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A dark place

You know how the air in a Stuck House gets stale when you haven’t left it to go on enough adventures? Our life has been getting musty like that. It was time to open Mom’s windows and air her mind out. Mom thought that a challenge was just the squeeze we needed, and whatever juice came out would tell us what she was made of deep inside. That’s when someone shared a video about the 4x4x48 challenge, created by a furless man-Oscar named named David Goggins. The challenge was to run or walk 4 miles every 4 hours for 48 hours to build mental toughness. 48 hours is 2 days, so the hardest part for Mom would be the night time parts when you’re supposed to be sleeping.

Mom thought that if we did the challenge while camping, it would be a good way to go into the wilder-ness without distractions and think about life, kind of like a vision quest. The problem with Mom’s plan was that she is the Weather Jinx, and it was raining almost everywhere in California during the week she picked for the challenge. No one ever achieved enlightenment in the rain, so just like all the prophets before us, we would need to travel all the way to the desert to seek our enlightenment.

The wind whooshed around the Covered Wagon when the sun told us it was time to wake up. When the wind is like that, Mom sometimes cracks the windows so we don’t die and sets up the kitchen inside the Wagon where the wind won’t blow the heat out of the fire for her poop juice. The stove had been hissing and moody on our last adventure, and now it had a total meltdown, spitting balls of fire and then blowing itself out. “This is not good,” Mom said. “It’s going to be windy all weekend, and with the stove inside the van we’re just asking for an accident to happen.” “Why would we ask for that?” I wondered. “It’s just an expression. It means we need a new stove.” “Where are we going to find a new stove in the middle of the desert?” I asked. I’d seen the survival shows, and was hoping that Mom would ask me to find her two sticks to rub together. But Mom didn’t answer because she was absorbed in searching through the kitchen bin, first at regular speed, then in fast forward. “Crap! I’m out of bowls. How could I forget that I ran out of bowls? All the food I brought is soup and yogurt!” I knew how to find sticks to rub together, but no survival shows ever explained how to find bowls in the desert. “Where are we going to find a stove and bowls in the middle of the desert, Mom?” “There was a Walmart in Barstow about half an hour back. I guess we’ll need to backtrack.” “You just wanted to go shopping, didn’t you?” “No, sir! The only reason Earnest Shackleton survived a winter stranded on the antarctic ice was because they wrecked near a Walmart.” “Really?” “Well you can’t read to fact-check me, so… Yes. Absolutely.”

So just like Earnest Shackleton, we turned into the wind and headed for our resupply point, were I guarded the Wagon while Mom secured our lifesaving supplies… and also some underpants with bananas on them.

First Leg: Saturday, some time around 10am || 4 miles

We arrived at the start with our new stove, bowls and underpants around 9:15 in the morning, and I was excited to see that a village of other adventurers had already set up a car-house settlement where we planned to do our challenge. Dogs barked, electricity boxes roared, people puppies screamed, tents smacked in the wind, and car-houses twanged country music. “Goody! A cheering section!” I said, bursting out of the Wagon to greet them.

We had planned to start at 10 in the morning, so we had some time before starting. I introduced myself to the other dogs, and then I walked around for a few minutes, adding my signature to the guest book in each of the bushes in our little city. When I was done, we still had half an hour to wait. Then Mom needed to go potty, so we walked to where no one could see Mom use the dog bathroom. But when she was done, we still had 25 minutes to wait. So Mom took my picture with the special sign we’d use to count our laps in pictures. But when we were done, we still had 22 minutes to wait. Then Mom took the pen and crossed out where it said 10AM and wrote 9:45AM, and then she threw the pen into the Wagon, never to be seen again. Now we only had one minute to wait, so Mom grabbed the packpack and we set off.

We walked our first four-mile lap so that Mom could take a lot of pictures and chart our course. The trail on the mapp was only a mile long, but it started a mile from The Wagon, so we would walk there, explore the trail, then find a way to wander through the desert for an extra mile before coming back. That would make 4 miles.

“Where are we going, Mom?” I asked, looking at the cobweb bushes and naked hills for a sign of something as exciting as I felt. “We’re going to go find a cave that used to be a volcano!” Mom said. “Based on the map, it must be on that hill up there.” “So we have to climb up a hill to go underground? Is that how caves usually work?” “Beats me. The closest I’ve ever come to climbing inside the earth through a hole in a volcano is reading Jules Verne when I was a kid. In Journey to the Center of the Earth, they find a portal to a whole underground world by climbing to the inside of a volcano. I bet it’ll be like that.” “I sure hope you’re right,” I said, thinking of the Lord of the Rings and what happened inside of that volcano.

So we started climbing up the side of the volcano toward the center of the earth. The volcano was steep and made of rocks the size of cat toys, which rolled away under my paws as we climbed. “Are you sure that these rocks aren’t going to fall on our heads when we are journeying to the center of the earth?” I asked. “Of course not,” Mom said. “I’ve seen pictures.” But when she thought I wasn’t looking, she quietly checked with The Witch. “Crap,” she said. “This is the wrong trail. I clicked Lava Beds trail when I meant to click Lava Tube trail. The trail we’re looking for is about 5 miles that way.” She waved her arm toward a different emptiness. We’ll have to drive over there and check it out on our next lap.”

As we climbed back down the hill, pushing loose chunks of the mountain downhill in front of us, two guys stood at the bottom watching our descent. They were dressed in a mix of bright hiking gear, and desert-colored army clothes. I imagined they must be doing something very manly like us, so ran down to greet them. “You must be very tough!” they shouted after I’d introduced myself. “I am, but you don’t have to shout. Dogs have excellent hearing,” I said before I realized they were talking to Mom. “It’s not so bad, just a little loose at the end,” Mom shrugged. “Do you guys climb big volcanoes like Kill-a-man Jaro?” I asked. “We were supposed to discover the center of the earth, but Mom took us to the wrong volcano and there’s nothing but rocks up there.” “I think we’re going to go hike somewhere else,” the more talkative man said. “Good call,” I told him. “You’re not missing anything. I actually thought we were on a different trail too,” Mom said. And then she told them about the center of the earth, in case they hadn’t been listening when I told them. “It’s not here,” the talkative Man said as if he were the one who had just climbed the volcano looking for it. “Yeah, I just realized that,” Mom said. “Have you been there? I’m not sure if my car can get there without four wheel drive.” “Our wagon has four wheels,” I clarified, so they wouldn’t think there was anything wrong with it. “Just that some of the wheels work better than others.” The man pulled out his Witch to look at the mapp, and Mom pulled up her mask and stepped in to look with him, even though she already knew where it was. “It’s right over there,” he said proudly pointing to a blank spot on the mapp. “And here we are,” he said, moving his finger a bit. “Right, but is it a real road?” Mom asked. “Oh, this map doesn’t show roads.”

Once the men had put their witch away and walked into the desert, Mom put the packpack down and we ran around in circles until her watch beeped the next mile and it was time to hike the last mile back to The Wagon. Then Mom made me climb inside without so much as a snack, and we drove out of our Wagon City and back to the main road. “Now go that way,” The Witch said, and The Wagon obeyed. “Now drive 7 miles and take a U turn.” The Witch said. “What the…?!” Mom disobeyed The Witch and turned around right where we were. A minute later The Witch said, “Okay, now drive 7 miles and make a U-turn.” “That’s what you said when we were going the other direction!” Mom said. She shook The Witch and pointed her back down the road to get her bearings again. Then Mom double checked which direction our blue dot was facing and turned around again. The Witch re-arranged our route and came up with a new plan. “Okay, now go 7 miles and make a U-turn.” “Are you kidding me?!” Mom said, stopping The Wagon again and turning around. We turned around again and again until Mom finally got fed up with everyone giving us bad directions and told The Witch to shut up and watch how it was done. Then Mom opened a different mapp, spun The Witch to take a bearing, and turned around for the twentieth time. After a few minutes The Witch said, “Ah, I see where you’re going. Turn here.”

Lap 2: 1:45pm Saturday || 5.15 mi

Spot the dog in this picture. Hint: He’s not in the cave.

The Witch screeched to let Mom know it was almost time to run again, and Mom pulled The Witch off the straw she’d been sucking power from. Then Mom made a sound like she’d been betrayed. “What? No!” Mom gasped. The Witch had played a dirty trick on her and must have been blowing into her juice straw rather than sucking power from it, because her battery was as empty as mile 22 of a marathong. The laptop that Mom had been typing on had also been on the blink, which means it had been blinking bright and dark on its own, just to mess with her. Luckily we always travel with backup batteries, so Mom put The Witch on life support and tried to shake off her annoyance at the blinking laptop screen as we got ready. “Our reserve power isn’t going to last the weekend if we can’t recharge,” Mom said, mominously. (She said “our electronics,” but she was the only one who brought any.)

We had parked a few miles from the trailhead again, so we ran down the sand road, diving into the bushes every time a car came by. There were a lot of cars on this car trail. We ducked out of the path of trail trucks with big tires and little city cars with only 2 doors. Mom gave them all a look like she does when she’s waiting to cross the busy street in front of our house and no one stops for her. These cars weren’t quite as crowded as our street in My Hometown, but I felt Mom’s annoyance crackling out of her just the same. But not me! I ran in the cool of her shadow with the wind to my tail and my tongue flapping out to kiss the day.

While we’d been sitting in the Covered Wagon, Mom’s bad mood had brought a cloud into the desert that erased all the distances and turned the air milky. “Look, Mom! There’s fog here just like at home!” I said, trying to make her feel better. “That’s not fog, it’s dust the wind kicked up from the desert,” Mom said in a stormy voice, like it was a bad omen but she wouldn’t say why.

When Mom’s watch beeped two miles, we didn’t turn around but slowed down to walk up a rocky trail. The rocks were supernaturally light, as if they were made of cobwebs. They were black, and sharp, and filled with holes and turmoil like Mom’s mood had spilled on the trail. Then I spotted a couple of railings crawling out of a hole in the ground. Immediately I pretended I hadn’t seen it, which is what I do with all Scary Things so that hopefully Mom won’t notice them. But she did notice, and she climbed down the stairs without waiting for me to follow.

Mom stood inside the hole and called my name. I gulped and stepped close enough to examine the stairs. Each rung was covered in toothy mouths that wanted to sink their fangs into my paws. That ladder wasn’t anything I wanted to explore, so I walked around the hole looking for another way to the center of the earth. I walked around the whole circle, but there was no ramp to get inside. So much for the American Dogabilities Act. I knew that if I waited long enough Mom would change her mind, so I stood back just far enough that she couldn’t see me and waited for her to climb out of the hole and abandon the idea forever.

She did come out, but when she did she was holding the leash. She clicked it on, and talked me down the paw-biting stairs until I was standing in the hole next to her. Then she turned and walked into an inky void. I could hear faint voices inside, and when a hunched demon crawled out of what looked like a wall of solid rock I was too spooked to bark at him.

Mom crouched down, and as my eyes adjusted I could see that she was crouching into a tunnel. I reluctantly followed her when the leash threatened to pull me in against my will. In a moment we came out in a large room lit by skylights. There was a dog and his family already in there, and I whimpered for Mom to drop the leash so I could introduce myself to all of them, but Mom was busy scouting for pictures of the spotlights that the sun made through the skylights, and the people puppy wanted to follow us everywhere we went. Mom would find a beam, and the people puppy would stand in it and tell us a story. Then, the people puppy started dancing a jig every time we stopped moving, and it was too distracting to sit still even when Mom told me to sit-stay for a picture. It’s just as difficult for Mom not to bark at people puppies as it is for me, and I could see the scream bubbling up inside her and pushing up against her clamped teeth and pursed lips.

Finally the family left, and a new group of people came in. We waited our turn while they took their pictures, but right when they were about to step away, the beam disappeared behind a shadow. “Hey! Look! There’s a hole!” the shadow said in a people puppy voice. “Hey! There are people down there. Hiiiiiiiiiii!” Mom rolled her eyes. “Come on, Bub. We’ll come back and get more pictures tomorrow.”

Lap 3: 5:45pm Saturday || 4 miles

Mom and I fell asleep during our afternoon break, and Mom woke with a start, which woke me with a start. I jumped to my feet and she looked over her shoulder. “Come on, Oscar! Go, go, go!” she said, crawling over my wardrobe bag and out of the one working door. “Is it time? Did The Witch not wake us? She ruins everything!” “The alarm will go off in a few minutes, but we’re going to miss the sunset!”

It took me a minute to shake off the nap, and then I was distracted by two giant car-houses speeding down the dirt road, and when I finally got to my mark, Mom looked sad. “You missed it again,” she said. “The sunset is over.”

Since we were up anyway, Mom grabbed the packpack and started walking down the dirt road. “Shouldn’t we run?” I said. “I don’t want us to be wimps.” “Nah, this isn’t about being hard on our bodies, it’s about toughening up our minds.” “Oh… is that why we’re in a place that’s kind of ugly?” I said. There may be pretty parts of the desert, but not in this area with its cobweb bushes and booger-shaped rocks. “Sort of. We’re supposed to focus inside during this challenge, so the outside doesn’t really matter.” Then she shrugged like she’d just been caught in a lie. “That, and the rain.”

So we walked down the road until the sky stopped burning and Mom was just a faint shadow in the dark. The moon was taking the weekend off, and zillions and zillions of stars had stepped in to cover its shift. “Mom! Mom! Did you see the shooting star? Did you make a wish?” I said. “I wished this wind would stop,” Mom said in a voice that had no jokes in it. “It’s relentless. Aren’t there old folk tales about the sound of the wind driving people mad? If there aren’t, there should be.” That sounded more like complaining than a wish. “I wished for a cheese stick,” I told her, to show how wishing worked.

With nothing to look at, I went into my nose and ran through the bushes sniffing for adventure. Again and again, I heard Mom calling in the darkness, and once her voice went from annoyed to stressed I would come and check on her, have a bite of dinner, and then return to my adventure.

Long after the day was gone from the sky both in front and behind; after we’d been walking for an hour by the light of the stars; suddenly The Witch spewed a bright light onto the sand. “Gad-zooks! Where did that come from?” I asked. “I turned on the flashlight on my phone,” Mom said. “Have you had a light this whole time?” “Yeah,” Mom shrugged. “I just didn’t want to use it if we didn’t have to. Once you turn it on you can’t go back to full dark again.” That sounded like one of Mom’s metaphors, but the next time I ran into the bushes I realized she was right and The Witch had stolen my eyes. Now that the light was gone, bushes and cacti reached out in the darkness and grabbed at my paws without warning.

This was so typical! It was just like that rotten Witch to add another thing for Mom to worry about. We had been just fine without the light, but now we would have to stop and sit in the dark for ages if we ever wanted our night eyes back, and without them we would be slaves to The Witch and her needs. It was the same with so many of Mom’s other “conveniences.” Keeping her laptop, watch, headlamp and The Witch charged in the desert was something that Mom had to plan for and spend effort managing rather than enjoying the desert and me in it. We had felt like the wealthiest explorers in history when Mom fixed the Wagon’s electricity hole last summer, but if she hadn’t it would have been the end of our trip, and we would have had to drive 1000 miles in silence without stories or a mapp to point the way home.

Mom thinks that her responsibilities make her happy, but I never see her get happy when she uses them, only how unhappy she is when they don’t work. She never notices the hardship of not having something she’s never had before, but take a new toy away and Mom acts as helpless as if her eyes were stolen in the desert. And once she’s had a thing, there’s no going back to the way things were before, either. Even if she decides not to use the flashlight, she has to live with the double responsibility of knowing that she’s making things harder on herself. A choice between the responsibility of having and the hardship of going without is no way to live.

I think that’s why Mom likes The Wagon so much. When your house is the size of a parking space, you can’t bring too much with you and so you’re free from having to take care of so much stuff. When Mom doesn’t have as much stuff to care for, there’s a lot more room in her head for discovering things. But when Mom’s stuff isn’t working right, then it could bring our adventure to an end faster than the hardship of any storm.

Saturday Night

Mom managed to heat up some soup despite the wind doing everything it could to steal the new stove’s heat. After spilling half of the can all over the kitchen bins, Mom crawled inside to eat her soup and wait until The Witch gave a 15 minute warning for the next lap.

We lay in the dark Wagon, nestled under cozy blankets as the sound of the wind blew every thought that wasn’t misery out of Mom’s head. The wind wasn’t so bad when we were standing in it, but now that we were listening to it howl from inside The Wagon, the idea of leaving The Wagon again wasn’t so different from turning off your light and walking into the dark.

The wind was so steady that I started to hear other sounds inside it. The sounds were smeared and distorted from all the distance they had covered, but when I listened closely I could hear the hoots and whoops of far-away doom buggy dudes, shouting as if they were still riding and weeeeing over the dooms like a rollercoaster. Then I jumped up and barked as lights invaded The Wagon like a time lapse sunrise and an engine growled right outside the door. “Are you serious?!” Mom grumbled, opening her eyes and peeking out the window. “There’s an open area the size of a tennis court and they park directly next to us?”

Over the past hour, I could feel the electricity off of Mom steadily growing. It was like the pinwheels in her mind were making more energy than her body could hold, and our neighbors were the power hit that fried her grid. This was more than the usual, “I don’t want to be doing this,” hum that comes off of her in the few minutes before we start any run. It was the ear-piercing crackle of someone getting ready to fight for her life. When Mom gets like this it’s called a “flashbang,” because all it takes is someone standing too close or moving too suddenly and Flash! Bang! Mom explodes into tiny pieces.

We lay there in the dark listening to the whoosh of the wind, and the thud of the neighbors bumping around their truck until there was so much electricity going through Mom that I thought she would start to glow. “That’s it, bud.” Mom said, sitting up and throwing off the blankets. “We’re going home.” “What? But we’re not done. And it’s 9 at night. And we’re not done.” “If you leave now, you can be home by 5 in the morning,” The Witch said, unhelpfully. “The idea of this challenge is to dig deep and see what’s inside, but there are places where it’s unwise to dig. Right now this is taking me to a really dark place; a place I’m not brave enough to explore right now.” “But isn’t that the point? To see what you’re made of and become brave?” I asked. “Sure, if you’re quitting because of weakness. But I don’t feel well in a different way. Goggins says that you fill your mental ‘cookie jar’ with experiences so that when you’re overwhelmed you can pull each one out to give yourself confidence. But I just noticed my cookie jar is full of lizards with big teeth, and the only thing I can learn by reaching inside is whether they’re crocodiles or fire-breathing dragons.” She grunted as she heaved open the driving door against the wind. “We can do the 4x4x48 at home sometime when the weather is okay, and we can choose between the treadmill and the well-lit trails near the house… and when I’m not having a massive panic attack,” she said, cranking the key so hard I was afraid it would break off. “We shouldn’t have tried doing this this for the first time in the van in the middle of a redneck convention.”

There was no arguing, since we were already rat-tat-tatting down the sand road. Right before we reached the main road, we had to pass through a tunnel of trucks whose lights shone into our eyes, lit the desert like daytime and hid the road in the dark beyond. The Wagon crawled carefully through them, trying not to squash the hollering doom-buggy men that reeled and staggered out of the shadows whooping their demon song. With their lights still haunting our eyes, Mom found the main road and we drove for hours until Mom’s thoughts were no longer boiling. Then we pulled off the highway and tried to sleep through the whistle of Mom’s steaming thoughts.

When the sun came up in the morning, I rolled in the sand as part of my pre-adventure warm-up while Mom made her poop juice. But Mom was all business and waved me back into The Wagon, which spent another half day driving to our Stuck House. I hoped after all that driving that we had outrun the demons, but by the time we got out of the car it was clear that the dragons had stowed away in Mom’s chest, because she was still breathing fire.

As soon as we came in the door, Mom stripped down to the running clothes she was still wearing from yesterday, and climbed onto the dreadmill to run off the dragons. But her responsibilities to her gadgets don’t end in the driveway. She’d left the dreadmill TV tablet unplugged and when she tried to wake it up, its face stayed blank. She plugged it in, but tablets have Witch DNA, so it refused to turn on. Mom is not helpless in the face of adversity, so she put the regular Witch on the dreadmill dashboard, and then hit the START button. Nothing happened. She hit it again. Nothing happened. She reached behind the dreadmill and examined its umbilical cord. Then she tried again. Still nothing. She hit every button, and the dreadmill stubbornly stayed in clothes rack mode. “No!” Mom said. “No! No! No!” But the dreadmill ignored her pleading and the dragons climbed closer to the surface and multiplied.

There was nothing to do but move on to the next chore. Mom tried making a grocery list, but every time she tried to catch a thought it slipped away from her like a crocodile slipping into murky water. Finally, she threw the pen on the counter in disgust, crumpled up her list, and stormed out the door. A moment later she exploded back in the door like a fireball from under the broken stove. I had been excited to greet her after such a long 10-second absence, but when I saw the fury in her face and the fireballs coming out of her eyes, I jumped back and cowered in the corner, making myself small. When she noticed me, she came over and gently patted my head, giving me a long kiss on the special spot between my eyes. “I’m not mad at you, bud. I’d never hurt you. It’s just that my car won’t start.”

She she grabbed the car AED with the conjoined alligator twins and stomped back out the door. I listened for the the chick-chick-vroom of our little city car starting, but the sound never came. This time when Mom burst in the door, she didn’t even bother to tell me that it was going to be alright before grabbing the Wagon keys. Then I heard The Wagon rumble to life and roll away. Then there was a terrifying silence.

The silence was broken a short time later with Mom bursting in the door like a mushroom cloud. “They deactivated my debit card!” she roared. “Because they got hacked, they can’t give me access to my money!” “Golly, it sure is lucky that it still worked at the gas station 300 miles ago,” I tried. But the steam had burned Mom’s ears had burned off long ago. “Where’s that card they sent me last week?” She grabbed something next to the key tray and disappeared again out the door, swinging it as if to slam it so hard she’d break the house down, and only slowing it down at the last second.

Mom did eventually buy groceries. A friend came the next morning and woke the car up, and a new dreadmill is moving into our house this weekend. But it took Mom more than 8 hours on the bike that weekend to burn up all the dragons and turn into herself again.

Oscar the Pooch


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