We’ve been traveling a lot in the past (dog) year, but Mom wanted to have one last mini-adventure before Mom started work and the calendar leash started leading us around again. So we mounted The Truck and headed for the foothills to enjoy a couple more days without screens.
The first day we hiked at the bottom of a deep valley. Mom tried to get excited about the wildflowers, but even though the they were here for a limited time only, her eyeballs kept floating off the valley floor and up, up, up the mountainside until they got snarled in the naked rock next to the sky. That’s just how it is when your heart is made of stone.
When we were done, The Truck carried us out of the crack in the earth and roamed the hills until The Witch announced she was ready to talk to us again. Then Mom ordered The Truck to pull over to gaze rapturously into The Witch’s eyes and passionately stroke her glowing face.
“How about we save the run we were supposed to do tomorrow and hike this other trail that’s been on my list for awhile?” Mom said, with her love-you-more eyes still stuck to The Witch.
“What’s the other trail like?” I asked.
“It goes around a lake, and then I think there’s a waterfall. It’s marked as hard, but it’s mostly flat. Doesn’t that sound nice? You can drink whenever you want.”
That sounded like a Witch trap if ever I’d heard one. “If most of the route is flat, then why is it called hard?”
“Oh, there’s just this short section where you have to climb like 300 feet, but it’s less than a quarter mile long…” Mom said with her voice hardening from lovey dovey to I’m sure it will be fine.
“That sounds like the sort of trail that has surprises…” I said. “What do the reviews say?”
Mom read aloud, her voice fading in and out like a call with a bad signal. “… A bit of a scramble… Not really a dog trail… Just follow the arrows and you won’t get lost… Climb at the end is rough for dogs… Ice on the south side of the lake almost gone… Recommend bringing a friend and harness with a lifting handle if you plan to hike with a dog… Beautiful! …Nice, easy walk around the lake...” She tore her gooey eyes from The Witch long enough to look at me. “See? The reviews say it’s beautiful, and the snow and ice are just about gone for the season! It’s perfect!”
“Are you sure you’re reading everything that’s there?” I asked. I didn’t know exactly how reading worked, but it sounded like either Mom or The Witch was leaving important things out. “What was that stuff about dogs?”
“I don’t think it was important,” Mom said. “How many times have we hiked trails that the reviews said were impossible only to find that they were no drama or there was an easy way around. Maybe it’ll be too technical for us and maybe it won’t. We won’t know until we get there.”
“Do you ever wonder why people are always telling you to be careful?” I asked.
“That’s just what people say when don’t know what they’re talking about and want to give advice anyway.”
When we arrived at the lake in the morning it must have been low tide, because the lake wasn’t next to the trail like The Witch had promised. We walked down the long beach past balls chained to boulders and docks floating on dry sand.
“Is this place a jail for rocks?” I asked, sniffing at a ball and chain.
Mom studied the boulder, and then scanned all rusted chains and busted handcuffs along the beach. “They’re buoys,” she said in the voice of a salty old sailor. “Do you know what they use buoys for?”
“They’re like road signs but on water, right?”
“That’s what they want you to think,” she said, her voice turning hollow and haunted. “Buoys are like gravestones, they mark where there’s a dead body underneath.”
“You’re pulling my tail. Why would they bury someone at the bottom of a lake?” I said. It didn’t sound right, but I’d never sniffed underwater, so it was tough to know for sure.
“Have you ever looked at a buoy chain underwater?”
“I don’t like to swim, remember?”
“Well I have. You see the chain going down, down, down into the depths, but you never see what’s on the other side. What else would be down there except a dead body? The whole bottom is lined with ’em, but some try to get away, so they lock them in chains and tie them down so they don’t pull unsuspecting swimmers down with them.”
I shuddered. I was glad I was a runner and not a swimmer. “But look!” I said, sniffing all the way around the chained-up boulder. “No dead bodies! Not even a skeleton. Just rock. Maybe someone was pulling your tail.”
“That’s what you think,” Mom said, looking at the lake with empty eyes. “I’m sure they’re still under there, layered two deep. It won’t be long now before there are no lakes left to hide in, and then we’re really in trouble.”
“Why would the dead bodies go back underwater when their eternal resting place dried up if they had to be tied down in the first place?” I asked. “Wouldn’t they stay on land where there are more brains to eat?”
“Aye. You’re right,” Mom said, squinting at the woods like a mariner spotting land behind the sunrise. “These hills must be crawling with zombies already.”
The lake pinched into a river on the far side, and we followed it deeper into the mountains as the trees closed in around us.
“Do you hear something?” I shouted. The forest was filled with a deafening hiss like it was booby trapped with live wires or infested with snakes. I looked around for danger, and my eyes swam up the river from the corpse-less pool next to me to a whirlpool of froth hiding the bottom. Was this where the zombies had gone?
“There’s a waterfall over there,” Mom said. “Shame we can’t get closer to it.”
“Why can’t we get close to it?” I asked, sure the answer was boobie traps or zombies.
“Because these trees and those rocks are in the way, dummy!” she said. Apparently she’d forgotten already.
I squinted into the mist above the foamy whirlpool and could barely make out between the tree trunks where the water was tumbling to its doom. I looked higher through the branches, and saw more water plunging headlong through rocks. I looked up more to the gap in the treetops where some sky showed through, and spied even more water desperately trying to hang on before something I couldn’t see flung it off a cliff.
“That sure looks steep,” I said, feeling sorry for the water. “I’m glad we don’t have to climb it.”
Then the trail slammed into a stone wall. It wasn’t the kind of flat one-rock wall where the water met its turbulent end, but more like a barricade of oddly-shaped boulders piled against the mountainside to keep all but the most reckless travelers away. Mom studied the rocks, and then climbed in among them.
“I don’t think this is the right way,” I said. “Seeing as there’s no trail or anything.”
“The trail’s right here,” Mom said. “See the arrow?”
I looked where her eyes were pointing, and saw three painted lines bunched together on one side. I looked around for signs of an ambush, and then followed Mom into the rocks.
Climbing rocks like these is like putting together a puzzle. You need to look closely to find the pieces you need, and then carefully test how all the pieces fit together before arranging your paws for takeoff. Before we were experts, Mom used to micromanage my climbs. I had to sit-stay and watch her until her feet were standing roughly where her nose had been, and then she would turn and show me exactly how she’d done it, patting each rock and ledge and waving her hand over here until I was next to her again. If I didn’t like the route she’d set, she would declare a penalty, scoop me up in her forklift arms and shove me onto the next level like a wriggling sack of potatoes.
It got boring watching Mom climb, so once her back was turned and I was sure she wouldn’t fall like Humpty Dumpty, I began exploring while her back was turned. Usually I found an easier way around, and was waiting for her at the next flat spot with a kiss when Mom’s face popped over the ledge. At first Mom used to get butthurt that I didn’t follow her advice, but soon she had to admit that it was faster and safer to delegate and let me figure things out myself.
These days we each pick our own routes. Mom favors the straightest line and uses her monkey paws to pull herself up when walking isn’t enough. I pong from side to side, making my own switchbacks and checking on Mom when our paths cross in case she’s taken a great fall and needs someone to put her back together again.
Soon I looked up to see Mom standing with her hands on her hips and her head tilted like she was listening to the mountain, and didn’t like what it was saying. I looked at the rocks in front of her and spotted the worst kind of dog-block: a frisbee-shaped rock wedged into a crack and pointing toward the sky. Rocks like this were no problem for Mom, who uses her weird, paw-tentacles to hang onto the edge, her noodle arms to pull herself up, and her sticky-outty legs to walk up the walls. But for a hiker shaped like me, overhanging rocks block the mightiest of jumps, keep me from making stairs from the rocks below, and leave only empty air for my legs to scrabble on.
“Hang on, bud,” Mom said, wiggling over the top of the dog trap. When she found a flat spot, she turned around and studied the rocks from above.
“Hang on! I’ll be right there!” I put my front paws on the crack for balance and stood tall on my hind legs for a better look. “Hey, I don’t think I can jump this!” I panted. “Come back and fix it, please.”
“Come on, bud. You’ve figured out tougher things than this,” Mom said, sitting down to show that she’d wait.
I put my paws on the other side of the crack. “Nope. No way up here either,” I whined. “Aren’t you coming down yet?”
Mom sighed, and crabbed sideways away from the crack without coming down. “Look over here,” she said, flapping her hand toward a shady spot.
I walked into the shade, but the rock she was sitting on was too tall to climb. “Okay, I’m ready. This looks like a good landing spot for you. Are you coming down now?”
“Okay, now come this way,” Mom said, backing away up the rock.
“Hey, where are you going?” I asked, walking around the side to where the rock wasn’t blocking my view of her. “Oh look! There’s a way up over here!” I ducked under a bush and ran through a cave that was too short for Mom but just right for me. “Here I am!” I wagged as I joined her on the rock.
“Good boy!” Mom cheered, patting me and giving me a handful of brunch.
The next dog trap was a block-shaped rock the size of a basement freezer where they keep dead bodies in the movies. Mom slowed down to study the grabbing and standing places. “Okay, wait. Let me just…” she started.
“I’ll set the route on this one!” I announced, bursting past her so fast I left her reeling like a bowling pin. I flew at the rock and landed just below the landing pad. I had watched Mom climb so many times that I was sure I’d finally figured out how to stick to a wall and climb it like a lizard, but even though my front paws were on the rock I couldn’t pull myself up no matter how hard I pushed. My back paws wouldn’t stick either, and I scratched and scrabbled trying to get it right before the earth sucked me back down.
Suddenly I felt a shoulder land under my butt and an arm shoot under my chest to make a kind of perch. I hung there frozen for a second draped on Mom’s arm like a towel on the dreadmill.
“I think I might have made a mistake,” I said, turning back to plan my drop.
“Nope!” Mom grunted, putting my front paws back on the freezer-shaped rock and stepping forward to shove me with her shoulder. “If you try to land down there you’ll get hurt. There’s no turning back now, you’re going to finish this!” I thought I could land safely where Mom was standing if she would just get out of the way, but’s hard to aim when you’re floating and someone twice your size is smooshing you forward with all her might.
“But I caaaaaan’t,” I said, swiping my paws feebly at the rock to show how hopeless it was. But Mom was in a stubborn mood, and with each scrabble she pushed me a little forward and upward until all four paws were on the flat rock and Mom was loose behind me.
“I could have done that on my own,” I told her as she climbed up behind me.
“It’s okay to ask for help sometimes,” Mom said, patting my head.
“But your help is usually crap,” I said. “Where do you even come up with those crazy ideas? You want me to do the most impossible, dangerous stuff.”
“I’m just telling you what I’d do,” she shrugged. “And it comes from experience. I’m climbing exactly the same stuff, remember?”
“Yeah, but you’re a different shape. And a different size. And you wear your head on top rather than out front, so you never go places head first. Your advice just makes me doubt myself.”
“I just want you to be safe. You’re always jumping on and off things that are too tall without checking for a safer way.”
“I can’t fly if I hesitate on the runway, and I land harder when I flinch. Sometimes boldness is the safest way.”
“You dope. You didn’t hesitate a minute ago, and you still borked the take-off. You would have busted an ankle too if I hadn’t caught you.”
“I just wanted to show you that it’s okay to get help sometimes,” I said.
“From a dog?” she said, choking on her laugh.
“Dogs are a good choice, but others can step in in a pinch.”
The laugh in Mom’s face turned to dust. “People give bad advice,” she said with a voice like a rock. “They just tell you what they would have done, and what’s good for one person isn’t what’s good for another. Like you just said.”
“Oh sure. You’ve got to look alive and find the path that’s best for you, but you’re still going to get stuck sometimes. And that’s when you need someone who has your back and can give you a little boost on the path you chose for yourself.”
“I think I’d rather take a hard fall than have someone shove me down a path that isn’t working,” she said.
“Then you’ll stay at the bottom of the waterfall forever,” I said.
I stopped so Mom would take her eyes off of the rocks in front of her and look around. When she looked back, she finally noticed that we had reached the top of the mountain and were standing at the place where the water disappeared into open air. I followed her toward the edge, and sat down when we were close enough that Mom was taking baby steps in slow motion. She stretched her neck like a brontosaurus to peek over the edge.
“If you let someone help you to the top of the mountain, then there’s someone there who might push you off,” Mom gulped. “Come over here so I can take a picture. Hey… where are you going?”
Oscar the Pooch