Our second trail of the weekend was also marked as “hard,” but lots of people exaggerate on the internet. Not one person had rated the trail as “the dumbest and most dangerous” thing they’d ever done, or even “not worth it.” Instead of “I burned a ton of calories,” the good things people said included used words like “stunner” and “favorite” and “great introduction to the eastern Sierra.” So Mom promised me that this adventure would be the safe kind of challenge. It was hard to tell from the pictures what we would be hiking into. You’ve seen one clear and sparkling lake surrounded by sharp mountain peaks you’ve seen em all, am I right?
The trail began at the first clear and sparkling lake and headed toward a wall of claw-like peaks. We hiked up the initial slope on a carpet of horse poop, and walked out of the trees and into the valley we’d be hiking through for most of the day. In the throat of the valley, where we were standing, the mountains were flat on top and molar-like, while the mountains further along on either side were like fangs, dropping into a more squared-off wall of rock at the valley’s front teeth. I wasn’t sure which tooth of the mountains we’d be climbing, but it didn’t much matter because I’d be proud to stand on top of any of them.
After a couple of miles we reached the second lake, which, if possible, was even clearer and sparklier than the first. Here the trail sometimes was very narrow as it snuggled between the lake and rocks, and sometimes spread out into huge, grassy critter-chasing fields. I was very excited to be exploring this place, and ran up to greet everyone I saw. In one of the narrow places, I met a lady who looked like she had come to win the mountains by making everyone else’s hike a little worse. “Are you cool?” I barked at her. She jumped back and scowled deeper, like she was getting ready to spit out whatever gross thing she’d been holding in her mouth. That was the wrong password; the password was supposed to be, “Hey buddy!” and the secret handshake was to hold your hand down for me to sniff. “You’re not cool!” I barked, puffing up my hackles so I would look bigger and scarier. “Explain yourself!”
“Get. Him!” the woman growled at Mom.
“Come here, Oscar,” Mom said, crouching down and sounding fake excited and real annoyed.
“You’re supposed to have him on leash,” the bad lady spat at Mom.
“Actually, no I’m not,” Mom said. When it comes to dog haters and know-it-alls, Mom doesn’t take no dog doo from nobody. “You can check the regulations when you get down to the trailhead, just like I did.” Mom dragged me past the lady and gave me a little bump on the butt that meant to get the heck out of there, but look cool about it.
The next grouchy person who didn’t know the secret password and handshake was a little less aggressive, and talked to Mom in the tone humans use when you eat the beef jerky they left in the car while they were in the bathroom. “Where’s his leash?” the Man asked.
“It’s right here,” Mom said cheerfully, holding up the leash that was looped around her neck and smiling like she had just figured out a riddle.
“It doesn’t do any good there,” the man said, a little more annoyed now.
“It doesn’t have to,” Mom said. “Dogs are allowed offleash in the National Forest wilderness areas. You can look it up on the internet when you get out of here, just like I do before every hike I take him on.”
“Oh,” the man said. He looked disappointed that Mom didn’t understand that he knew everything.
Besides those two grumble-butts, everyone else we met was happy to meet me. Some even squealed in excitement, because they’d been hiking like turtles in the National Park and hadn’t seen a dog for days. Mom asked one of my friendlier new Friends if he knew which of the mountains we were going to climb. He pointed to the grey and white wall that made up the valley’s front teeth. “It’s hard to see from here, but you’re going to walk up where you see that snowfield, the pass is kind of to the right of that big mountain,” he waved at the left fang, and then moved his finger toward the right fang before swooping it downward. “…and curls around that way.” When I looked at the rock slope that climbed up the inside of the front teeth, I was worried that it would be another race against the sandslide, and then Mom would have to go down on her butt again. But all of the people coming down without dusty butts made me feel a little better. “They use mules to maintain the trail,” he explained. Well if a mule could climb this trail, a handsome dog would find it easy peasy.
Once we had walked past the second lake, and some very beautiful streams, and a waterfall, and another little lake, and many critter fields, the trail started climbing in twisty, winding rock stairs up the mountain. At first it seemed that the mountain had been born with comfortable stairs in its rock, and an even pile of paw-sized stones to keep the path level, but when I looked closely, I could see that the stairs had straight edges like something a human would do. Even the tall rocks that Mom made me jump on to let squealing Oscar fans pass seemed to have been put there by the mules to make the mountain more comfortable to climb.
As we neared the top, we found something really strange and creepy. Spread to the left and right of the trail were the cut-up bodies of dozens of dead deer. Their furry legs lay in piles between the rocks and their fur filled in the holes between the walking rocks on the trail. Their hip bones and long sections of their spines lay on top of big rocks beyond and above the piles of legs, as if someone had thrown them there. There were no heads, ribs or antlers anywhere. “Mom, what happened here?” I asked.
“Looks like someone was hunting illegally, but I can’t imagine how they killed so many deer in one place.”
“Oh! I know who it was!” I said as it slowly dawned on me. “A monster that eats deer brains must have a lair around here.”
“No, this was humans,” Mom said. She was frowning at a leg that was barely thicker than a stick and must have belonged to a deer puppy.
“That explains everything!” I exclaimed, remembering the grouchy lady with the stink-face from lower in the valley. This must be her lair, where she eats the deer who go trip-trapping on her trail without a leash. I was lucky Mom had protected me, and I’d gotten out alive.
“What I can’t figure out is how they got the meat and heads down off the mountain. It must have been hundreds of pounds, and we’re almost 5 miles from the trailhead. And how did they smuggle 20 butchered deer carcasses out through that huge parking lot without getting caught?”
Not long after the unsolved mystery at the monster’s lair, we came over the top of the rock wall and found ourselves walking over the mountain-made wall that marked the border between the dog-friendly National Forest and the dogless National Park. At the very top was a sign that said that beyond that spot, I would be an outlaw. Before we turned around, Mom and I explored the dog-friendly half of the top of the world. We walked wild toward the lip of the range to see the outlaw mountains on the other side. They were very pretty, but they didn’t look any more special than the mountains on my side of the range. When Mom pulled out her phone to make sure we didn’t get lost walking back to the trail, she saw that we had wandered a few hundred yards into the outlaw lands by accident. Funny, it didn’t feel any different to be an outlaw; I still had just as much love in my heart as I’d had before. The top of the pass was at 11,970 feet, but blocking our view of the valley we’d come from was a little ridge of rocks that looked like it was at least 30 feet tall. So Mom and I walked wild to the top of it so that we could say we looked down on the valley from 12,000 feet.
“We hiked to 12,000 feet.” There. Totally worth it.
As we walked back to the sign, Mom saw that we had accidentally walked into outlaw lands again. Funny, I hadn’t seen a line on the mountain.
When we started walking back down the hill, we found ourselves behind the turtle-person with the biggest shell I’d ever seen. His shell was piled high over his head, and had a ladder of sleeping things hanging down underneath the shell all the way to his knees. He had also decorated his shell with bottles, a helmet, and other toys. “You have the biggest pack I’ve ever seen,” Mom said. “How long have you been on the trail?”
“Oh, just 5 days,” the Turtle Man said.
“Well I don’t blame you for needing two pillows. Good sleep is important,” Mom said, to show that she was friendly and not a judgy city person. That was how we met my boyfriend, who I spent the rest of the hike falling madly in love with, and Mom spent the rest of the hike talking to about mountains, and exploring, and Thai food, and social media, and divorce.
“Can I ask you a stupid question?” Mom asked when we came down off the mule rocks and back into the critter valley.
“Hang on. I must sit down for stupid questions,” said the Turtle Man, sitting down on a rock and detaching his shell. I thought that this must be the end of our friendship because Mom never sits and rests, so I was shocked when Mom patiently waited for him to balance his enormous shell before finishing her question.
“What is the difference between rock climbing, and mountaineering, and hiking? Like, if you wanted to climb that mountain up there, you’d have to get up all that scree.” She pointed at one of the steep fangs, and the thick gums of rocks and sand at the bottom.
“Well, you’ve got to do your research. People will post what approaches are loose or dangerous, and what routes are safest and so on.”
“Well, what if you were on the right trail and you slip anyway? Let’s say you were up there and you started to fall. How would you self arrest?”
“You only self-arrest in snow,” he said, like Mom’s questions were getting stupider and stupider the more she talked.
“Yeah, but… What if you fall anyway?”
“Well… that’s why you have to do your research,” he said, like we were talking about dumb hikers that weren’t participating in this conversation.
“So I was on this trail yesterday…” Mom said. And then she told him the story about how she’d had to hike half a mile on her butt with a dog sitting on her back.
“You did what?!” the Turtle Man asked.
“So… that’s not a thing? That’s not what mountaineering is? There’s no way to… like… google how to get better at it?”
The next time we stopped for a rest, I decided to make my move and try to get lucky. “I find you irresistible,” I said, resting my head on my boyfriend’s knee and twerking gently.
“Yes, he is a very handsome man,” Mom said. “But please, buy him a drink first.”
“He has a drink,” I said, getting into it with a little more enthusiasm. “He stopped so we could both drink from the river together. I think he’s into me.”
“Do you think you have a gay dog?” my boyfriend asked, looking at my smooth moves in a way that I couldn’t tell if he was into it or not.
“I think I have a dog with good taste,” Mom said. “What can I say?”
I was interrupted from my smooth operating by a strange sound coming toward us. Then I saw a lady in a cowboy hat come over a rise, swaying side-to-side in a very strange way. Then, a moment later, I froze in my tracks. A HORSE was hiking underneath her. I was so starstruck and stunned that I didn’t even notice that Mom grabbed my collar and pulled me off the trail. As the horse came closer, I saw another behind him, and another horse behind that. The first horse was the only one wearing a human, and the other two were carrying packpacks and tied to the horse butt in front of them with a leash. The mules must send in horses to work overtime while the mules took the long weekend off. “I love your work!!!” I barked after them, pinning my ears back so they knew I really meant it. “But be careful, there’s a monster up there that eats hoofed beasts!”
The further we got down the mountain, the bigger the groups of people coming up from the car kennel became. Mom greeted each of them with her usual hello: “He’s friendly, but he does bark.”
“You’ve said that to everyone, but I haven’t heard him bark once,” said my boyfriend. Now that I was in love, I didn’t need to bark at strangers. I just ran back and forth between my pack, making sure that everyone stayed together and letting my boyfriend risk his life with strangers and beast-eating monsters.
Since Mom didn’t have to warn strangers about how exciting it was to meet me, the Turtle Man began shouting every time we saw a new group of people on the trail. “I can’t believe you made me carry all of your camping stuff,” he would say to Mom in a loud voice.
“Thanks, sweetie. You’re such a gentleman!” Mom would shout back.
“You just had to bring the second pillow, didn’t you?” he yelled.
“But, Mom,” I whispered. “Our pillows are in the Covered Wagon. He brought all of that stuff with him from the other side of the mountain.”
“A good friend always helps their friends look like the best version of themselves,” Mom explained.
When we got back to the car kennel, it felt like we had hiked for no time at all since the Turtle Man had been keeping us company. The love of my life pulled all of his dirty dishes out of the dirty dish locker where he’d left them so that bears wouldn’t confuse his car for a lunch box while he was in the dog-free zone. Mom protected the inside of our car by throwing the stick until I swam off all the trail dust and horse poo out of my fur and into the sparkling lake. Then Mom gave my boyfriend a big hug, and he got in his clean-smelling car to drive back to Colorado, while we got in our curried-lentil-soup smelling car to drive to our last trail of the weekend.
Oscar the Smooch