Work didn’t need me for an extra day this weekend, so Mom and I decided to go up to the Easter Sierra one last time before winter closes the highest mountains. Mom carefully picked three trails: two easy ones and one hard one. Then she read all the reviews and looked at all the pictures to make sure that there were no dog traps like rock climbing, or Mom traps like cliffs. The “hard” trail came first, and all the people on the internet said that it was really tough, but that we probably wouldn’t get lost, and nobody mentioned dying or even near-dying on their adventures. So Mom and I made a pact: even if we went slow and it was hard, we would follow the examples of my explorer-heroes George Mallory and Robert Falcon Scott, and we wouldn’t quit when things got hard. So Mom filled the packpack with a bigger than usual bag of snacks, and all the water it could hold. Then we started hiking.
We left the Covered Wagon in a daytime car kennel and hiked through campground, with all the mastiff wagons that are as big as our stuck house. We hadn’t even gotten through the campground when we reached a river, and Mom started taking off her shoes and socks.
“Mom, what are you doing?” I asked.
“Well, we have to cross the river to get to the trail,” she said.
“Yeah, but I can see wagon trains on the other side. They’re the kind that can’t even move themselves and need to be dragged by trucks. Can’t we cross the river where they crossed?”
“I don’t know where the bridge is.”
“So why don’t we look for it?” I asked. But Mom was already wading into the river, holding her shoes up high, even though the water only came up to her sock line.
I followed her, slowly finding the shallowest way to the deepest part. Once my socks were wet, I sprinted over to the other side, leaving Mom teetering and wobbling through the rocks behind me. “Ouch. Ooh. Ow…” she said, placing her feet carefully on the egg-sized rocks and teetering on her big, floppy feet like she was balancing on a very narrow log. Finally, she inched her way onto a rock on the other side and started the slow and careful work of putting her shoes and socks back on without getting sand in them.
While I was waiting, I ran up the bank to the nearest wagon to warn them that a crazyperson was approaching. I found a ladyl two people puppies and three dogs. “Hey, guys! When was the last time you saw a really dumb person?” I barked. “If you look down at the river right now, you can see one putting on her shoes.”
When Mom heard me bark, she barked for me to come back, and I led the way to where the campers could find her. They didn’t follow me, but when I came back, proudly towing Mom behind me like a wagon trailer, they gave her a dirty look.
The first three miles of the “hard” trail were pretty easy, as far as hiking through inner space goes. We climbed away from a bright grey lake on a not-too-steep and easy-to-find trail that zigzagged through the trees toward and away from a river like the trail was playing fetch. The fourth mile was only a little bit harder than the other three. The bushes leaned in closer, and sometimes the trail got muddier, and once we had to climb over a big pile of boulders, but this hike was feeling easy compared to a lot of other adventures the Covered Wagon had taken us to. Maybe those reviewers that said the trail was so hard had been pugs and dachshunds, not athletic potato-beasts like me. Mom wasn’t so sure. “We have to climb more than 5,000 feet in six miles, and we can’t have climbed more than one or two thousand so far. I have a feeling we’re in for an unpleasant surprise.”
“What’s the difference between 2000 and 5000?” I asked.
“Steep,” was all Mom said.
We reached the unpleasant surprise right as we finished the fourth mile. The valley ended where two mountains rubbed shoulders, making a kind of enormous wall at the top of the valley. Where the mountains came together was a great skirt made from all the dirt and rocks that couldn’t hang on to the towers of pointy peaks up top. They were the kinds of mountains that looked like a growling doberman’s teeth, and I couldn’t wait to stand on top of one and look down at all of the other pointy and rocky mountains like in all the pictures Mom had shown me. There had been lots of times when Mom and I had stared at the toothy mountains, and the gums of scree at the base, and wondered just how hard that pile of sand and rocks would be to climb. Now we would find out.
The slope didn’t start out real steep, but soon it got that way. I hiked by planting my front paws and jumping my back paws up to join them, or stepping, and then freezing and bracing to let the rocks and sand under my paws settle into place. Mom hiked on all fours, grabbing the bigger rocks with her hands until she found one that stayed in place, and then stepping her back paw as high as it would reach, and then half-pushing herself up with her back legs while she pulled herself up with her front. Some of the mountain fell down the hill behind us with each step we took. The higher we went, the bigger the pieces of mountain that fell down behind us, and the steeper the slope got. Sometimes taking a step meant a race between stepping off the rock I was pushing off of before it slipped away underneath me. Waiting ahead of Mom on the trail sometimes meant that we were face-to-face with our noses practically touching. She would complain that I was standing right where her face wanted to go, and she would shout at me to move! so she could take the next step forward before the mountain slid backward underneath her. We were nearly to the top of the saddle, where the skirt of rock and sand twisted behind the base of the first mountain fang, when Mom slipped yet again. I was starting to get a little freaked out and wasn’t quite sure Mom knew what we were doing. I had stopped going far ahead of Mom, instead standing still and panting until I knew exactly where to go, and then taking as few steps as I could get away with to get there.
We were only a house-height below the saddle when Mom stopped on the first stable rock we’d found in about 10 minutes. “This is far and away the stupidest and most dangerous thing we’ve ever done,” Mom said to me.
“What about that time we…” I thought and thought, but couldn’t remember a time when we had ever been so high up and so close to falling without a monster pushing us. “Yeah, but we’re almost at the top,” I interrupted myself.
“Sure, the top of this section. But it gets steeper again before the top. Maybe it’s not a scramble over loose talus slope like this, but what if it’s rock climbing or something and you can’t jump high enough?”
“Well let’s go find out. You can’t take a picture here, you need both of your hands to hang on to the mountain. If we go just a little further I bet the views are incredible.”
“Have you thought about how we’re going to get down?” Mom asked.
I looked down the skirt for the first time. It went almost straight down from where we were sitting, and when I looked at the path we’d taken, I couldn’t believe that we hadn’t fallen off the mountain. Every time we took a step, the rocks were falling further and further down behind us before they stopped rolling… then I realized what she meant. What would happen when we were moving in the same direction as the falling rocks?
“We’ll just surf down!” I suggested. “I saw it on TV once. Cowabunga!”
“I think that only works in cartoons,” she said. “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go down one inch at a time, very, very carefully. And we’re going to start right now.”
“But… what about…?”
“Remember Earnest Shackleton, and how he quit not when he was exhausted, but when he realized he wouldn’t be able to get back home? He went on to complete the most amazing survival adventure in history, and none of his crew died.”
“Remember George Mallory? He didn’t give up, and I’m pretty sure he was the first to make it all the way to the top of Mt Everest!”
“Oscar, did you finish that story?”
“I’m going back down.”
If Mom had climbed the slope on all fours, she went back down it on all fives, using all four of her paws and her tail. She would reach her back legs down the slope, kicking laundry-sized patches of rocks out of the way – sometime by accident, and sometimes on purpose – feeling for a spot that could hold some weight. Once she had planted her feet, she put as much weight as she could on her front (uphill) paws so her back paws wouldn’t be pushing too hard downhill when she moved her butt. Only then, with all four paws pushing as still as they could, would did she carefully drag her butt down the hill a few inches. I sat still until she had taken several booty steps and moved a few feet closer to the bottom before taking a few steps to follow her. That way, one boot-scoot at a time, we made our way down the half mile that we had climbed up the sand pile.
Since I couldn’t climb on my booty quite like Mom, I had to be careful where I walked, too. After a few mini slips, I decided the safest place to sit was right behind Mom. “I wish you weren’t back there,” Mom said. “In fact, I wish you were literally anywhere else.”
“But if I fall, this way you’ll catch me.”
“What makes you think that if you fall on me, either of us is going to stop falling? And anyway, the rocks you push down the hill are hitting me.”
“I’ve got a rock that slid under my butt the last time you moved poking right up my butt crack right now.”
After a lifetime, the rocks that we were walking on got bigger and bigger, which meant that the slope was getting less steep and didn’t have the strength to pull down the biggest rocks anymore. Then, Mom started being able to take one or two steps at a time using only her back legs and her walking chopsticks. She only fell back onto her butt from standing a few more times after that, and when we finally reached a place where we could both walk normally again we sat in the shade of a rock to calm down.
As we had been inching down the slope, the sun had been climbing over the mountain and the edge of the shadow had been crawling up the mountain to meet us, and now that we could think about more than just staying stuck to the ground, I noticed it was getting hot. The river didn’t yet dream of being a waterfall in this part of the valley, so when Mom and I found a clear, sandy spot in the river, I took a long drink while Mom climbed into the pool and washed all the dirt off her butt and paws. From then on, whenever we found a calm, clear spot in the river, we stopped and I drink as much as I wanted. Mountain water always tastes better than Mom’s nasty, warm packpack water.
Once we climbed back over the boulder field, Mom and I started meeting lots of people on the trail who were what Mom called “not outdoorsy types.” There were old people, and people puppies, and people in slippery shoes, and even one man who was using his walking chopstick and dog to see the trail because his eyes couldn’t. During a water stop, I met some ladies who thought I was the best looking guy they’d ever seen. Their clothes were more “running errands” clothes than running or hiking clothes. I was very happy to see all of them, because I love all Friends who want to scratch my butt, but finding them here on the mountain was confusing. “Did you go all the way?” asked the pack leader, who was dressed for a serious trip to Target.
“I don’t know. The top of what?” Mom asked. She was guessing that these women never would have gone where we were coming from on purpose.”
“The top. I don’t know. My friend said there were some metal things?”
“Maybe we were on a different trail,” Mom said. “What do you mean, metal things? What else is up there?”
“I don’t know,” the Friend said. “I’m scared of nature, but my friend let me stay in her cabin and said this was a nice walk. How much further does it go? Maybe another mile?”
“I don’t know, I’m lost here myself,” Mom said, and we continued down the mountain.
The next person to talk to us was a people puppy who was barely taller than I was. She wasn’t quite an expert at barking yet, so she decided to practice on Mom. “Did you go all the way to the top?” she asked.
“The top of what?” Mom asked.
“The top!” said the people puppy, like Mom was an idiot.
“No, we didn’t get to the top, but we got pretty high…” Mom told her. The people puppy looked like now she knew that Mom was a dumb person and walked away, no longer even interested in patting me, since I was a Shackleton dog, not a Mallory dog.
When the people puppy was gone, Mom said, “I don’t know where all these people are going, but it can’t possibly be where we went. No sane person on earth would brink a kindergartener or a blind man over what we climbed. But then where are all these people going? If I knew, I’d follow them. It’s no fair, I had no doubt that turning back up there was the right decision, but now I still feel like we chickened out and are missing something.”
“That’s whacked!” I told Mom. “We had the greatest adventure of any of these people. We tried to climb wild up the mountain like we’ve dreamed of. No one else on this mountain but you has hiked half a mile on their butt. And we barely escaped death. Now you’re jealous of a people puppy, and the man who can’t even see all these beautiful mountains around us?”
“Yeah, I bet wherever they’re going is probably crowded anyway,” Mom said. “Who wants to share the wilderness? Not me.”
Oscar the rock surfer