Do you ever worry about something only because you know about it? Like if Mom doesn’t know a minor emergency is coming –like a full car kennel or a gas station that doesn’t sell fuzzy water– then she might not even notice that we’re in an emergency at all until the problem is already solved and she’s moved on without even noticing the danger we were in. But if it’s something that she expects, then Mom has to make a plan about it, and “plan” is another word for “worry.” While Mom’s making a worry, she doesn’t have to just plan for one thing that could go wrong, but all the millions of ways it could go wrong. That’s what she did after reading the reviews for the next trail.
The reviewers told us that we would need The Witch’s guidance to not get lost, so Mom worried about all the ways we could get lost.
“That’s a funny thing to worry about,” I said. “Because getting lost is one of those things that only happens when you don’t know it’s happening. How can you be scared of something that you don’t even notice when it happens?”
“Because the way to not get lost is to stay alert, and you can’t stay alert if you’re not thinking about what could go wrong,” Mom said.
We knew the trail was long, but we didn’t know how long we would be on it. Some reviews said we might be hiking for 12 hours, and since we would need The Witch’s guidance, Mom worried that The Witch might not have the endurance to keep up with us.
“But that review said that they met lots of people who got lost. If there are lots of people, then you can ask one of them if The Witch won’t talk to you. Strangers are some of my best Friends.”
“Eew, strangers,” Mom said.
And because there were so many people on the trail, we knew that the car kennel would be crowded. So Mom worried about not finding a safe place to leave the Covered Wagon.
“But what about your superpower of knowing how to set an alarm?” I pointed out. “On every hike we’ve ever gone on, there have always been people who left after us and they always find a place to leave their wagons, so why not you?”
“I’m worried about those signs that say you need a permit to park here,” Mom said. “We don’t have enough time to go back to the Ranger’s Station in town before they close.”
“What happens if the Wagon gets caught without a permission slip? Will they haul it off to jail?”
“I don’t think they can do that 10 miles from the nearest paved road and in a place with no cell service. I guess we’d just have to pay a fine.”
“What’s a fine? Is it something so expensive that we couldn’t buy food and we’d starve to death?”
“No, we could probably even take the ticket to the ranger’s station and just pay the parking fee if we did it the same day.”
“Oh, I gotcha,” I said. “Asking for help. Eew.”
All night Mom bumped me with her tossing and turning as she worried about whether to risk death and 10 minutes of extra grumpiness by leaving the Covered Wagon in the safety of our camping spot, or if she should risk like $30 by leaving The Wagon into the car kennel without a permission slip. Finally, she decided that the danger of having to talk to a stranger while she was making her tea and lunch at the end of our hike was too great, so we bravely committed to hiking the extra mile to protect The Wagon from getting poached by wild meter maids.
The Witch woke us very early, and we set out on our adventure right as the sun was hitting the pointy rock tower at the other end of the valley. When we arrived at the car kennel a few minutes later and saw the sign about parking up close, Mom said, “Blimey!” (She really said something not very nice about ducks that I won’t repeat here.) “There are permit envelopes right here. Why didn’t I check for that?”
“Because you were too busy worrying about how to outsmart the rangers,” I reminded her.
For miles we walked along a flat trail that brought us deep into the wilder-ness until the pointy peak that had been in front of us at sunrise was now far behind us and covered in sunlight from all sides. We crossed a drinking stream every few minutes, and there was a buffet of blueberries and raspberries along the side of the trail. Soon, we were walking under shady trees along a lake that we could barely see but was probably beautiful. “This isn’t hard at all!” I pranced. “What were you so worried about?!”
“It does all the climbing at the end,” Mom said, mominously. “We’re going to have to climb like 4000 feet in the last 3 or 4 miles. It’s going to be like that first day… Only we’ll already have like 5 miles in our legs when we get there.”
“Nothing is ever as you expect it to be, Mom,” I reminded her. “Remember the trail we climbed without The Witch?”
“You know, I’ve been thinking about why that day was so easy,” Mom said. “I was afraid of everything that could go wrong that day too, and it turned out to be nearly perfect.”
“It’s because you weren’t thinking like a flea,” I reminded her. “Don’t you listen to me?”
“Yeah, that. But also I was trying to count as slow as possible. That meant that instead of wishing every mile to be over, I was trying to stretch it out and fit more in.”
“That’s what I’ve been telling you! Things are better when you squish more good into them rather than trying to keep all the bad out of them.”
But Mom prefers to think that something is her own idea, even if someone’s told her before. “It’s like when we’re running up that hill at home,” she went on. When we run up the Haunted Highway to discover the Pacific Ocean, Mom uses her alarm setting superpower to ask The Witch to beep so that she can take a walking break every once in awhile. “When I do the running intervals for exactly as long as I’m supposed to, they take forever and the seconds seem to get slower the closer I get to a rest,” she explained. “But if I challenge myself to pause the timer for a few seconds here and there so that I’m running for a little longer than I’m supposed to… then the intervals feel shorter and easier, and I get to the top faster.”
“I’m so glad I don’t understand math,” I told her. “It sounds like such a burden to always know what’s going to happen and have to control it.”
After many hours, the lake ended and the trail gradually turned uphill. Then things got serious. The trail up the hill was so rough and jagged that it looked like what happens when someone makes a shortcut across a switchback, and then slides on their butt. It was scarred with roots, and rocks, and streaks where people’s shoes had slipped like rollerskates. I thought such a rough trail couldn’t stay that way for long, but we climbed and climbed for ages and the trail never settled. The only sign that hundreds of people had been there before was that all the trees Mom used to balance and pull herself up were smooth from all the people paws that had hung on to those trees before her. That, and the fact that this was where we started meeting other people.
They were coming down from whatever horrors awaited us at the top, or they’d slept next to the lake for a head start and woke up late to foil Mom’s plan not to talk to strangers. “Hey!” I barked at each of them. “You’re supposed to bugger off until this afternoon! Mom would be thinking you this herself, only she’s stuck back there trying to climb this nonsense and can’t catch up to be annoyed at you right now. So I’m doing it for her!” Then I yelled, “What the hell is your problem?” because I knew that’s what she would want to bark.
Then Mom interrupted from far, far below. “You love people!”
“I know! But I’m helping, see?” I said, running half way down to grin at her, before turning around to bark at the strangers again with my tail wagging in Mom’s face.
Finally, finally at the pace of the rising sun, Mom crawled up out of the scratch in the earth that was the trail, and we found ourselves standing on the rocky edge of the mountain. Ahead of us was another little lake nestled into the crook of the mountain, and behind us were other mountains so tall and high that it seemed impossible to see them so clearly without actually being on them. I was so close that I could see a waterfall dribbling down the side of one, and each individual tree in the stubble around the neck of another.
As we started to walk around the lake, we discovered another problem. Not only were there many, many trails that we could follow, but most of them didn’t look like trails at all, least of all the trail we were meant to be on. They climbed up the steep sides of rocks so that I had to get a running start and cling to them like Spiderdog. Or they went through thick curtains of branches, or dropped off the steep sides of rocks as tall as Mom. Again and again we would follow the clearer of two trails, only to find ourselves at a dead end. We would go back and climb over a field of dead logs, or around a rock that seemed to dive off a cliff, and find a Karen waiting for us on the other side to tell us we were on the right path. After about an hour, we’d wandered far and wide, but only covered about a half a mile on the mapp.
“You know what this reminds me of?” I said as I executed another flawless landing.
“What?” Mom asked, as she scooted down behind me on her butt and landed like a sack of potatoes.
“This reminds me of when we’re in the desert, walking wild over the rocks.”
“Except in the desert we’re not climbing 4000 feet up those rocks,” Mom said. “If there’s a cliff, we’re generally not trying to walk straight up it. That’s a different sport altogether.”
“This is insane,” Mom said. “This isn’t the kind of day I’m trying to have.”
“What?” I asked, going through a checklist of her worries. The Wagon was safe from marauding meter maids, we had plenty of water and snacks, there were hikers everywhere so we couldn’t get too lost, we had a map to point the way, and the blue dot was working today. I knew all the days she wasn’t trying to have, but I didn’t know the kind of day she was trying to have if this wasn’t it. “Is The Witch not feeling well?”
“We have plenty of battery. I’m fine with a physical challenge when it’s just sweating and I’m reasonably sure I’m not going to break my ankle. And I’m fine with a navigational puzzle if I can generally see what I’m trying to get to. But this is danger without thrill and confusing without being a puzzle.”
“I’m not having fun, and I don’t care how pretty that lake is at the top if it’s going to take us another 3 hours to get up there and there’s a good chance one of us will break our necks on the way back down. We’ve already gone 5 miles, or 7 miles, or 8.5 miles, depending on which app you believe. Let’s go back.”
“Isn’t that failure?” I asked.
“Is success taking a risk that you’re not enjoying?” Mom asked.
So even though we hadn’t finished, we left the lake. I stared off the edge of the world as Mom inched her way down the dusty, rocky scratch in the mountain. Then, we walked back along the lakeside trail that seemed like it should end around every corner but never did. I had been smelling one of my favorite things up the trail ahead of us for miles, and finally I was close enough that it was unbearable to stay back with Mom. Every time I came close enough to discover my prize, Mom would stop me with an “eh-eh-eh” and call me back to check on her. It was torture.
When I thought my heart couldn’t take it anymore, we finally came around a corner and found that my prize: two sweaty young ladies were picking berries at the side of the trail, just waiting to tell a cute dog like me how handsome he is. “Can my dog say hi?” Mom sighed. “He’s been dying to come visit you for miles now.” My Friends were so happy to pet me that they threw up their hands like a car wash windsock when they saw me, and I finally ran to their knees and showed them my butt to scratch.
“Hi, Oscar! You’re such a good boy!” They told me, scratching and patting me all over.
I grinned at Mom with such a big smile that my ears almost fell off. “See? They recognize me,” I said triumphantly.
“They only know your name because I’ve been shouting it for the past mile,” Mom said, but she was smiling. “Is it everything you thought it would be?”
“Oh, it’s even better!” I said, leaning in to their shins for a hug. “Strangers are the BEST!”
Oscar the Pooch