Mom had planned our most spectacular and complicated hike for our last day in Utah. We had been here before, and wound up taking a different trail than we planned because (as we found out when we got there) the trail was in the river for at least 5 miles. Mom is braver about getting her socks wet now than she used to be, but something occurred to me as I hunkered deep into the blankets and steam came out of Mom’s mouth instead of breath as she stood waiting for her poop juice to boil. “Isn’t it too cold to go swimming?” I asked. “It’s winter and there’s been hardly any rain this year. The water level will be low, and what’s left will be frozen,” she said confidently. “Frozen?” “Yeah, you know… hard and slippery. If it’s frozen enough then it’ll support our weight when we walk across.” “And if it’s not frozen enough?” “We’ll get wet.” Mom shrugged. “It won’t be that different from when we’re hiking in snow and get our feet soaked.” In a voice like a time’s-up buzzer she concluded, “It’ll be fiiiiiiiiiiiine!”
So we set out at first light, prepared to hike fifteen to seventeen miles over ice, and who knew what other surprises. When we got to the water, it looked foggy and white like an old dog’s blind eye. When I got closer I saw that the ice was made like a puzzle and run through with cracks where the crystals hadn’t grown together yet. I carefully touched it and felt that it was hard, so I stepped on it. The ice made a crunching noise and my paw broke through. Then I felt cold sand on the bottom of my paw. “Mom! It’s not frozen enough!” I said. “So stomp on it before you take a step so that you don’t lose your balance when your foot goes through,” Mom said, like it wasn’t an emergency.
But soon we had to cross a wider ribbon of ice. This time Mom was in front, and when her foot fell through, it disappeared past the ankle. She let out a hoot. “Damn that’s cold!” she said. “Just like white dirt,” I reminded her. “Not at all like snow. So much colder than snow,” she gasped. “This is okay for one or two crossings, but if we do this too many times then we could get some serious frostbite, or even hypothermia.” “So what do we do?” I asked. “Do you want to make a snowman?!” “We let it go, let it gooooooo somewhere else!” Mom announced.
By now we were on the wrong side of the river, so Mom marched straight to the other bank, despite the stream of water that hadn’t even bothered to freeze running through the middle of her path. I watched in dismay as her leg disappeared half way up the calf, getting not just her socks wet, but her pants too. “Nah, I’ll live over here,” I announced. “Come on, Oscar. I’ll turn up the heat in the car,” Mom said. “You can’t be serious!” I said, reaching out with a paw up to my wrist, and then my elbow without finding the bottom. I pulled my paw back onto dry ground and waited for Mom to change her mind, but she turned and started walking away. So I stepped in up to my legpit, and then had to smash through the ice with my other leg to take another soggy step.
My legs ached to the bones as we walked the few minutes back to the Wagon, where I climbed into the blankets and tucked my frozen stumps underneath me like I was laying an egg, and shivered while Mom made another cup of hot poop juice for the road.
The Witch called the backup trail “hard,” but that could mean anything, really. Mom has learned to read the reviews for clues about what kind of adventure to expect, and nobody said anything like, “Oh my god, terrifying experience!” or “You’re definitely going to die if you try this trail” so we set out ready for safety and the unexpected. As The Witch pointed us toward the trail, Mom stopped looking at the road and looked excitedly at the huge mountains in front of us. Two enormous candy-striped mountains stuck out of the earth, leaning in toward each other We were headed directly for the spot where they met! On the roof of the mountains 2000 feet me I could see rugged curly trees growing right out of rock, and the whipped merengue formations that Mom loves so much, and somehow we hadn’t seen this trip.
“Do you think we’ll climb all the way up there?!” Mom said, excited. I looked at the sheer cliffs closing in on us from both sides and thought there was no way, but I’ve climbed enough mountains now to know that it’s impossible to guess what route a trail will take from the bottom.
We walked into the corredor between the mountains until the mountain came together in nature’s version of a cathedral or a throne room. Ice dripped from the walls in spikes, and froze in a shiny helmet over the rock that made it hard to climb. The trail had been following a stream, so I looked for the trail where the stream came from, but most of the water was simply seeping out of the walls. Except for where it fell from a narrow crack far above my head. “What now?” I asked. “Look! There’s a trail over here!” Mom said.
Even sheer cliffs are never totally straight up and down. There are always shelves and balconies from where the rock didn’t peel off evenly, and Mom had discovered some footsteps on one of those. We climbed out of the cathedral room and started working our way up the shelf in the wall. In some places the rock climbed in big steps and Mom had to give me a boost. In other places the trail was only about an Oscar wide, and Mom’s steps got invisibly tiny as she tried not to look into the crack next to us that was by now so deep I couldn’t see the bottom, even if Mom had let me hang my head over the edge to look.
At one spot where the rock climbed as high as Mom’s chin in one big step, Mom chased after me with shovel arms. I really don’t care for being picked up, especially because not all my legs land on flat ground at the same time, and so there’s always a scary moment before I’ve gotten my balance when Mom is just pushing me into the rock and anything could happen. This time I put my paws against the wall and pushed back with all my might. “Jesus, Oscar! Don’t do that! You’ll knock me over!” Mom said. “I’m just seeing if I can stand on this wall bit,” I said. “Well you can’t. It’s vertical. You can only stand on flat rock. Keep your legs in until you’ve got something to stand on, and don’t push me off a cliff!”
We climbed higher and higher. I could smell that Mom was equal parts scared and excited. She was scared of the cliff that was eating away at the trail, but she was excited at how close together both mountains were, with us between them. We didn’t know what was at the top of this candy mountain, but both of us were sure it would be incredible.
Soon I heard voices and ran ahead up the trail, leaving Mom scrambling over several steps where she had to climb on all fours. “Hi! I’m Oscar!” I said when I met the two ladies. “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to keep him from saying hi,” Mom shouted as she inched up the cliff. “He’s friendly, though.” “Hi! I love you,” I said, and the mountain walls repeated after me. Then I leaned my butt into the legs of one of my new Friends, who had stepped aside to let Mom pass. When Mom reached the landing and saw us all waiting for her, she practically screamed. “No hugging!” she choked when she saw me pushing against my new Friend. “Not on the cliff side of the trail!” “Don’t worry, we’ve still got a couple of inches,” my Friend said cheerfully. She looked over her shoulder and her cheerfulness only froze a little bit around the edges.
It’s hard to tell from this picture, but the only way up the trail was to climb that crack that was about as tall as Mom. It may look like the ground is right there, but actually the wall that’s not in the shade is part of the next mountain, and there’s a deep, deep, deep crack between the trees and it.
Not long after we reached a step almost as tall as Mom, and not quite as wide as Oscar. Our mountain rose straight up next to our left shoulders, and the opposite mountain went up even more steeply just a few feet to our right. But in between was a crack too deep for either of us to peer inside. Since no sunlight reached here, there was white dirt at the bottom of the step. Mom stood there for a long time studying it. “Well?” I asked. “What now?” “I’m trying to figure out how to get you up that,” Mom said. “There must be a way to do it where I won’t lose my balance.” “You mean lift a wriggling 60lb dog up above your shoulders while standing on a 10 inch circle of slippery white dirt above a cliff high enough for you to hit both sides on your way down? Piece of cake!” I said. “But then how will we get back down on the way back?” “Okay, fine. You’re right,” Mom said. Then she added, “You’re sure lucky I love you!” Like I’d forgotten all the other times we’d quit a trail because she was afraid of heights.
The further down we climbed, the thicker the cloud of disappointment got above Mom’s head. Every time she looked up at the little whipped peaks on top of each candy cane pipe of the mountain, the cloud got a little stormier. “I’m so disappointed!” Mom said. “Being cautious is the pits!” “Don’t worry, Mom. We can come back!” I said. “I’ve been thinking the whole way down that there has got to be a way to get safely over that spot, and I can’t think of a single way unless I leave you behind,” Mom said. “Maybe if I had a rope?” But no… we’d tried rock climbing with a rope once, and I had wriggled out of my harness. “It drives me nuts that sometimes the danger isn’t just in my own head, because there’s no toughing it out. Danger is an automatic game over. It sucks.” “So what are you going to do?” I asked. “Create a bucket list.” “What’s a bucket list? Is it like , and ice buckets, and mop buckets, and Charlie Bucket, and Prince Bucket Head?” “No. It’s a list of trails that require some thinking and shopping before we come back. Tomorrow’s trail is a bucket list trail, come to think of it…”
Oscar the Cliffhanger