Being underemployed is very boring. With only one direct report to supervise all day, I stare at her until I fall asleep, and when I wake up she’s usually right where I left her. So even though we’d just gotten home from a big adventure, I the ants had climbed back into my pants. So I asked Mom if we could go to the mountains one more time before they disappear for the winter. “But it’s smoky out there,” Mom whined. “It’s smoky out, here,” I corrected her. “Who knows what it’s like in the mountains. I bet it’s better.” “But it’s a holiday weekend. Everything is going to be crowded!” Mom complained. “Oh goody! I love meeting new Friends!” I grinned. “But it’ll be hot.” “It will be cooler in the sky, and there are lakes for me to drink up. Isn’t it more important to go to the mountains when it’s not cold?” “Okay, fine,” Mom surrendered.
The air was still smudgy like a VHS tape, but we could at least see the sky as we put the ocean, and then the Bay, and then the farmlands behind us. When we woke up somewhere in high gold country, the sky burned a little more greyly than normal, but the camp smell and golden glow on everything was relaxing, not revolting. The trail climbed gently through the puffy dust, and lumps of granite bubbled out of the dirt and sparkled the grey of an orange under the sunset glow of the mid-morning sun. Mom spotted some open air billowing between us and another mountain across the valley, so we left the trail to look at the view. “Does it seem like it’s getting smokier?” Mom said, looking at the strawberry-grey in the sky. Across the valley the rocks smudged as if they were much farther away than they really were, and the air felt warm and close like breathing under a blanket on a warm day. “Seems fine to me,” I said.
We turned back and kept hiking under the trees that smelled dry and brittle like bones. Suddenly, I heard music coming from a clump of bushes. It sounded like a group of musicians were banging wooden spoons in pots to the tempo of thoughts right before a nap. I leapt onto a big dome of rock and peered with my nose into the bushes. Now that I was closer I could tell from the rustling of the bushes that the musicians were big, like the size of a small car or a big golf cart. “WHO ARE YOU?!” I barked. “ARE YOU ON SPOTIFY?” “Oscar, c’mere!” Mom shouted, waving a handful of brunch at me. “Get down from there!” “But I want to watch the concert!” I wagged down at her. “No you don’t,” she said. “I most certainly do,” I said, turning back toward the bushes and wagging harder. “Come jam with me!” I yelled. “I’ll be on vocals!” “Okay, *I* don’t want you to find them,” Mom said, walking away without me. I had to choose between following her or joining the traveling minstrel show forever. I ran after Mom, but I hoped that this was the beginning of the musicians’ set so I would have time to solve the mystery on the way back.
We arrived at a lake where the white bones of trees stuck out of the heaps of rounded rocks as decoration. The air clung to me like something sticky and dry. Mountain lakes like this are usually very clear from up close, and a brighter color of sky from far away, but even though this one was clear and smelled faintly of fragrant bullplop, it had something wicked about it. It didn’t sparkle, and its whole valley looked smudgy like a bar scene in one of those old movies from when cigarettes were allowed on TV. “We should get you back down to the car before it gets too hot up here,” Mom said, and we turned our tails on the icky lake and disappearing sky.
When we got back to the bushes where the musicians were playing I ran ahead of Mom to investigate. I came around a tree trunk and much to my surprise, I found myself face-to-snout with the lead clanger of the Moo-dy Blues. “Mom! Mom! Look who it is!” I barked. Then to the rock star I squealed, “She’s going to want your autograph — Mom, come quick, before he leaves!” “C’mon, Oscar. Get over here,” Mom said from behind The Witch, which she couldn’t resist pointing at the celebrity I’d found. I barked at him one last time and he looked at me with that unimpressed look that all rock stars have when they look at someone whose star power they find intimidating. Then I pranced back to Mom. “Did you see him? Did you see him?! He was a moo-cow!”
In Washington most people had been hiking in masks, and by the time the trip was over Mom’s mask was so crusty and stinky from all her sweat and bad breath that it could have walked next to us, so Mom had finally bought a mask just for hiking. Even though most of the people we met weren’t wearing masks, she still pulled it up and did weird things with her neck to try to keep it from falling off her nose every time we saw a Friend. “Mom, I don’t think you need to wear that here,” I said. “Remember all those articles you read about the boogeyvirus blowing away outdoors? It said that you need friends to catch it from, and you have no friends,” I reminded her. “True,” Mom said. “But have you noticed that whenever I pull up the mask, people not wearing masks step off the trail for us?” I hadn’t noticed, but it was true. Normally Mom makes me step off the trail and up-up onto a rock when we see someone coming, and then she turns her back to the trail and stuffs me full of kibbles until the people pass. But now, Mom pulled on the mask and the other people did the up-uping, as if by magic. “Make way! Make way!” I said as I ran down the center of the trail past all the adoring fans who said, ‘Awww,’ and ‘What a cute dog,’ and ‘Hey there, fella!’ “Yield! Yield, I say!” I announced. “Ill-fitting mask coming through! It could drop at any moment, and then nobody is safe!”
But not everybody is afraid of the unspeakable danger of Mom’s whole face. A few brave people did dare to talk to Mom, even though stopping meant that the mask usually fell off her face and hung rumpled around her neck. When that happened, Mom stepped back and I stepped forward to let them pet me as they talked. “How far did you go?” one group asked. “Up to Bear Lake,” Mom said. “There were moo-cows playing music!” I wagged at them. “Was it as smoky up there as it is down here?” they asked. “It’s been getting smokier all morning,” Mom said expertly. “I don’t know if what I saw is what you’re going to see.” Then, all of a sudden Mom interrupted herself. She flapped her arm and screamed, “DUCK!!!!” My new Friends looked alarmed. “OW! Duck!” Mom said, smacking her arm against her hip and then looking at it. “Get off of me, you sucker!” Then she flicked her fingers. The people who used to be our Friends were standing there with shocked looks on their faces. “You saw it, right?” Mom said. “The bee, or the wasp?” “It looked like something was biting you…” the closest one said, like she wanted Mom to calm down for long enough for them to get away. After that they didn’t want to talk anymore, and turned back up the trail.
“That wasn’t very cool,” I said. “What are you always telling me about barking at strangers? You’ll frighten people.” “Ow,” Mom said. “I always forget how much that HURTS.” She started pinching her arm hard, like she was trying to break a piece off. “What are you doing?” I said. “I’m trying to squeeze the venom out,” she said. “That’s what you’re supposed to do, right?” “I thought that was snakes,” I said. “Maybe it is,” Mom said, trying to put her elbow in her mouth. “Do you think I can suck it out?”
Before long a white patch the size of my paw tip bubbled up on her arm, and by the time we got back to the Covered Wagon she had a lump on her arm the size of a chicken breast. Mom carefully treated it with the same treatment she uses for all of the illnesses and injuries in our family: by ignoring it until it went away.
* * * After we left the trail, Mom turned up the air conditioning in The Wagon while we drove over the top of the mountains to the desert side. Here the sun shone its normal color, and although the mountains were still in VHS, at least the sky was a sky color. Mono Lake always looks like it will be a fun place to visit from the highway, but when you get close to it you realize that the water is slimy and filled with bugs, the grass around it is swampy and stinky, and the moon rocks are too far from the shore to visit. So even though we had driven past it many, many times, Mom and I rarely stop there anymore.
Today Mom had to use the bathroom, so she pulled over at the lake to use the potty that stunk even worse than the lake. While we waited in line, she looked out at the toothpaste-colored lake. “It looks like the water level is low enough that you can go out to the rocks,” she said. “Why don’t we check it out?”
We walked through the swampy grass until we reached the shore with its black mud and white paw-biting rocks. “It sure smells,” I said. It smelled like the bathroom we’d just left, or my farts after I’ve eaten a delicious treat from a fancy drive through restaurant. Then I stepped onto the beach and my paw disappeared into hot, sucking mud. “Nope,” I said. “Nope, nope, nope.” I ran across the mud as fast as I could before it could steal my paws, and then jumped up onto the safety of a moon rock. “Aw, come on, stupid,” Mom said, taking off her shoes and letting the mud swallow her paw up to the ankle. Then she hopped backward and yelped, “Ow! There are rocks under there!” “Scchhhhllllppp,” replied the mud.
Despite my very brave, wise and better judgement, Mom convinced me to follow her out onto the moon rocks for a few pictures. When I got close, I could see that the water wasn’t actually the minty color of extra fresh toothpaste, but a sludgy mud color speckled with millions of flies that took off and landed again with a hiss like the sound of sand blowing against the Wagon in a windstorm. “Eeew, gross!” Mom said, yanking on the leash. “Don’t drink that!” “But I’m hot!” I said. “I have water for you! Jesus!” she said, pulling me up the shore to where the sand was solid. “That water smells like something died in it.” She pulled off the packpack, and while she was pouring me a drink I looked at the festering sludge on her feet. “It looks like you walked through poop. Sick poop,” I said. “What’s that color called? You know, the one that rings in my nose like diarrhea, or barf, or puss or something that comes out of you when things are wrong.” “Oh. That’s puce, I think.” “Puce is a revolting shade of brown-red,” The Witch corrected her. “Is that the right name for it?” I asked Mom, hoping that she would finally make that know-it-all look like a fool. “Well okay, maybe not puce but puce should be what that color is called. The words ‘olive’ or ‘mustard’ don’t really seem to cut it.” “Was that a pun?” I asked. “Depends, did you think it was clever?” “I think that you’ve found the right word for the color of the mud around this lake. The color is called moose-turd.” “Some things are just better from far away,” Mom shrugged, picking up her shoes and squelching toward a wooden walkway that would bring us safely and cleanly back to the car kennel.
As we walked back, I looked up at the mountains. Something about them looked funny, like they were breathing fire. “God, you can see the smoke coming up behind the clouds,” Mom said. Then a shadow passed over the sun, like the Dragon Queen was coming to claim Moose-Turd Lake for her kingdom. Behind us the sun was bright like mid-afternoon, but in front of us, and now over our heads, it was sunset. “Is it dinner time already?!” I said, excited for my Hunk of Beef and a good sleep. “No, it’s only 3pm!” Mom said.
As we continued to drive down the highway that marks the border between the California mountains and the Nevada desert, we watched the smudge blow in, smearing out all the beautiful views and naked mountains that I knew like My Hometown. The Smudge followed us into Mammoth, where about that same time there were hikers just a few miles away on the other side of the peaks that were having a very different kind of day than we were. But I’ll tell you about that in my next story.
Oscar the Pooch