The story of my sixth birthday started when I was still 5 for another day and we were driving down the 55 mile dirt torture-road, getting the stink-eye from territorial cows and afraid that this was the adventure we wouldn’t survive.
“Holy menacing cow, Oscar! Did you see that sign?” Mom crowed.
“Mom, I can’t read. And I was too busy getting thrown around the Wagon.”
“We just passed Peek-a-boo Canyon!”
“What’s a Peek-a-boo?”
“It’s a trail I’ve always wanted to visit! Or… ever since I joined Instagram anyway. I thought it was in a National Park, but I guess there’s one in Arizona that has the same name. The sign back there was a BLM sign, which means that it’s dog friendly and off leash! We’ll have to stay out here an extra day so we can visit on the way back!”
“Okay, Mom, but what about the water?” I reminded her.
We rationed the water more than we needed to so that we could survive an extra day far enough into the wilder-ness that we could forget that the world was coming to an end.
It took all afternoon for Mom and me to drive back to my lucky birthday surprise, half way between a doomed civilization and a catastrophic mud puddle 54.6 miles away. We spent the night in the car kennel, feeling lucky to have a people bathroom with toilet paper ground with good wagon traction. I felt sorry for all the people leaving the car kennel to go back to a place where a pit toilet wasn’t enough to make them feel safe.
On my birthday morning the cow road throttled the herd of visitors back to school zone speed, so the canyon was all mine for a few hours. So Mom and I put on our running things and set out to explore. I thought that I would be too tired to run after such a long hike the day before, but as I ran along the rim, the ground moved easily under my paws like magic. I guess what they say is true: running really does get easier as you get older.
Soon the trail dove over the edge of the canyon, and bumped and flowed like a river down the sandstone. Since we’re not made of water, Mom and I bumped and staggered into the canyon more cautiously, until we were in a sandy wash with house-height rocks all around us. Before long, Mom found a crack in the rock that closed in tight as a slot canyon. I hung out at the entrance, hoping it was a short one and she’d come back out soon to lead me to a really awesome birthday surprise. But a moment later, her voice came bouncing out of the crack, “Oscar, c’mon!”
“I don’t think I want to go in there,” I stared, when she came back out to look for me. “It gives me the screaming Mimis. It’s called Spooky Canyon. Why do you think they call it that, huh?”
“Stop being such a baby,” Mom said, giving me a handful of brunch to remind me that birthday boy or no, she was the captain of this expedition. So I reluctantly followed her into the spooky rock hall.
The walls swooped and lunged at us like ghosts as we wound through for almost half a mile. Then we turned a corner and found ourselves looking up at a rock taller than Mom’s head. “I’ve got just the thing,” Mom said, pulling off her packpack. Then she looked at it like someone had pulled a dirty trick on her. “Oh crap, the emergency sling is in the other pack.”
“Okay, great. Don’t worry, I remember the way out,” I told her, leading her back out of the canyon.
There was one more canyon in this valley that Mom wanted to visit. We ran through the sandy wash until Mom spotted another crack in the rock. “Well this isn’t going to work,” she said, standing at the bottom of it and staring up at the 3-Mom climb to get inside. There were a few spots scooped out of the rock for someone to sit in, but they were too far above Mom’s head for her to lift me, and definitely too high for me to jump, even with a running start. I was saved! It was a birthday miracle!
“Great! Let’s go run around some more!” I said.
“Cool, we’ll go find the upriver end end and hike in that way!” Mom agreed.
“No! That’s not the plan…!” I corrected her in dismay as she ran away through the sand to find the other side of the supermarket-sized rock.
We found the topside of the canyon and stepped inside. It was so tight that Mom’s widest parts wouldn’t fit through in the usual walking position, and she had to pull the packpack off and go through sideways. “Mom, this is insane!” I complained. “This is even spookier than the other canyon.”
“Not Spooky, Peek-a-boo,” Mom said, missing the point.
“This is no time for games!” I said. I rushed through the rocks to get the heck out, but after every turn it just got tighter and tighter, like a nightmare. As much as I wanted to hurry, I didn’t want to be in this place alone, so every few turns I had to stop and sit alone with my horror waiting for Mom to catch up.
“That’s what this place is called,” Mom said, the next time I stopped. “Peek-a-boo! I see you!” she sang, popping her head out from behind a pleat in the rock.
We peek-a-booed around wave after wave of cramped canyon. We had to crawl under huge boulders that were too fat to fall all the way to the bottom, and we had to climb over logs that did fall to the floor and blocked the way. More logs stuck ghoulishly in the canyon above our heads. Finally, we reached a swoop of rock that made a cliff as high as Mom is tall. Mom squirmed up the hole, smearing every part of her into the wall until she had slithered onto the higher ground.
“Wait,” she said as she turned away, and the canyon made her voice sound hollow and ring in my ears. Then she walked away into the canyon. There was nothing I could do but wait. I was not leaving Mom here alone, and there was no way for me to climb up after her. So I sat, and sat, and sat until she came back. “Well it keeps going, but I guess we’re done,” Mom said, sliding down the cliff awkwardly on her butt.
I could tell that Mom had FOMO, but with so many interesting things in this vast, empty desert, there was no way we could see them all. We squeezed and squirmed back out the way we’d come until the sun shone on my fur again, I could hear voices coming down the wash toward us. Our exclusive tour of the canyons was over, and others had come to make it feel less wild.
We met more and more people as we climbed out, and with each one Mom promised me a handful of brunch if I demonstrated social distancing by stepping off the trail and ignoring them. It seemed a shame to let so many people tell me what a good boy I am without letting them pat me, but The Internet says people need to make sure a dog has a bath after someone else has patted him. Then, one of my adoring fans broke the spell and asked, “Can I pet your dog?”
“Please pet my dog,” Mom said, releasing me from her severe eye contact so that I could say hi to my fans.
“Hi, I’m Oscar. I’m here to remind you that we shouldn’t be so afraid of each other that we forget about love,” I said, waggling my tail to draw her attention to the scratching place.
“It’s his birthday today,” Mom explained.
“Awwww” the whole group said in a chorus. And suddenly five sets of maybe-washed hands reached out to pet me at once. I could hardly believe my luck. I sat there grinning, thinking about how other dogs could take all the toilet paper and hand sanitizer. I was going to hoard all the love that no one was claiming.
Oscar the Birthday Boy