Before I tell you this story, you need to know three things:
- The first time we tried to come here, we never even made it off the highway.
- We discovered that our destination isn’t in the National Park at all, and so doesn’t have a dog ban.
- If you tell us to be careful, I will have to delete your comment before Mom sees it and gets annoyed.
Okay, now you can chill while you read the first part of this three- or four-part adventure…
I’m an irresistible guy, but there are some people out there who won’t rest until they find something to hate about you, no matter how good a boy you are. The only time I ever got trolled was when I said that Mom wanted to sneak me into a National Park. I’m a dog of many words who likes to take my time telling a story, but some people only use the internet to find things to be angry about. They read sloppily until they find what they’re looking for, and then scroll down to the comments to butt in with their opinion. If the trolls had read on, they would have discovered that The Covered Wagon never even left the highway that day, let alone stopped long enough for us to get out. We never even got within 50 miles of breaking the rules because the road was too dangerous for our delicate wagon wheels.
But now that we have the Mighty Truck with its four wheels that are tall and strong, Mom was looking longingly again at the big blank space on the map that was Death Valley. “I don’t have any calls tomorrow. What do you say we try to visit the walking rocks again?” she said, like it was no big deal.
“No, Mom! The internet will eat us alive!!!” I said.
“I’m not talking about hiking there, you need a rest day anyway. I was thinking we’d drive in, camp out there and taking some pictures at sunrise, then leave the park and maybe do something else in the afternoon. Death Valley is so hard to get to, and there’s nothing else around it, so we may never have enough time to waste a day trying to get there again.”
“Okay, if you promise there won’t be a firing squad waiting for us…” I said, still a little suspicious.
“If there’s a firing squad, I promise you’ll stay in the car,” Mom said.
So we asked The Witch to show the way, and turned our tailpipe on the Sierras to drop into the blank unknown of Death Valley. When the joshua trees were the only sign of life remaining among the rocks and dust, The Witch told us to turn off the highway onto a dirt road.
“Okay, get ready for adventure,” Mom said. “For the next 47 miles there’s no pavement or cell service. We’ll only have offline maps and our wits to show us the way… and the sat phone if something goes wrong.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I asked, looking at the naked mountains on the other side of my window.
“The brave may not live forever, but the cautious never live at all,” Mom said. “I saw that on a bumper sticker somewhere.”
Bumper stickers are memes for cars, and dogs aren’t good at memes. “What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means that some rewards come with risks, and if you don’t take the risks you’ll never have the rewarding life you want. I’ve always wanted to visit this place and it’s never going to be easier to get to, so let’s hope for the best.”
“Well this road doesn’t seem so bad,” I said, looking through the cloud of dust escorting The Truck down the road. “Look, I think I even see a bit of pavement under there.”
“You know how the more popular a trail is, the more exaggerated the difficulty rating?” Mom said. “Maybe this road is like that. They know that a lot of tourists are going to try it, and so they discourage people from getting in over their heads.”
Whenever Mom decides that something won’t be as bad as she thought, that means that it is definitely going to be worse than expected. Pretty soon, the road got serious, making grinding, popping and crunching noises under The Truck’s big paws while Mom and I bounced this way and that inside the cockpit. Now I knew how the wet food felt when Mom tried to get it out of the can without using a fork.
The angrier the road got, the more Mom tried to hug the driving wheel to see more of the rocks in front of us. The problem was that The Truck was so anxious that it was clenching her tight against the back of her seat. She kept tugging at the seat leash trying to get more slack, but the more she pulled the tighter it reeled her in. I wanted to use her frustration to teach her a lesson about letting your life partner check things out himself rather than holding him back to bark out his doubt, but the sparks coming out of her ears told me that she wasn’t in a learning mood.
“Dammit!” she said, when we hit a big bump and the leash pinned her hard against the back of the captain’s chair. She reached her neck out as far as it would go to try to see the road, but it was no use. She reached down and set herself free.
“No, Mom! What if you die???” I panted.
“Sometimes following the rules is the wrong answer,” she growled. I was surprised she’d learned the lesson without me teaching her. “If we hit something at 15 miles per hour I’m not going to go flying through the windshield, but we’re more likely to hit something if I can’t see what’s in front of us!” So we drove on, with Mom hanging on to the driving wheel so she wouldn’t fall into the recycle bin as we both bounced around the cockpit like the last drops in the bottle of Head & Shoulders for Men.
The Witch interrupted Mom’s wrestling match with the driving wheel to say, “Turn right up here!”
“Hey look, Mom! They have a picture of The Covered Wagon!” I said, looking at a sign at the side of the road. When I looked closer, the cars in the picture just looked like the Covered Wagon because their wheels were buried in sand like ours were the time Mom decided to drive all the way to some dooms and needed a man in a truck bigger than the Mighty Truck to come pull us back to the road again. “What does the caption say?”
“It says that there’s deep sand 18 miles ahead,” Mom groaned. “But the directions say that we’re turning in 11 miles, so maybe we won’t go that way. I promise, if it looks even a bit sandy, we’ll turn around. It’s okay to get scared, but it’s not okay to get stuck.”
You might not know this, but Death Valley actually has more high mountains than valleys, and we were now high enough on one of them that grimy white dirt stuck to the side of the car trail. As we turned onto the shady side of the mountain, the white dirt slunk onto the road where it held on tight as snotty ice. Mom reached for her driving leash, but now The Truck wouldn’t give it back.
We continued bouncing down the road, which really seemed like it was trying to prove a point. “Okay, I’d really like my seatbelt back now…” Mom said through her teeth as the bumps in the side of her jaw popped out and she twisted the wheel to keep at least half of The Truck’s paws on regular dirt at all times.
Suddenly the truck pulled to a halt and Mom froze, staring out the front window with the same intensity that I do when I’m deciding if I need to growl at a bump in the night. I followed her eyes and saw the road sliding steeply down the mountain, covered in a blanket of glistening white snot.
“Nope,” she said. “Not doin’ it. I don’t want to see it that bad.” Then she started the twisting, yanking routine that makes The Truck tap dance around in a circle until it’s facing the other direction.
“In five miles, turn right,” The Witch announced once we were driving uphill again.
“What?” Mom said. “That’s not the way we came.”
“If you turn right, you can save 37 minutes!” The Witch announced proudly.
“Wait! You’ve been taking us the long way this whole time?!” Mom said, looking like she wanted to throw The Witch off the side of the mountain like a tennis ball.
“And it’s several miles shorter!” The Witch said proudly.
“Something weird has been happening with Google Maps ever since I updated the software,” Mom grumbled.
“What does that mean?” I asked. I never understand what Mom means when she’s talking about The Witch.
“It means that the ice wasn’t game over, it was telling us we were on the wrong path!” Mom said, and the bumps on the side of her face got a little bit smaller and she sank until her back touched her chair again.
When The Witch told us it was time to turn, the road relaxed a bit too and Mom was able to click the seat leash back on. “This road is a breeze!” she said as The Truck sped to a jog and dust billowed around us again.
But the road was just luring us deeper into the wilder-ness before it unleashed a fury like we’d never seen before. The Truck smeared and wobbled through piles of rocks as it tried to keep its balance while climbing steep slopes. It leaned and tilted as it balanced on tracks where the wheels on Mom’s side were far above the wheels on my side. It crawled around bends where the valley had taken big bites out of the road. And the whole time it bounced and slammed over more big rocks than we could possibly avoid on four wheels.
This is how it happens whenever Mom gets into trouble. By the time she knows we’re on the wrong path it’s too late to turn around, so she just keeps going deeper and deeper as things get worse and worse.
“Mom, you don’t look like you’re having fun anymore,” I whispered, afraid that she might explode at any second.
“All I want is to turn around, but it’s too narrow here. And it’s too rugged to back up to a wider spot in the trail,” Mom said in a voice that could barely get out of the tight pinprick that was left of her throat. But I knew that if a wider spot in the trail came, Mom would keep going because she was too afraid to drive over what had already scared her, so she would keep pushing on hoping that there was less danger ahead than behind. If we arrived, at least she could rest before braving the return journey.
The Truck had been barely crawling up the hill, but suddenly it stopped completely. Mom too was frozen, looking with wide eyes out the front window. I looked too, and saw a boulder as big as a chair blocking one side of the road, and two pointy rocks sticking out of the other side of the road like fangs. Mom’s eyes read the road closely, trying to find a place where The Truck’s wheels could climb through without getting stabbed in the belly. After a long, long time she did something behind the driving wheel and opened the door.
“You stay here,” she said, before slamming the door in my face.
As copilot, it was my duty to sit in the driving chair and watch her walk around, studying the rocks for a long time before climbing back in the driving chair herself. Then The Truck crept forward one smidgen at a time. Suddenly there was a lurch and a thump, and The Truck stopped short. It growled as Mom twisted the driving wheel this way and that, but it would go no farther. Finally, with a mighty roar it moved forward just a tick, and I heard a screechy thump under the cockpit.
“That’s it!” Mom said. “Game over!” She pulled some levers and The Truck took a deep breath and settled back to a more comfortable position.
This time Mom didn’t even tell me to stay put before she jumped out and slammed the door in my face. When she got back in, she was cursing the Duck god and shivering even though it wasn’t a cold day. She didn’t even bother to tell me what was going on before she started pulling levers and twisting wheels to make The Truck do its tap dance again. Every two steps, The Truck pushed its butt hard into the wall on the upside of the mountain, and Mom got out to look at its front paws. Once she was sure The Truck’s toes weren’t hanging off the cliff, she would climb back into the driving chair and twist the wheel hard before letting The Truck take one baby step forward. Once we had moved so little that you could hardly notice, she would twist the wheel again and press The Truck’s butt back into the mountain. By the time we were facing downhill again, Mom’s face was as white as the moon and she was smacking her tongue like her mouth was made of desert. She got out one more time and looked at the rocks that had doomed us before fleeing back to safety.
“Dog doo, dog doo, dog doo!” she said when she’d climbed back inside. “One of those rocks was wet, like something had spilled on it.”
“You did go potty when you first got out,” I pointed out. “It’s okay. Lots of people pee themselves when they’re scared.”
“No, I peed in a different spot,” she said. “That rock was under the truck when I first got out. We’ve got to get somewhere with enough room for another truck as fast as we can, in case we need a tow.”
We bounced and slammed over rocks, crawled around the patches of missing road, leaned and tilted over the uneven places, and smeared and wobbled over the loose rocks until Mom found a flat place next to the road to tuck The Truck in. Then she got out again, taking The Witch with her. The Witch’s bright cyclops eye disappeared under The Truck’s belly as Mom lay in the dust on first one side and then the other. When she got back in the driving chair, she let The Truck climb back onto the road.
“What were you doing?” I asked. “Checking for monsters? Practicing being road kill?”
“I guess so. I’ve always been creeped out when people go under cars so I don’t know what it’s supposed to look like down there, but I didn’t see any dents, drips or leaks. When I killed the van by stabbing it in the oil pan with a sharp rock I smelled the oil as I drove, I saw it draining onto the road, and the oil light turned on after a minute. There are no lights on and I don’t see or smell anything. Do you?”
“Only your fear,” I said. “I mean… I only smell how brave you’re being.”
“Well I’m done being brave,” she said, finding another flat dirt spot by the side of the road. “Let’s spend the night here and drive out in the morning. And if the truck doesn’t start, well we’ll deal with it then.” We’d been on this nightmare ride for a long time, and I wanted to put my paws on solid ground, but it took a long time for Mom’s paws to stop shaking enough to work the door.
We climbed into the Butt House, and Mom gulped deep breaths until her paws had steadied enough to get spoonfuls of the soup she made for dinner all the way to her mouth. When she was done, she scowled into The Witch’s face and demanded answers.
“You know, we’re only about six miles away,” she said in a voice I hadn’t heard since we were on pavement. “We could walk in from here.”
“But what about the firing squads that execute dogs on sight?” I squeaked.
“Did you see that sign a couple of miles before we got stuck?” Mom said. “It said we were entering Death Valley National Monument. Do you know what that means?”
I didn’t so I took a guess. “They hang dogs from the statue in the middle of the town square rather than shooting them?”
“No, it means we’re outside National Park boundaries! Dogs are allowed!” Mom said. “All those people trolled you for nothing!”
“But Mom! What about the danger!”
“What danger? Listen, nothing is as good or bad as it seems, because it seems different depending on how you look at it. So let’s look at it with a cool head. If there’s damage, it’s already been done and we can call for help just as easily after a hike. At least that way the day won’t be wasted. And if The Truck does start, then we can drive up to one of those pull-outs a little further up the road to make the hike even shorter.”
“But if we’re stuck, won’t we need to ration our supplies like in the disaster movies?” I asked. “What if I have to eat you to survive?”
“We’ve got enough water in this truck for two weeks, and enough food for a month,” Mom said. “Plus I saw a pretty serious 4×4 SUV a couple of miles back that will pass us the same if we’re sitting in the truck or walking on the road. I was also looking at the map, and I think that there’s another way in from the south. If we go to the walking rocks, we might see more people.”
“But we’ve already faced so much danger already!” I said. “Haven’t you had enough?”
“Not all danger builds on the danger that came before. Today’s danger was to the truck. We know what the road looks like behind us, so as long as the truck is okay, we can make it back out,” Mom said. “Tomorrow’s challenge will be to our legs and minds. Hiking 10 or 13 miles is no big deal, we do it all the time. A road that’s too rugged for a truck will be a piece of cake on foot. We’ve come too far to give up now.”
Despite her brave words, I noticed that Mom tossed and turned all night, and she woke up long before there was enough light to hike by. As soon as there was, she checked for stains under The Truck again, and when there were none, she tried waking it up from the inside. To my surprise, The Truck growled to life as if nothing had happened, so just like Mom had promised, we bounced back up the road until we recognized the first signs of trouble. Then Mom tucked The Truck into a safe spot at the side of the trail, filled the packpack with water and my brunch bag with extra kibble, and we stomped our paws up the road that had tried to kill us the day before.
To be continued…