The car-house carried us over the mountains, past oodles of drowning trails. It rained on the up-side of mountains. It rained on the tops of mountains. It rained on the backside of mountains. And it rained when we arrived in the Nevada desert, where it's not supposed to rain.
The trees stayed in California, so I should've been able to see all the way to Utah as we dropped into the desert, except there were too many clouds in the way.
"Sheesh, there's absolutely nothing here," Mom narrated. "There have got to be trails around here somewhere. But why the heck aren't they on the map?"
"Maybe they still need to be discovered," I copiloted.
Mom's bored eyes drifted off the road and onto the Witch's face. "The road at the next exit just goes and goes into the middle of nowhere. How about we see what's out there?"
The car-house click-clacked in agreement.
The orderly road seemed lost among the ripples of earth spilling from the mountains. Like a City person walking through a small town, the road barged through lumps and bumps, elbowing rocks out of the way on its determined charge to nowhere.
Suddenly, a dirt stripe peeled off of the rigid road and wandered into the emptiness outside my window. It was sucked into memory faster than I could tell Mom about it. A short while later, another streak appeared and disappeared in a flash. Pretty soon, I learned to spot them in the distance as thread-like scratches among the jumbled rocks and bushes.
Finally I spotted one with enough warning to tell Mom. "Trail ho!"
"Is that a trail or a dirt road?" Mom asked in the instant when it was close enough to get a good look. Then it was gone.
"What's the difference?"
A pinwheel spun in Mom's thought bubble as she searched her memories of dirt roads. "I don't know. Maybe there isn't one. I've avoided dirt roads my whole life."
"I never really thought about it. I guess I figured that any road without pavement could only lead to trouble."
The wheels on the car-house went round and round while the window showed desert – car trail – desert – car trail on loop. Finally, the car-house settled beside one.
The tick-tock of the wipers stopped and as if by magic, the front window stayed clear enough to see through. There were bushes, and rocks, and a whole lot of dirt.
Mom sat in the driving chair for a few beats as if waiting for something. The rain held its breath. Then time picked up its normal pace and Mom released the seat leash. "Let's just find out where this goes."
The sandy ground didn't splooge or slip under my dismount. I tested a few steps, leaving soggy pawprints around the car-house while Mom rearranged her hat and strapped on the packpack. When she turned back to me, I launched into the unknown before she had time to remember that she forgot the leash.
To my relief, the dirt stripe was a trail after all! Not an interesting trail, but a trail nonetheless.
I pulled over to sniff a bush while Mom caught up. It smelled of Christmas, mop water, and was that...
"Critters!" Forgetting all about Mom and the car-trail, I tracked the scent into the wilds.
The scent led to a tiny pyramid of itty-bitty gumdrops. Finally, I remembered where I recognized the smell from; This place was positively hopping with bunnies!
"Goody, goody bunny droppings!" I squealed.
One jackalope trail led to another. I followed them through the bushes and rocks while Mom walked on the car trail beside me. It wasn't long before Mom's trail ended.
I joined her in the little clearing that capped off the path. Mom lifted her nose in the air and took in our surroundings, so I did the same. Then, I detected a clue.
"Archaeology!" I wagged.
I followed the rusty smell to a cluster of smooshed artifacts scattered in the center of the circle. "Is this another museum trail? Did history happen here?"
"I don't think so." Mom poked at one of the relics with her shoe. "Unless it's a beer-drinking-in-the-middle-of-nowhere museum. Let's keep going."
"Where?" The only trail I could find was the one with the trail of shoeprints ending at Mom's shoes.
Mom's eye sparkled with mischief. "Why not blaze our own trail? I bet we can at least walk to those rocks over there."
"But you can't just walk without a trail," I sputtered. "How will you know where to go next? Who knows if the earth will even hold you up without a trail. What am I supposed to do if the ground swallows you? Who will tell people that I'm friendly and it's okay to pet me?"
"Don't be silly. It's not like there's some invisible wall around the trail." Mom had obviously never heard of Invisible Fence. "And look, we can see the van from miles away. We won't get lost." Mom turned back to the unknown and aimed her first step at the wild ground.
I gulped and waited for Mom to get zapped by the Invisible Fence.
Mom's shoe landed on the sandy dirt, and to my astonishment, it held her up just the same as it did me. It did the same on the next step. And the next, and the next, and the next...
We reached the rock we were aiming for in no time at all. Mom stood next to it with her fists on her hips and looked deeper into the unknown. A short distance ahead there was another big rock. Behind that was a bush that was larger than the others, then a clump of three big boulders. My eyes followed a dotted line of landmarks up the mountain until the ground disappeared into the clouds.
Mom's mouth bunched on one side of her face. "Eh, I bet we could find something better. Anyway, it looks like it could start raining again at any minute. Let's go."
We walked back to the car-house, remounted, and moseyed on down the road. The dotted line in the road kept time for the backbeat of desert – trail – desert – trail.
All of a sudden, the pavement stopped and the whir beneath us turned to a crackle. Outside the front window, the naked dirt line lost the determination it had under its paved shell, giving in to the lumps and bumps of nature.
The car-house rolled boldly on until I was afraid that the rattling would shake it to bits. When it stopped, the silence filled my ears like cotton balls.
"What now?" I asked.
Mom sighed. "I guess we go back."
"This exploring thing is harder than I thought," I said to make Mom feel better about how bad she was at it.
Mom looked at where clouds cut off the mountains. "I'm beginning to see why Hastings made the mistake that he did."
"Ever heard of the Donner party?" Mom looked back into the clouds covering California.
"No. Was it fun? Did they serve food? And who's Haystacks?"
"It was famous for the food, but probably not in the way you think. Anyway, they passed through here because a charlatan named Hastings told them it was a shortcut. Turns out he just looked at a map and never checked it out himself. It didn't end well for them."
Mom's such a crummy storyteller. She leaves out the best part of every story. "Tell me more about all the delicious things they served at the party," I coached. "And then tell me the happy ending."
"The moral of the story is that you should plan ahead, check the weather report, and carry plenty of extra supplies," she summarized. "We should head to Reno for an administrative day. I haven't showered since Redding and this is my last pair of socks."
Some people just don't know how to end a story.