The Wagon didn’t hold a grudge about the morning it had spent up to its belly in sand. Once it was back on pavement, it put-put-putted happily the rest of the way to Las Vegas, where it would spend the rest of the weekend waiting safely in car kennels while Mom and I had the kind of adventures that our legs could get us out of. Still, there are kinds of adventures when you doubt whether having four strong legs will be enough to lead Mom back to safety. Of all the missions we’ve accomplished throughout the West, I’m always near Las Vegas on the days when it seems like we might not get out of it this time. Las Vegas lives in a desert where trails appear and disappear without warning, and whose shape sometimes isn’t flat enough for paws to stick to.
We started our hike by climbing a steep hill that was less charming than a bowl of dry kibble in a bologna factory. The ground was covered in mangey scruff like it couldn’t grow a proper beard, and the trail was booby trapped with loose, pointy rocks that poked at my paws and rolled under Mom’s shoes and made her fussy.
“What the heck were you thinking choosing this stupid trail when there are so many swoopy, swirly sandstone things to explore?” I asked.
“We’re walking to one of those places,” Mom promised, holding her hand on top of her head like a forgetful cartoon person so her hat wouldn’t blow away into the void of tedium around us. “It’s called the Bowl of Fire. Doesn’t that sound exciting?”
“I think the fire blew out,” I shivered.
We dismounted the hill into stumpy canyons wide as a dumpster alley and with walls as tall as a warehouse, but at least we were sheltered from the wind. We trudged through deep sand for miles, until suddenly a rock the color of Utah stepped in front of us, blocking our path with a wall as high as three refrigerators.
“What shall we do about this?” Mom mused, studying the wall. It had little dents in its face big enough for her to climb like a lizard from one bowl to another. If you’ve known me for a long time, you know that dogs aren’t lizards and that Mom often forgets about it. “I’ll check it out and see if I can see a dog-friendly way from the top,” she announced.
I stayed outside the tube-shaped hole while Mom stomped across the pool of sand at the base of the wall and lobbed the packpack above her head to the first step. Then she climbed up into it, putting toes alongside elbows and knees in armpits until she could stand up normally and look around.
“I don’t know if I can keep my balance if I carry you in that sling on my back,” she called over her shoulder like she was expecting me to make a brilliant suggestion, but I wasn’t listening anymore. Sure that she was going to come back to it on her climb back down to her beloved and faithful companion, Mom left the packpack in the hole in the wall and scrambled knees-on-chin and forearm over big toe to the top of the wall. Then she turned around and peered back into the hole shouting, “Oscar! Oscar, where are you?”
“Whatcha looking for?” I asked, coming up behind her and looking into the hole, too.
“How did you get up here?” she asked.
“That slope over there behind us. It comes right up here, only without all the scrambly bits,” I said. “Hey, you forgot the packpack. Don’t you think you’ll need it?”
“Stay!” Mom said as she turned around and started lowering herself backward into the hole. “For real this time!”
This time she didn’t stick to the wall quite so well as she had on the way up. She kept having to lean away to look over her shoulder for where her next lizard paw should go, and then her hips would snap tight to the wall to keep from falling as her fingers and toes peeled off the rock. A few times, a leg or an arm dangled in midair looking for a place to hang on and I thought the rest of her might come unstuck and tumble to the sandy crash pad below.
“You were going to try to climb that with me riding like a hump on your back?” I asked as she climbed out of the hole again, this time with the packpack on her back
“It’s a good thing you found that detour,” Mom shrugged.
We had climbed all the way out of the canyon, and now we walked out onto the flat land that the trail-canyon was ripped into. This land was covered in the whipped swiss cheese shapes of sandy stone that Mom likes best about the desert. The rock yawned with alcoves held up by columns like the ropes of spit in a monster’s gaping jaws. Towers the shape of undiscovered chess pieces stood triumphantly on a floor the shape of a skate park. We wandered around the rocks from one interesting shape to another until it all ended in a cliff, and I stood at the very edge looking at the uninteresting valley far, far below me.
“It’s funny how the land looks so different from up close than it does far away,” Mom said. “We just walked across that and it looks so anonymous from up here.”
“What’s amominous?” I asked.
“It’s something that can’t be known because even after you see it you don’t recognize it,” Mom explained in the voice of someone who makes sense.
I looked at the blankness again, and started to recognize how the things I’d seen that morning fit into the bigger landscape. The windy mountain that had felt like such a colossal pain in the tail was just one of a huddle of hills identical to its neighbors. And the canyon that had looked purposeful as a hallway hallway from the inside looked accidental as a rip in the desert floor from above.
“What now?” I asked.
“I don’t know, do you want to see what’s over that way?” Mom said.
“You mean you don’t know?!”
“Well all the reviews said that it didn’t really matter what path we took once we got to the Bowl of Fire, so long as we were going in the right direction.”
“And are we?” I asked. “… Going in the right direction, I mean?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t checked yet.”
Mom asked The Witch the way to go, and then we began wandering more purposefully through the rocks. We climbed roguishly up and down from one half pipe to the next, like like two swashbucklers for whom the whole desert was ours to tread. Every time Mom asked The Witch which direction we had to go to find the trail, The Witch pointed at a solid wall or tower of rock that we had to find our way around.
“I really thought it would be more open,” Mom said.
“It’s like the Labyrinth!” I said. “And you’re like Ludo who calls the rocks to block the way whenever things get too convenient!”
Soon we found ourselves standing at the edge of another cliff staring into a canyon that was as deep as a skyscraper is tall.
“Now what?” I asked.
“Well we sure aren’t going to fly. There must be a way through,” Mom said. She asked The Witch for advice, pointing this way and that until the blue dot on the screen was aiming toward the red line of the trail. “It says the trail is way to our right. I guess we just go that way until we find a way across.”
So we climbed back down into the maze of wavy rocks with bubbly holes and made our way rightishly until we rounded the next tower and were staring into the canyon again.
“Shoot… I could have sworn the canyon was that way,” Mom said. “These rocks sure are disorienting.”
“Is this where we have to jump?” I asked, looking into the hole nervously. At least this time it was only as deep as an apartment building is tall, but I didn’t know if there would be enough time to remember how to fly.
“No, we’re not going to jump. But the trail crosses this thing somehow, so there must be a way through… We just have to find it.”
So we continued along the rim. Again and again we thought we’d found the path to the other side, and instead found ourselves looking into the mouth of a slightly shallower part of the canyon. I was starting to think that this canyon split the whole world in two, when we finally climbed onto a tall rock and discovered the canyon’s root, where the bright sandstone came up to meet dull scrubland. We walked around the tip of the canyon and dropped into a new canyon with more puzzles to wander through.
Once we had walked about another mile through more rock brain teasers, I stood with Mom at the edge of a short cliff the shape of half a bathtub and the size of a house. We looked down into the hole at the trail below. “Now do we jump?” I asked.
“Nah, that seems dangerous,” Mom said. “We’re almost to the end anyway. Let’s go back.”
We turned around, and suddenly I realized that we had been wandering aimlessly for miles through a maze of rocks that had blindfolded Mom’s sense of direction and spun her around like it was her turn at the piñata. We hadn’t seen anyone but a goat all morning, and that sasshole goat had run away when I’d affably chased him cordially screaming, “I’M GONNA GETCHA!” We were a little lost, and very alone.
We wandered back into the labyrinth, Mom imagining that she saw paths and following them until they ended in climbing walls. Every ruffled formation and threadbare rock looked the same, and none of them looked familiar. We stared into canyons that faced in unlikely directions that I could swear hadn’t been there on the way out. Every time I thought we’d found the path we’d been on before, it would scramble itself into something amominous again.
Every time we came to another dead end, Mom narrated her thoughts in a cheerful voice.
“Do you think we can get through this way? Let’s see. Yes, I think we can walk across that way,” she would chirp.
“Mom, are you okay? You sound kind of scared,” I said.
“What? Me? Scared? Never! Would a scared person be talking in such a calm and cheerful voice?”
“Someone who wasn’t scared probably wouldn’t be having conversations out loud to her dog as if she expected him to answer…” I pointed out.
Finally, Mom looked across a space of jumbled rock and blank bush about the length between two city streets and said, “I see the trail!”
“Don’t you see it? It’s on that slope over there.” All I saw was patternless tufts of scruff and rock.
We climbed into the crack in the rock and then straight up the wild slope to where there was a scuff in the bushes no wider than a thread. It was the trail! At least now we knew we were on the right block of sandstone that would end in the hole that led to the trail back to the Wagon.
“Hey, so you were just fooling back there, right? You knew where we were the whole time,” I said over my shoulder as I ran with Mom boot-scooting behind me down the shortcut I’d discovered that morning. “You were just walking in all of those different directions to be funny, right?”
“I was totally disoriented,” Mom admitted. “And you weren’t much help either. I thought dogs could find their way home from hundreds of miles away. Fat lot of help you were. Good thing I had my phone.”
“What did people do before they invented witchcraft?” I asked.
“They used trails and cairns just like we do, but sometimes people got lost. Like really, really lost.”
I imagined an explorer crawling through the desert with his tongue hanging out. “Like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon?” I asked.
“Sure, some of them died of exposure, but that’s not what I meant,” she said. “There are three ways that you and I get lost: Sometimes we walk down a trail not knowing what we’ll find at the end.”
“That’s called an adventure,” I said.
“…Other times we know where we started ,and where we’re going, but we take a different route in between than we expected to.”
“That’s called an expedition,” I said.
“…And sometimes we know where we are, but not how to get back to where we started.”
“That’s how you become a stray,” I said. “That’s why they call it straying.”
“Well the first Europeans who explored out here were all three kinds of lost at once. They didn’t know what they’d find, what path they’d take to get there or how they’d get out again. They just carried on every day and trusted that God would take care of the rest.”
“That’s called a quest!” I said.
“When those sailors who had only ever seen the Spanish countryside saw some of these canyons, it must have blown their minds. I bet they thought they’d come to a fantasy land of dragons and monsters.”
Our hike in the Bowl of Fire had been an adventure and an expedition, but now that we were back in the sandy-bottomed canyon it had transformed into a chore. I let my thoughts stray to pass the miles as I followed Mom through the sandy bottom of the canyon. Life is like a hike, and I tried to decide if it was an adventure, an expedition or a quest. Mom treats life like an expedition and never does anything without knowing where she wants to go, and usually how she’ll get there. Even when she’s lost, she picks a new path to follow to a new destination, and then she convinces herself that it was the plan the whole time. That way she’s always in the driving chair and nothing can surprise her. I’ve known Mom for awhile now and I’m not sure if all that responsibility makes her any happier.
Since I let Mom take care of all the decisions and responsibilities, I get to do life like a quest. I like my way much better. When it’s your job to expect everything that’s going to happen, surprises are always bad. But me, I get to wake up every morning excited to see what fun surprises the day will bring. Since I don’t know which path I’ll take, I don’t miss a single detail just because it’s not on the itinerary and delight in all the possibilities. Because I’m not expecting anything, every snuggle, every trip out of the house, every adventure is just exactly right and never disappoints.
“Hey Mom,” I said.
“What?” she said, not looking up from The Witch, who she was poking for the forty-second time this mile to find out how far we still had to go.
Oscar the Explorer