We were going to go straight home from Las Vegas. Mom thought it would be nice to have a day to clean out the Covered Wagon, wash the shirt she had been wearing for half a week, and then wash herself. I was ready for a long nap in my Mom-watching chair. But then there was a car party on the freeway leaving Nevada. For more than an hour all the cars lined up in a slow-motion conga line, blocking the way to California. The party broke up as soon as we crossed into California, but the damage had been done. While we were waiting, Mom had seen a sign pointing the way to the empty desert, which made her remember that there were dooms somewhere around here. So she had asked The Witch how to get there, and it turned out that they were only about 100 miles away. The exit to the dooms was only 5 miles into California, and Mom had to pull off to go potty anyway.
But there was no gas station at the exit, and so Mom drove into the dark looking for a place to use the dog bathroom. It is hard to find a dog bathroom stall at night when you’re moving fast, but the Covered Wagon couldn’t slow down because there was an enemy car following us and making Mom drive the speed limit. We had already driven more than 10 miles into the emptiness before we finally dropped our tail car, and by then there was no point in turning back to the freeway. We were committed to finding the dooms, and to one more day of adventure.
We kept pushing into the blackness for over an hour. Every time a car came in the other direction, Mom made a suffering-vampire noise and held up her paws to protect her eyes. Mom hates sharing the desert with other cars. Finally, The Witch announced the final turn, where Mom promised we would pull off and find a place to sleep. But the last paved road before the dooms was blocked by a barricade covered with a big sign that lit up when we shined the Wagon’s lights on it. The big said something like, “FORBIDDEN! YOU MAY NOT PASS! ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE!”
“Well crap,” Mom said. “Now what do we do? Do you think No through traffic applies to us too?”
“Let’s go to sleep and try to figure it out in the morning?” I suggested.
But The Witch had another trap in store for us. As soon as we turned around, she told us about a secret shortcut. “There is another road in 800 feet that goes the same way as the Forbidden Road,” she told us, conspiratorially. “Follow it for 5 miles, and it will take you where you want to go,” she promised. That sounded great, except the catch was that the Witch’s road was made of sand. Mom pulled the Covered Wagon onto the sand road and stopped for the night. We would need to wait for the sun to come up to see the desert around us as we searched for the dooms beyond where the road ended.
The trouble was that the dooms weren’t on All Trails, so we couldn’t just tell The Witch the exact spot to lead the Covered Wagon to. We had to find the dooms the old fashioned way, using something called “directions.” Directions are a little bit like an old treasure map, because they’re confusing and just the first clue in a big, frustrating mystery. The only clues we had to find the dooms were the GPS coordinates for where to turn off of the old highway, and a MapQuest riddle to solve after that. The hardest part about directions to a place in the middle of the wilder-ness is that a giant pile of sand doesn’t have an address, and the “roads” might find it from any direction. Another problem is that the “roads” don’t have names and are made of sand so can move and reshape themselves back into regular desert without telling Google.
When the sun set the sky on fire the next morning, we went back to driving down the sand road. When The Witch first tricked us off the pavement, the sand was easy to drive on. But now that we were trapped, the road melted into loose desert. The sand swished the Covered Wagon this way and that, and the rocks scraped its belly. Once, Mom and I had to get out to move some big rocks out of the way so the Covered Wagon wouldn’t get hurt. “I don’t care what it takes, I’m driving back on pavement,” Mom said, heaving a rock the size of her head into the desert. “Even if we have to drive 100 miles in the wrong direction. I’m not taking this death trap of a road back!”
“Why? What’s wrong with it?“ I asked, climbing back to my driving seat after being thrown out of place for the hundredth time.
“It’ll be a miracle if the van doesn’t get stuck out here,” Mom explained.
After what felt like forever, The Witch told us we could leave the sand road and turn back onto the Last Paved Road in the Desert. When we were only a few feet from the pavement, all the road sand disappeared into a crack in the earth. The crack was only a few feet deep and only as wide as an Oscar is from nose to tail, but the crack was Wagon proof.
“What do we do now?” I asked, staring at the latest booby trap.
“Well we’re not going back, so I guess we keep traveling parallel to the highway until we find a way back onto it,” said the booby that had gotten us into this trap.
Then a miracle happened. We only had to drive another 800 feet along the sand road before The Witch showed us a different way onto the pavement. From there, it was just a short way to the spot where the GPS said, “I must leave you here. Now you must go on alone using nothing but this treasure map: Go 10.1 miles down this unpaved road, and then you will reach the access road. You must not stop on the access road, no matter what, or else you will get stuck in the deep sand and no one will pass by to help you. But if you are strong and do not stop for 2.5 miles on that access road, you will be rewarded with hardpan, where it will be safe to park. But if you park before the hard pan, or you will be stuck forever.”
We said a fearful goodbye to the GPS and turned onto the final road. “It’s paved!” Mom said with glee. It was paved, for a little while. But then the road crossed some train tracks, and the pavement did not cross to the other side. Beyond the train tracks, the road continued with only sand. The Wagon exploded into a riot of rattles and thumps as we drove at running speed down the machine-gun sand. “If the access road is only 10 miles down this road, and 5 miles of it was paved. That’s not so bad.“ Mom said. Mom is always cutting things up with math. Giving numbers to things makes her feel safe and in control.
But more than half an hour later, we still hadn’t found the access road. Mom checked the map and groaned. “Oh no! It must mean 10 miles from where the pavement ended at the railroad tracks, not the turn-off! We’ve still got four or five more miles of this! We’re only half way there!” We rattled on, bouncing and sliding this way and that through sand piles without slowing down, because the Witch had warned us not to stop. Suddenly I heard a loud thunk. The Covered Wagon jumped.
“Dog doo, dog doo, dog doo!“ Mom said. She stopped the Covered Wagon and opened the door. “Forget it! I’m not doing this! This is a very bad idea. We can start saving up for something with four-wheel-drive, but I’m going home!” Then she started stomping down the Sand Road in the direction the Wagon had been traveling, away from the train tracks and the pavement behind it.
“Mom, where are you going?“
“I don’t know, let’s walk for a little while. I bet you at least have to go to the bathroom,” she said, in that voice she uses when she wants to change her mind in the middle of a temper tantrum without being wrong. So we walked for a little while, but I hadn’t even gone to the bathroom yet when Mom turned around.
“Where are you going now?“ I asked. “Is it already time to go home?“
“No, it’s fine, we can drive on this. I was just scared.” I stood in the middle of the sand-road watching her walk away. I was afraid that if she started driving again she would just turn the Wagon around and go home. I didn’t start to follow until I realized that whether she went forward or backward, the Wagon was leaving without me.
We drove for another mile until the sand mounted an attack that Mom refused to try crossing in the Wagon. We got out again.
“Now is it bathroom time?“ I asked.
“Yeah, I guess. It’s a long drive back home and it’s only fair that I take you for a walk first.“ So we used our six legs to walk over what the Wagon could not.
“How far is it to the dooms?“ I asked.
“Well it’s about 2 miles this way and then another 2 1/2 miles to the right.“ Mom said. “Look over there, that’s where we were going.“
I looked over and saw gold-gray folds of sand. “Well why are we walking this way if the dooms are over there?“ I asked. “You really are a lousy navigator, Mom. Here, let me help you out: We should be walking this way.”
“There’s no road or trail that way.”
“But we can see where we’re going! There aren’t any hills or rivers or even trees in the middle or anything. We can just walk on the desert, same as we’re walking on this road.” How come Mom didn’t see how easy it would be? “How far away is it?”
Mom was so nervous that she needed a kind of math I’d never heard her use before to calm herself down. “Well… if a² + b² = c², and it’s 2 miles that way, and 2.5 miles that way…” Mom poked at The Witch for a second. “About 3.1 miles,” she said after a second. Then she said, “Wow. That’s the first time I’ve ever used trigonometry in real life…”
“It’s something that they use in schools to keep children off the streets while their parents are at work. Know what you don’t need to go to school to learn?”
“How to find something that you can already see?”
“No, that walking into the desert when nobody knows where you are is how people die.”
“But it’s right there!” I reminded her.
“Sure, but how would we find the car again when we’re 3 miles away with nothing but open desert in between?” Mom asked. “Did you think about that, Mr. Smarty Pants?
“How do we always find the car? This is no different than when you park in a big car kennel or a city you don’t know. Just tell The Witch where you left it, and she’ll tell you how to get back.”
“You know what? That actually makes sense. Okay, I’ll drop a pin where we left The Wagon and text it to myself, and then we’ll be able to find it on a map no matter what.”
“Wait? The Witch is talking to you?” I asked, looking at all the empty wilder-ness around us.
“Yeah, somehow I have full reception,” Mom said. “Weird, huh? There probably isn’t another human for 20 miles in any direction, and I have better reception here than at home.”
“You mean that if we get lost we can call for help?!”
“Yeah, I guess we can.”
“Do you still carry that emergency Witch resuscitator in the pack pack?”
“Forget you!” I said. “I’m taking the shortcut!” Then I stepped off of the sand of the road and into the sand of the desert, and started walking toward the dooms.
“Wait up!” Mom called. Then she stepped off the road, too.
It turned out that finding our way was as easy as I thought. Even the Witch was on Team Oscar! When we were standing on the road, The Witch thought that we could only follow other roads, and took us the long way round. But now that we were off the road, if Mom asked The Witch how to walk to the hardpan at the end of the road, The Witch showed us a straight line, and the blue dot showed us which way we were facing. All mom had to do was check every couple of minutes and make sure that the beam from our blue dot was going the same direction as the dotted line to the end of the road, and we couldn’t get lost.
With our legs and a little help from The Witch, we had everything we needed to get to the dooms. Once mom realized that when the answers are inside of you, you don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules, the freedom fell into her legs and she started jogging. It didn’t matter if she got sweaty, because she had been wearing the same clothes for four days anyway, and already smelled like the stray humans in The City who camp in the dog bathroom. She had taken her bra off a couple of days ago when it started getting itchy, and never bothered to put it back on. Humans aren’t supposed to let their bits flop around like a pair of curious ears, they’re supposed to keep their bodies hard and their bits tied down tight when they run. But in the desert Mom discovered that she could run without a sports bra just as easily as I could.
“I know we’re safe, but I just can’t shake the feeling that this is how The Little Prince starts…“ Mom said.
“I don’t know that story. Is it a nice one? Are there any dogs in it?”
“No dogs, but there’s an elephant that gets eaten by a snake… Anyway, it starts with a man who crashes his plane in the desert. He only has enough water for a few days, so he needs to fix his plane or else he’ll die.”
“That sounds a little bit like us!” I said. “Except that if the Covered Wagon breaks down, you don’t know how to fix it.”
“Exactly,” she said. “Anyway, the man meets a little boy who grew up on a planet all by himself.”
“That sounds horrible. It would be like waiting forever and ever for you to come out of the gas station!”
“Well the little boy had a friend who was a flower, but yeah, he kind of agreed with you that living all alone with only a flower for company was pretty lame, so left his planet and had a lot of pithy things to say about the preposterous things that adults care about.”
“Yeah, humans really do worry about the dumbest things, like walking the long way round just because there’s a road there.”
“Right. The whole thing sounds familiar. But the problem is that the prince kind of dies at the end, and I think that the point is that he’s only dead if you choose to see it that way, and maybe he went back to his planet.”
“So wait. If the Covered Wagon is the plane in this meta-for, and you’re the man, and I’m the boy… What’s your point?” I asked.
“I don’t really know, I read it in French and I don’t really speak French. It was another one of those things in school that I never thought would be important.”
“Let me give it a try,” I said. Dogs are very good at literature and symbolism. “Humans worry about silly things, and sometimes they think they see something lame like a hat, but really they’re seeing something dangerous like a spaghetti monster eating an elephant. And if you get it wrong you could be dead?”
“Just promise me you’ll be careful of snakes,” Mom said.
We had already hiked for miles through the desert, so when we got to the dooms it was confusing whether we should keep exploring, or if we’d already reached our destination. There was no trail through the dooms, so there was no process to follow, course to cover, or finish line to achieve after we got there. Things like that confuse Mom, and kind of short circuit her brain. We wandered around for a little while, but our hearts were already full of triumph for solving the treasure map to the golden dooms, so there was no need to keep searching for adventure.
We ran the 3 miles back through the open desert, and with the Witch’s help, we found the Covered Wagon right where we’d left it, without even getting a little bit lost. It was time to go home for real this time.
As we left the desert, it started to rain. It continued to rain through all 400 miles between the desert and my Home Town. When the car parties got to be too much for us, the Witch took us off the freeway to drive through farms and orchards. Along the way we saw dozens of cars sitting in the mud along side the road. Some had spit their people out into the rain. “What are they doing?” I asked Mom.
“I think those people forgot about respecting nature,” Mom explained. “They know that their car can drive on the dirt when it’s dry, so they forget that things change when the dirt is wet. They’re so used to seeing hats, that they forget to check for snakes. Those poor suckers are never going to go home now.”
“Oh no. So are they dead like the Little Prince if they can’t fix their cars?”
“Well, they’ll have to wait for a tow truck, which in this traffic could take all night.”
“Oh! I see!” I said. “So the lesson of the story is to sign up for AAA?”
“Well, yes, you should always have a way to call for help. But also, remember that danger is closer when you step off the road, and there isn’t always going to be someone around to come and rescue you. So don’t be a numbskull.”
Oscar the Doom Hunter