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Devil’s Punchbowl

Do you guys ever have one of those days that doesn’t work out the way you planned, and then everything goes wrong, and it still winds up working out in the end? That was what today was like. After having to backtrack for more than 2 hours yesterday, we were going to have to drive another 4.5 hours today, cross half of Oregon, and then come back into California to get to the trail that we wanted to run. Don’t think we didn’t think about just skipping it and moving on with our trip, but Mom and I agreed that “The Devil’s Punchbowl” is a really cool name for a trail, and since The Witch wasn’t talking to us, we didn’t know where there were other dog-friendly and Covered-Wagon-friendly trails. Plus, Alltrails said that there was a toilet in the parking lot. How remote could it be to get to if there was a toilet in the parking lot? It’s not like they install toilets on the tops of mountains in the middle of the wilderness, right?

So we got up very, very early so that we could get to the trail when it was still a little bit early. I visited Oregon for the first time and traveled over 100 miles without ever leaving the Covered Wagon, and then we came back to California. In California there was a man who must have been very hungry for salad, because he was making all the cars stop so that he could check them for plants. “Do you know if the Forest Route is open?” Mom asked him when she rolled down the window. “…Because we’ve been on a 7-hour detour, and I haven’t pooped yet, and we really want to hike this trail…!” I screeched at him by way of Mom’s ear from my spot in the passenger seat. “We’re trying to hike the Devil’s P—“ then Mom flinched from my powerful screaming. “The Devil’s Punchbowl?” he asked. So he did know it! It must be famous and very easy to get to. He said that he wasn’t an expert on how to get there, but he knew that the road we were looking for was open, and it was even paved! Today was going to be a good day.

But when we got to the road, there was a sign that said, “Road Closed Ahead.” “Maybe we turn off this road before it’s closed…” Mom said hopefully. “That’s what you said yesterday,” I said. “Before the 7 hour overnight detour.” The road was very beautiful, but steeper than any road that I’d ever seen before. We drove up it for 8 miles until suddenly, out of nowhere, the our way was blocked by a big gate, and behind that a concrete barrier, and behind that a pile of rocks. Someone REALLY didn’t want us to hike this trail.

Mom had to back up down the steep, narrow road for what felt like forever until she found a place to park the covered wagon while we decided what to do. When we pulled in, we could see that there was another car parked there. “Good morning!” said the man who came out of the other car. “Grrr! I am so frustrated right now!” said Mom, who is poorly socialized and never matches friendly people with the right attitude. “What’s that fluffy thing stuck to your face, you big weirdo!” I barked at him. “I don’t like it!” “It just means that we’ll have a longer hike today than expected,” said the friendly man.

“That’s it!” Mom said to me, “We’re doing the 9-mile trail, PLUS the 5 miles each way to and from the trailhead.” If there’s one thing that will guarantee that Mom will commit to doing something hard is if someone nicer and more cheerful than her says that they are going to do it too. It’s okay to be outperformed by a jerk, but if Mom gives up before someone with the personality of a marshmallow, she couldn’t look herself in the eye in the morning. So while the Marshmallow with the stupid thing on his face climbed over the barrier, Mom packed extra snacks and put lots of water into a bigger backpack.

Once we got to the wild side of the barrier, I could see that we had another thrilling problem: the white dirt was everywhere! It was piled higher than Mom in places, and sometimes it covered the whole trail for 50 or more yards at a time. I had never seen anything so wonderful in my life, and did gymnastics, and sprints, and dug in it, and bit it and each one was fantastic. Mom, who was wearing shorts and low socks and doesn’t appreciate the white dirt wasn’t as enthusiastic about it and wanted to turn back. But soon we caught up to The Marshmallow again. “What’s with your giant backpack and those stupid sticks you’re carrying?” I shouted at him. “You look like a turtle walking with chopsticks!” “Do you think there’s this much snow on the whole trail?” Mom asked him. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I have the GPS to guid em, so if it’s covered in snow then I will just go slower.” The Witch had GPS too, but it wasn’t very good since she was still giving us the cold shoulder. “I have my stuff to camp on the mountain overnight if it takes too long,” he said, tapping his turtle shell. This guy really wasn’t giving Mom a way out. “But you’re really going to have to hustle if you plan to make it back to your car before dark,” he warned. Oh brother, if Mom could ever let herself be outdone by a marshmallow, she could never quit if someone suggests she can’t do it.

So we were doing this…

It turned out that we would have had to park the Covered Wagon many miles from the trailhead anyway because soon after the barrier, the road turned into what Mom calls a “fire road,” which is one of those trails that is easy for running, but very hard for mail-man vans. Plus there was the snow. Of the 5 miles we had to go to the trailhead, only about 1 mile of it was covered in the white dirt, and much of that Mom could pick her way around by walking very, very carefully on the edge of the mountain. The rest of the time when there was no white dirt, we ran.

Finally we found the trailhead. Someone really had installed a toilet in the middle of the wilderness, on top of a mountain, miles from a paved road. Wonders never cease…! But whoever had built it hadn’t bothered to bring a shovel up here to dig it out from under several feet of snow. We were able to follow the trail without much trouble, even though it did mean that Mom had to stomp through more snow. We saw redwood trees, and little streams trying to be waterfalls, and we heard a deep noise like someone tooting on a didgeridoo.

But then we reached a kind of clearing that was all covered in snow. There was a swamp-pond under the snow that had creaking frogs in it until I sprinted across the snow and they got scared and shut up. There were no footprints anywhere and no clues about where the trail was. Me being the snow explorer that I am, I ran over every inch of that meadow, but I kept half-disappearing into the snow. It was even worse for Mom who is bigger and fatter and less snow-resistant. She kept falling through up to her waist, and then when she tried to get out she might fall back in again with her next step. If you go there, there probably won’t be much snow left in the clearing, because it all wound up in Mom’s socks. We eventually found the way out of the meadow, but soon we lost the trail again. Mom could see on the map that her blue dot was only a few yards from the line of the trail, but every time we thought we were getting close we would just find ourselves standing in a bush, or a fallen-down tree, or a giant snow pile, and the more we explored, the more the snow ate our legs.

We knew from the trail description that once we started climbing again that there would be some very challenging switchbacks, and we weren’t sure what made them “challenging.” Maybe they were the fall-off-a-cliff kind of challenging, which didn’t seem like a great idea in deep snow, even for a brave dog like me. “But that one guy on Alltrails said that he carried his wife on his back halfway for 2 miles when she got tired.” “Yeah, I call BS on that review…” Mom said. “First of all, what grown woman consents to ride piggy-back for two miles. Secondly, how could it possibly be so technical that she couldn’t go on, but he was able to navigate it with an adult human on his back.” That’s the problem with reviews. Most of the people leaving them are either marshmallows, liars, dumb, or so out of shape that they need to ride half the trail on their husband’s backs. “Obviously you can’t trust a word anyone says in a review…” Mom explained.

So even though we hadn’t even gotten half way to the top of the trail and we wouldn’t see the Devil’s Punchbowl, and even though we were going to be outperformed by a friendly marshmallow, we turned around and went back to the Covered Wagon. It was hard to be too disappointed, though, because we had seen mountains and trees and streams, and by the time we were done we would have run and hiked 14 tough miles, much of it through snow.

When we were so close to the covered wagon that we could practically see it, we had to pass a spot where something had taken a big bite out of the road. This bite was why they had built the barrier to keep people out. I thought that something had happened with the weather, and part of the road had just fallen off the side of the mountain, but as I passed by, I saw something move just over the edge. “Holy dog doo!” I screamed, backing up. “Dog doo! Dog doo! Dog doo! There’s a thing!” I barked, hiding my panic behind a macho screech. “It’s just some plastic, Oscar,” Mom laughed. “The road workers must have left it there to keep the road from crumbling more.” She had already passed The Thing and was on the downhill side of it. I turned on my heels and started running back up the mountain, barking “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope” the whole time, just like when Mom had seen the rattlesnake. “Come back!” Mom said. “You can walk on the other side of the road, see? You don’t have to get close to it.” “Hell no! I always thought that you were exaggerating when you said that there’s a monster that pulls you off of cliffs if you get too close to the edge. But it’s real! I JUST SAW IT!” I kept running up the mountain and back toward the Devil’s Punchbowl. My plan was to run back up the mountain and live there forever, eating sticks for food and snow for water.

But Mom didn’t follow me. My choices were to either run past The Monster to rejoin Mom on the other side, or abandon Mom forever. Then she started running downhill and away from me. I had to make a decision…

*I cautiously approached the spot where the bite had been taken out of the road, and when I got close, I quietly and quickly ran past the dangerous spot as lightly as I could. Once I was to safety on the other side, I didn’t even slow down to greet Mom, I just kept right on running away from the monster, checking over my shoulder the whole time to make sure that it wasn’t following me. Luckily, we lived to drive the Covered Wagon down off the mountain. The Covered Wagon which smelled a little like stinky burning by the time we got back to the highway, but we were safe from The Monster now because there was nothing to fall off of anymore.

There’s no way of knowing what happened to The Marshmallow, but he let me lick his legs when we met him again on our return so I guess he was okay. I sure hope that he wasn’t ripped off the side of the mountain by The Monster. Meanwhile, Mom and I are sleeping by the beach where there is nothing at all to fall off of.

-Oscar the pragmatic explorer

*Note to Oscar fans: Video coming soon…


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