Lately my assistant and translator has been underperforming. She’s so distracted on our runs that we can run up and down a whole mountain without her even noticing that she’s running, let alone the handsome and wise coach trying to remind her to enjoy the moment. When I ask her to take down notes on a story I want to tell, she can only pay attention for a minute or two before she starts doing something else, which is very disruptive for a busy dog like me. I hear why when I tune in to her thoughts on the doggie telepaphone. The only thing that there’s space for in there is deciding what she wants to be when she grows up, and it’s so loud that I can’t hear myself think.
For the last month the only thing that has interested Mom is dressing up and talking about herself to strangers, or asking our friends for advice. So much talking about yourself is good for handsome dogs, but bad for humans. Mom gets a little kooky if she spends too much time in The City where people talk about imaginary things like “money” and “technology” and “brunch,” so it’s important to take her out to the wilder-ness regularly. So yesterday I finally lured her into the Covered Wagon to listen to the only two opinions that really matter and solve her problems with her feet.
There’s a good reason why Mom can’t think right in The City. In The City all of the obstaples are moved out of the way and the places meant for moving are flat and straight so that you can move fast while still looking at your phone. If you move like that for too long, you’re likely to wind up somewhere where you didn’t intend to be. In the wilder-ness you need to take it slow. There are problems to solve like not getting lost, or climbing over sleeping trees, or keeping your socks dry while crossing a river, or the many things that rocks can make you do. Also, the long drives take Mom’s eyeballs and hands off her phone so that her mind can follow.
Our hike started peacefully enough with Mom throwing sticks, and me picking them up from where they landed, biting them in half for her, and then dancing a jig until she caught up. But before long, we reached a river. We followed the trail up the bank until it ended on a rock with nothing but river on the other side. Mom checked with The Witch and then broke the news that we were going to have to cross the river to continue on the trail.
“Oh, well I guess that means we’ll have to go back then,” I said. But when I turned around to see if she was following me back to the road, Mom was sitting on the ground taking her socks off. I waited patiently while she stood up and carefully picked her way through the water to the other side, and then I waited less patiently for her to come back. I guess that Mom’s head was still stuck in her own butt, because she calmly sat on a rock on the other side of the river and put her shoes back on without looking at me.
How would she come back for me with her shoes on? If she tried crossing back with her shoes on, they would get wet and then she would be grouchy for the rest of the day! What happened next was even worse than I feared: To my horror, Mom stood up and started walking away down the trail on the other side of the river. I barked after her, but she just shouted, “Come on!” without turning around. I carefully waded into the river, but when I slipped and fell off a rock into the chest-deep water, I stopped being cautious and sprinted to the other side, then up the bank. I kept running up the trail till Mom was between me and that nasty river before shaking myself off and leading Mom up the hill to safety.
The trail was long and very steep, and we had already hiked nearly 5 miles through the forest when we came out on top of the ridge and saw the mountains open up all around us. Behind us the mountains were furry with trees, but in front of us they were bare and covered in dirt, with a few graveyards of bone-trees sticking out of the hillside like thorns. We walked for miles through the tree graveyard, and it was kind of spooky, but pretty too, like a Tim Burton movie with the lights turned on. “What is this place?” I asked.
“I think it’s Snow Mountain,” Mom said.
“It sure is a mountain, you can see that much. But it’s-no forest, that’s for sure.”
The higher we climbed, the blacker and sunnier the forest got. When I hiked high enough to see the top of No Mountain, I could tell that the fire that had been very strong, because it had climbed all the way to the tippity-top of the mountain. Now that the fire was cold, the black trees stuck out of a thin skin of white dirt. On the shady side of the mountain, the white dirt covered everything, even the trail. When she saw the white dirt covering half of the mile still to climb, Mom decided that she wasn’t as determined as the fire had been.
“But it’s not even that deep or slippery!” I said, peeking over the edge at the sock-deep white dirt.
“You don’t always have to climb to the highest point to be successful,” Mom said. “It’s okay to decide that a certain mountaintop isn’t where you want to go, even when you’ve been walking toward it for awhile.”
“Are we still talking about hiking?” I asked.
“Maybe not…” she said.
On the way up the mountain the only souls we’d seen were a few birds, a lizard, and thousands of ladybugs, but on our controlled fall back down we met a few people who were climbing behind us.
“I liked the walk up because it was in the woods,” said a woman who got scared when I barked at her.
“Well it’s all burned the rest of the way to the top,” Mom warned her. Then both Mom and The Woman Who Was Scared of Barking got very serious, like they were afraid of something that was coming slowly.
“It’s very dry for this time of year,” the Woman Who Was Scared of Barking said.
“Yeah, it’s been a very dry winter,” Mom said, looking at all the brown dimming the valley. Then they were quiet for a moment before wishing each other a good hike.
The next hikers we met were eating cheese sandwiches. I asked them for some, but instead they talked to Mom. “I thought that this area hadn’t burned in 15 or 20 years, but this looks much more recent than that,” the Cheese Sandwich Lady said.
“No, this fire was 2 or 3 years ago,” Mom said, like she was someone who watched the news. “Was it the same year as the Paradise fires?”
“I think it was the year before,” the Cheese Sandwich Man said. I looked around at the ruined mountain and wondered how something so dramatic could happen, and then people couldn’t even remember it clearly.
“Mom, will this mountain ever be alive again?” I asked when we were alone again, and walking through the space where the black trees stood among the living ones.
“Of course it will,” Mom said. “It will take some time, but the forest needs to burn every once in awhile to stay healthy. They used to try to stop all the forest fires, but that only made the fires worse. Sometimes the best thing is for a person to get burned so that they will start over.” I thought that maybe Mom had gotten distracted again and wasn’t really talking about forests anymore.
“So do you know what we’re going to do with our lives yet?” I asked.
“Well I was hoping that fate would intervene and the trail would be clear, but it turns out that I’m standing at a fork between two paths and I need to choose one.”
Mom and I get lost a lot, so I knew just what to say in this situation. “What does the mapp say?” I asked.
“There is no map for this one. The choices are that I could either climb a very steep but clear path to the top of a very tall mountain by working for someone rich and famous. Or I could make my own path and decide myself where it goes, but also maybe get lost or stuck along the way.”
“Well obviously you should take the safe and steep path to the tallest mountain, right?”
“But then I would always be going uphill, even when I’m tired and want to turn around. And when I got to the top, the only place to go would be to climb other tall mountains.”
“But Mom, you can’t climb mountains all year. Sometimes they’re covered in white dirt, which is a pain. That’s when it’s time to go to the desert, or the coast.”
“Right,” Mom said. “But it sure is hard to walk away from the mountains, you know? Everyone understands what it means to be standing on top of a mountain. How do you know where you’re headed if there’s nothing to climb?”
“Don’t worry, Mom. You’ll be okay in the mountains as long as we’re together.”
“That’s the other thing, the mountain is No Dogs Allowed.”
“Oh, so it’s a National Park,” I said. I know all about National Parks. They’re where they keep the most fashionable mountains, and everyone goes there to take the same pictures so that they can brag and say they’ve had the same experience as everyone else. There are so many people lined up on the trails in National Parks that there’s no room left for dogs. That’s why Mom and I explore other trails. Sometimes what we find is lame, but at least our experience is unlike anyone else’s.
By the time we got back to the Covered Wagon, Mom finally knew what she wanted to do. It had taken more than 14 miles and I was dog-tired, but Mom and I knew what job we’d be starting soon.
Oscar the Pooch