I was lying in my blanket-nest trying to stay warm against the cold coming through the Wagon’s open butt while Mom tried to make her poop juice. Mom shook the bottle like she was trying to snap its neck, but the ice just rattled and crunched inside and refused to jump into the kettle to be melted. “You’re shaking it the wrong way. You’ve got to shake it side to side, not up and down like a ketchup bottle,” I told her helpfully. “Where are we going today anyway?”
“We’re going to visit some old houses,” Mom said, looking into the mouth of the bottle like it was a telescope, then rolling and squashing it between her paws.
“Eew, like what old people and PBS fans do?”
“Definitely not. The older the house you visit, the cooler it is. We are visiting some of the oldest houses in North America.”
“Will they have heat?” I shivered.
“No, they’re much, much too old for that.”
“Will there be ghosts?”
“I don’t know. We’ll see…” Mom said, like either she had a secret, or she was making fun of me.
Eventually Mom milked enough water out of the bottle to make poop juice, and once she’d slurped it up we set off into the desert in search of a very old neighborhood, and maybe some ghosts. The canyon wall was the blubbery kind where the rock lobes stack in lumpy rolls like on a fat tummy. Round ice-cream-scoop-shaped chambers were carved into the wall here and there, usually at the end of where a fold in the canyon wall made a cul-de-sac. There was something very inviting about the alcoves, so Mom and I climbed into one and sat looking at the desert with the canyon behind it, and the mountains behind that, like we had the fanciest seats at the opera.
In the next cul-de-sac a column of rock rose directly above one of the alcoves like a chimney, so that the whole thing looked like a giant pizza oven. In the center of the oven was a pile of rocks stacked neatishly, and a fallout zone of more rocks that seemed to have bubbled over from the mold stack and spilled onto the ground.
“Look! It’s a house!” Mom said.
“Look! It’s America’s first Pinterest fail!” I said. “That missing wall is going to let out all the heat!”
For the rest of the morning we explored the canyon, turning a 3 mile trail into 5 as we searched all the corners for more old houses, and the ghosts that haunted them.
“Where did everybody go?” I asked. “Did somebody kill them in a spooky way so that their souls have to haunt this canyon forever?”
“No, they wandered off around the time that Europeans were figuring out how to build cathedrals.”
“Why didn’t these people build cathedrals?” I asked. I’d never seen a cathedral, but from what I knew about them, they were taller than Mom and still had their roofs, which was more than you could say for the houses in this neighborhood.
“I guess they didn’t need to. Who needs a cathedral to remind them of the majesty of God… or gods… when you’ve got scenery like this? You can’t enjoy a sunset from inside a cathedral.”
“No wonder the people blew away,” I said. “With no big cathedral holding them down. You could build a half-house like that in a day.”
“It goes to show how the land shapes a person’s life,” Mom said. “In Europe there’s rain and the ground is good for growing things. Growing food held a person in one place, and gave them things to trade at market, so people gathered in towns and stayed there. Out here you can’t grow much, but the land is excellent for hunting and hiding. When you think about it, changing the earth and building cities isn’t the only way to live. You can live off the land, or you can live with it. I think it’s appealing to live leaving behind as few marks on the land as possible, don’t you?”
“Of course. Dogs don’t build houses, we find places where the land will give us the shelter and temperature we need. Buildings are just a weird fringe thing that beavers, and birds, and you guys do.”
I’d never thought about buildings that way before, maybe because I live in one and so had stopped noticing its eccentricity. Mom spends so much time fussing about the Stuck House, vacuuming the spiders out of the corners and dirt off the floor, flushing her potty and scooping the turds out of mine, folding her clothes just to unfold them again before she puts them on. All that time she spends caring for her things, and the space that holds them; it’s exhausting. In nature you don’t have to pick up a stick to put it away once you’ve chased it. A stick is at home where you pick it up, and where it lands. It’s no one’s responsibility to rearrange the wilder-ness. That’s what wild means.
What keeps pulling us out of our Stuck House to wander through this part of the country is that it’s easier to appreciate what we have when Mom doesn’t have to worry about all the responsibilities of having stuff. Everything we bring in the Covered Wagon has to earn its place by being useful. Things like hot poop juice in Mom’s dented cup or turning the heater to sauna mode after a cold hike make us feel more wealthy than all the fancy City espressos in front of artistic fireplaces in the world. Fences, roads (and the paint on them), phalanxes of crops, and all the lines that people make on the land squeeze you like a river until you’re rushing as fast as you can through a few crowded places, bumping against everyone else.
In the desert there’s something about how you can drive for hours through land empty of human things, and yet full of surprises as big as mountains and as small as a dinosaur egg. You could wander off trail in any direction, and unlike a forest that closes in tight, the desert opens itself up to you and tells a story that you can only hear properly as you travel through it. Things that look unclimbable from far away turn out to camouflage magic staircases once your paws are on them, and distances often hide invisible impassible obstaples that you didn’t plan for and must use your wits to find a way around. The desert welcomes you to explore its corners and climb its balconies, and is best explored from all perspectives and all distances. There’s a lot more wonder in the way that nature lays things out. I think I like the natural way better.
Oscar the Pooch
PS Here are pictures of some other stuff we found that afternoon…