Mom and I had unfinished business with our next trail. We had planned to visit this trail on Christmas day, but then The Weather Jinx brought us a white Christmas and the Covered Wagon got stuck in the white dirt just 25 yards down the road that led to the trail. That began our 5 day flight out of the mountains trying to get away from the storm. Mom had planned this whole trip around visiting the trails that we’d missed the last time. This time we were again here after another storm, but at least the Covered Wagon made it to its destination. The rest was up to me and Mom.
The path wasn’t too exciting at first, just sand and cliffs in the distance. We ran through the sand until we reached the first office-building-sized blob of rock squatting next to a dry river. The rock wore stripes that went in different directions in sections, like a print that you would find in a plus sized blouse at Ross Dress for Less. Soon, the rocks started popping up all around us like giant toadstools. Some of them were Ross Dress for Less stripey, some had swooping stripes like swirling candy, and some looked like pancakes stacked so high that they had fallen out of a stack and into a heap. We hiked among them, taking lots of pictures and wondering what the trail had in store. Now that I was the kind of brave dog who stomped confidently across rivers, I knew that I would be ready for whatever this trail had planned for me.
The rocks were starting to close in around us in preparation for a slot canyon when suddenly my leg disappeared up to the knee into the sand. “What the goose?!” I gasped, and ran away. In the spot where my leg had disappeared there was a paw-shaped puddle.
“What happened?” Mom asked, the moment before she lost a foot. “What the…”
“Mom, what is it?” I asked. “I don’t like it.”
“I think it’s… quicksand,” she said. “I thought that quicksand was just something that they made up for cartoons!” For the rest of the day we found quicksand from time to time. The more we saw, the better we got better at spotting it. You have to look for wet patches of sand sitting near before actual puddles. But I’ll get to the puddles in a second.
The walls closed in on us all of a gradual as we walked down the canyon. Up ahead, according to everything that Mom had read, were two of her favorite things in one place: slot canyons made of stripey rocks. The pictures made it seem like we would be hiking through a forest of zebra legs. But when the canyon narrowed to a few Oscars wide, we lost our paws in quicksand again. Then, we reached the puddle. It filled the whole floor of the slot for as far in as we could see. “Maybe it’s not that deep,” Mom said, rolling up her pants again like Knuckleberry Finn, and taking off her shoes and socks. She left her shoes on the dry sand (where I planned to wait out this adventure), and waded in. On the first step, I watched the water come up to her ankle. With the second, it was almost to her knee. I saw her reaching around for the third step, but her foot must not have found anything because it came back next to the other leg and she turned around. The canyon wasn’t even narrow enough for her to stretch her arms out and touch both sides at once, and she had only made it in a few feet into the puddle. “Damn,” she said. “Too deep.”
“How do you know? Maybe it’s just an inch or two deeper and you can stand on tip-toes,” I called across the quicksand.
“Think about it,” Mom said. “The more the walls squeeze in, the same amount of water that’s spread across this wide spot has to fit under the surface. The surface doesn’t get any higher, so the bottom can only get deeper.” I wasn’t sure that I followed, but she seemed satisfied with her explanation. “We’re not getting in there today,” she concluded.
“Ohhhhh, darn…” I said, pretending to be disappointed but already running back up the canyon.
The other canyon we wanted to visit was on the other side of the quicksand river. The trail had us backtracking a long way, just to walk back up in a Y. “But look here,” Mom said. “There’s a trail that goes to the canyon from the other side. It’s a loop, see? We can just walk this way across these cool rocks, and it’ll be a shortcut.”
So we walked around a cow fence and climbed out onto the roof of an enormous rock the size of a shopping mall. There was almost nothing on top of the rock except a few tiny cacti and a gajillion little round meatball-sized rocks. Some of the meatballs had cracked open to show that they were hollow inside. “I wonder what the heck these are,” Mom said. “They seem like from the center of the earth or something.”
“Don’t be silly, Mom. They’re dinosaur eggs!” I explained. “For the small chicken-sized dinosaurs that no one talks about.”
“There are mysterious and exciting things that happen inside the earth at a scale you can’t even imagine,” Mom said, looking into the distance. “That’s why I love looking at these rocks. They tell such epic stories; the kind of stories a planet would tell.”
“I think dinosaur stories would be more exciting,” I said, hoping Mom wouldn’t remember that they were just chickosaurus eggs.
We found the trail it was the exact spot where the flat rock cracked into a canyon, and climbed inside then continued walking down the narrow rock hallway. No one had cleaned this canyon up for visitors, and there were old trees and big rocks everywhere, wherever nature left them last. We had to cross a puddle that was deep enough for me to have to swim, and got Mom’s pants wet up to her butt. Then we reached a clog of boulders. Mom helped me find the best route to the top, and when I looked down, I thought this must be the end of our adventure. On the far side, the rock fell down steeply, and there was a narrow, dark hole between it and the next rock, which was leaning high over the hole even more steeply. I thought that we would turn back, but Mom picked me up and carried me across the dark hole, lifting me high onto the top of the overhanging rock and depositing me on the tippity-top. Once she had climbed through after me and helped me find a safe way back down to solid sand, she gave me a hug and a kiss much longer than her usual outdoor kisses for being so brave. The rocks were covered in claw marks when we left them behind and walked away down the canyon.
Not long after the boulder scramble we arrived at the main event: a place called “tunnel slot” which was a narrow little crack in the rockfilled with a puddle that could have been inches or Oscars deep. Mom had stopped taking her shoes off in puddles at this point, so she just took The Witch and the Wagon keys out of her pockets and stepped into the water. This time, the second step was already above her knees. “We could maybe swim,” she said. “But I don’t know how we would get our stuff across.”
“No way, uh-uh. I’m not going in there!” I said, backing away to a spot where the sun shone on the sand.
“It’s only the length of a swimming pool, I bet,” Mom said, looking into the dark. But I could tell she didn’t actually plan to go swimming because she shrugged and picked up the packpack again..
We turned back, and I was filled with relief… until we got back to the boulder pile. I ran up to it and looked for a place to up-up, but it was more than 2 Moms high, much too high for even Chuck Norris to jump. I realized that we were trapped before Mom even caught up, and when I cried the canyon repeated my whimper mockingly.
“Don’t worry, Buddy,” Mom said, coming up behind me. “I’ll help you.”
She scooped me up again, and staggered over some loose rocks and through a puddle to the lowest spot on the big rock. Then she placed my front paws on the steep rock. “I can’t do a pull-up,” I wheezed.
“Don’t worry, I got you,” she said, pushing up on my butt. She couldn’t get me all the way onto the rock, but she could hold me with one hand and keep me from falling as she climbed up behind me. Every time she took a step, I moved my paws higher up the rock, scrambling and trying to stick long enough for Mom to take another step. Slowly, she spotted me until all 4 of my paws were on the rock, and then I felt one, and then the other back leg fall out from under me. For a moment all was lost, and then I felt two hands on my butt, and Mom smeared me up the rock until I scrambled onto a precarious balancing spot. I could see a way to jump over the Black Hole of Death, and I jumped for it before Mom could climb up behind me. I thought I had it, but my paw slipped and I started to fall into the hole. My life passed before my nose until, like a miracle, I felt Mom grab me under the legpits and pin me back onto the rock. Bit by bit, she hefted me out of the hole. The next time I slipped, I landed with my butt in the spot where the rock met the wall. I sat there for a second with two legs on each side of the rock, and my chin sitting on its point trying to figure out what to do next. Then, before Mom could make the situation worse, I slithered my chest to the freedom side of the rock, and let falling do the rest of the work. I smacked my face on a rock on the way down, but luckily I have a hard head and it was a heck of a lot better than swimming for it in that horrible dark hole. When Mom came over the rock behind me, she gave me even more hugs and kisses. “This is why I have that emergency backpack, Oscar.” I could have used it…!
“No thanks. I think I aced it,” I said, running up the canyon as fast as I could without losing Mom. “But please, let’s never do that again,” I added.
Now that we were back on the rock, we could have walked all the way back around, but Mom thought that she could figure out another shortcut across the rock’s roof. She took a bearing from The Witch, and we walked across the naked rock until it disappeared under our feet in a cliff. Then we turned and walked along the edge until the cliff became a slope. For some reason, someone had strung up cow fences all along the rock. We could climb around them easily at their ends, where there was a gap between the last post and the rock that was too small for a cow, but big enough for an Oscar. But since we were walking wild, sometimes we found the middle of the fences rather than the ends. When we did, we found the place where the rock under the fence was lowest, and crawled underneath. Once, Mom had to get down on her belly and slither like a snake to get through. Right then, we heard a buzzing like an electric toothbrush on the attack. I couldn’t help but look up as, the world’s loudest bird flew fast overhead.
“What the heck was that?!” I asked.
“A drone,” Mom said, wiping the sand off her elbows. “It had a camera on it. I sure hope it just belonged to some hiker… and that that fence was only meant for cows.”
Now that we were finally back in the quicksand wash, all Mom and I had to do was run the 3.5 miles through the sand and back to the car. We were both pretty pooped, and 3.5 miles can be a really long way when you are adventured out, so it was lucky that we met 2 Friends on the way back who gave us an excuse to walk the rest of the way. Mom started talking about the storm and the water, and something about the big words that the ladies were using made me think they were smarter than your average Claire.
“What do you do for work anyway?” Mom asked.
“Oh, we’re geologists with Colorado State University,” Friend One said.
“What’s a cheesologist?” I panted. It sounded like a line of work I might be interested in.
“Cool! And what are you doing out here today?” Mom talked over me.
“We’re studying the waterflow patters of these canyons,” Friend Two explained. She used a lot more words than that, but I didn’t understand any of them.
“Okay, you’ve got to explain something to me,” Mom said. “We’re like, what, 5000 feet above sea level, right? The ground is made of sand and sandstone, which is porous, right? How is the water table high enough to make quicksand?! Like, shouldn’t it just run downhill underground and drain down to sea level?”
The answer to Mom’s dumb question made me begin to understand what she meant by the epic stories that the earth tells. The Cheesologists told us a story that sounded like fantasy, about giant lakes underneath the earth that are held in cups larger than cities and made of something harder and more mysterious than sandstone. I hiked between them, careful to stay in their shadows as they told the story of the rocks around us: the lakebottoms that they’d been, and the riverbottoms they were becoming, and beneath that the deeper places where in an alien sense of time, rocks were at war with each other, and fought like warring tides. I wished that the cheesologists could have come with us for the rest of our hikes to tell us the stories of all the rocks in Utah, but when we got back to the car kennel, they went to their car, and Mom went to the Covered Wagon. I stood still in the middle, trying to decide which way to go until the cheesologists closed their doors and drove away, taking their stories with them.
Oscar the Adventurer