Last summer ended early when the whole world caught on fire and smoke blotted out the sun. The smoke chased us over the mountains and onto a trail that might have looked pretty cool behind all the smoky gloom. Then all of nature in The West closed and mountain season was over. Luckily, summer has started early this year, and people are finally starting to take down their masks and breathe easier in the thin, clean air. So Mom and I came back to see what we’d missed in those mountains last year.
The Wagon pulled into a car kennel in a cloud of the most exciting smell. “I smell horse doo-doo!” I squealed. I pushed Mom out of the way to see out the front window, and staring right back at me on the other side of some logs were more horses than I could count on all four of my paws. When Mom finally opened the door, I busted past her and showed off for the horses with a little jig.
“Ermegerd! This is going to be awesome!” I pranced.
“Grumble-grumble-grumble,” Mom grumbled.
“Come on!” I said. “I know where we’re going!”
It was true. I recognized the trail we were on even though I didn’t smell any of the smoke that was here last time.
“Isn’t this great, Mom?!” I said, running through the flowers and wallowing in the dust, then finding some soft grass to roll the dust off.
“Hmmm…” Mom grunted. Her eyes may have been looking at the mountains, but all she was seeing was the screen in her mind.
“What are you so grumped out about?” I asked.
“You know how sometimes a hike just doesn’t work out? You keep losing the trail, and maybe it’s dangerous, or it’s raining, or there are so many bugs that you can’t enjoy yourself?”
“Yeah, the only thing you can do is go back to the Wagon and try again another day,” I said. “And hope the pictures turn out okay.”
“Exactly. Well I’m working on a project that’s something like that. It’s not going well, but it’s too late to start over. And limping all the way in to the finish is going to be a real slog.”
“I thought your work was fun. Or else why would you do it all day?”
“I do like my job. It’s just hard to finish something when it’s not going to turn out like you thought. It’s sort of like how even a bad hike can give you a sense of accomplishment. You know something good will come out of it, but when you’re in the middle of it, you’re tired and cranky and just want it to be over.”
“Oh sure,” I said. “But did you notice how we can see the mountains this year? Isn’t that a much nicer thing to think about?”
I led Mom down into the valley, and then on the rocky trail up the mountain on the other side. The mountains stuck out of the ground like spikes and wore nothing but a few scraps of white dirt on their rocky sides. We followed the river from one lake hidden under the trees, up through tripping waterfalls and some that took more serious falls. We crossed the river, and found the second lake in the center of a crown of mountains.
“Do you ever wish you could just teleport back to the car?” Mom grumbled, turning her back on the lake and shooing me back toward the valley.
“And miss all of this?!” I said, biting back at the bugs that were biting me. “I got one!”
“It’s all just so much effort, you know? It’s nice to look at stuff, but you have to put out so much effort to get there.”
After we returned to the Covered Wagon, we continued to new mountains that I’d never explored before. The most important thing that Mom and I think about when choosing a new trail is its name. A trail with a cool name will almost certainly be more exciting than a trail with a boring name. That’s how we found ourselves walking toward Baboon Lake. Mom had fallen asleep before the sun and slept until the sun was high enough to turn The Wagon into an oven, so I was afraid that the trail would be too full and closed for the day. But when we arrived, Mom found a Wagon-sized patch of dirt right next to the trailhead and headed into the unknown.
As we started hiking, a group of giggling and clucking flags flapped across the trail ahead of us.
“They’re not flags! They’re ladies!” I squealed, running ahead to introduce myself.
“Oscar, no! Oscar, come here!” Mom said.
“Hi, Oscar!” they all squealed, as one scratched my butt, another scratched behind my ear, and the third patted my ribs in the place that makes the best thump.
“See, they’re just ladies who are dressed funny,” I smiled so big it closed my eyes.
“Such a ladies’ man,” Mom said, shaking her head but in a way that showed she was proud to be hiking with such a hunk.
“Why were those ladies dressed like that?” I asked when Mom had torn me away.
“It’s America’s birthday” Mom said. “They call it Independence Day.”
“Independence from what?” I asked.
“From England, I guess. It was about taxes, mostly. But really it was about making decisions for ourselves rather than letting someone far away make the rules. It’s also the day I moved back to California for good. I’ve been here for 11 years… this time.”
I couldn’t imagine Mom living in a place with small nature like it is in The East, where even the mountains are flabby and round. She seemed like she was made of the same ragged edges and unfinished shapes as California, where the land looks broken and raw. “What were you getting independence from?” I asked.
“Lots of stuff. A relationship, a job, a bad living situation, everything was coming to a logical stopping point and I decided to make a clean break.”
I got the feeling that what Mom called a “clean break” actually had edges as sharp and messy as the mountains around us, and every once in awhile one of those pointy broken bits still poked her.
As we climbed, a group passed us and hiked just a little ahead of Mom.
“Hi! I’m Oscar!” I said. “I’m with that lady carrying the bag of kibble back there, but I’m not too hungry so I think I’d rather hike with you.” And so I did, pretending like I couldn’t hear Mom whining and braying on the trail below me. When she was so far behind that I couldn’t see her anymore and her voice sounded like a distant Wagon whining its way up a too-steep hill, I finally stopped and waited for her.
“After everything we’ve been through together, you want to go with them now?” Mom said, in a voice that let me know she was joking but also annoyed.
“There’s always enough love in the world to make more friends, Mom,” I said.
“Yeah, but those people have never given you cheese sticks and hot dogs at gas stations. They haven’t been driving for hours on the weekend just to take you to exciting places,” Mom said.
“I thought you did that stuff for you,” I said.
“Yeah, but it’s much more fun doing them with you. So stay close!”
I followed the people until we reached the top of the pass, where we discovered a giant lake the color of a swimming pool. The mountains rose so steeply around it that every view of the sky had rock clawing its way into the view. We walked along the water until we found a fork in the trail marked with a sign.
“What does it say?” I asked.
“You’re never going to believe it!” Mom said. “There’s a lake up here called Dingleberry Lake!”
“Boy oh boy! Are we going?!” I asked.
“Let’s check out Baboon Lake first,” Mom said. “Baboon is one of the greatest animal names to say, don’t you think?”
“Not as fun as platalatapusimus,” I said.
“It’s the baby of a platypus and a hippopotamus who love each other,” I said. “They live where platypuses and hippos share a lake.”
“Aren’t hippos from Africa and platypuses from Australia?” Mom said.
“Right,” I said. “So there won’t be any around here. Do you think there will be baboons at the lake?”
“Probably not,” Mom said. “Only mosquitos.”
The next time we found a fork in the trail, I asked Mom again what the sign said.
“The sign says Baboon Lake is this way, but the map actually goes on the trail toward Donkey Lake.”
“What’s more fun, donkeys or baboons?” I asked.
“Well donkeys are sometimes called asses, so that’s fun. But let’s go to Baboon Lake.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “I can’t think of any jokes about asses and dingleberries for when we tell the story.”
“Really?” Mom said, but then she set off toward Baboon Lake before I could ask her what she meant.
When we discovered Baboon Lake, I walked down to the shore and was just taking my first long drink when I heard the tinkle of dog tags behind me. I turned around and saw a Friend streaking toward me.
“Okay, I’ll be it! I’m gonna getcha!” I barked, and took off after her. It took too much effort to keep up with her when she turned on the turbo boosters, so I slowed down and waited for her to notice that I wasn’t following and run back in my direction. As she buzzed by me, I sniped at her with a nip, and then tore off after her in the other direction. We kept going like that until my nips got a little too close, and my Friend let out a little shriek. Then Mom started shouting, which made a lady in the hammock on top of a big rock stand up and start yelling too. I ran to Mom to tell her what fun we were all having now that she and the hammock lady had joined in on the fun too, but Mom grabbed my collar and led me away.
“Why do you have such a problem with me making friends?” I asked when we were far enough away that I’d lost the scent of my tag partner. “You’re so jealous.”
“I’m not jealous, you numbskull. I just don’t want you to get in trouble.”
“You don’t get it,” I said. “I declare my independence.”
“You can be independent, as long as you come when you’re called,” Mom said.
of a dingleberry, filled with soggy grass at the edges that made it muddy and not nice to wade into, and guarded by a thick army of bugs. So once we’d seen it, we ran from the moose-skeeters and back to The Wagon. We still had one more day of hiking before we went home.
On our last day in the wild, we planned to explore a place that had been right under our noses since Mom and I discovered mountains a few years ago. Weekend after weekend we had to drive high over the mountain pass to get to the dry side of the range. While The Wagon twisted and squirmed up to 9000 feet and then back down again, I would look out the window and wonder what secrets these mountains held. So this time Mom drove like we were going home, but when we reached the summit of the pass she pulled into a car kennel that I’d never noticed before.
“Where are we going today?” I asked. “Are we going to an enchanted lake, or are we here to bag a peak?”
“We may pass a peak and see a lake, but this section of trail is mostly an in-between place.”
“In between what and what?” I asked.
“I guess it all depends on where you’re coming from and where you’re going,” Mom said. “It’s part of the PCT, so I guess between Mexico and Canada. It’s also the line between the eastern and western Sierra. But a journey can begin or end at any point. Not every story is as simple as climbing up and down a mountain, some stories just wander.”
“Like this one!” I said.
We crossed the road right where the road crossed from the Eastern to the Western Sierra, and then kept walking into the mountains. There were almost no trees here, and I could see the trail drawing a line along the side of the mountain for miles. The mountains looked so big that I felt like an ant standing on their side, but I was surprised at how quickly my paws ate up the trail and the scenery changed. Before long we were standing on the shoulder of the mountain where two trails met. I stood on the fork and looked at Mom.
“Which way?” I asked.
“The trail continues that way,” Mom said, looking into the next valley where the trail was a scar along the neck of the mountain. “But the summit is that way.”
“Let’s go to the top!” I said. So we turned left, toward the top of the mountain that was unimpressively close to where we were standing.
A few minutes later I was the tallest thing around as I stood on the tippity-top of the rocky mountain. “Well that was anti-climactic,” Mom said, putting her fists on her hips and looking at her paws on the ground.
“That’s because you’re looking at the wrong thing, dummy,” I said. “The point of climbing a mountain isn’t to look at where you’re standing, it’s to look at all the new things around you and get some perspective.” Then, to show her what I meant I stuck my nose in the air and sniffed the adventure blowing through of all of the pointy mountains, grey grassy meadows, and naked rocks that made the world around us so exotic.
We climbed down off the nubbin of a peak and kept walking around the trail above the next valley. The mountains looked swooping and bowl-shaped from up here, but in the middle of the bowl was a ginormous crack that broke the rock open and looked like it went all the way to the center of the earth.
“It’s hard to believe that anyone looked at this landscape and decided that was a good place to put a road,” Mom said, looking at the crack. “When you look at it from up here it just looks like a cliff.”
“That must be why The Wagon shivers like a wuss every time you drive down it,” I said.
In no time the trail made a hard turn away from the little lake I thought we were walking to and climbed between two new mountains into yet another valley with its own lake in the middle. We were just about to turn off the main trail to slip and scramble down to the lake when we met a turtle person. Her face had that dried puddle look that Mom’s gets when we’ve been a week in the sun without a shower, and her packpack wore a giant bottle on its head.
“Are you through hiking?” Mom asked the New Friend.
“Sure am. Just passed 1000 miles the other day!” The Friend with the Bottlehead Packpack said.
“Well you’re almost out of the Sierras!” Mom said, not because she knew how many more mountains the lady had to climb, but because she wanted this lady to know that she wasn’t one of those yokels that would be gobsmacked when the lady said that she had started at Mexico and would finish at Canada. Then we wished BottlePack luck and slid on the loose rocks down to the lake, where I had a drink and Mom made me go for a swim.
Once we had climbed the steep mountainside from the lake back to the trail, Mom started doing that thumpy jog she sometimes does when she’s wearing the packpack but wants to speed things up a bit. The trail had passed quickly behind us before, but now it was going in extra fast forward. We caught and passed so many people we’d seen earlier that morning.
“Are you training for anything?” one of the turtle people asked.
“Nope,” Mom said. “But if I get back to the car early, I’ll have time to go grocery shopping this afternoon!” That’s the difference between the way we adventure and the way most people do it. Other people set aside time to relax in nature. Mom is always in a hurry to fit wilder-ness between all the things that she has to do.
I ran weightlessly through the sky and Mom plopped along behind me until we reached the first valley, which was now the last. BottlePack was walking on the trail ahead of us, and Mom slowed down to say hello to her while we passed. Mom was only a few feet from hulloo-ing, when BottlePack looked over her shoulder and screamed. Mom is kind of jumpy sometimes and sudden loud noises make her scream, so that’s what she did. So I started barking, just so I wouldn’t be left out. After Mom had said she was sorry, and The Friend was satisfied that we weren’t murderers, I slowed down.
“I bring Mom along these trails for protection,” I told her. “Let’s hike together for awhile so she can protect you too. If you see something scary, just hide behind Mom and let it eat her first. That’s what I do.” So we slowed down to learn about BottlePack’s dogs, and her teency-weency hometown in Missouri, and all the places that she’d hiked. Mom even shared some of our stories, which is silly because everyone knows about California but when do you ever get to learn about Missouri?
Even though we were walking, the part we hiked with Bottlehead Packpack was the fastest trail of the whole morning, what with all of the interesting stories and all. In no time at all I heard the whoosh of cars driving over the mountain.
“Is that a road?” BottlePack asked.
“Yeah, this is Sonora Pass right here. Highway 108 or something…”
“This is where I hitchhike down to my zero in Kennedy Meadows!” she said.
“Well if you don’t mind taking a few minutes for me to make us some coffee, I don’t mind driving you,” Mom said. “Kennedy Meadows is on our way home.”
“But Mom, what about the recycle bin?” I whispered.
“I’ll need to throw about 100 bottles and cans into the back because my passenger side is my recycle bin, but we’ll figure it out,” Mom said.
“I love that you recycle!” said BottlePack.
“What about the grocery store?!” I whispered, worried.
“It’s okay,” Mom said. “Luckily we’re independent, so we can change the plans whenever we want.”
So Mom opened up The Chair for BottlePack, who sat on it like a throne and gave me a chest massage while Mom made a double-sized pot of poop juice.
“This is the best coffee I’ve had in 3 months on trail!” BottlePack said as we swung this way and that through the crack in the earth. “That’s one of the best things about the trail, you find out what really matters, and you can really appreciate what you have.”
I knew what she meant. Mom is usually disappointed with the stuff she brings into the Stuck House. But because we can only fit one of everything in The Wagon, when we add something to our Wagon Collection it is something that will make our lives better over and over. I never see her happier than when she finds just the right thing at Walmart because it’s not just solving a problem of that day, but it solves a problem for life. No matter what other surprises life had planned, she knew that mugs were solved.
Oscar the Pooch