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Almighty Mittens



"Where the hell are we?" Mom asked the blackness outside the front window.


The line in the road blinked like a cursor, as if the night needed time to think.


"Where the hell are we?" she asked the Witch impatiently.


"You are offline," the Witch said.


"We're in Utah, remember?" I helped.


"Arizona, actually. Remember, we crossed the border last night right before the turnoff for the campground?"


"Oh yeah," I said, not because I remembered, but because it's what Mom wanted me to say. I remembered the rushing as we raced the sun toward a place called Monument Valley. When Mom saw that we were going to lose, she stopped rushing and I stopped paying attention. The sun was long gone by the time we arrived at the campground, and now, even though it was supposed to be morning, the desert was even darker than the night before.


"There was only one turn. How did we even get lost?" Mom asked the Witch, as if it weren't the Witch's fault that we were in this fix to begin with. If she weren't giving Mom the silent treatment, Mom wouldn't have tried to navigate on her own. Mom hit the shut up button in disgust. "We're definitely going to miss sunrise now."


"Are you sure?" I asked. "It looks pretty dark to me..."


"Yes! Sunrise is at 6:07 and it's already..." she woke up the Witch, "almost 5:45."


"Oh, there you are," the Witch said brightly. "You're going the wrong way. You will arrive in 27 minutes... oop, no 28 minutes now." Mom made the sound someone makes on TV when they're being rurmered... durmered... medr... (Darn it, I can never remember how to pronounce that word on Facebook.) "You will arrive at 5:10 am," the Witch concluded.


Mom looked at the Witch suspiciously. "What time is it?"


"It's 5:48 am," the Witch said confidently. "And you will arrive at 5:10am."


Mom groaned. "I need more coffee."





Finally, a twinkle appeared in the front window and grew into the campground.


"Welcome to Arizona!" the Witch chirped.


"What time is it now?" Mom tested.


"It's 4:57 am," the Witch said brightly.


"Gotcha!" Mom paused to enjoy how smart she was before revealing the brilliant plot twist to me. "Utah and Arizona are in different time zones for half the year. That means that the sun rises an hour earlier in Utah than it does in Arizona."


"How can the sun rise at a different—"


"Welcome to Utah!" the Witch interrupted. No sun appeared in the sky.


"What time is it?" Mom quizzed.


"It's 5:59 am."


"Ah hah!" Mom said triumphantly. "Remember last night when I asked what time sunrise was in Monument Valley?"


"Yeah."


"Google thinks that Monument Valley is in Arizona, so she told me sunrise in Pacific time. Except that the campground was back on the Utah side, so it woke me up at 5am Utah time."


"Dogs don't speak math. What does that mean in words?"


"It means that the mistakes cancel out and we're early," she said as if getting lost and losing sleep made us not-losers. "We must have been sitting on the Utah/Arizona border all night. That explains why my phone's been so squirrelly. I knew I didn't spend that long in the bathroom."


"Welcome to Arizona! In two miles, you will arrive at your destination," the Witch announced, saving me from Mom's mad tea party.



The car-house pulled into a cubby beside the road as the first stripes of light cracked the night. Mom opened a folding chair and we sat beside the car-house, watching the sun rise simultaneously an hour apart.


The set of an old western movie appeared out of the darkness like the crumbling skeleton of an ancient city. Mom sat in her chair sipping poop juice and trying to look absorbed in the movie without its actors, dialog, or horses. Anywhere I tried to sit was covered with prickly plants, so I investigated the rusty beer carcasses littering the ground and tried to imagine what vicious beast murdered them.


"According to the Navajo, they're the remains of terrible monsters turned to stone by a magical spell," Mom said, looking across the landscape so it was hard to tell if she was talking about the crumbling mountains or just being philosophical.


I looked nervously at the beer skeletons. "What kind of monsters?"


"I don't know. I started reading the story on a poster outside the bathroom, but then the person finished in the bathroom and I didn't read the whole thing. You can see why they thought they were the remains of gods and mythical monsters, though." She sipped her poop juice. "These buttes must have played an important role in their lore."


"These what?"


"Buttes. It means a mountain that's shaped like..."


"I know what butts are shaped like," I giggled.


"Oh stop. That one over there is called the King on His Throne. See him sitting there holding his scepter? They call that one Stagecoach Mesa, which I guess I can kind of see. But I do not see Train Butte, do you?"


"A train's butt is called a caboose," I said, struggling to hold in my giggles until the punchline. "Chugga-chugga-poo-poo!"


"And there's Boot Mesa," Mom said, pronouncing boot extra clearly so I knew she didn't say booty. "Eagle Rock, Thunderbird Mesa..."


"Thunderbirds are cool," I improvised, hoping there was a fart joke in it for me somewhere.


"There's Castle Rock, Seven Sailors, Bear and Rabbit Butte..." I tried to hold it in. "...Camel Butte..." It was too hard! "...Elephant Bu—" I couldn't hold it in any longer. "What?" Mom asked.


"You said Camel Butt!" I tittered. "And then you said Elephant Butt right after that. How can I not laugh?"


"You should never laugh at someone's spiritual beliefs," Mom said, trying to hide her soreness at being the butt of the joke behind respectfulness.




When the light was spread evenly in the sky, Mom folded up the chair. The light leaked onto the desert floor as we remounted and soaked into the giant graveyard as we drove through. I settled into the copilot's seat and rested my head in Mom's lap, letting the car-house blow the morning cold out of my bones.


I was just nodding off when the car-house stopped. A gate lay across the road, propped carelessly against a tiny cabin the size of one of those plastic potties that you find at races and beaches. Except this cabin had windows.


"Open sesame!" I ordered the lady sitting inside.


I expected her to scream and slam the window shut like Mom does when someone interrupts her in the potty, but she just smiled. This was my first time visiting a reservation, so I listened carefully to the pronunciation when the woman greeted us in her language.


"Eight dollars, cash or card to you too, ma'am!" I woofed as Mom pulled something from her wallet and fed it through the tardis door. Hearing the magic words, the enchantress accepted Mom's offering and waved her hand at the gate. On her command, the gate floated into the air just long enough for us to pass through before settling back across the road behind us.


We drove past the traditional Navajo food court and the site of the ancient Chevron trading post, where a wild horse filled his tank in the grassy patch outside. Rather than enjoying the rich cultural history, Mom kept her eyes on the crumbling rocks in the background.


"That one's called Setting Hen, and this one is Rooster Bu—" Mom caught herself and gave me the side eye. "Let's call it Rooster Rock."


"These have to be the least thrilling butts in the whole valley," I said. "Why don't we go back to the cool ones like the Thunderthighs or the Camel's Humps?"


"Just wait till you hear what they call the buttes we're hiking around," she said, looking so giddy that I was sure she was warming up to her own butt joke.


"The Plumber's Krakin? The A-bum-minable snowman? The Butt-badook? Ass-squatch?"


"They're called..."



"... Mittens." When I didn't say anything, Mom nodded toward the two closest monsters. "See the thumbs?"


"Dogs don't have thumbs."


"Well mittens do have thumbs. Stop being such a fuddy-duddy."


"Who's afraid of a big, bad mitten?"


"You're not supposed to be afraid of it. I think you're supposed to venerate it."


The mittens grew in the front window as I venerated them. I venerated them so much that they shape-shift from mittens into mountains. The car-house stopped in awe.


There was something creepy about being so close to something so big. Its stone walls filled the whole world up to the sky, and yet I could see around it without turning my head. I'd never been close to anything like it that didn't have a front door. What were they hiding?


As we walked around it, the mitten all but disappeared. From the side, the fingers transformed from the a paddle to flake so thin that it was practically invisible. This truly was a magical world, where the sun could rise in two places at once, people could lift gates with their minds, whole mountains could disappear, and the smell...


"Hey, do you smell cheeseburgers?" I sniffed.


A streak in the corner of my eye caught my attention. "Did you see that?" I cocked my ears and swiveled my nose until I could place where the Taco-Bell-meets-Sonic-Burger smell was coming from.


Mom shrugged. "I think it was a..."


A dusty tail with a dreadlock or two hanging from its shaggy underside disappeared behind a rock. I took off after it, dragging Mom whining behind me.


"Hurry, Mom! I think it's really him this time!"


Mom pulled on the leash and growled, "Stop pulling."


"But it's the original trickster of the desert," I wheezed against my collar. "Shapeshifting bestower of humor and wisdom. Best supporting actor in a creation story near you."



"What are you talking about? Stop it. What's gotten into you?"


"It's Wile E. Coyote, and you're letting him get away!" I whined urgently.


I dragged Mom around a rock the size of a house and found him scrounging in the skeleton of an old tree. He wasn't a coyote at all, more like a schnoodle or the biggest shih-poo I'd ever seen. He wore no leash and scuffled without the swagger of responsibility.


Something about all that freedom without the accountability to the rules got under my hackles. "HEY! Where are your people, you flea-ridden wad of fur?"


He carried on snuffling.


"You've got dingleberries in your butt fur, you know that?" I bellowed. "You need a bath, pal."


He lifted his head and loped toward us.


I puffed up my hackles ferociously and pretended to lean hard against the leash. "Hold me back, Mom, or this flea-bitten mongrel is gonna get what's coming to him."


He trotted past me without so much as a look and introduced himself to the family behind us on the trail.


"Don't you speak barking?" I shouted after him. When he still didn't react, I turned to Mom. "What's up with him?"


"You know how we're just pretending to be homeless? Well he actually is."


"You must be confused, Mom. People can be strays, but dogs never are. If a dog ever gets lost, there's always a nice family to pick him up and give him a nice wardrobe and a basket full of toys. Then he gets featured on The Dodo and lives happily ever after. Happens every time."



"That dog has never lived in a house in his life, he wouldn't know how to do it. He would spend his time wishing for the freedom he's used to and tearing up the furniture in protest."


"But how does he open the Food Fortress without help?" I looked up at the giant thumb reaching toward the sky. How big of a food fortress could the hand that fit in that mitten open?


"He doesn't look starving. I bet there are plenty of people that leave food and water out for him. He probably only comes down here when the food court at the visitor center is closed."


Fake E. Coyote plunked his scraggly butt in the dust in front of the hiker. The hiker pulled a snack from thin air as if by magic.


"You mean there are dogs that get to eat at fancy restaurants every day?" I gasped. "Mom, how could you?"


All this time I thought I'd been playing Mom for treats. I thought she said good boy because she was celebrating getting better at cheese dispensing. But she knew what she was doing the whole time! She was tricking me with treats! Tricking me out of chasing a squirrel. Tricking me into running at her poky pace. Tricking me into sitting under the table when everyone knows that the good stuff is on top. Meanwhile, this scruffy scam artist was eating Taco Bell for every meal.


"What else have you been hiding from me?" I demanded.


"It's probably not as great as you think. Look, he doesn't even know how to ask for butt scratchies. He must never get pet."


The hiker showed the stray his all gone hands and the dog waddled off without even saying thank you. 


"You know what good manners gets you?" Mom asked.


"Food scraps," I sulked.


"Maybe so," Mom said, "but when we get back home I'm going to look for a job where you can come to work with me. And only the politest dogs can sit under a lunch table where fifteen people are eating."


The thought was too nice to let Mom mess it up by explaining, so I walked on in silence while my imagination answered all the questions I could think of.


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