Now that summer is over, mountain season is almost over too. Before the mountains curl up under their white blankets for the winter, Mom and I decided to come back to Secret California one more time to see if we could hike the whole trail without the white dirt turning us back. It was very dark by the time we turned off of the road and onto the car trail that climbed up the mountain, and I was sitting in my copilot’s bed next to the driving chair so that Mom wouldn’t fall asleep.
“Did you see that?!” Mom said, much too excited for this late at night.
I looked out the driving window just in time to see a butt run out of the Covered Wagon’s spotlight and into the trees. Whatever it was, it wasn’t very graceful. It had a tripping, bouncing run like a rock knocked down a slope, and its fur fit like a pair of baggy sweatpants. “What is it?” I asked.
“A bear,” Mom said.
“I thought bears were bigger. That pint-sized oaf looked like it wasn’t any bigger than you, and you’re not dangerous to anything bigger than a pick-a-nick basket.”
Mom couldn’t find the signs to the trail in the dark, so we stopped lower down the mountain and slept in the trees until the sun came out to show us the way to the trailhead. As we walked from the Covered Wagon to the trailhead, I said hello to some men who were pulling funny sticks out of their big truck and hanging them on their shoulders. Mom wished them a happy morning, and then we started hiking into the woods. After about a minute, Mom turned around and walked back toward the cars. When we got back to the men with the truck, she said, “Can I ask you guys a really stupid question?” The men turned away from their backpacks and looked at us. “You see, I’m from San Francisco and I don’t know anything about hunting. When you guys… like… shoot your guns and stuff, are you very close to the trail?”
“Sometimes,” one of the men said, like he wasn’t sure if Mom was about to mess with him.
“So, um. I should probably put something bright on the dog, huh?” Mom said.
Now that we were friends with the men, I came over and offered the talky one my butt to scratch. He leaned over and gave me a solid thwack, thwack on the ribs in that way that I’m very good at. “Yup, probably. That’s not a stupid question at all. He’s the wrong color.”
“I’m the perfect color,” I corrected my new Friend.
“…someone might think that he’s a bear.”
I was going to do humble and point out that I was much too small to be a bear, but then I remembered the sloppy little bear I’d seen last night, and how this man who was twice Mom’s size had looked suspicious when she had talked to him. This man must be scared of small, galumphy, frumpy creatures like Mom and bears. So instead, I sat on the man’s boot so he could scratch my strong, muscular chest and feel that I was much too hunky and snuggly to be a bear.
“Here, I have an extra vest,” another man said, pulling something limp and frumpy-looking out of the truck. It was the same eye-hurting grey as a traffic cone.
Mom thanked the men for all their help and took me back to the Covered Wagon. “How the heck are we going to keep this vest on you for 16 miles?” she asked, looking through all of the things that we had accumulated in the back of the Covered Wagon over the summer. She reached into her dirty running clothes from the day before and pulled out her lemony grey sports bra with the dinosaurs on it. “This will work!” she said.
“Eew, it smells,” I said as she pulled it over my head and started to force my paws through the holes where her front legs usually go. “And it’s wet.”
Maybe I was big enough to be scary after all, because Mom and I have the same bra size, and it fit me snugly but comfortably. Then Mom put the vest on me and tied it closed with the strap from a necktie that had fallen apart. The vest was big enough to fit a man bigger than a bears, so even after Mom had tied it closed, it still dragged on the ground when I walked. So Mom took the extra vest and tucked it into the chest of the sports bra like a lumpy boob. “I look frumpier than a bear!” I complained, not wanting to leave the Covered Wagon dressed like this.
“You look like a hunter,” Mom said. “All the hunters wear outfits like that. It’s very manly.”
“Are we going hunting?” I asked.
“Of course not,” Mom said. “I’m a vegetarian.”
Now that I was safe in my protective bra and vest, Mom and I went back to the trail. We hadn’t been hiking very long when we caught up to our new friends. “Hey, look guys!” I barked, catching up to them. “I’m dressed manly just like you! Does your sports bra have dinosaurs on it too?”
“Sorry about the barking,” Mom said when she caught up a few seconds later. “I hope he’s not scaring away any deer.”
“She’s a vegetarian, but she’s friendly,” I explained to the men, so they wouldn’t be scared of Mom anymore.
“It’s good. It’ll scare away the bears. The bears around here are real scared of dogs,” one of the men said.
“Darned tootin!” I said. Any wimpy bear would see my manly chest and crumply boob loaf stretching my hunting bra and stumble the other way in fear.
Before long we left the men behind us and continued hiking up the mountain alone. I ran through the woods sniffing for deer so that I could bark at them, just like a real hunter. “Mom, if those guys couldn’t even keep up with us hiking, how are they going to catch a deer?” I wondered.
“Well… they don’t try to catch it. They shoot it,” Mom said. “Remember all those deer legs we saw a few weeks ago?”
“What?!” I said. “They kill the deer?! Why?”
“For fun, I guess. Hunting is like the human equivalent of chasing squirrels. And then they eat the meat.”
“What?! Meat is murder?!” I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be dressed like the hunters anymore. “But animals are friends, not food.”
“What do you think that jerky and kibble are made from?” Mom asked. “I’m a vegetarian, but you’re not.”
“Wait, so are we on the hunters’ side, or the deer’s side?” I never even knew that I was a murderer, and it hurt my head to think that I might have been a killer my whole life and not even known it.
“There are no bad guys here, Oscar,” Mom explained. “Even though those men came out here to kill, they also want everyone to be safe. We don’t need to pick sides.”
“Well that’s a relief!” I said. I prefer to see the good in everybody. That’s why I wag my tail even when I’m barking bloody murder at a stranger.
When we reached the meadow right below the ridge, I was surprised to find that all of the wildflowers had melted into themselves, and even the grass smelled tired. The whole valley wore that sepia filter that you see in old photos and movies about England. I was excited to see what the white dirt would look like when we climbed to the top of the ridge and looked into the valley. When we walked through the door in the wall of stones and saw the ridge below us, I couldn’t believe that the white dirt was finally all gone, and we could walk into the valley on a clear trail that I never even knew was there.
We walked down into the enormous bowl that the mountains made. The trail we were walking on was the only human thing as far as the nose could smell, leaving the rest of the valley for the deer and bears. We walked down to the bottom of the bowl, and then up another wall that led to the next valley. Each time we walked between the valleys, we couldn’t see what was in the next valley until the very last second when we climbed through the door in the wall of rocks at the top. The last time we had come here, the slope into the second valley had been covered in white dirt two Moms high, but now the next valley was filled with nothing but air, rock, grass, and probably bears. We walked through this bowl, and up to the final ridge where we walked through the rock wall and this time looked down on a jewel-colored lake. The lake was our destination, but we could see a trail on each side of the lake, and each one climbed over yet another ridge to the next valley. It was exciting to think that we could keep walking over ridges and into the mountains forever and each valley would hold a different surprise.
“Mom, what’s this place called?” I asked.
I always wondered how the kibbler elves made enough kibble to fill a pet store when deer are so few and fast, but now I understood. The kibbler elves must not chase one deer at a time like I do, they must come down to this pretty little lake and fish all of the deer right out of it. That must mean that Duck Lake that I visited a few weeks ago was where they made the duck flavored kibble. I imagined in the next valley there might be Cow Lake, or maybe Rabbit Lake or Chicken Lake. When we reached the lake, I looked for the deer inside, but the kibbler elves must have just passed through because even though I could see straight to the bottom, none of the deer were home.
We wanted to keep walking to see if we could find wild boar lake, or buffalo lake, but we had already hiked more than 8 miles and we still had to walk all the way back. By the time we had walked across the two empty valleys, climbed over the final ridge, and started walking the four miles back down to human things, we had walked about 13 miles and I was pooped. Since Mom doesn’t understand shortcuts, at each switchback I waited in a shady spot for her to walk the long way round the curve, and then I cut the corner by climbing straight down the mountain to meet up with her. Usually I don’t mind the extra walking on human routes because I’m very strong and have endless energy, but my safety sports bra was starting to chafe my legpits, and no amount of rolling around in soft grass relieved the sting.
When we had less than 2 but more than 1 mile left to hike, I recognized two men resting in the shade at the side of the trail. It was my friends the hunters! I ran up to congratulate them for hunting all of the bears and deer so that I didn’t see a single one in 16 miles of hiking.
“Did you get anything?” Mom asked them when she caught up to us.
“We went to that ridge at the top and sat there looking into that valley for a long time,” one of them said, but we didn’t see a single thing.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I went all the way to the lake where all the deer come from, and I couldn’t even find any in there.”
“Well if you spent all day looking at that valley, then it sounds like it wasn’t a day wasted after all,” Mom said. Even though we weren’t supposed to pick sides, I knew that she was glad inside that all the deer had gotten away today.
When we finally got back to the Covered Wagon, we’d hiked exactly 17 miles. Mom took off my hunting vest and left it on a big rock at the bottom of the trailhead where she’d agreed to leave it for my hunting friends, and then she opened up the Covered Wagon. I climbed right into bed, but Mom wouldn’t let me lie down until I’d taken off my sports bra. Even though it fit me great, taking it off is how I know that sports bras aren’t designed for dogs. I couldn’t get my paws out of it, and when I tried to pull my legs through the holes so Mom could pull it over my head, my legs and paws got hopelessly tangled and I fell over. I bet that never happens to the humans that it was designed for…
Oscar the Hunter