Mom and I left home on a Friday, and by Sunday we were back in Las Vegas. We’ve been to Vegas a hundred million times before, but we’re still discovering new things to see, and Mom had picked three new trails for us to explore before we continued east into Canyon Country. Monday found us on top of a mountain outside of town, snuggled deep under a heap of blankets to escape the cold. Mom poked me awake, and I stuck my nose out from under my sleeping bag to sniff the temperature.
“But it’s still night!” I huffed.
“I know, but we’ve got to get as early a start as possible,” Mom said with the stress-crackle that squeezes her voice when she’s late for work.
“We’re on vacation, though,” I grumbled, snuggling back into my blankey-den.
“But we’re not on vacation,” Mom said. “We’re working from Las Vegas this week so we don’t have to spend Christmas Eve driving. We’ve got to hit the trail early so we’ll be on time to work!”
“We’re going to drive all the way back to The City after hiking?” I asked, worrying about all that time in the uncomfortable copilot’s chair.
“No, silly. I got us a hotel room at La Quinta where Pets Stay for Free. We’ll work from there. But first we hike!”
We arrived at the trail right when the rocks started to glow neon grey under the moon. “This trail is short and easy, so we’ll take lots of pictures,” Mom said.
“Easy, huh? I’ll show you,” The Witch said, rubbing her digital paws together mominously.
And the trail was easy, until suddenly it wasn’t. “Up-up,” Mom said, patting yet another rock. She usually says up-up when she wants to take a picture, but every once in awhile she says it to show me how to follow her into something particularly stupid.
“Are you sure this is the trail?” I asked. Again. Before up-uping. Again.
“Well, the trail we came for ended a ways back there,” Mom said, “but this is a trail. It says so on the map.”
I knew what it meant to make your own trail in Las Vegas, where dogs can fly and people can climb rocks like lizards. The first time we’d explored the “hard” trails in Las Vegas it had been a shock, and Mom got scared enough to make me nervous a few times. But we’re braver now that we know that hiking isn’t just slow running, and we’ve gotten better at the special skills it takes.
We climbed, jumped, clawed and scrambled until we were standing between the mountain’s ears in the secret passageway where you could enter Red Rock Canyon without paying or making a reservation.
“Are we going for it?” I asked, hoping we were about to sneak into the park like bandits.
“Wish we could,” Mom said. “But unfortunately we’ve got to skedaddle to work.” So we scrambled, slipped, jumped and climbed back down the hill, stopping to take so many pictures that we were almost late anyway.
The next time Mom poked me in the middle of the night, I was ready to rock. I don’t usually get much sleep on the road, but Mom had banged on her laptop and babbled at her screen for so long the day before that I’d been able to nap the day away. Mom looked like she could use 100 years of naps as she made her poop juice in the room’s tiny pooping machine. As we drove across the dark city, I sat tall in my copilot seat and panted eagerly out the window looking for the first signs of adventure. In the driving chair, Mom melted like an old tulip.
“I guess I thought that work might be a little easier if I did it in a different place. But it’s just as stressful and exhausting to work from the road as it is at home,” Mom sighed.
Mom is always bellyaching about how stressful work is, especially when it’s time for her to help me write my stories. I was tired of her excuses. “Hey look!” I said to distract her. “We’ve been here before! Are we doing the same trail as yesterday?”
Mom looked deep into The Witch for the answer. “Yeah, I guess this is the loop we were trying to do yesterday. Let’s do it in the other direction so we go down the steep part rather than up.”
So we walked into the darkness while the sky behind us lit up with the colors of a heater, but not the warmth. When we arrived at the far side of the mountain, the trail was even harder to find than it had been the day before, only in a less steep way. We followed footprints and sandy spots between the rocks and trees until suddenly we were stuck under tall boulders, or stopped by steep walls, or standing in bushes so thick they might as well have been a wall. Then we would have to go back and look for a different way around. By the time we got to the secret passageway at the top of the mountain, we were even later for work and Mom insisted that we scramble, slip, jump and climb double-time without taking any pictures.
“There was supposed to be an angel carved into the rock somewhere back there…” Mom said, wrinkling her mouth and forehead, and stroking The Witch’s face. “I wonder where it was?”
“What’s the angel there for?” I asked. I’d heard of angels, but I’d never sniffed one. I thought they were made up, like the Elf on a Shelf or the Friendly Wal*mart Greeter.
“The trail’s called Guardian Angel Pass on AllTrails, so I guess it’s the kind of angel that watches over you and makes sure that nothing bad happens.”
“It’s okay that we didn’t see it then,” I said. “Because nothing bad ever happens to us.”
“Are you kidding?” Mom said. “We’ve been in so many dangerous situations that have turned out okay. Think about all the times we’ve gotten lost, or found some obstacle on the trail where we had to do something dangerous to get through. Remember those times I had to boot scoot down the talus slopes, or the time you had to jump off a cliff, or those times the van got stuck and we needed a tow in the middle of the wilderness? Think of all the times we took the van on sketchy roads and didn’t get stuck. We were driving around without a spare tire for a year and I had no idea! And what about the time we saw the mountain lion and the only reason you didn’t chase it was that I just happened to have you on leash that day? Or how about that time last month when we had to drive off the side of the road because an oncoming car was passing in our lane?”
“Yeah, but we’re careful,” I said. “We come prepared and know how to read the land.”
“Oh sure, you’ve got to be savvy and prepared for anything. But the wilderness is a dangerous place, you should know that by now. Very few disasters happen so suddenly that you don’t have time to react, but nature doesn’t guarantee your safety. It’s not Disneyland.”
“I thought you knew how to outsmart nature!” I said. My head was spinning with the idea that I’d been following Mom into danger for all those miles. “You mean to say you’ve been leading me into mortal peril this whole time without telling me?”
“I guess. But angels or not, you can’t not do something just because it’s dangerous. Look at our lives for the past six months. We’ve hardly left the house because of your knee, and all we’ve done is eat, sleep, work. You watching me for all those hours on the treadmill wasn’t fulfilling for either of us, and we both got depressed.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t know there was real danger out here!”
“There’s danger everywhere, dummy. People are just less scared of danger that happens in familiar places. Think about it this way: we’ve each had one major injury in the past couple of years. I blew out my knee running on the treadmill at home, and you did it jumping onto a low, flat rock half a mile into an easy hike. If danger can find you anywhere, then you might as well try something epic, don’t you think? Otherwise you’re bound to have a season-ending injury vacuuming or something, and where’s the cool story in that?”
I’m the expert storyteller in the family, not Mom. “Horror stories are always exciting,” I told her. “Especially the ones where the hero survives by bravely running past the killer vacuum and fearlessly hiding around the corner.”
I let Mom’s lesson sink in as we hike-jogged back to the car kennel. “So if danger’s been with us on all these adventures, and all of our stories have had happy endings, does that mean that the guardian angel has been hiking with us all this time as well?” I asked.
“You could see it that way,” Mom said.
“And even though we couldn’t see him, he was still there making sure we had a happy hike?”
“So today’s hike isn’t ruined at all!” I said. “We didn’t see the angel, but you still knew he was there. Which is more than you can say for most hikes.”
“Still, it might have been nice to see the carving. It’s kind of cool when you see gratuitous artwork in the desert.”
“You’re missing the point, as usual,” I said. “Most of the time you don’t even know how lucky you are or what danger the Guardian Angel protected you from, but today you know that an invisible angel is looking out for you. Doesn’t that make you feel lucky?”
“Ugh, you’re not turning into one of those sanctimonious boors who use the hashtag #blessed, write in a gratitude journal every morning and think that mindful breathing is the solution to everything, are you?”
“Well have you tried panting deeper when you’re upset?” Mom gave me a look that would make an angel blush.
Oscar the Pooch