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Altitude problem

Do you ever wonder what’s wrong with some trails? You show up and you’re the same Oscar you’ve always been, but this trail is all wrong and ruins your day.

Mom and I camped in a traditional ceremonial area, under the shade of a beautiful historic billboard advertising sandwiches, where the ground was littered with ancient artifacts. “Look, Mom! Are these arrowheads?!” I asked, looking at a dozen slivers sticking out of the earth. “No, they’re broken beer bottles. Get away from there,” she said, shooing me back into the Covered Wagon.

The part of New Mexico surrounding the historical marker we called home was featureless and boring, worse than the bleakest scene-opening shots in Breaking Bad. But as we drove to the trail, cliffs began to rise up out of the bleakness. As we got closer, the cliffs grew columns, stripes and cubbyholes, and the hike started to look more promising.

We couldn’t find an obvious trailhead from the car kennel, but the miniature cliffs in that spot were no taller than a house with an attic, so Mom thought we could climb wild to the top. We chose the part of the cliff that wrapped behind the people potty and set off through the scrub and big rocks to the rim. Once we had reached the top of the cliff, the trail was there waiting to lead us along the cliff. If the cliff to our right wasn’t enough to show us the way, the trail was also marked every 3 Oscar-paces with a Karen. We ran until about 10 minutes later we landed at the road. “Dog doo!” Mom said. “We went the wrong way!”

I don’t know that it mattered what direction we went in, since the scenery stayed the same for the whole run. The cliff marked a boundary, like a curb in the earth. Below, the crinkly and broken land looked like someone had crumpled and wadded up the blacktop of the world’s largest car kennel, and then changed their mind and tried to flatten it out again. Mom said that used to be lava, but I thought she must be wrong since everything around lay in straight lines with no triangles for volcanos. On top of the cliff, the brick-grey rocks and scrubby bushes stretched out in a long plane to eternity in every direction but one. The trees were the only things that gave the landscape any shape. The ones that were still alive stood short and lonely like stubborn trolls, guarding the edge of the cliff and hunkering against the relentless wind. The dead trees were gnarled and pointy, and stuck their twisted claws into the sky like something reaching out of the grave.

Since the trail was flat, we started jogging unenthusiastically, hoping to find something nice to look at. “Mom, I feel like someone put my body on mute,” I said. “I can’t hear my leg muscles.” Mom was also running like she had the emergency brake on and was losing momentum with every step. “It’s the altitude, I think,” she said. She wasn’t gasping or out of breath, but her voice sounded thinner and weaker, like her batteries were going flat. “We’re above 7000 feet. I think… maybe… we’re going uphill too.” I looked around but didn’t see a single mountain. How could we be that high up on flat land? “No way. You’re just looking for an excuse for how lame you are.”

The rocks we were running on didn’t help either. With Mom’s big, floppy feet she kept rolling this way and that on her ankles. When she rolled off a rock funny, she howled and growled, so to keep the peace she ran with tiny little prancing steps that didn’t move her much faster than walking. We ran 3 more hard-fought miles until finally, we reached the end of the trail. I looked down on a little cul-de-sac in the cliffs, where the sandstone had made a giant arch. It was cool, but I’d just come from Utah and wasn’t easily impressed. With a shrug, we turned around and dribbled back through the most draining 3 miles on earth.

The longer we were on top of the cliff, the more the wind blew. It flapped through my ears and blew all the thoughts out of my head, except the ones that wished this run was over. There’s something about wind that makes everything seem harder. When Mom asked me to “sit” for a picture, I couldn’t be bothered. And when she used the leash to drag me into place, the wind made it seem like too much effort to stay. People think that rain is the weather that’s most like depression, but I think that wind feels much more like being depressed than rain because it makes you lose interest and makes everything feel harder.

By the time we got back to the Covered Wagon, Mom’s speech sounded gummy and I felt like I was made of lead. On the way out of the park, we passed the arch again. With a sigh, Mom pulled over for one more picture. We trudged up the quarter-mile trail to the view point, where I sat and stared blankly, waiting for it to be over. There was a little trail that climbed under the arch, and I saw Mom notice it. But then she picked up my leash and we plodded doggedly back to the car instead.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?!” said an accent that cut through the fog above my drooping head. I looked up to see a lady in a tourist t-shirt smiling at Mom with gapped teeth. I looked at her, puzzled. Couldn’t she see that this place was all wrong? “Help me,” I panted, melting against her leg and hoping it was enough for butt scratches. “Yeah,” Mom agreed, because she didn’t know what else to say. I propped myself up against the lady’s shins. People haven’t wanted to pet me lately because they don’t know if I’ve been rolling in viruses, but this wonderful Friend didn’t hesitate to reach down and scratch me back to life and tell me what a sweet boy I am. Then Mom dragged me away.

“Mom, why didn’t that lady see what bad juju there is here?” I asked. “I think maybe we’re just tired,” Mom said. “We’ve been pushing pretty hard for over 2 weeks now, and we’re probably dehydrated. As much fun as it is to explore things, sometimes it’s a better adventure to sit and look up at things. There are situations where you miss the best of something if you’re standing on top of it.” This seemed like the sort of lesson that was worth discussing more, but now that I was nested in the blankets, it felt much more important to let Mom concentrate on the road.

Oscar the Slouch



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