Mom says that she lived in California for many years without ever smelling smoke in the Stuck House places. But for as long as I’ve been a man-dog there have been a few days or weeks every summer when the world disappears and everything smells like camping. Come to think of it, one of those times when the world disappeared was the first time I saw everyone wearing masks. It scared me then, but now it’s normal for everyone to dress like highway bandits. Maybe the smoke is becoming normal too.
Anywho, the stink of campfires was covering California like a dirty blanket, so it was good that Mom had picked this week for our Washington mountain vacation. The ocean had pressed its nose into the air around our Stuck House and turned it smudgy and wet like a car window, but the fog would get stuck on the hills and we should leave in behind after only a few minutes. But when we were half way across the Grey Bridge, it got dreary again. Everything around us was the color of cigarettes and faded like an old picture, and it smelled like burning. “This isn’t fog…” Mom said. No matter how far we drove, it stayed that way.
If California is the shape of a ground out cigarette, we drove all the way to where the lipstick stain would be, and it was still smoky. The sun glowed dim enough that I could look straight at it, even though it was still sitting high above the land. The cars slowed down for all of the people who had pulled over on the freeway to take pictures of the neon grey color of it.
As night came and the air turned invisible, I could still smell camping but couldn’t see if the gloom had followed us into the wilder-ness. I went to sleep hoping that the smoke problem would be gone when I rebooted in the morning. When the sun woke up, the air looked cleaner, but softer somehow like on an old TV. “Mom, why is the whole world fading away?” I asked.
“Remember that lightning storm last weekend?”
“All those flashes and the booming in the middle of the night…”
“You mean when they changed trash day to 2am on a Saturday?” I asked.
“That wasn’t trash day, bud. That was the sky. You snored through the whole thing,” Mom said, rolling her eyes like this might be an unmanly thing to do. I didn’t get it, was I supposed to scare it away? “You didn’t know what it was because we don’t usually get thunderstorms in California,” she explained. “Anyway, you know how dry it is around here this time of year. When those lightning bolts hit the ground, a lot of them started fires.”
“Oh no!” I howled, feeling just awful. “So it is my fault that the world is going away!”
“What are you talking about? You can’t scare off a lightning storm by barking at it.”
“That’s not true and you know it!” I sobbed. “It says so on all the signs: Only I can prevent forest fires! And I slept right through it!”
We had slept a little distance away from the trailhead so that Mom could drink her poop juice on the way, and when The Witch told us to pull off onto a dirt road, Mom looked around. “Hang on a second,” she said. “We’ve been here before.”
“We have?!” I said, climbing on the poop juice cup to get a better look out the front window.
“Yeah, remember when the road disappeared into the river, and we hiked through bushes for like an hour before giving up? What happened that day?”
“I found a skull and we hiked in the river like fugitives trying not to leave a trail, remember? It was pretty badass.”
The Wagon stuck its nose into the bushes and sniffed for skulls. It was the only way to turn around without the Wagon falling into the river. “Oh! Right! I remember!” Mom said when we’d driven several miles around to come at the trailhead from the other direction. “This is where you too chicken poo to cross that little stream. Badass indeed.”
This time I bravely jumped from rock to rock and didn’t even need the leash to convince me to follow Mom across the raging stream. “Look how brave I am!” I told Mom when I jumped onto the sandy bank on the other side.
“Uh, yeah… It’s a lot easier when the river is low and you don’t need to get your feet wet.”
I thought about the river as we started climbing the hill. I’ve always been very good at everything I’ve ever tried, but Mom fails at stuff all the time and feels real bad about it. If she chickens out or can’t figure out a problem, Mom decides there’s something wrong with her and gets real sad and grumpy. Like all those times we’ve turned around before reaching the top of a mountain, and called herself a chicken poo. Or when she had that job that she stopped being good at and worried that maybe she’s getting dumber. What if maybe it wasn’t her that had changed, but the river she was standing in had gotten higher? Maybe she was trying to hike when the only answer was to swim or find a boat. Sometimes you just came to the trail at the wrong time of year and when you come back the same trail that kicked your butt is a piece of cake. Maybe when you think, “What’s wrong with me?” you should be thinking, “That trail isn’t ready for me yet.”
By now, the sun was getting high in the sky, but it shone through the trees with a tint like the half hour before sunset. I’ve heard that bugs don’t like smoke, but the air was eerily still and every bug for 250 mile had come to this trail to fly into my eyes, and ears, and nose, and mouth. They followed me even after Mom chased me around spraying stink out of a can.
Finally, we climbed out of the brush into a big stadium of rock. All around us, the mountains stabbed into the dull sky, and we climbed over a final field of rock to the shore of a secret lake hidden by a high collar of granite. There was a little colony of sleeping igloos in all the spots where a dog might want to stop and look at the scenery and Mom was annoyed, but I couldn’t wait to introduce myself to my new neighbors. I ran into the village and identified the one that I thought must be their leader because she was standing tall and barking loud that I had arrived. Right before I reached her, a dog came out of the bushes carrying a frisbee. “Hi, my name is…” he said, before he got distracted by the shouting lady and looked to see what she was carrying on about.
“NACHO! NACHO!!!” the screaming lady said, grabbing my friend by the collar.
“OSCAR! OSCAR! C’MERE, OSCAR!” Mom yelled.
“Hi, Oscar,” said the lady and Nacho at the same time, although the lady was a little more friendly about it than Nacho was.
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance!” I wagged. “The loud one is named Mom,” I added. Then I left to see what Mom was screaming about.
I would have liked to steal Nacho’s frisbee when he wasn’t looking, and run around the igloo village showing it off to all the townsfolk, but Mom and I had a long way to drive if we wanted to reach Washington before bed time. So I said goodbye to my new Friends and set off back down the mountain. On the way down, we met some more Friends who were climbing out of the smoke behind us. I made Friends with all of them except the ones who were dressed like pilgrims. I barked at them.
Another group was so in love with me that we just had to stop to let them pet me extra. “What a perfect hiking partner!” The first one said. I grinned lovingly up at them while all three petted me and asked Mom questions about the smoke, and the lake. “Did you spend the night up there?” My Fan asked, but what she meant was, “Are you a superhero, or are we lazy?”
“No, we got an early start so we could do a quick up-and-down,” Mom explained, which was code for I’m a modest superhero whose superpower is setting an alarm clock. “I’m hoping to reach Tacoma by tonight.” Then Mom flapped her arms like she was driving a car in a cartoon.
“Wow. You’re buff!” The woman said, giving my butt muscles a vigorous rub.
“I work out,” I explained, modestly. Then I looked at Mom whose face looked like she’d just been caught farting in public. “Oh,” I said. “You meant her…” Mom has some little baby muscles, but they’re not natural like mine. She has to do all this extra work for them where she gets down on the floor like she wants to play, but then she tells me to go away when I lick her face. All that work and she still jiggles like a jellyfish.
“Right… um… well… Have fun!” Mom said, and then she turned away and continued down the trail. “C’mon, Oscar!” She shouted over her shoulder.
“Some people sure are easily impressed, huh?” I said when I caught up to her.
“I don’t know why anyone thinks it’s okay to comment on a stranger’s body…” Mom bristled.
“People talk about my beefy muscles all the time,” I said. “I like it. Attention is good.”
“Her attention should have been on what we were talking about. How weird would it be if I stopped someone to ask directions, and then interrupted them to say, ‘Your teeth are crooked,’ or ‘Your hairline is receding’? It’s rude, and it’s weird,” Mom said. “It makes me feel as uncomfortable as if I were giving a work presentation and someone said, ‘You have a really nice ass.’ It’s just inappropriate.”
“But I do have a really nice ass… People tell me that at work all the time,” I said. I guess it’s different for a jellyfish.
Mom may try to hide it, but she is weird. When we got back to the river at the bottom of the trail, she ignored the stepping stones and marched right into the water, socks, shoes and all. She untied the sweatshirt from around her waist, threw it into the river, and dunked it. Then she sat down in a pool until the water came almost to her chest. “What are you doing?” I sniffed from my dry spot on a tall rock.
“I’m cleaning up,” she said. “I’m sweaty, and smelly, and dirty, and covered in bug spray. And this sweatshirt is drenched in sweat and it’s the only one I brought.” I watched her splash in the water until her shorts were soaked, and then when she stood up I watched all the dirt that she’d stirred up sparkle in the sun before settling back to the bottom. When I could see the bottom again, I saw something else. It was the color of an underripe strawberry and bigger than two Vienna sausages stuck together. “A LOBSTER!” I barked.
“It’s not a lobster, it’s a crayfish,” Mom said. Then she thought for a second. “Crawdad? I don’t know… I’m from New England, I have no word for that creature.” She splashed her hand into the water and tried to catch it, but it scurried away under a rock. “I sure hope he’s okay, poor guy,” Mom said.
“Why wouldn’t he be okay?” I asked. “He got away.”
“Yeah, well…” Mom’s mouth squiggled up like a curly bracket. “I peed in that water before I stood up,” she admitted.
Oscar the Pooch