… When you last saw your handsome hero (that’s me!) he had just finished an exciting adventure full of danger and intrigue, and was facing an impossible decision: What next? Would he visit Mt. Rashmore and peek behind trees like Indiana Jones, searching for an undiscovered bust of Grover Cleveland or James Buchanan? Or would he follow the advice of a stranger and visit the Badlands, whatever the heck that is…? Or would he do something entirely unexpected???
Once we got back to the car kennel, Mom walked around pointing The Witch at the butts of all the cars. “Mom, I’m in here,” I barked when came to the Wagon. “What are you taking pictures of without me?”
“There are 9 cars in this parking lot, and only 2 of them are from South Dakota,” she said.
“Is 2 most of 9?” I asked, trying to guess her point.
“No. Most of these cars are from out of state. And not from nearby either. They’re from Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina, Illinois… all over the place!”
“What does that mean? That there are a lot of refugees like us out here?”
“I don’t really know. Either that or people are hitting the road because they have nothing better to do.”
“But they’re going to kill us all!” I squeaked.
“Only if they’ve been exposed. And you’re less likely to get exposed in the woods of South Dakota than Chicago, or Raleigh, or DC. How many people have you and I met on the trails? I see more people in 20 minutes in a supermarket than we see in a 4 hour hike. And in the woods we’re not really touching stuff. It’s a good place for healthy people to hide out.”
“Oh good! We should tell the world to head for the wilder-ness then!” I said, excited to set all my Friends sprung from stuck-house arrest.
“It’s not that simple… it won’t work if everyone’s doing it. If there are people on the road who don’t have to be, then I’m kind of glad we’re heading home.”
“Because they’ll kill us with their cooties?”
“Because I don’t want people to confuse our situation with theirs.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked. “Other than that one of us has outstanding charisma and personal magnetism, and the other is you?”
“Well, we were already on the road when all this started. And the seriousness dawned on us gradually. If we’d been home when they ordered everyone to stay home, then we would have stayed home too. But since we were already out, it seemed safer to stay that way. And since our shelter is a vehicle, well, the whole in place part is less clear.” Mom looked confused, like the devil in one ear and the devil on the other were having a fight. “A lot of these people probably had a place to stay, and left after things closed down. It’s different, but I don’t really know if I agree or disagree. Anyway, it’s a fight I don’t want to get into.”
There was something that I’d been wondering since the world went crazy. “Mom, what will we do if you get sick?” I asked.
“I’ve thought about that,” Mom said. “I would drive us home as fast as I could. We have enough supplies in the van that I wouldn’t need to go into stores, and I could use the dog bathroom so that I wouldn’t spread germs in any public places. The only thing I really have to touch is gas pumps, and I guess I would just pump gas with poop bags on my hands.”
“And poop bags stop the virus?”
“Well they’re made to keep poop bacteria in, so I’m guessing they probably keep the virus out too.”
“Got it. Then I suggest you wear one over your head whenever you go into a gas station. I’ll poke eye holes so you can see, but make sure you don’t rub them.”
We had one final decision to make: continue inward to solve the mystery of what Badlands is, or head west toward home. Mom’s FOMO was fighting so hard with her laziness inside her head that I was afraid that her face would start twitching and smoke would come out her ears. Finally, FOMO won over a short drive and a quiet night with a book, so we continued morningward to find out what was so bad about the Badlands, and if they needed the help of an experienced life coach to make a change.
On the way out of town, Mom asked, “What do you suppose Crazy Horse Mountain is? A dude ranch? A Boy Scout Camp? I’ve been seeing signs for it everywhere.”
“I don’t think that mentally ill horses should be allowed in high places. It sounds kind of dangerous,” I said.
“Crazy Horse was a Native American war hero, Oscar,” Mom said. “It’s just that the war he was fighting was against people like the guys on Mount Rushmore. Seems in bad taste to appropriate a Native American hero for some cheap tourist trap.”
When we passed the road to Crazy Horse Mountain, Mom and I both looked down the road but we saw nothing but construction trucks. Then Mom looked back up at the mountain. “Look!” she said. “There’s a face! In the mountain!”
I looked up, and there, almost covered in stone, was an enormous face looking calm and ferocious at the same time. “Mom! They’re going to bury that man!” I yelped.
“They’re not sealing him in, they’re carving him out,” Mom said. “They must be building an enormous memorial the size of Mount Rushmore of Crazy Horse charging on the enemy! That’s sensational!”
“Who’s the enemy?” I asked.
“Well… people like me, I guess,” Mom said. That explained everything; Mom’s not for everyone. “There are a lot of things in our country’s history that we shouldn’t be proud of, but sometimes those are the very same things we’re most proud of for different reasons.”
“What does that even mean?”
“Well, the land wasn’t empty when the Europeans moved here,” Mom said. “They kind of took it from the people that were already here, and they were pretty shady about it. In a lot of ways they just kind of pretended like the people were invisible, even now.” I knew that trick. I do it when Mom tells me to c’mere, but I’ve got a lead on some snacks and so I pretend I can’t hear her.
“Well didn’t the people who were here fight for their territory? Even a dumb cat knows to do that…”
“They did, but see, they didn’t know about quarantining and social distancing and stuff back then. So the Europeans accidentally-on-purpose killed most of them before they even met. It was a pretty dirty way to do things, and there are a lot of people that think this country would be very different if they’d known about hand washing and face masks back then. Anyway, the people who were here first, like Crazy Horse were pretty badass heroes, and they’re part of our history too. I’m glad he’s getting a mountain-sized memorial.”
I had to have a long think about that. If a virus could change the course of the whole world for people who had never seen anything like it before, then what unexpected things could sneak up on us while everyone was hiding? What things that we could normally resist could take root and grow because our defenses are down? But then Mom scolded me to chill because we have the internet now, and so nothing in the real world matters anymore anyway.
We drove out of the white hills and onto the empty prairie where I kept waiting for the land to do something interesting, but the only thing that happened was that the roads turned to dirt and everything but the grass went away. There were still cows, though. There are always cows. Suddenly, Mom stopped short at the side of the road and got out of the Wagon. “C’mon, c’mon Oscar, hurry!” she said.
“What?” I asked, stretching out of my nap and leisurely climbing over the seats to join her. When I climbed down onto the road, I followed her gaze and… “WHAT THE DUCK IS THAT?!?!?!?!?!” I barked. On top of the hill were a pawfull of the biggest, ugliest cattle I’d ever seen. They looked like their father was a cow and their mother was a warthog, because they looked like someone had taken a cow and squeezed all of its extra parts up around its shoulders until it had no neck at all. And their haircuts were just terrible, like Julia Child or Norm MacDonald, but worse. And they were wearing this terrible cape… no, not a cape… a STOLE around their shoulders. “YOU GO BACK TO WHATEVER MUTANT RANGE YOU CAME FROM, YOU FREAKS!” I barked.
“They’re buffalo!” Mom said. “Or… bison? Is there a difference?”
“I thought they were extinct,” I said. “Isn’t that what Dances with Wolves was about?”
“I don’t remember,” Mom said.
The king mutant-Julia-Child-wartcow looked at me with his enormous round Meryl Streep eyes and chewed on his gum. “DON’T MAKE ME COME OVER THERE!” I barked, stepping behind Mom.
“Oscar, sit over here so I can take a picture,” Mom said.
“No way, José!” I said. “If you put me between you and It, then you’ll run away and leave it to eat me first.” As Mom tried to walk around me, I just walked right back around her for safety. Why even maintain a human if you’re not going to use her for protection?
We got back in the Wagon, but not for long. Every couple of minutes, Mom pulled over again to take pictures of the Badlands. It turns out that a Badlands is a hole in the ground a little bit like a canyon, and a little bit like a castle. Sometimes it has stripes that go back and forth like the lines in a book, and sometimes it has lines that go up and down like bark on a tree. The only cool thing about it was that once we saw some sheep. “Mom! Mom! Let me chase ‘em!” I barked with so much friendliness that my voice cracked.
“Hell no!” Mom said. “Anyway, you’re not allowed away from the road.”
“Why not?” I screamed. “I was born for this!”
“Because dogs carry fleas…” she said.
“…I don’t. I just had my pill yesterday, remember? I’m poison to fleas.”
“Because some dogs carry fleas,” she corrected, “…and the fleas could infect the prairie dogs.”
“There are dogs out here?!” I squealed.
“Well… they’re called that. They’re more like… ground squirrels.”
“THERE ARE SQUIRRELS OUT HERE?!”
“No, shut up. So the prairie dogs can get really sick from fleas and die.”
“But Mom, I don’t have fleas because I take my medicine. And if I don’t have fleas, then the squirrel-dogs can’t catch fleas from me, so I can scatter those sheep like a bunch of wooly bowling pins.”
“So here’s the thing, we can’t PROVE that you don’t have fleas, because you might have fleas on you that haven’t died yet. And those fleas could jump off you onto a prairie dog. So even though we’re 99.99999% sure you’re clean, you can’t go.”
“Innocent until proven guilty, Mom. Doesn’t it say that in the Constertution?”
“Well… fleas don’t really follow the law any more than viruses do. If I can’t sit in a Starbucks and charge my laptop, then you can’t chase the sheep through the Badlands. Tough titties.”
And so, with no more excuses to travel further east, we turned toward the sunset and let responsibility squeeze us like the last two drops of toothpaste in the tube back toward confinement in California.
Oscar the Safari Pooch