When we’re straying around the world, The Witch shows us sleeping places where The Law won’t knock on our windows in the middle of the night. But Mom is impatient, and she usually cheats by stopping by the side of the first houseless car trail The Witch leads us to. Sometimes it works and Mom brags about saving half an hour of bone-rattling and poop-juice-splattering, but sometimes the trail has surprises for us.
Somewhere outside St. George, The Witch ordered us off the highway onto a machine gun of a car trail.
“Keep going on Main Street for like 7 miles, and then you’re going to turn onto another street. The empty dirt you’re looking for is a few miles down that road,” The Witch shouted over the racket.
“Why so far? There’s nothing here,” Mom said, squeezing her eyes in place against the vibrating, the better to see the empty land and cow fences.
“She said it’s a main street,” I told Mom, in case her little ears hadn’t heard over The Truck’s rattling.
“There are no buildings for miles!” Mom said. “The nearest town is 5 miles behind us, and the next town is 20 miles ahead. Let’s just stay here.”
She found a dirt patch where some wagon tracks wandered out of the mountains to join the car trail, and we dismounted. As we usually do, we both searched for the best spot in the dog bathroom to mark our territory before climbing into the Butt House. If I can’t find a place where someone has gone before, I look for a bush or tuft to call attention to my work. For some reason Mom doesn’t like anyone to know where she’s gone potty, so she looks for a hiding place if she thinks anyone might notice. But at times like this when no one is around, Mom just looks for a spot of discrete earth that will drink up any sign she’s been there without splashing gossip all over the place. I found a spot facing the mountains, and Mom found her spot facing me, and when we were both past the point of no return, I heard a rumble and saw a cloud moving down the wagon tracks toward us. Mom, whose ears aren’t very good anyway, kept right on going until the cloud turned into a truck, and the truck was right next to us. Then Mom pulled her pants up real quick.
“Come on, Oscar. Get in the truck,” she said, opening my stairs in a big hurry and not looking at the other truck. I know an emergency when I hear it, so I didn’t dilly-dally climbing the stairs into the Butt House, and Mom closed the gate and hurdled in behind me.
Since I’d noticed Mom not noticing it, I whispered, “It’s okay. I think the noise was just that truck over there.”
“Duh,” Mom said. “But the polite thing to do when someone catches you doing something private is to disappear off the face of the earth so everyone can pretend it never happened.”
We scrunched low in bed and stayed on high alert, still as statues and waiting for the other truck to go away. But it didn’t. It stopped.
The copilot door opened, and a set of people puppies spilled out. They wore matching cowboy clothes, matching neat haircuts and matching freckles, so the only way to tell them apart was that one was small, and the other was medium. They walked to a fence gate right outside the Butt House gate, and spent a very long time doing something to it. Mom crouched lower in bed, and covered her face like that might help her disappear.
“They’re not even half grown,” I whispered. “They don’t look so dangerous. Want me to try barking them away?”
“Please don’t,” she said, scratching slowly behind my ears to tell me it was okay. I noticed the antennae in her own ears were still stretched as far as they would go.
“Then why are you so upset?” I asked.
“Because they had a clear view of the full moon for like 20 or 30 seconds as they drove up!” she cringed. “Even worse, those clothes, and haircuts, and the precocious masculinity are the LDS boys’ uniform. They’ve gotta be Mormon!”
I wasn’t sure what church had to do with going potty. “Mormons don’t pee?”
“Sure they do. But they wear that special underwear so they don’t have to show any skin, even to God!”
Mom didn’t retract her shoulders until the puppies finished fiddling with the gate and remounted their truck. She stayed paused with her antennae out until the truck was far enough down the trail that it was swallowed by its dust cloud.
“Okay! The coast is clear. Should we make a run for it?” I asked.
“Nah. I doubt anyone will bother us. We’re not in California anymore,” she said. “Utah Territory was settled by people looking for a place to be left alone.”
The next morning, we waited until the shadows were narrow before setting off through black lava rocks that covered the ground like a chewed-up car kennel. As we got closer to the background, the brick-grey rocks bubbled tall above us like an office park in the town of Bedrock. The path led right to a soundstage-shaped cave like the kind that bandidos use for hideouts in old western movies. I thought for sure that this was what we’d come to see, so I struck an outlaw pose and started thinking about lunch. But when we were done, Mom didn’t turn back toward The Truck. Instead, she continued walking through the rocks on the kind of invisible path that only appears as you walk on it.
The path disappeared into the sand, and I followed Mom through spikey plants, and past rocks like Texas hair ‘dos that made no shade against the unblinking sun. When the rocks blocked the sand, we climbed wild over them. Every time Mom stopped to ask The Witch where to go, I was sure we were lost for good. But then she’d look in the direction The Witch pointed and spot a Karen in a crack or on top of a tall rock, or a post sticking out of the sand, and we’d walk on. The path they made seemed like nonsense when you looked at all the pieces together. As it got hotter, I was sure it was all devious Witch trap, and that soon she would push us into an oven, just like Handsome and Griddle.
Even when we knew where to go, Mom kept stopping our expedition to wander off the trail for pictures. Even when Mom wasn’t asking The Witch to point the way or look at how handsome I am, she walked slow while she typed messages and sent them into the dog-baking sky. Mom was so in love with having The Witch back that at first she didn’t notice that we’d been hiking so long that it had turned from winter to summer. It was only when The Witch told her that she was getting hungry that Mom noticed that we’d been hiking for several months already.
“Oh crap. It’s already the middle of the afternoon!” Mom said, noticing for the first time how the desert around us was the glowing grey of a fading fire. “This is taking longer than I expected. We should get a move on.”
“You mean go back to The Truck?” I panted hopefully.
“Not yet, we’re only about a mile from the end of the trail, if we can find it.”
“What’s at the end of the trail?” I asked. “We’ve already seen lava, and caves like ovens, and rocks shaped like kilns, and baking deserts.”
“There are supposed to be petroglyphs ahead,” Mom said. “You know, drawings on rocks.”
“You mean we’ve come all this way for graffiti? We have that at home!” I panted.
“We’ve come all this way, and I think there’s shade up there. Come on.”
So I followed her further into the desert. We only found one of the two things that Mom had promised, but luckily it was shade. Mom led me into a crack in the rock where we were hidden from the sun for the first time all day. Mom walked up and down the narrow hallway looking for graffiti while I dug a nice, cool hole for myself in the sand and waited for sunset.
“Okay, I give up,” Mom said. “It’s late. We’ll have to come back to look for the petroglyphs some other time. At this rate we will have been hiking for six hours or more before we get back to the truck, and I’m afraid we’ll run out of water.”
“Uh oh,” I said. “You’d better stop drinking so we’ll have enough to pour out when I’m done drinking. I hate backwash.”
“Hang on,” she said as she crunched up another empty bottle and put it and my bowl back in the packpack. Then she pulled out The Witch’s straw and extra juicebox that she keeps in the packpack for longer hikes. “The phone’s going to be dead soon if I don’t plug it in, and we’ll definitely need the maps so we don’t get lost.”
With The Witch’s leash hanging out of her pocket, Mom walked back into the sun and slapped her leg with the pat-pat that meant I should follow. I waited in my hole to make sure that she was serious, and then slowly followed her back into the sun.
Even when she’s in a hurry, Mom can’t last long without looking at The Witch. The next time she did, she screeched to a stop so fast that the sand puffed around her feet. “Crap! No!” she said. She made an umbrella with her hand to try to see the tiny lights on The Witch’s juicebox. “The battery is dead! My phone will never last all the way back to the truck now!”
“Are you going to scream and cry again?” I asked.
“Maybe,” she said. “But you should be worried too. You remember how hard it was to find the trail through all those rocks. If we don’t have the maps, we could get really, really lost.”
“Hey, wait up!” I said. Mom was already hop-to-ing down the trail double time.
“No time to take it easy today, bud,” she said. “We’ve probably got less than an hour before this thing dies, and more than 5 hard miles back to the truck.”
“Low power mode is no use,” The Witch gasped. “Here’s a list of nearby priests. Which would you like to issue my last rights?”
Suddenly Mom stopped and dropped the packpack in the sand again.
“I’m not thirsty just yet,” I said. “Let’s wait till the next shady spot.”
“I think I have another battery in here!” she said. She dug through the parts of the packpack that we never open. She pulled out a Jackie Kennedy hat, a bag of grey peanuts and raisin-like pebbles, and then another witch-shaped box. “I bought the other battery because it holds several charges, but I forgot I have this solar charger. I wonder if it still works.” She plugged in The Witch’s leash and started poking buttons and jiggling wires. Then she let out a triumphant Ah-hah! “The solar panel may not be very good, but I must have charged it before I put it in the backpack! It’s still got power!”
“Are we saved?”
“Yes, we’re saved!” Mom said.
“Is there a lesson to learn from our near-death experience?” I asked, hoping it would be something about taking a shady shortcut rather than making life more difficult than it needed to be.
“Yes, it’s that you should never throw anything away because you never know when it will come in handy!” Mom said.
“Is that why we keep so many broken things in The Stuck House, and you keep buying sunglasses at gas stations even though you haven’t sat on the old ones yet?” I asked.
“Yes. Any of those things might be useful someday. And when they are, we’ll feel as fortunate as I feel right now!” she said.
“So it’s good that we keep the stuff that most people throw away?” I said, not sure I’d gotten that part right. “Like the things that are broken, empty, or we’ve replaced with better ones?”
“I bought better chargers because I could have sworn that this one was broken and empty, so yes!”
“It’s just like what Toto taught Dorothy when they hiked the Yellow Brick Road!” I said. “…If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own packpack; because if it’s there, I never really lost it to begin with.”
“That sounds right…” Mom said, her voice hardening back to a know-it-all tone. “You never know when an old piece of trash might spark joy again, so it’s best to hoard everything. For safety. Take that, Marie Kondo!”
Oscar the Treasure Hunter