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When Mom planned this trip, she thought that maybe we should take our third day of Thanksgiving and drive to Arizona, but now that we remembered how pretty Las Vegas was (so long as we stayed away from the buildings), we decided to go back to the Danger and Death Park one last time. “But this time let’s stay on the tourists trails and just look at the scenery rather than trying to climb it,” Mom suggested. “I’m sick of hiking with a gnawing fear of death and dismemberment.” “Okay, no danger then.” I agreed, more for Mom’s sake than for mine. Girls are afraid of everything. We decided to walk a loop around the whole valley, staying inside the wall of the mountains and not climbing any of them.

When we woke up, the mountains had a tasteful decoration of white dirt on them from the storm the day that

Mom had gone swimming. “They look like bundt cakes!” Mom said, clearly pleased with herself for making a meta-for and forgetting that she wasn’t the writer in the family. The word “meta-for” comes from the word “meta” meaning “nonsense words that hipsters use” and “for” meaning “for something you could say more clearly.” “What’s a bun-cake?” I asked. “It’s like if a donut and a poundcake had a baby…” then she interrupted her explanation about where baby cakes come from. “NO! It’s like a panettone!” “What’s a pain in the tony?” I asked, thinking maybe that was a word for what Mom is. “It’s like if a bundt cake and a scone had a baby…” Mom said. I didn’t think that babies should be having babies, even if they were just cakes, so I asked Mom to stop describing things.

The sign on the gate to the park said that it opened at 6am, and because Mom can tell time I thought that she knew what she was doing when she drove the Covered Wagon to the park at 7am. But it was closed. “How long until 6am?” I asked. “23 hours,” Mom said, but she was already rolling down her window to ask a question to the man in the Smoky the Bear costume who was arranging cones in the middle of the road. “Hey, how long is the park closed for?” Mom asked him. “We’re going to miss this beautiful, sunny day!” I screeched to Smoky. “How can you be arranging cones in traffic at a time like this?” “The park doesn’t open until 8,” Smoky told Mom. I didn’t know how long it was till 8, but Mom seemed happy with his answer, so I think it meant that we weren’t going to miss the beautiful day. So we went down the road a little ways until we found a Witch signal, and sat in the cozy Wagon and listened to the peaceful gunfire from the gun ranch we were parked in front of.

When it was almost 8, we drove back to where Smoky and a bunch of his friends were blocking the gate with their forest of cones and flashing trucks. We stopped in the clump of cars that had gotten stuck in the cones, and waited for them to open the gate. And waited. And waited. “Aw come on!” Mom said. “I really have to go to the bathroom!” But she didn’t roll down the window so that Smoky could hear her, so we waited some more. And waited. And waited. When it was 23 1/2 hours to 8:00, a different man in a Smoky costume asked Mom to roll down the window, and told her that the Covered Wagon was blocking the bike lane. “Well your cones are blocking the car lane!” I barked. “And the park isn’t going to open until 9 or 9:30 because of weather,” Smoky Jr. told her. “What weather? It’s a beautiful, sunny day, and so was yesterday,” she asked me, because she’d already rolled up the window in Smoky Jr’s face.

When we returned to the park an hour later, they let us in. The most adventurous part of our day was over, but we still had to hike 12 miles around the valley, in a loop sandwiched between the inside edge of the mountains and the outside edge of the road. We hiked through the bubbly spaghetti-sauce-colored rocks, and then we turned away from them and into the sandy desert where the only hikers we saw were jackrabbits. The trail was easy to follow, and easy to walk on, and had no puzzles for our heads or our feet. “I wish we were running right now,” Mom said. “Why don’t we?” I asked. “Because I didn’t bring any running stuff…” Mom said. I don’t get why humans need to have a different outfit for everything. I wear the same collar every day, and the only time I change my outfit is when I put on a tie for work, but Mom has different clothes not just for every day, but different times of day too. What was weird was that Mom was still wearing the same clothes she’d been wearing all weekend (except for when she changed her jeans after she went swimming). I don’t know why she could hike, sleep and drive in those clothes but she couldn’t run in them.

When we reached the top of the valley, we turned away from the Dr. Seussy saucy rocks and toward the cake mountains. Now that we were closer, I could see that the mountains were made of thousands and thousands of rock columns of all different lengths, standing next to each other like an army of baguettes. On the morning side of the mountains, the white dirt was sprinkly like sugar, but on the afternoon side, it was drooling down in sheets of ice. “See? It’s just like the powdered sugar on a panettone and the icing on a bundt cake!” Mom said.

Now that we were on the colder morning side of the valley, some white dirt had survived from the storm the other day, and there was enough to roll in. I rolled and spun in it, and then I licked it and bit it. I had put up with Mom playing on the red side of the valley while she took tons of pictures and went gaga over the decorating. But now that we were on the manly side of the valley with sharp cacti and white dirt to practice jiu jitsu in, Mom was getting bored. “Oh my god! Seven more miles still to hike! For heaven’s sake, what was I thinking?! It’s getting cold already, and it’s only noon!”

There’s a reason that Mom and I don’t like easy peasy trails as much as we do the badass ones, and it’s not just because I like to brag. Mom doesn’t turn around and talk to me as much when we’re not in danger, and it’s like we’re on different adventures. Mom is thinking about lady things like baking cakes and rock decorating, and I’m thinking about exciting and perilous feats of strength and manliness. Mom and I were always in love, but I didn’t always know her thoughts or want to do something just because she asked me to until we started getting into danger together.

“Mom, why do you love me less when we’re safe?” I asked. “I never love you less, it’s just that sometimes we don’t need each other as much as others. When I know you can take care of yourself, then I don’t need to worry about you and I can let you do your own thing. It’s like those shows about people who live in northern Alaska or whatever. Each one of them needs the other to survive, so they look out for each other. You can hear it when they talk to each other; they have this respect for each other. It’s like they can afford to disagree, but they can’t afford to fight or else they’ll both starve. You just don’t get that with a teacher and an accountant living in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky. The biggest thing they need to collaborate on every day is who does the dishes.” “But Mom, the dishes are your job,” I said. “All the cooking and cleaning is your job. I’m supposed to lay on the couch and snore.” “Right. You do your thing, I do mine. But when we’re in danger, it’s different. We need to stick together and look out for each other because sometimes you need my help…” “I don’t need your help. If you wait long enough, puddles empty out and tall rocks get shorter. You’re just not patient enough.” “Oh sure. Sometimes you just need help doing it yourself, like when I show you where there are steps so you don’t have to take a big leap.” “You make it sound like I don’t do anything!” I said. “How would you notice all the beautiful scenery if you weren’t looking for something to stand behind me in pictures? Without scenery you would have 10,000 pictures in your phone that looked exactly the same.” “Well, I have at least 15 or 20 pictures of receipts and shopping lists, they’re not all pictures of you,” she corrected me. “More importantly, I don’t take as many risks with you as I would on my own because I would never forgive myself if you got hurt.” “But when we’re safe, you leave me alone to sniff a mystery under a bush while you listen to a different mystery in your ears,” I said. “We’re not really together when we’re like that.” “Yeah. I guess it’s the difference between being companions and partners,” Mom said. “You’re a great companion because you make me happy, but you’re an even greater partner because you give my life meaning…” she said.

Mom and I kept each other company on the long walk back to the car, and by the time we finally got there, we were both done with Las Vegas. We were so done, that we didn’t even stop to have lunch before driving west back toward California.

Oscar the Meaning of Life




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