Did you know that it gets cold in the desert at night? A lot of people don’t know that, but it’s true. It was colder than the North Pole outside when Mom and I stopped the Covered Wagon somewhere high on the Utah plateau to wait for Santa to climb up the tail pipe with our gifts. I packed Mom tight into the corner of the bed and burrowed under the mountain of blankets until I was snuggling against her like the little spoon and the cold couldn’t reach me anymore. While we slept, the temperature drained from the air until there were only a few degrees left, and the Wagon grew cracks of frost on all of its windows.
In the morning we opened presents while The Wagon blew on us like a cozy fireplace. By the time we’d driven the rest of the way to the trail, the air had recharged and Mom only needed one sweatshirt to keep warm. I swear I didn’t need the ugly Christmas sweater either, but Mom made me wear it anyway.
We hiked toward a massive wall of rock, which probably meant that I’d be spending my Christmas in a canyon. The rocks got taller on either side of me, and then they started to crowd in. We reached a little lobby where we could choose to go into the narrow hallway to the left, or the tight corridor on the right. That’s when I smelled another dog and started shouting at the top of my voice. “Here! Here! I’m here!” I shouted, pulling against Mom, who was holding onto my collar to keep me from making friends. “Here-ear-ear! Here-ear-ear! I’m here-ear-ear!” the rocks shouted back. “Which way are you going?” Mom shouted to the people that the dog was escorting. “We’ll go the other way!” “No good going that way,” The Man shouted. “It gets really narrow.” Then he held his hands up 1.01 Oscars wide.
I was still shouting with the walls, which is a barrel of laughs for me, but loud noises dull Mom’s problem solving skills. She was starting to crumple up for protection like rocks were falling from the sky. “Oh well, if it gets too narrow then we’ll just turn back,” she blurted like someone with a gun to her head. And then she shrugged deeper into herself as I finally found the resonant frequency of the canyon with one glorious shriek. “Bye! I’m Oscar! Merry Christmas! Bye!” I shouted for as long as they might still hear me.
Slot canyons give me the willies. They’re dark even in the daytime, and too tight to turn around in case you need to run away from a monster. Their plots are like thrillers, where you never know what’s around the next bend, but you know it’s something that doesn’t belong to the real world. Thrillers are fun to watch, but they’re not fun to hike because you might get stuck at the top of a tall drop and need to fly to the bottom, or you may find yourself at the bottom of something tall and need to do rock climbing. However, Mom loves slot canyons for all the reasons I hate them, because they are filled with surprises and she needs to find clever, swashbuckling ways out of danger.
The other thing that Mom likes about slot canyons, and Utah in general, is the story that she reads in the rock. She says that way, way back in history Utah used to be the sand at the bottom of the ocean or something. But over so much time that I can’t even understand it, Utah dried out and all that sand got hard and stuck in shape like a piece of old gum. Then it was a vast blob of rock with secrets hidden inside. Some, like its stripes, were already inside and just waiting for enough wind and rain to come along to reveal them. Other shapes were made by the things that the rock lived through, like being stepped on by dinosaurs or cut up by rivers. All the swooshes and swoops, threadbare holes and the whole canyon itself were made by all the wind storms and flash floods that Utah had lived through since the beginning of time. Utah is just like a person in that way, the longer they are there, the more of their insides they reveal, and the more they become themselves. But also like humans, sometimes Utah is grumpy, and the deeper you go into its scars, the more it’s going to bite back.
Again and again we turned corners to find flumes as tall as Mom with walls as smooth as a bathtub, or rocks that stuck out like a diving board over wobbly, unbalancy rocks piled like presents under a Christmas tree. Sometimes the way forward was back, and if we went backward far enough we would find a natural ramp where we could walk to the top of the obstaple. Even so, several times I needed Mom to give me an ally-oop.
I reached one Oscar-height trailblock, and stood with my nose against the rock waiting for Mom to catch up. When I heard her shooshing in the gravel behind me I said, “Oh good. You’re here. Can you do the ally-oop please?” “Don’t be such a lazy bum!” Mom said. “You can totally get up that. Here, jump on this rock over here.” I looked at the rock Mom was patting. “Nah. Ally-oop please.” “Ugh, fine,” Mom said, scooping me up like a fork lift and pushing me toward the rock. “I’m not on yet,” I announced, looking over my shoulder as she grunted and pushed me onto the rock. “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Mom groaned, lifting me a little higher and pushing me by the butt onto the rock. “Eh! Nyeee-yah!” I said as I pushed myself the last little bit onto the rock. “OMG! Eew, Oscar! You farted!” Mom said, making the gross face she makes when the aroma of a half-digested can of Hunk of Beef escapes from under my tail. “I was exerting myself. You fart when you’re lifting stuff all the time,” I reminded her. “Yeah but not when someone’s face is an inch from my butt hole!” Mom grumbled, dusting herself off and climbing up the rock behind me.
We walked several miles through the canyons, and when we reached the end, we walked around the end of the enormous rock whose heart we had been exploring and dove into another vessel for the return trip. This time, instead of climbing up walls we were climbing down them. Rather than ally-oops when I got stuck, now Mom stood in the holes and reached to grab me like a sea monster, trying to pull me into the deep. “No thank you!” I said again and again as Mom grabbed at my paws. Instead, I ran down a flume like a slide, and once when Mom’s back was turned I landed on a heap of rocks that rolled and my legs did unexpected things under me.
When we reached the next drop-off I’d had enough and sat at the top of it waiting for the earth say it was only joking and flatten out for me. “Come on, bud. You can totally do this!” Mom said, patting a rock that was only a little below me. But I’d had enough. “Nope, I’m done with this nonsense,” I said. “You say all the time that rocks travel from the bottom of the sea to the tops of mountains and back. I will wait here until this rock is flat again.” “You’re going to be waiting for a mighty long time…” Mom said. She tried a few more times to change my mind, but I held firm. I was going to live here now. “Ugh, fine. It’s time to use that emergency sling I got you,” she announced.
She dug through the packpack and pulled out something that I didn’t recognize. Then she climbed out of the hole and moved my legs around like she does when she’s putting on my sweater or my special Christmas jammies. Then, she fiddled around with the thing, and suddenly I was being lifted up off the ground, stuck to the top of Mom’s butt like a packpack with my legs dangling in mid-air. “Normally I would go down backwards,” Mom panted over her shoulder at me. “But I’m afraid you’ll freak out and start squirming and I’d fall and squash you like a pancake, so we’re going down facing forward.” “We’re what?!” I asked. Then Mom stepped off the cliff. For a moment my paws were back on solid rock before the hammock she had me in dragged me off the edge behind her. I bump-bumped down to the last step where Mom squatted down and took the straps off her shoulders and the hover-hammock fell to the ground beneath me. I ran away leaving it in the sand like an old snake skin.
Oscar the Hoverpooch