When we planned this trip there was one hike that made Mom nervous more than the others, and not just because it started 55 miles down a dirt road. Well… mostly because it was 55 miles down a dirt road, but also because, at about 17 miles it would be our longest day. And because the whole point of the hike was at the end, turning back would mean failure. There were a zillion things that could go wrong: We could have a Wagon issue too far down the road to walk out with no way to call for help. We could run out of food, or water, or get too hot or tired to go on. We could get hurt or lost. Forget that most of these things were problems that could have happened on any number of our other adventures, the fact that Mom KNEW about all the things that could go wrong made it more scary. Mom cut this hike out and re-added it to our itinerary over and over. One minute she would chicken out, and then she would decide that she was being a Chicken Little over nothing and decide we should definitely give it a try. Every time she changed her mind, my suspense grew until the day before we maybe planned to maybe go, she was changing her mind every 5 minutes and I couldn’t handle it anymore.
“So are we skipping it or what?!” I asked when we stopped at the Gas Station of Truth, where she had to decide whether to turn onto the dirt road or leave town.
“Let’s just see how far we can go on the road, and if there’s mud or big rocks then we’ll turn around,” I she said. “And if we have to turn around, we’ll be at peace with it,” she added, as if I were the one with the FOMO.
So Mom left me to watch the Covered Wagon as she went into the gas station for supplies. She came out with a large box of cans. “What are those?” I sniffed.
“They’re fancy juice-water,” she said with pride in her voice, like she’d caught a jackalope with her bare hands and dragged it home for dinner. “They’ll make a nice treat after long hikes when I’m hot and thirsty.”
“But what about regular water?” I asked.
“I’m sure we can make it one more day on what we have in the van,” she said dismissively, waving her hand and driving away. I looked at the flat-looking packet of bottles that used to take up my whole sleeping space but now gave me lots of room to stretch out, and hoped she knew what she was talking about.
You don’t need to know everything about the 55 mile drive, but for 15 miles it was fine. For 10 miles cows the size of Covered Wagons stood in the road and shot daggers at us out of their eyes. For 15 miles it was bumpy like machine gun fire. The last 10 miles were terrifying; so steep and rocky that Mom wanted to turn back around, except that meant driving back up the certain death that we had just barely survived. Finally, we reached an impassible obstaple: a big mud puddle.
“Oh no! Do we have to drive back over all that in the dark?” I asked. I already felt like my bones had shaken loose and were all in the wrong parts of my body.
“No, we’re less than half a mile from the trailhead. We can walk there from here, ” Mom said, stopping the Wagon as close to the side of the dirt road as she could. “I guess this is home sweet home.”
I was surprised that The Witch was speaking to us as far out into the wilder-ness as we were, but maybe because we could see half of Utah and the other half of Arizona from the mud puddle, some service found us. What Mom saw inside the Witch scared her, and she could hardly sleep all night. “What is it?” I asked when she woke The Witch up for what felt like the hundredth time in the middle of the night.
“It’s this COVID-19 thing… people are really freaking out,” Mom said. “People are locking themselves up in their houses and they’re saying it’s the beginning of the next recession.”
“So? We have a job. Or… at least we will when we get back. And you can’t get sick if we don’t see any other people.”
“But I just chose the riskier job at the smaller company rather than working for people so rich that they’re recession-proof,” she groaned.
“Mom, there’s nothing you can do about that,” I mumbled. “We need to sleep. We have a big day tomorrow.”
Mom had bought a larger packpack before we left California, just so she could carry more water for this hike and when the Witch woke us up, she started packing in the dark.
“Oh dog doo!” Mom said when she looked at the water supply. “We only have about 8 bottles left.”
“Well you have the fancy canned water,” I pointed out. “I’ll drink the bottles, and you drink the cans, and we should have more than enough for today.”
“Well… see I was also hoping that we could stay out here tonight. I saw a sign for a trail on the way in that I’ve always wanted to visit. I had no idea it was out here, and I’m sure as hell not driving 25 miles back down that road again. So… I was hoping we had enough to last for 2 days.”
“It’ll be a fun survivalist adventure!” I said. I didn’t know if it would be fun, but Mom still seemed worried, and I didn’t want her distracted and wandering off into the desert.
With the packpack full of bottles and cans, Mom left a note behind the Covered Wagon’s eyes that explained why we were parked like jerks, and when we’d come back to move it, and then we set out toward the crack of light that was opening in the sky. It was kind of spooky to be walking somewhere unfamiliar in the dark like that, so far from any lights except the clawpricks in the sky. Suddenly, I saw a horrible beast hulking at the side of the road. I puffed up my hackles to look ferocious, and barked my face off.
“Oscar, it’s a rock,” Mom said.
“NO IT’S NOT! IT’S A MONSTER!” I screamed.
“It is literally a rock. What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s giving us that look that the cows gave us! Leave us alone you evil monster!” I screamed so hard my voice broke. Mom may have said it was a rock, but she did decide that that was the right moment to leave the road and walk away from the monster into the scrub.
On one side of us was an enormous rock that looked like the nose of a mountain-sized cruise ship. Once we passed the cruise ship, we walked past some giant potato-shaped rocks that looked like something the Flintstones would have lived in, if the citizens of Bedrock were as tall as brontosauruses. To our other side, far in the distance, miles and miles of the lumpy, whipped rocks and windowed watchtower rocks stretched to the end of the world like something from an alien planet. For the first 6 miles, the trail wound through the bushes, where there was little difference between trail and not-trail. It’s a good thing that the scenery was far away and didn’t change quickly, because we couldn’t afford to be distracted. Mom had to look closely at the sand for footprints, and I had to sniff every bush.
“You know what’s weird,” Mom said.
“Utah?” I asked.
“No, For the past 3 days I’ve been following footprints, and each day there’s been a set of prints that are more recent and clear than the others. Each day I’ve been wearing a different set of shoes, and yet each day the footprints that we’re following have been from the same set of shoes I’m wearing.”
“You know, Pooh and Piglet had that problem…” I said.
“No, look. That day we walked in the river I was wearing those Asics that are ready to be thrown out, and the footprints along the canyon had the same tread pattern. I’ve never seen anyone else wearing those Asics. Yesterday in Zebra Canyon I was wearing the Sportiva shoes, and I could swear that there was a set of Sportiva prints in the back side of the canyon where we got stuck. And look, this set of footprints we’re following today are Innov8s. Nobody hikes in Innov8s.” She put her foot in the pawprint, and the nobbles on the bottom lined up exactly with the holes in the sand.
“What do you think it means?” I asked, noticing that we were also following a set of paw prints that were not very different from my own.
“I have no idea… but it seems important, doesn’t it? Almost like we’re following ourselves. Do you think it’s… I don’t know… destiny?”
“I think a lot of shoes look alike,” I said, catching a whiff of something furry and running ahead.
Gradually, the ship cliffs and Flintstone houses faded away, and the trail walked out onto the rocks. From here there was no way to see the tracks that made the trail, and the only way for Mom to navigate was by connect the dots. She would turn the Witch until the beam coming from our blue dot pointed in the same direction as the trail, and then Mom would pick something in that direction to walk toward.
“This must be what it’s like to navigate out at sea,” I said, thinking of all the famous explorers who had come before us.
“Well at sea they don’t have hills and rocks that stay in one place while you walk to them,” Mom pointed out. “And land doesn’t have currents, and hikers don’t need to worry about wind direction so much… But I guess this is probably how the cowboys and Indians used to move around in the old west.” I looked around at the emptiness the stretched out around me in every direction, without a single human thing anywhere except on Mom’s back. It gave me a thrill to think that we could have been standing anywhen, and could have walked in any direction to see what adventure the land had in store. “This must have been what the Mormons felt like,” Mom went on. “I can understand why they decided this was the promised land.”
“What’s a Moron?” I asked.
“Mor-MON,” Mom said. “They’re like a pioneer version of the Mayflower pilgrims… or maybe more like an American version of Jesus’s disciples? Anyway, they came out to Utah and decided that this was heaven, and now a lot of people don’t know how wonderful Utah is because they’re afraid of the Mormons.”
“Do they attack?” I asked.
“Not usually, but they ring your doorbell and want to talk about religion, which some people find even more frightening than a fight. But I’ve never met a Mormon I didn’t like.”
“Oh good! I hope one knocks on our door someday!” I said. “I would love to bark at one.”
We navigated like cowboys, or Indians, or Mormons by jagged rocks that looked like they’d been blown up, and then past rocks that were jagged in a much flatter way. We worked our way steeply up and down striped lumps of rock, and past deep belly-buttons in the rock with pools trapped at the bottom. Finally, we came over a ridge and far below us I could see a canyon filled with peaceful water of deep jewel-colored grey surrounded by bright fire-grey cliffs that were rounded off as if they’d been polished. Mom led me gingerly around a steep bubble of a hill, and there below us opened up the view that we had come all this way to see. The water smelled of a sparkling green that I could almost see, and the more I looked at it, the deeper I could see inside of it… and no matter how deep my eyes went, there was no bottom. In the middle of the canyon, three tall rocks stood out of the water. They were arranged in a way that made me want to look longer than normal, even though I didn’t understand why.
“It almost makes you want to jump,” Mom said, scooting a little closer to try to see deeper into the water.
“No, I know it would crush every bone in our bodies, and a floating corpse would totally ruin the tranquility of the scene and all that… but from up here it almost looks like you could just jump in like off a diving board and all you would feel is cool water around you.”
“Mom, I think you might be hallucinating. Maybe you should drink more of that fancy water,” I suggested.
Mom made a face, “It’s warm.” Mom never has been that great at roughing it. She would make a terrible cowboy… or Mormon.
But Mom had a point. It was warm. A cool breeze was coming out of the canyon, but with no shade and the sun beating down on my beautiful black fur all morning, I was slowly cooking. We had stopped for lots of water breaks along the way, but we’d been hiking for almost 5 hours, and we still had to hike all that way back. As we walked away from the canyon, Mom picked up a stick. “What are you gonna do with that stick?!” I barked. “Throw it! Throw it!” But she didn’t throw it.
I had almost forgotten about the stick until we reached a large pool that had collected in the rock and Mom waved the stick to remind me that she had it. When I barked, she threw it into the middle of the pool. “Now look what you’ve done!” I said, wading carefully into the water. To my surprise, it felt really good on my hot paws to stand up to my knees in the cool water, so I stood in the pool chewing up the stick while Mom filled some of our empty water bottles with puddle water for me to drink on the way back.
“Sit,” Mom yelled at me from the side of the pool.
“Eew, no. It’s wet,” I told her with a confused look. Then, just to be a good sport I lowered my butt until I felt the surface of the water tickling my tail, and then stood tall again. “See, wet!” I said.
“Well if you won’t lie in it, then I’m going to pour all the water you don’t drink onto your fur,” she said, shaking her head. And she kept her promise. Normally it would have bugged me, but this time it felt okay.
When she picked up the packpack again to keep walking, Mom froze and hissed, “Duck!”
“I must have left your food at the viewpoint. You still had half of it left! I hope you don’t… I don’t know… bonk or something. Can dogs bonk?”
“Where’s your lunch?” I asked.
“Oh, I have some trail mix in my bag. I’m just not really hungry,” she said.
“Then neither am I,” I lied.
Now that we knew there were no big traps along the route that we had to be careful of, Mom navigated by landmarks that were further apart, and paid less attention to following the red line on the mapp exactly. When we reached the sand, if she couldn’t find destiny’s footprints she followed any trail-looking line through the bushes that she could find. Even if it wasn’t exactly the right line, as long as we followed the line of the ship-rock mountains, we could walk a little to the left or right of the real trail without actually getting lost. We were already back on the road the first time I lay down on the ground and refused to move.
“Dude, you get no sympathy from me,” Mom said. “We’ll be done in literally less than 5 minutes. The car is less than a quarter mile away.”
“Oh…” I said, feeling a little foolish when we turned a corner a few seconds later and I saw the Covered Wagon waiting for us in the far side of the mud puddle. Once I could see it, I flopped down in the shade one final time and refused to move for real until Mom was about to drive away without me.
“Hey Mom,” I said over the air conditioner’s roar when we were rattling back toward civilization at running speed. “I noticed something today.”
“What’s that?” Mom asked.
“You remember all those things you were scared about? The distance, the heat, the water, the road, getting lost, running out of food?”
“Sure,” Mom said.
“But we didn’t have any trouble with those things you were worried about. Even when we didn’t have enough food or water, it turned out that it wasn’t a big deal.”
“Yeah, the worry about scarcity is worse than actually running out of something,” Mom admitted.
“But remember how we got lost yesterday, and stuck, and we were in real danger? You weren’t even scared back then. It was fun… for you anyway…”
“It’s so much easier to take things as they come than to worry about them ahead of time,” Mom said. “Maybe I’d rather never see danger coming, because then I don’t think I’d ever be scared. But if I hadn’t worried about those things I might not have brought a backup battery for my cell phone, or carried so much water, or made sure we started at dawn.”
“I think what’s happening to the economy and stuff is a little bit like that,” I said. “Maybe things won’t work out like you planned them, but just like the scary road, or not getting lost in the wilder-ness, if you take it slow and pay attention, then you can probably get through it if you keep your wits about you.”
“I suppose you’re right…” Mom said. “But I didn’t plan on this. In two weeks it’s gone from hoping there would be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, to hoping that I still have a job in a year. I’ve gone from hoping I won’t ever have to work again, to hoping that there will still be work for me to do.”
“And yesterday you were hoping for an easy hike and some pretty pictures, but you wound up having a thrilling hike and you didn’t get any of the pictures you wanted. Today you were scared of a dozen things, and none of them even happened. If every hike were as long and uneventful as today’s, wouldn’t adventuring be boring? The point isn’t to rack up a huge pile of miles… or money… at the end. The point is to keep playing, and to have a set of stores and pictures of your beautiful dog in handsome places.”
Oscar the Cowdog