As we drove away from the moon rocks at Moon-o Lake, I watched from the front window as the smoke poured out of the mountains. Through the windows on Mom’s side of the Wagon, the mountains were a crisp elephant-grey against a summer-colored sky. But on the other side of the road, the air looked filthy and fiery.
We found a car trail outside of Mammoth Lakes that was on public land and free for sleeping. After almost getting the Wagon stuck in the deep, dusty sand, Mom drove backward down the trail toward the road, where there were already many wagon trains set up to spend the night. The wind was gusting huge plumes of sand and dirt through the air, so Mom and I ate our dinners inside the Wagon, using the blankets for placemats. As we prepared for bed, Mom gave the evil eye to all the shiny cars that billowed onto the public land after us, getting stuck in the sand just like we did, and then parking inside the boundaries I’d clearly marked with pee that any idiot could smell. Then we let the shouting from the family playing cards at top volume, the hooting of the drunk scholars, and the thunking of the people puppy making a drum out of a corn hole board lull us to sleep.
When The Witch woke us up in the middle of the night, many of the cars were already gone. “Oh no, Mom. If these people have the same superpower as you and know how to set an alarm, then we’ll never find a place to park near the trailhead!” I said.
“I doubt that’s what’s going on,” Mom said, sniffing the air like she fancied herself a dog. Then she looked up at the moon. It glowed the color of a lone tail light in the sky. “I think they left because of the smoke.” Then she paused for a moment like that was a sign that we should pay attention to. “At least that means that the trail won’t be too crowded today…”
We arrived at the trail so early that we had to sit in the car kennel waiting for enough light to see by. As soon as the low-hanging morning broke grey and dingy, we set out. This was a very pretty place. I could tell that even through the smoke. We walked down the cleavage between two mountains and up the other side, and from each we could see all of the sights on the opposite slope lined up like the audience in Carnegie Hall looked to Frank Sinatra or Florence Foster Jenkins. When we stood on the woodsy slope, the opposite mountain wore a pattern of rocks and scraggly trees that was very severe and ruggedly handsome like a Big Mac McCarthy story. When I looked back at the woodsy side, it was furry and mysterious like a haunted wood from a Grimm’s fairy tale. At the tippity top sat a floppy Gandalf cap that poked into the mist above the mountain’s head. When I looked down the hallway of the valley, I could tell that the two mountains were supposed to make a frame for a bouquet of huge mountains as far off into the distance as the eye could see, but right now my eye could barely see far enough into the distance to make out the hulking lump of the first mountain.
“That’s Mammoth Mountain,” Mom said.
“It doesn’t look much like an elephant to me,” I said. “But it’s hard to tell its shape with all this smoke.”
“Not even that far away, maybe 2 or 3 miles,” Mom said. “We drove past it on the way in.”
The sun burned like a grapefruit over the mountain, and as it rose higher it lit the trees and rocks in the same color as the Wagon’s tail lights had lit the trees and rocks the night before when Mom had almost backed into them. When the sun shined on the river, the water sparkled like burning lava. As we hiked farther and the sun rose higher, it disappeared completely behind all the smoke. The whole world felt dingy and dim like the far corner of a basement. Behind the smoke I could smell that many, many people had passed along this trail in the past few days, but the only thing left of them was their shoe prints in the dust. The only people we saw were the turtle people coming down out of the mountains with their houses on their backs, and nobody was climbing up into the mountains like us. “Where is everybody?” I asked.
“They’re all leaving because of the smoke,” Mom said.
When we arrived at the lake at the top, I could tell that it must be a very lovely place, but today it had woken up “under the weather,” which is what you call it when the weather takes a poo all over nature. Everything looked faded like an old photo from black and white times. I could make out the spikes of the mountains, and see their shapes in the lake, but nothing shone and everything was shades of the same smoky color.
“Is nature ruined?” I asked as I looked out at the lake, trying to find something nice about it.
“Well there’s a lot of destruction,” Mom said, “but it’s not ruined. When humans have a crisis, it’s tiny. But when nature has a crises it happens on a scale that you can barely imagine.”
“But how can the smoke fill the whole world and there still be a world left when it’s over?”
“It doesn’t fill the whole world… but enough that escaping is further than we can travel,” Mom said. “You think this is rough, did you know that there are fierce storms that are just as big as this, but carry unimaginable wind and rain inside them? There are waves that are as tall as a building and can travel for miles over the land. There is wind that is so strong that it picks up cows and drops them several towns away. The ground can even crash against itself, and when it crumples that’s what makes these huge mountains that are so tall that it takes hours to climb them, even in a car.”
“If nature is going to be that dangerous, shouldn’t we go home and hide like everyone else?”
“I’m really not sure…” Mom said. “This isn’t what we planned for, but then again, this is a part of nature too. If you only see something on its best day, you can’t appreciate its true strength.”
I thought about that for a minute. I thought about all of the trails we hadn’t finished because the white dirt was piled too high, or there was rain falling from the sky, or the trail was steeper and more treacherous than we’d planned for. “Is that why humans are such wimps?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” Mom asked.
“You guys have it so good,” I explained. “You can open the Food Fortress all by yourself, and even go inside all the stores to buy whatever food you want. You get to go to an office every day and eat free snacks while you hang out with your friends in meetings, or play your keyboard for hours. You can drive the car, so you get to go wherever you want. And all humans do is complain about how hard and stressful it is to do whatever you want because you have to pick just one thing at a time.”
“Well it doesn’t really feel like the way you describe it…”
“Then, when you run into something unexpected that you didn’t plan for, like rain, or smoke, or a boogeyvirus,” I went on, “…you lose your marbles.”
“Hey now,” Mom said. “We can’t do whatever we want. We can only do certain things at certain times, so when the weather or a natural disaster fouls it up… well… it’s frustrating.”
“Mom, I NEVER get to plan where I go or what I eat, so it’s an exciting surprise every time,” I pointed out. “And when I got that glass in my paw, you didn’t hear me complain, I just worked around it. Because who ever heard of something so silly as trying to change the way things already are?”
“I paid the vet $250 to take that glass out of your paw!”
“You’re right. The vet’s not exciting. But don’t change the subject,” I told her. I was on a roll now. “Have you seen those pigeons in The City? Some of those guys are pretty messed up, missing feet and eyes and stuff. The pigeons wake up under the weather, and they still get up to fight with the other pigeons for the Taco Bell leftovers. Know why?”
“Because pigeons are nasty brutes without the capacity for self loathing or shame?”
“Because the messed up pigeons don’t think they don’t deserve Taco Bell just because they have a grape-sized blob for a foot, their own poo in their hair, and a bald spot on their butt. It’s a tough world out there, and if you want the best it has to offer then you’ve got to fight for your Taco Bell with whatever you’ve got.”
“That was… actually kind of spot on,” Mom said. “Or it made no sense at all. I can’t tell.”
But I was just warming up to my point. “People have been so grouchy because of this boogeyvirus that they didn’t plan for and that they can’t stop,” I said. “They try to make rules for it, and then they get upset when it breaks the rules. But the thing that’s so cool about nature is that it doesn’t follow rules, and when it’s breaking the rules is when it releases its biggest blockbusters!”
“Are you saying that we should go out seeking natural disasters,” Mom said. “Because I’m adventurous and kinda reckless, and even I think that’s a bad idea.”
“You’re not dumb as pigeon, so don’t talk like one,” I said. “But when nature doesn’t behave the way you want it to, you can sit inside sulking and waiting for everything to go your way, and be mad at the world the whole time that it isn’t following your rules. Or you could be like a dog and not worry about all the things you don’t know about, and be excited to with everything you find.”
“Okay! You’ve inspired me!” Mom said. “Let’s stay out for one more day.”
So when we got back to the Covered Wagon smelling like roasted marshmallows after 14 miles of hiking, Mom told The Witch to bring us to our next hike and we bravely drove deeper into the smoke.
“Turn here,” The Witch said after we’d been driving for awhile.
“But that’s the highway to Yosemite,” Mom said.
“Don’t be such a sissy,” The Witch said.
“Remember, Mom,” I called from my bed in the back. “Stop trying to plan for everything and embrace the adventure!”
“Yeah, but they don’t allow dogs in the park. AND they won’t even let you drive through without a permit.”
“Oh relax, your destination is only 12 miles away on the left,” The Witch said.
“YOSEMITE, 11 MILES AHEAD” said the sign.
“See, Mom,” I said. “It’ll all be fine.”
“Oh forget it,” Mom said, turning the Wagon around. “My eyes are burning, I have a headache, and I have a feeling my chest is going to be sore tomorrow. Isn’t two days of hiking through smoke enough?” She had said it, and so it was true. We continued driving back over the mountains to where we could hide out in our Stuck House and wait for Nature to stop being so exciting.
Oscar the Pooch