I’ve been on enough vacations now to know that vacations have an expiration date. A vacation may not turn stinky, putrid and puzzling like meat or milk; but a day comes when it stops feeling exotic and adventureful and turns into a routine just like being at your stuck house. This was the day that this adventure expired.
We had worked our way over to the dry side of the mountains, where there weren’t as many flowers and the air crackled with the same dryness as we have at home in California. The trees’ branches were too spread out, and the trees too socially distanced from each other to make much shade, and a trail of dust flew up behind me like the cloud that follows a galloping horse in an old western. As Mom walked, the dust poofed out like under an elephant’s paw. I got dusty in my fur and in my eyes, and it covered Mom in a gritty dryness that made her join me at the drinking river to wash her face and hands.
Before long we left the river and started climbing the day’s mountain, and the blades of jagged, waxy rocks pushed the trees even further apart. There was a rumbling up ahead that sounded like a motorboat. “Do you hear something?” Mom asked.
“I think someone’s mowing the lawn,” I explained, not because it was true but because it’s rude to not know the answer to a question.
Suddenly a motorcycle came around the corner, and the Power Ranger on top put down his feet and waited for us to climb off the trail. He must have been very lost to be a mile up a mountain, and another mile from the trailhead, which was another 10 miles from the nearest road. But when he spoke, he didn’t ask for directions. Instead he asked if we were headed to the top of the mountain, and then he and Mom jabbered about the incredible views, even though Mom had only seen them in photos. He may have been dressed like a fierce superninja, but he had the voice of the kind of friendly man who keeps treats in his pocket just in case he meets a charming stranger-dog.
People haven’t wanted to talk to each other much this year, and Mom has been especially scared of the “kinds of people” who use big motors in the wilder-ness, because people “like them” don’t like people “like us.” I’ve never met an aggressive countryfolk, and don’t see how anyone who loves the wilder-ness and dogs could be bad people, but Mom worries about a fight all the same. Plus, everyone hides their face now and pretends like everyone else is invisible, so it was surprising to look deep into his buggy face and find a smile in the Power Ranger’s eyes that said he was happy to see us.
Higher up on the mountain there were a few balconies to look at the mountains around us. In the center of the balconies, dark, mean-looking rocks stabbed out of the ground and glinted in the bright sun. They looked both beautiful and mominous, like a freshly sharpened sword. Behind the shining rocks, the mountains had a yucky kind of beauty. They were steep and dusty like the one we were standing on, with only a few trees and no white dirt to smooth over their harshness. In the center of them all, like the jewel in the middle of Vlad the Impaler’s crown, was a mountain so sharp and severe that it looked like an evil castle where some devious monster lurked inside its depths.
So far the climbing had been easy and gentle, but things changed when we reached the shoulder of the mountain where I could see clear to the mountains on the other side.
The final mile to the summit was steep; so steep that Mom’s heel wouldn’t reach the ground while her floppy toes were on it, and she climbed gripping with her tiptoes like she was sneaking up on the mountain. But after almost a week in Washington, we were used to steep. Finally we came out of some trees and the mountain finished like an ice cream cone, in almost a perfect point of drab-shiny rocks the color of rotting and dog doo.
Behind us was the evil castle-mountain and its brown lumpy henchmen. On the other side gleamed Mt. Rainier-Than-What, and the spiky artistic shapes of the mountains we’d been staring at all week. Standing on its tip, claw of the mountain didn’t just have scenery, it had a sound too. All around us was the buzz of zillions of flies. It sounded like a movie when they want to show you that a thing has been dead for a long time, but up here the worst smelling thing was Mom who hadn’t cleaned herself in a week since she’d peed in the river.
On the way back down, I waited in the shady spots while Mom took tiny steps like someone had tied her shoelaces together so that she wouldn’t slip on the steep loose dust. In between feeding me mouthfuls of brunch, she paused to pick blueberries from the side of the trail and popped them in her mouth like treats. We had passed the string on a stump and were working our way down the regular trail when I smelled a lady on the trail ahead of us. When I sniffed up into the air, the scent of her hiking partner hit my nose. It was familiar in a way I couldn’t place. I was trying to remember where I smelled his face from when Mom grabbed me by the collar, pulled me off the trail, and put my leash on. Then it dawned on me.
“IT’S A HORSE!!!!” I wagged. “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! I can’t wait to bark at him!” I’d seen horses before, but I had almost never seen one quite so close up. I sat waiting for him to come within conversation rage, and trying to decide the most impressive thing to bark at him when he did.
I was still trying to find my words when the most amazing thing happened: the horse stopped right in front of me!!! “Hi, I’m Oscar and I’m gonna gotcha!” I shouted. It wasn’t true, I was on a leash and didn’t have the guts to see what would happen if I chased him, but I wanted him to be impressed. He wasn’t.
“Sorry!” Mom said, making me sit, which I did right away to show him how smart I am. “He’s a bit starstruck. Is that animal going to make it all the way to the summit?!”
To my excitement, the horse stayed so that Mom and the lady could talk. “You used to be able to ride all around these mountains,” the horse-lady said. “But now there’s no horse trailer parking anywhere, because of everyone coming over from the city and filling the parking lots so you can’t turn around.”
“Oh! I know all about having trouble with parking and not being welcome on the trails,” I told the horse, excited that we had something to bond over. He snorted and flicked his tail snobbishly.
“…I know that they bring in the money and all, but I have nowhere to ride!” the horse-lady went on. “And the Forest Service won’t clear the blow-downs because you can’t have a chainsaw up here, so they have to break them all up with a cross-cut.” Mom nodded knowingly, proud that she knew that a cross-cut was a kind of saw. “There are only like 6 Forest Service guys to clear this whole section of forest. I can get around some of the blow-downs with my mules, but not my horses.”
“It seems to me that if the Forest Service just asked, those city people would be happy to volunteer to do trail maintenance,” Mom said.
“Or what about any of the out-of-work loggers?” the horse-lady said. “There are plenty of them.”
“Right! Isn’t that how we got out of the Great Depression?” Mom added.
And then they said together, “The Civilian Conservation Corps!”
“Jinx!” I barked, to impress the horse with my quick wit, but then Mom shushed me and made me lie down.
“The CCC built all these trails,” the horse lady agreed when Mom looked up again. “All those jobs!”
“And I still don’t understand why the bathrooms are closed,” Mom said, picking up the same old crusade that she’s been fighting since the boogeyvirus came along. “They don’t even flush!”
Before they moseyed along down the trail, the Horse Lady gave me a horse treat the size of a hot dog which I ate in 3 big bites to show the horse that I was the kind of guy you could share a horse pellet with. Then Mom wished her and the horse a great afternoon and we started walking. “He’s a mule!” The lady shouted over the horse’s rump.
“Ha!” Mom shouted back. “Shows what I know!”
“Mom, did you notice something about that lady?” I asked. I had mostly been staring at the horse, but since he wasn’t talking to me I had overheard a few things that Mom had said.
“Well, she thought that city people were the problem with the forest. Did you notice that? She said that now that there was the internet and everyone has Witches in their pockets, her trails were ruined. But we come from The City, and we found this trail on the internet. She was talking about us, but she liked us.”
“Yeah, country people are kind of territorial about how to use their land.”
“You guys were friendly, and she even shared her horse treats with me. You guys weren’t suspicious of each other, you agreed about everything.”
“Yeah. It seems like country people blame city people for misunderstanding them and ruining everything. And city people blame country people for misunderstanding them and ruining everything. That’s a lot of why people are so mad lately, they’re so busy fighting that they forget that we all want the same thing.”
“Who’s the real bad guy then?” I asked.
“The liars, of course.”
Oscar the Pooch