountain.
“But I can see where the trail goes,” she said, turning her phone like a compass until it pointed to the place where the uphill slope met the sky. “It goes through that notch up there. We should be able to walk through the meadow and then scramble across the rocks to the notch and find the lake at the top.”
So we started walking toward the top of the mountain, me zigzagging across the whole meadow at warp speed to meet all the chipmunks and ground squirrels that had escaped the fire, and Mom traveling very slowly from one burned tree to the next and looking around her both ahead and behind as she went. “Hurry, Mom!” I said. “Look, there’s a mountain-beaver running on the rocks over there. It doesn’t look very fast. I bet I could catch it and we could all have a grand adventure together if you would just hurry up.”
“It’s no good to just know where we’re going,” Mom said. “Remember? We’re already off the trail. I’m going to have to find my way back without the map, and there aren’t many landmarks up here.”
Slowly, deliberately she made it past the last tree, and then we walked to the line where the grass stopped and there were only loose rocks for the last quarter mile up to the notch. Then she stopped. “I don’t think we should go any further,” Mom said.
“Why not? We’re almost there and it’s not that steep. You can make it! If that fat old beaver could hike this, then you can.”
“Look, Mom said pointing back down the valley, where all of the tree carcasses were starting to look the same. “If we go much higher, are you going to recognize which patches of trees we passed on the way up? We’re on the wrong side of the river, and who knows if there’s anywhere else to cross other than that one spot we found. If we lose our bearings, we might never find the trail again. Nobody knows we’re up here, and we only saw a handful of cars drive out of the forest last night, so the chances of us meeting someone if we’re lost in the woods isn’t good. I don’t think we were meant to see this lake.” I thought that Mom was being a big wuss, but she did have a talent for getting lost and I wasn’t sure if the dead moon rocks at the top would be interesting enough to put up with her grumpiness. So I followed her slowly back down the hill, smelling the howling fantods turn to frustration howling things about failure that only Mom could hear.
It takes a lot of brain space to keep track of all the ways that you’ve been unlucky, and while you’re busy doing that there’s no time to notice all the things you can do to make your situation better. If Mom were a clever human she would have realize that the rocks were had been walking on were perfect for building Karens to point the way, and that The Witch had lots of ways to keep track of our path so that we could find it again. But the heebie jeebies had made Mom stupid, and she didn’t have space in her head for figuring out how to be safe because she was too busy thinking about all the ways that we might die.
Mom was also disappointed that we wouldn’t see the evil-looking and dramatic piles of rocks at the top with evil-looking and dramatic mountain peaks lurking behind them. Now that our backs were to the mountaintop, we could see the crowns of all of the other mountains around us, and they must have looked very dramatic from the top where there were no dead trees to block the view.
Further down the trail we met the only other humans we would see in the tree graveyard. “Have you been here before?” Mom asked them.
“Oh yes, many times,” they said with big smiles, like they hadn’t noticed that the whole place was haunted.
“Damn, I never made it. The trail and my map diverged somewhere around the river crossing.”
“Oh no, the trail stays on this side of the river the whole way up,” the man said.
“Yeah, I tried that. I’m sure you’ll be able to find it if you’ve been there before,” Mom said sadly.
As they hiked away up the hill, I could see the dark, cold cloud gathering over Mom’s head, even as the air warmed up to something more like summer, and the sun began to shine like it meant it. “That’s it,” Mom said. “Tomorrow we’re going somewhere where we’re guaranteed success.”
“What? Are we going to go to the Motel Six Stars and eat cheese and sit in air conditioning?”
“No, we have unfinished business from our trip last year, and I know where there’s a trail that is easy to follow, there’s cell service and auto mechanics nearby, and we won’t need to take the van on any desolate Forest Service roads. Plus, there’s a Starbucks in town.”
Oscar the Pooch