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Homeward Hound

We'd been living in the car-house for so long that I almost forgot it wasn't home. "I have an idea," I said as Mom ate a leisurely lunch, sharing bits of sammich every few bites.

"Mmmm?" Mom asked, lifting her eyebrows but not lifting her eyes off of the Witch's face.

"What if we lived in the car-house forever? We could play in the desert and the mountains every day and you'd never have to work."

"I wish," Mom wished.

The car-house adventure was supposed to be my Birthday wish, but I didn't mind sharing it. Just as long as she didn't make me return it.

"We do have one more day before we have to go home," Mom said, "where do you want to go?"

"Easy! I want to play in the white dirt forever."

"Sure. We could stay here in the mountains for another day..." Mom woke the Witch back up. "It would mean a long drive tomorrow, but..."

She talked to the Witch for a while in their secret sign language that I can't understand. I watched Mom's face do interest - annoyance - interest - disappointment - interest - disgust - interest - exasperation - interest - frustration - interest - pique. Once her face had gone through the whole thesaurus she thumped the Witch face down on the table in vexation.

"There's a huge storm blowing through tomorrow." Mom looked up toward the top of the mountain, but it was lost in clouds. "Flash flood warnings in the lowlands and they're saying it'll dump a foot of snow in the mountains."

"Oh goody! White dirt!" I cheered. This trip may have started with us running from the rain, but now that I knew how to turn rain into white dirt, we were unstoppable. All we had to do to escape was get high enough that the rain turned to sparkling snow in the air and it would cover the ground with marvelous white magic.

“I don’t think the van can handle those mountain roads in the snow,” Mom said. “And we don’t have chains.”

“Who needs chains?” I said. “We’re free now, remember?”

Mom sighed. I'd never seen her look so sad without looking twice as angry at the same time.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

“I’m just sad that it’s almost over,” she said. She gave the bottle cap she'd been fiddling with a testy flick across the table into the goal of her other palm. “We haven’t had all of the adventures yet. Everything we do adds 10 more things to my wish list.”

This whole adventure began because Mom was lost and sad on the side of a mountain. Now we were on the side of a much bigger mountain, again not sure where to go, but at least Mom wasn't quite as sad.

"You can't run all the trails in the West just like you will never catch all the jackalopes in the desert," I told her. "It's a great, big world out there, and a dog could spend his whole life exploring it and never see the whole thing. Isn't it relaxing to know that you'll never finish? That no matter how long you keep exploring, there will always be more adventures to have and more jackalopes to chase?"

"No, it just makes me anxious that I'm missing something." She flicked the bottlecap off the table and watched it bounce off of the back of the driving chair onto the floor. She didn't pick it up.

“But what about those people-things that you enjoy? Like dishwashers, and showers, and tea kettles, and the internet, and a people potty all your very own?”

“True, I do love those things…” she said. "But I'm afraid that we'll never be able to do something like this again once we return the van."

She turned back to the Witch. "I guess we should just head for the coast to get behind the storm."

Mom threw her lunch wrappers into the Walmart trash bag and mounted the driving chair. We drove until the jagged mountains smoothed out, grew a peach fuzz of grass, and flattened completely. We drove through fields and orchards until the ground blistered with little hills again. We drove on curly roads through curly trees that reminded me of the car trips that we used to take on weekends when the Stuck House was all we knew. Then the world ended.

The changes from mountain, to field, to hills were as gradual as changing seasons, but the End of the World came on suddenly. We came around a bend, the smell of beach filled my nose, and the earth simply disappeared. It wasn't like Utah, where you could see the earth loading again in the distance and the gridlines to guide building a new world. This time the world was ripped away all at once, leaving a rough velcro nothingness stretching all the way to the sky.

I hadn't seen the ocean since the first morning of our trip, when the car-house wouldn't wake up and Mom and I were marooned in a deserted Pirate's Cove all morning. So much had happened since then. I wondered if the ocean would notice the difference in me.

The road dove toward the End of the World, twisting so tight to hang onto land that everything inside the car-house rolled around like a ship in a storm. When we were so close to the ocean that I could hear its breath through the closed windows, the road made a hard turn and the swaying stopped.

The road escaped the fall just in time, carrying us along the very last strip of land left on earth. It was like we were riding on the belt that kept the entire world from falling away into the sea.

We puttered gently between mountains and cliffs until the car-house washed up in an eddy of pavement on the inland side of the road.

Mom checked the Witch. "Um... So... There's a problem."

"What kind of a problem? Is it a big problem? Or just a little one?"

"I'm not sure. I didn't think to look for a place to stay before we left and there's no cell service down here." She held the Witch in the air and swung her around slowly, as if to show her the scenery. "I doubt there's any service between here and Carmel. By then it'll be too late."

I gulped. "What happens in Caramel? Will we drown in a candy river like Augustus Gloop?"

"No, but there won't be anywhere to camp. Carmel is right next to Monterey. Monterey leads to Santa Cruz. Once we go over the hill from Santa Cruz, we're practically home." She looked in each of the mirrors and turned to double-check all the windows to make sure that what she didn't see really wasn't there. "Maybe we should just stay here for the night?"

"No! It's too risky!" I whimpered. "The last time we slept outside a campground we almost got kerplewied!"

"I'm not sure you really need to stay in a campground. It's not like I need a shower if we'll be home tomorrow, and I've been using the dog bathroom all this time anyway. Why not?"

"But what if the Oompa Loompas come in the night to roll us away like Violet Beauregard or a trap door opens under us like Veruca Salt?"

"I guess we'll just have to find out." Mom unlooped the leash from its place around the neck of the copilot's chair. "What say we go down to the beach to watch the sunset?"

We sprinted across the deserted road. When we were on the other side, Mom turned back to look at the hills blocking our view of the rest of the West. She nodded toward one of them.

"That one there is supposed to be the highest topographic prominence in the whole coastal range." I didn't know what that meant, so I waited for her to explain. Mom always keeps 'splaining if you let her so she can listen to herself sound smart. "That means it's the tallest mountain that also touches the ocean."

"If you can call that a mountain," I scoffed. "There's no white dirt on it. I bet it's never even touched the sky."

I'd always thought that I lived among mountains before, but now that I'd seen Sarah Nevada, I knew what heights really meant. Now that I was almost home again, the wooly lumps I was used to shrank into ant hills in my eyes.

We turned and Mom led me toward the ocean. She looked different from the last time we saw the ocean, too. She was floppier and less tightly wound than before. Even though this path sagged gently toward the water, I was sure that now that she'd stood at the top of the Grand Canyon without falling in, she wouldn't turn all herky-jerky like a rusty Tin Mom if she had to walk down a set of leaky stairs to the beach.

We were finally figuring out this road trip thing: If you try to make everything look like the plan, then you're going to miss a lot and spend the whole adventure being frustrated. Frustration can ruin even the best run. Instead, you need to be able to change the plan to match the trail.

When we reached the sand, Mom sat down on a log as smooth and pale as an old bone and took off her shoes and socks. She tucked the socks inside the shoes and put the shoes neatly on the log. "We started the trip by putting our feet in the ocean. We should end it the same way."

"Eew," I said. In case she thought I was chickening out, I said, "It's dangerous to go swimming without a lifeguard. I'll watch."

She walked to where the water was close enough to reach out and touch her and waited for the ocean to come to her. When the wave pulled away, her feet were gone.

"Told you so!" I barked. "Come back here before it eats the rest of you."

Mom lifted her leg and a foot came out of the sand as if by magic. She made the other one reappear the same way and came back to sit on the log. I settled into the sand beside her and we sat just out of reach of the ocean, watching the waves strain their leash trying to join us.

"Running should be a piece of cake tomorrow now that we're back at sea level," Mom said dreamily as she watched the sun disappear. She sucked in a big snort of ocean breath. "Feel all that oxygen? We're gonna run so fast."

For once, I wasn't in a rush.

No Oompa Loompas came to roll us away in the night and no trap door opened underneath us while we were sleeping. The Witch announced the beginning of the final day of my Birthday party while it was still night, as if she were already in a rush for us to get back to our old life. Mom, on the other paw, puttered around the car-house drinking poop juice and packing the packpack slowly, as if to prove that she didn't answer to the Witch anymore.

Since the trailhead was right outside the window, the only thing Mom could mess up was opening the door. I pressed my nose to the side that opens first and waved my tail to get her attention so she wouldn't forget. For once, Mom did her job flawlessly and the door slid open to the fishy smell of a fresh morning. We stepped into the fog as the first light came to join us.

We ran through a fog thick with mystery. The trail only let us see the next few steps at a time. Straight lines disappeared into emptiness and sudden curves came out of nowhere to whip us around into a blank unknown. As we climbed, the sun rose to meet us, burning off the fog one breath at a time until nearby mountains appeared shrugging in the mist and details returned to the world. We reached the trees on top of the hill just as the sun was shaking off the last of its morning mist. I dove into the shade just in time.

"Leggo the leash, Mom," I pulled.

"No can do," she said. "We're back in California now, remember? Leash laws everywhere. In California, it doesn't matter where you are or what time it is, as soon as you break a rule, someone will pop out of nowhere just in time to catch you in the act."

"Aw, stop being such a fuddyduddy," I said, splashing into a stream like a dog that liked water. "Live a little!"

When I was a step away from dry land, the leash pinned me in place. Behind me, Mom still stood on the bank, winding herself up to jump across. The leash pulled me in deeper as she backed up for a flying leap.

Mom launched. Her shoes flew past my head. My collar knocked at my ears. There was a cat-like yowl and a splash, and then Mom was standing in the river next to me.

"You were supposed to start running when I did," Mom said. She half closed her eyes and puckered the corners of her mouth to show that it was my fault for not reading her mind.

"You were pulling on the leash," I said. "I thought you wanted me to stay."

"Well it doesn't matter now, does it? These socks can't get any wetter."

The next time the trail crossed a stream, Mom studied the bank and climbed up on a log instead. It took her a minute to stand all the way up and catch her balance. When she did, I started running.

"OSCAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGHHHHH!" I she yowled again. My collar jerked again and the leash pulled me back into the stream. This time, Mom didn't join me in the water. She just stood beside the log and looked grumpy. "I can't balance if you're pulling like that," she said.

"I can't help it. How am I supposed to know where you're going when you're waving your arms like a car wash wind sock?"

"Okay, fine." She reeled in the leash until my collar was within reach. She paused before releasing the clip. "But stay close. If you're a good boy, I'll get you one of those huge quesadillas from that place in Santa Cruz on our way home."

"No fooling?" I wagged. "You're not gonna decide that we're running late or you're tired of driving and skip it?"

"Nah. The drive is only a few hours and the van doesn't have to be back until tomorrow. We have all day."

The clip opened and I ran ahead trying to smell everything at once. Now that I had a reason to hurry, I ran with thoughts of melty cheese filling my head. Eventually I realized that the gooey feeling in my head was from the sun. The trees were thinner here and the sun had found me again.

We stopped for a water break. While Mom searched for the bowl, I looked at the rumpled mountains ahead and all the possible adventures behind them. The West was still out there somewhere behind those hills with its mountains and deserts, canyons and cliffs. Suddenly I remembered how much more fun it was to live as a stray. Was it worth it to give all that up for a quesadilla? Even a giant one with an entire burrito-sized tortilla on each side.

"How much farther?" I asked.

"Eh, it's another 5 or 6 miles all the way to the summit," she said, following my eyes eastward toward the West. I figured we'd just run until we reached a good stopping place and turn back."

"Is this a good stopping place?" I asked.

Mom started to turn. "It's as good a place as an—"

"BRRRRRRRRRT!" farted the Witch.

To be continued...

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