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Back on Tracks

It was still raining cats and squirrels when we woke up in the Walmart car kennel. Mom sat in bed, gazing sadly out the window like she was in a 90s music video.

"I can't make my coffee in this," she moaned, and the injustice of it all added some stiffness to her spine. "Breakdowns may take our time and we may have to live like vagabonds, but dognabbit," she thumped the table, "this trip was supposed to be about running and hiking, and that's what we're going to do. Rain or shine."

She said it through her teeth, which means that life coaches should butt out or play along. "Hear hear!" I wagged obediently.

The roof cheered her on and a zillion raindrops streamed down the windows for a peek at greatness... or maybe it was foolishness they were drooling for.

Mom threw back the blankie triumphantly. "But first, coffee!"

The car-house splashed out of the Ritz of car kennels and found a much cozier kennel down the street. It stopped beside the gigantic lake covering where the best parking spots belonged. The warm glow from the Starbucks on the far shore twinkled on its ripples like fool's gold.

"I'll be right back." Mom ducked her head in determination and leapt out of the car-house.

She burst back in a short time later smelling of poop juice and wet socks.

"Oh good! You found a shower after all!" I cheered, relieved for once that she didn't invite me along. "That was quick."

"This is just from running the 20 feet across the parking lot." Mom tried to wipe the drops off her sleeve but only rubbed them in. Her face squished with disgust. She pulled the sleeve over her hand and used it to squeeze her ponytail before peeling off the jacket and throwing it on the floor.

I knocked the un-goose bumpily side of her elbow to put her in a snuggling mood. "Maybe we shouldn't—"

"NO!" Mom interrupted. She savagely twisted a nobble under the front window.

The car-house roared and blew fire in my face.

"What did I do?" I quivered, looking around for a chewed-up shoe or a missing sammich I might have forgotten about.

But Mom wasn't looking at me. She was looking dauntlessly past the window. "I'm going to to enjoy this trip or drown trying."

"Maybe we should have a vote," I gulped.

Mom prodded the Witch. "Cheese, this isn't the National Park-y part of the desert. Where are all the trails? Are there no runners or hikers in Nevada?"

Not even the Witch could stand the pressure of Mom's scowl, so she gave up the goods on a trail she'd been hiding deep in the internet. It was just a three-mile path around a little lake, but beggars can't be losers.

The Witch directed the car-house out of Reno and back into the desert. We drove and drove, the rain fell and fell, and the desert didn't change much. We passed a farm house. Then we drove some more, the rain fell even harder, and the desert didn't react.

At long last, the car-house pulled to the side of the road in a spot that looked exactly like all the other places it hadn't-stopped all morning. The shark fin between the wipers disappeared as rain filled the front window.

Mom studied the Witch for a long moment before clicking the shut up button and tucking her deep under the driving chair. "I should leave my phone in the car so it doesn't get damaged in the rain."

"How come she gets a pass and not me?" I asked. It was about time the Witch made herself excuseful. "Someone should stay with the car-house to protect its windows from Witchnappers, don't you think?"

It wouldn't be so bad if the wicked Witch got wet and melted into a steaming puddle, either, I thought.

"This isn't the City. We're like 10 miles from the nearest building." Mom waved her paw at the tsumommy pouring down the front window. "Who's going to break in all the way out here?"

"You'll never find out if I don't catch them in the act..."

But it was too late. Mom reached out as if to scratch me behind the ear and I heard the leash click shut.

Then she dragged me into the flood.

We ran up a short trail just long enough to lose sight of the car-house when I looked longingly over my shoulder. The trail butted into a bigger trail that looped around an ugly little pond.

The pond looked just like a three-day-old zit that Mom couldn't leave alone, all swollen and puffy around the outside with a crater of angry ooze in the center. Even the raindrops were prickly, as if it were raining wasps. Beside the trail, the bristle bushes bloomed with food wrappers and underpants.

"Look Mom! You said you needed clean underwear, and here we are in the underwear orchard with water falling from the sky. How about you put on this pair and we go back to the car-house and forget about this whole running thing?"

Mom bared her fangs and tiny spikes grew on her skin like armor. "I needed a shower anyway. Come on, let's get moving so we don't freeze."

I followed on Mom's heels, not even bothering to pull on the leash to smell the place better. After a mile or so, the sky saw that it wasn't going to change Mom's mind, stopped hissing, and dropped its knives. The rain swelled into fat, sloppy drops that didn't bounce when they landed. Then the drops shrank into droplets, which faded to mist, and retreated back into the clouds.

By the time Mom's wrist beeped two miles, I could see mountains in the distance where only a grey smudge had been before.

Which turned out to be another kind of problem...

The sand scratched like a record under Mom's shoes as she skidded to a stop. She looked at the far-off mountains and then at the boring desert everywhere else. "Oh dog doo."

"No thanks, I don't have to go," I said, to make her hurry. I could hold it forever just to feel the car-house's toasty breath blowing through my fur one more time.

"I don't remember what direction we were facing when we started. How will I know when we get to the end?"

It was my turn to look around. Suddenly I noticed how many little trails wandered away from the main loop around the lake. From the clouds, the trail would have looked like a pinch collar with spikes stabbing every which way into the desert.

From the ground it didn't look like one trail either, but a bunch of trails that braided together, all traveling in the same direction but never taking the same route to get there. The only reason we hadn't taken the wrong one yet was because we kept following the one closest to the lake every time they crossed. If we chose the wrong path away from the water, we might miss the car-house altogether. But if we didn't pick one, we would be running round and round the lake until the end of time.

"Why don't you just look at a mapp to see where the road is?" I suggested.

"I left my phone in the car, remember?" Mom looked toward the mountains. "Maybe if it'd been clear when we parked I would remember which direction the mountains were in. But I couldn't see jack spit through the rain."

"What now?" I asked.

"I guess we keep running and hope we recognize something."

Then I spotted a bush whose Dorito blossoms and crusty tube socks looked familiar. "We saw a Cool Ranch bush just like this on the way in, didn't we, Mom?" I sniffed.

"This looks right," Mom agreed, turning away from the lake.

Mom led me through the bushes and puddles for an awfully long time. The sand kept getting deeper, swallowing our steps when we pushed into it and making the short path to the car-house feel a mile long.

Mom leaped over a stream, but I timed my jump wrong. The leash pulled me through water up to my ankles.

"Gross!" I shook off the river, but not my doubt. "I don't remember a river crossing."

"Water accumulates quickly in the desert. It was coming down pretty hard earlier. Maybe this is just run-off," Mom said before making like a stream and running off.

The trail kept splitting and forking, and still Mom ran on, choosing a path through the bushes that only she could see. Finally she stopped. "I don't remember making this many turns to get to the lake, do you?"

"Beeeeeep," Mom's wrist interrupted.

"Dog doo! And now we've run so far in the wrong direction that I won't know when we're close based on the distance." She turned around. "I don't even know if I can find my way back to the lake again. Dog doo, dog doo, dog doo!"

I sniffed the ground for our scent, but the rain blurred the trail. It was no use.

When we were lost in the mountains a few days before, Mom traveled back in time to find the way out. What would a stone-aged dog do in this situation? I thought.

I brought my nose even closer to the sand and noticed a clue I hadn't smelled before. "Look! Our paws left these markings in the sand. It's like a scent trail that your eyes can see! All we need to do is follow them and we'll find our way back to the lake."

Since it wasn't her idea, Mom said, "It'll never work. We'll lose the trail and wind up following our own tracks in circles like Pooh and Piglet."

"We've got to try."

We walked back carefully with our noses pointed at the ground. Every time the trail disappeared on a patch of hard-packed sand, we stopped. Mom searched for distant pawprints while I watched for heffalumps. She was careful never to change the direction of her toes as she searched so she could tell the mismatched print when she found it.

Step by step, the lake came back into view.

We turned the same shoulders toward the water as before and went back to running.

Suddenly, Mom sped up like she was being chased by a woozle. "Oscar, look! The NO LITTERING sign! I hardly noticed it on the way in because all I was thinking about was the rain. And look! There's the bush with the underpants and the Dorito bag right next to it! This has got to be the right one."

We turned, and a few steps later the car-house appeared, windows and all.

I didn't want to tell Mom then, but now that it's all over I don't mind telling you, Friends: I was a little worried there for a minute.

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