If you’ve ever been to the Easter Sierra, you’ve probably been to the place called Mammoth. I know that because every time Mom and I go to the far side of the mountains we try to avoid Mammoth, but somehow we always wind up there anyway, at that same intersection where The Witch pulls the same dirty trick and sends us up the same road to nowhere, and we don’t realize that it’s happened again until we’ve driven 5 miles straight up and reached the same tollbooth where Mom turns the Wagon around and yells about ducks. We had been in the mountains of the Easter Sierra for two days, and so far we’d managed to avoid the corner of Minaret Dr and Lake Mary Rd, but it was too good to be true. The third day, the Mammoth’s trunk started sucking us in, and we landed there again, missing the turn that would take us to our third and final hike of the weekend.
Once we had pleased the gods of mountain and desert by climbing to the mountaintop tollbooth so that Mom could bark her incantation to the ducks at the top of her voice while she looked for a place to turn around, we found the car kennel at the base of the next day’s trail and got ready to spend the night. “What’s the name of the place where we’re going tomorrow?” I asked.
“Duck pass to Duck lake,” mom said.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Well you only talk about ducks when something bad happens. What’s wrong with the pass and the lake?”
“No, that’s the name of the trail.”
“Well that’s not very nice.”
In the morning, we hiked away from the car kennel and into the woods. “Isn’t this place great?!” I said. “It’s got all these sticks, and old dog pee, and some horse poo… And, is that a chipmunk I smell?”
“It’s okay, I guess. But… it feels like I’m in line in Disneyland. I can’t shake the feeling that we’re hiking on a soundstage.”
“It’s what they use to film movies. Have you ever noticed how in the movies everything is really close together and you never see any long distances in the background? That’s because they’re standing in a little room. It’s all fake.” For the next mile, I looked around me and couldn’t help but notice that Mom was right. The trail curved so that you could never see very much of it at a time, and even when we came out of the trees, the rocks crowded in close to the trail so that I could never see further than Mom could throw a stick (which is not very far at all). I had been staring at all the empty sky, and naked mountains all weekend, and it was strange that I couldn’t even see the nearest mountain that was looming right over my head.
Finally, after about an hour of zigzagging through Disneyland, we walked out from backstage and into a huge open valley, with the big clear sky above us, a lake in the middle, and one whole side made up of one mountain hiding under a long, flowing skirt of rocks that went from its neck to its toes. Mom and I looked at the enormous slope of rocks knowingly.
Now that I’m an urban dog during the week, I know all about fashion so I know that it’s very cool to have clothes that are ripped up like a favorite toy. That’s called “distressed” and it’s a good thing. The mountain on the far side of the lake wore a more distressed skirt, and I could see the bare mountain skin sticking through. The mountain’s rocky knees stuck through the holes in the skirt making perfect balconies for looking down over the vally. As we climbed up the skirt safely on the trail the mules had built for us so we wouldn’t slip, I looked down on the lake. I could see all the way through it to the rocks underneath, like watching Mom bend over in a cheap pair of shimmery running tights. Looking further down the valley and into the distance, most of the mountains looked like they had lost all their teeth, and were covered in a soft and cozy blanket of rocks and sand called scree.
At the top of the pass we left the grey desert mountains behind us and came down into the vibrant greys of a different valley, made by mixing the bright plants of Washington with the sparkling toothpaste colors of a beach in the Bahamas, with the severe teeth of the Icy Era. The color saturation smelled like it had been turned up on everything in the valley, and it blew me off my paws and onto my back in a patch of soft grass, where I had to roll around for awhile before I was ready to stand up again. Mom kept almost tripping as she walked because she was watching the tropical Valero-sign grey around the edge of the lake. “I know it’s just a color, but I can’t take my eyes off of it,” Mom said. “I wish I could take the color with me. I can see why people thought it was a good idea to paint bathrooms this color in the 80’s.”
“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard,” I told Mom. “The things that you see in a place can’t even compare with the smells! If they smelled anything like this, I bet bathrooms in the 80’s could knock you off your feet.”
When Mom wasn’t hypnotized by the Bahama-colored lake, her eyes were fixed on the mountains, trying to puzzle out how someone as scared of heights as she is could still climb all the way to the top. Meanwhile, I chased critters over rocks and logs with the grace of a hurdler. I was chasing a critter at top speed when I looked up and saw that I was in front of something unexpected: a Hobbit hovel. The hovel was built directly into the rock, with smaller rocks piled into an archway around the entrance with a rickety wooden door held closed with chains that looked like Rambo. It looked like either a monster’s lair, or a hiding spot for buried treasure, but since I didn’t know which and Mom didn’t have much room in her packpack to carry treasure, we turned around without finding out what it was.
As we came back down off the mule trail and back into the valley with the clear, naked lake I found a lady sitting on the big rocks that mark the edge of the trail and looking sad, so I sat next to her and gently kissed her on the cheek so that she would know that everything was going to be okay. I looked where she was looking and realized that she was watching another woman standing in the tall river plants below, where there was no trail.
“Are you okay?” Mom asked.
“A bear got my pack,” the lady said. But she said it like it wasn’t an exciting thing at all. “We were taking a break, and it snuck up on is. It was as close as I am to you right now. I could have reached out and pet it.” She wrapped her arm over my shoulders and rubbed my chest hair, but I don’t even think that she knew she was doing it. I leaned against her, which is a dog’s way of giving a hug. “My friend and I moved away to give it space. It tore up my sleeping mat and then ran away, but it dragged away my pack with it.”
I had never met such a sad, brave adventurer before, so I quietly snuggled up close to her while she told her story so that she would scratch behind my ears. “He knows that I’m having a bad day,” she said, almost crying. “What a good dog!” Then she remembered her packpack again. “The worst part is that my car keys were in my backpack, and we can’t find where the bear dropped it.”
“Can I help?” Mom asked. “Where did it happen?”
“Over there,” the sad lady said, raising her arm. “And then he ran off that way.” She moved her arm so that it pointed in the direction of the mule trail.
“Give me landmarks for reference,” Mom said. “Where exactly were you sitting? I’ll look around as I walk by and see if I can spot something.” The lady told us which trees they had been sitting under, and then showed the parts of the valley that the bear had run across as it escaped. “And where did he go?” Mom asked her.
“He went up that slope right there toward the pass,” she said. We all looked at the hundreds of feet of loose rocks that slid up to the Duck’s pass.
“You’re kidding me,” Mom said, forgetting to be sympathetic for a second. “Something the size of a bear could run up that?”
“Yeah, he didn’t even slow down.” Mom didn’t say anything, but I knew that she was thinking the same thing that I was: how could a big, fat bear sprint up a slope like that, and we could barely even crawl on it.
“Duck. I’m just so sorry that you’re having such a crappy day,” Mom said. “Do you have enough food and water?”
“Yes, my friend already went down and found a ranger, and we are looking in the weeds for my backpack. Maybe it will turn up.”
I wanted to help the Sad Lady so badly, but I only know how to sniff for exciting things like treats, so I couldn’t help. Mom looked at the ground around us until we found the sleeping mat looking like the deer graveyard from the day before. When we looked back one last time, the sad lady had gotten up off the rock and was looking through the weeds with her friend, so maybe I had helped a little bit after all.
When we got back to the car, we had never been so thankful not to have lost anything on the trail. Mom’s keys hadn’t even fallen out of her pocket when she used the dog bathroom! This was the first trip all summer that we felt strong, and like we could have kept adventuring forever. We weren’t in a hurry to come home, but if we had to come home, we had better hurry if we wanted to get there before the grocery stores closed.
Oscar the Bear Hunter