I think Mom forgot how to drive. When we took The Covered Wagon through The City on the way to the Forgotten California, she stopped in the middle of the street and we just sat there for a very long time. She would remember how to drive for a foot or two, and then another wave of amnesia would hit her and she would stop again for a very long time. All the lights danced from bottom to top, and then dropped back to the bottom again while we sat still. And sat. And sat. Then Mom did the thing behind the driving wheel that means that the trip is over and climbed into the back.
“No! Mom! You have to go to a parking spot before you do that!” I said, getting into the driving chair so we wouldn’t look suspicious if a police or judgy person happened to be looking.
“I guess things are getting back to normal if it’s taking us almost 2 hours to get onto the Bay Bridge,” Mom called over her shoulder as she dug through the kitchen bin. “If we’re going to be sitting still like this, I might as well eat dinner now.” She climbed back into the driving chair and put her box of leaves in her lap, where it dripped brown sauce from her mouth onto her sweatshirt. Then she remembered how to drive again and her salad made an even bigger mess.
Many hours later the Wagon left the road and pulled off into the dark. “Good parking job, Mom,” I positively reinforced her as branches scraped against the outside of the Wagon. “Nice work getting off the road before you park! Good boy!”
Mom was just coming back from checking the woods for a better Wagon hiding spot when a pair of aggressive headlights pulled over from the other side of the road to get a better look at us.
“Go away! I have to pee and you’re being distracting!” I shouted from inside the Wagon.
“Hi,” a voice said from inside the predator, which was the same size and color as a killer whale. “I just passed by here a few minutes ago and didn’t see you, so I wanted to make sure you were alright.”
Mom spit out her liquid toothbrush and said, “I was going to sleep here, is that okay?”
“It’s a free country! She’s just asking that to be polite,” I shouted.
“Oh yeah, that’s fine. I just wanted to make sure you were okay,” said the whale.
“Yup. Just fine,” Mom said, putting her hand on the door so The Whale would see she had things to do, but not opening it so I had to keep holding my pee.
“Go away, for privacy!” I shouted.
“Okay, well have a nice night,” The Whale said.
Once The Whale had driven away, Mom let me out. I was still mid-stream when the whale came back and blinded us with its horrible eyes again.
“I just remembered. There are actually people that live up that little road there.” Mom looked back at the rocky trail that she’d just decided was too dangerous for the Wagon. “They’re the kind of people that…” The Whale trailed off, searching for the right word.
“… that don’t want to be bothered,” Mom said, because her brain is more efficient than a whale’s.
“We don’t want to be bothered,” I growled, but also wagged my tail in case this whale carried cheese.
“… that don’t like folks like me,” The Whale finished, making it about himself again.
“Oh crap, okay,” Mom said, waving me back in the car. “We’ll pull over somewhere further up.”
“No more driving,” I said, refusing to jump back into the Wagon when Mom told me to up-up. “I’m tired. Let’s sleep now.”
“No can do, buddy,” Mom said. “Not out here in Conspiracy Country. This van is sketchy enough as it is with its black windows and all the decals ripped off. But being a government vehicle with that weird mirror on the back, you don’t need to be that nuts to think it’s a surveillance van.”
So we drove a few more miles into the dark until Mom found a parking place that wasn’t quite in the road, but wasn’t really out of it either. Then we tried not to let the cars whooshing by all night wake us up.
The next morning I led Mom into the forest. “Look!” I said. “Mountains and trees! They’re still here!”
Mom harrumphed up the trail behind me. “We’ve been hanging out inside our cave for so long, I didn’t realize that it was already summer!” she said, peeling her waffle shirt off her tummy with a sucking sound.
Some mountains hide you in a blind of trees and springy soil, and others spread out for you like a recital to show off everything it’s done with its sticky-outy rocks and twisty trees. I like the cool, quiet mountains that save the big reveal for the top, but after the first mile the trees changed their costumes and this mountain turned into the showing off kind that Mom likes. Here the trees were all dead and twisted their ivory claws into the sky, peeled off their bark until their underskin looked silver in the sun, or polished themselves until they were black and shiny like beetle shells. The mountain decorated itself with little star-flowers, and poofy toilet brush flowers, and little flowers the color of school busses like the ones that people puppies draw.
“I thought this area was hit during the Paradise fires,” Mom said. “But this burn looks older.”
“How can you tell?” I asked, sniffing a shiny log that smelled like last summer and looked like it was made of glass.
“This area has had many years to grow back. See how big the green things are? This sapling is almost a tree already.” She grabbed the trunk of a baby tree that was no wider than her arm and used it to pull herself up. Instead, the tree bent down to meet her. “Remember that fire in Mammoth last year? It burned from Labor Day to Christmas Eve and destroyed an area bigger than 12 San Franciscos, but what’s that when like half the state is park and wilderness areas. Every time there’s a wildfire it seems enormous because the smoke fills the whole world and an area the size of several cities is destroyed, but as destructive as it is, there is still more that’s untouched.”
“That’s like the boogyvirus!” I said. “It was like a cloud that filled the whole world, but as many people as it destroyed, there are still more who are okay.”
“I suppose. But even years after the fire is put out, we’re going to have these burned logs and scarred trunks all along the trail as a reminder. The world will never be the same as it was…”
The higher we went, the patchwork of the mountain became less green and more granite as the rocks and sand won. The mountains that had been the crown above us, and then the walls around us were now the frilly collar beneath us. Boulder bouquets stuck out of the side of the steep trail like decorative gargoyles. Finally, we reached the top, where an enormous pillow of soft white dirt lay across the trail for me to roll in. While Mom marched ahead, I rolled onto my back and kicked all my legs in the air, but the blanket of white dirt kept rolling me until I was lying on my other side. I rolled over again, but no sooner had I gotten all my leggies in the air again but the white dirt rolled me right off of it and onto the soggy soil. Oh well. I shook the pine needles and tree dust off my coat and stampeded to catch up with Mom. Then we walked to the edge of the mountain to see the view. The furry green mountains rolled away in every direction wearing their summer coats of bristly dead trees like porcupine spikes.
All of the shade that we’d left wastefully behind us on the way up the mountain had been cleared away by the time we came back down. My tongue hung almost to the ground, and the ashy trail dust floofed from under my paws and stuck behind my teeth. As Mom stomped down the hill, I sprinted past her to the closest puddle of shade and then lay there for a few seconds until she had passed and it was time to run to the next shade puddle.
When we finally reached the bottom after a little more than 9 miles and a whole mountain up and down, I was ready to flop in the shade of the Covered Wagon for the rest of the afternoon. But instead of walking across the little bridge to the Covered Wagon which was so close that even Mom could have thrown a tennis ball and hit it, she turned away from the bridge.
“Where are you going?” I panted.
“Let’s walk through the river. You’ll love it.”
“I hate swimming!” I said. “Everybody knows that! Who ever heard of swimming on such a hot day?!”
“Trust me on this one, bud,” Mom said, splashing her shoes into the river and wobbling a bit on the slippy rocks underneath.
“You can never trust water,” I barked after her, as the water ate up more of her legs and she waved her arms like an orchestra conductor. “It’s got a mind of its own!”
She reached the other side and kept going without turning around until she was half way up the bank to the Wagon. Then she turned back, “Come on!” she said in her teakettle voice.
I didn’t want to, but I put my socks in the water just like Mom. The wet felt really nice on them in a way I’d never noticed before. I stood waiting for Mom to come back and get me, and as I did more of my legs asked to taste the cool creek water. So I crouched lower, and when that went okay I lay down to wait for Mom. That was a little too much like swimming, so I walked across to Mom’s side, then I kept walking through the dusty car kennel where the dirt stuck in my wet socks, and jumped in the cool Wagon to wipe the nasty river water off on the bedding.
Oscar the Hot Dog