When we were rookies Mom and I used to pay to sleep in campgrounds, but now that we’re experienced travelers we try to sleep at the trailhead. But yesterday when The Witch told us to make the last turn, there was a gate blocking it with a big sign on it that said “GO AWAY!” (spelled P-R-I-V-A-T-E P-R-O-P-E-R-T-Y). So The Witch said, “You idiots, you missed it. If you keep driving down this dirt road for another 10 miles, you can still get to it. Don’t mess this up.” But when we had less than four miles to go, we found another gate that said, “ROAD CLOSED UNTIL SURFACE DRIES.” “Looks like we’ll be running in from here,” Mom said. “But look at the bright side, we’ll probably have the whole place to ourselves.”
As we slept, the wind blew so hard that it shook the Covered Wagon like a piggy bank and screamed angry things at us. “What if the Wagon blows away into that valley?” I whispered. “This van has traveled down the freeway at 85 miles an hour and that wind didn’t tear it apart. We’re safe,” Mom assured me worriedly. “It’s just really… loud.” I noticed it took a very long time for Mom to fall back asleep.
In the morning the wind was still blowing, and it had started its job of tearing apart the Wagon by ripping off a magnetic bumper sticker that had ridden on the back of the Wagon for tens of thousands of miles. We had better start running before it blew away something more important for driving! We climbed around the gate and started running down Unmaintained Road while the wind blew Mom’s hat off of her head and the sound kibbles out of her ears, which made her growl back at the wind. The mountains were nice, but in that way where you don’t need to look at them much. From the freeway, the mountains were rumpled like a t-shirt that had been left in the laundry basket for too long, but up close they looked more like a battleground where the trees and rocks were fighting for territory, and both sides were losing.
Finally, after more than 4 miles of running alone through the mountains, I heard a bang to the side of the trail. It was close by, but I couldn’t see what was there, so I started barking. “Oscar, NO! Come here!” Mom said. Mom doesn’t know how hunting works, so she’s always afraid that I’ll get shot when we’re on remote hiking trails. She clicked on the leash, and then we crept up to investigate. Just around the bend we found…
…an enormous car kennel. The bang had been the doors of the dozens of hybrid city cars slamming shut behind the millions of people wearing hiking stuff they’d bought at Old Navy. “What the hell?!” Mom said. “They’re cars,” I said. “How did they get here?” “I have no freaking clue,” Mom said. “This road must come from the other direction, and be in good enough shape to drive a Prius up it.” The Witch had been giving us the silent treatment since yesterday afternoon, but wherever she was, I’m sure she was snickering at her little prank.
The Real Trail dropped steeply into the canyon and was very narrow and rocky, which was a real problem because it backed up like the one-lane-road between two freeways. To make matters worse, many of the Camry drivers didn’t know the trail etiquette about listening for a six-legged bullet train bombing down the trail behind them, or the breathy “excuse me” that Mom sighed directly into their ears. In a shady section, we came up behind a long slow-moving train, and Mom had to say, “Excuse me,” three times into the caboose’s ear before she noticed that Mom was so close behind her that she could have humped her. The Caboose started shouting up the line to let us through, each person we passed was smaller than the last until we reached a little string of people puppies not much bigger than me wandering at the front.
Mom’s never quite sure how to talk to people puppies, so she either talks to them like grown humans (which makes them freeze), or acts excited like a maniac (which makes them shrink). When a people puppy freezes and shrinks after Mom has tried to make friends with it, Mom thinks it’s because they’ve seen into her soul and know that she’s a revolting monster. That’s why she’s afraid of people puppies. I’m suspicious of them because they don’t move properly and make loud noises.
This time the people puppies froze and watched us bearing down on them. Then, one of them jumped out directly in front of Mom at the last second. Because Mom isn’t really a monster, she jumped up and landed in the same position as the people puppy, like a mirror. When the people puppy still didn’t move, she made a “tadaaaaaa” face like a lunatic. This is usually the point where people puppies go running for an adult to protect them. Instead, one of the people puppies said, “Look! A doggie!” Mom needed to think fast about how to get rid of the people puppies before they all ganged up and tried to slap me on the forehead and poke my eyes, so she said something that was sure to make them shrink away in fear: “We’re going this way, are you coming?” she shouted over her shoulder. “Yeah!” the puppies all said, and started chasing us. That was not what we were expecting. One of them was making a “na-na-na-na” sound behind us as if he were singing the Batman song but only knew one note. It was really freaking me out. “Look! The dog’s scared of me!” the people puppy yelled happily. “Oh please, oh please don’t scare the dog,” I heard Mom think. I was freaked out and kept checking over my shoulder at the charging herd of children, and trying to decide whether I could get away with just barking at them or if I would have to eat them to make them stop. But Mom kept running at a steady pace so I decided to hold off and see how the situation developed.
After they’d chased us almost a quarter mile, Mom whispered to me, “This must be what the Pied Piper felt like.” “Who’s that?” “He wanted to get revenge on a town for swindling him, so he make all their children follow him until they were swallowed by a mountain. These days the Pied Piper would go to prison.” Then she shouted over her shoulder, “Hey, aren’t your parents going to be freaked out that you’re running away with me?” “No, it’s cool!” the one in front shouted. She was running faster that I knew she would normally, but if she slowed down then we would be overrun by people puppies making observations about how fat Mom’s thighs were, or asking her why she didn’t have a husband. Then we reached a steep slope and sped up it as fast as we could. I could smell the burning coming out of Mom’s legs. It was a smell that usually meant she was about to walk, but behind her I could hear the people puppy chugging like the Little Engine that Could. “This is harder than it looks!” the people puppy huffed behind us in that tone of voice that people puppies use right before they realize that you’re not supposed to sprint the whole 5K. Good! All we had to do was sprint down the rocky slope on the other side to lose him.
When were sure we’d lost him we kept running, just to put a little distance between us. The chase had been about half a mile, which was surely enough to drop them. Finally Mom’s footstomps stopped… but I still heard another two-legged set of running feet. I turned around and there was the people puppy, out of breath but only a few feet away! “Let’s stop here to take a picture,” Mom said, but she didn’t take out her phone. Then she turned to the people puppy. “How old are you anyway?” she asked, like he was at least 23 in people years. “Seven,” he said. “Well shoot. I’m about to turn 37 and I’ve been running a lot longer than you. Either you’re really good at this, or I need to practice more.” Mom said, but not mean-like. She didn’t look at him when she talked, but stood next to him and staring out at the mountains, just like he did. “Well I play soccer,” he said. “Hey look! I can see the waterfalls!” “Where?!” Mom asked. Then she pretended like she couldn’t see them until we heard a huge tanker chugging around the bend behind us. It was one of the cars from the train the people puppy had come unhooked from when he started chasing us. “You can’t run off like that, mijo!” the tanker said. “But we were going to the same place!” the boy-puppy protested. People puppies may be scary, but they’re not dumb. “Your mamá is super worried,” the tanker said, putting his arm around the boy-puppy and turning back up the trail. Before he left, he thanked Mom.
“What was he thanking you for?” I asked, when we started running again. “You almost stole his puppy like the Pie Piper.” “I think for making sure that his kid was safe while he looked for him. You know how when a dog gets loose and charges us we stay in one place until his person comes to get him? It’s the same thing.” “Wait, I thought you were just tired,” I said. “Sure, but I didn’t want him to panic either. Can you imagine if we’d left him and he was half a mile from his family. He could have freaked out and forgotten how to find them, although something tells me he would have been fine. That kid was pretty cool.” “Aw, he wasn’t anything special,” I scoffed. I didn’t like Mom admiring other puppies, even fleshy ones. “Actually, I think he was,” she said. “Think about it. How many people go for it when they get the chance to do something new and fun? But that kid didn’t hesitate, even though he didn’t know us and he’d never tried running on a trail before.” “Yeah, but he had no idea what he was doing! He got all out of breath and stuff.” “Sure, but when it got hard he didn’t quit, did you notice that? He stuck with it a little longer than he was comfortable, but he eventually got to rest. And I think he won the race.” “What do you mean?! He didn’t beat us down to the waterfalls at the bottom.” “No, he didn’t. But we gave up before he did, didn’t we?” Mom stopped and thought about being a loser for a second. “Remember that time those 2 kids were lost in the woods and they knew their dad was up ahead of us but they were too shy to pass us on the trail? They were probably freaking out, and their poor dad was probably having a heart attack. But this kid only had to wait a couple of minutes for his dad to save him, and he wasn’t alone. Where do you suppose he learned that?” “I’m not afraid to talk to strangers, you know,” I said, trying to get Mom to remember who her real soulmate was. “I just came that way. It’s called charisma.” “I know you’re not shy. And it always makes me so proud to see you walk up to a stranger and have them fall in love with you at first sight. I suppose the trick is not to teach people to change. I wish I were born that way.” “It’s okay, Mom. I can teach you,” I said.
Since his dad had taken him away, we did beat the people puppy to the waterfall at the bottom, but it was still crawling with people. Mom tried to take my picture, but something wasn’t working right. “There’s one spot that’s directly in front of the falls, and those two kids are sitting right in the middle of it,” Mom grumbled. “So?” “So it’s hard enough to get a good Photo of You with a Thing Behind You without some clueless brats sitting down in the one spot everyone wants to take their pictures. But no matter how I line it up this is a picture of you in front of a waterfall with a girl eating Doritos.” We tried to move around, but we were in a halfpipe of slippery stone and people kept photobombing my Photo of Me with a Thing Behind Me, so Mom decided to cross the river. Right wen she was balancing on the stepping stone over the deepest part of the crossing, a huge car-destroying gust of wind threw us both off balance and blew a huge spray of water that soaked us both. The wind and water were really freaking me out, so that’s when I decided that waiting for Mom was for suckers and pushed past Mom to the other side. My push was just what the wind needed to tip Mom over, and she stomped socks-first into the water. Now the bottom of Mom’s shoes were wet, and she was having even more trouble balancing on the slippery half pipe, so we didn’t stay long. After only spending about 10 minutes visiting 2 of the 3 waterfalls, we climbed back out of the canyon and set off on our 6-mile track back to the Covered Wagon.
Oscar the Pie Piper