Grin and Bear It
The winning entry from Steinbeck Festival’s Travels With Charley essay contest.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Beardog heard it first, as always. I was lost in a dream, chasing a fleeting strip of bacon through a swaying sea of corn silk. Good Bear and his own golden ears picked up on the rumble and rustled me with a serious-sounding growl just before a midnight flash flood ran in dark torrents past our campsite deep in Utah’s Lockhardt Canyon.
The flood arrived in an explosive, headlong clamor. Boulders smashed together in thunderous cracks and caromed down the otherwise dry wash just below where I had perched our tent earlier that day. Bear whined and howled at the sudden noise, but after some time had passed, we both fell back to sleep in the rain-dampened tent, lulled by the pattering rain and the rushing clatter of the brand new river.
It was our yearly desert foray, a time for harried man and hairy dog alike to commune with the rocks and sand, to stare sideways at Utah’s cantaloupe-hued hoodoos and hobgoblins, to scramble down cliff bands and up steep drainages to the canyons rim. It was my down time, barely sufficient in my allotted one week of solitude to clear my head of the thought-pervading technology that possessed it in my workaday life.
Bear, the mystery mutt whom I’d volunteered to raise in an attempt to win over the stony heart of a hippie princess in Boone, N.C., 10 years prior, was the ever-eager co-pilot, requiring for sustenance only the long exploratory hikes into the thorn-bound wilderness, a portion of whatever slop was for supper, a dented tin saucer of sandy water, and a warm fire to lay beside at night while a mal-tuned guitar plunked its familiar whiskey rhythm.
“DON’T YOU KNOW THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST REMOTE PLACES IN THE COUNTRY?”
We awoke to find the arroyo we had driven in on completely washed out by the flood, a situation persisting for four striking days. On the third, my truck battery died, unfortunate in some regards – since wife and work were expecting me, us, back to their civilization sooner than the wilds would allow – but in other ways not. I was stocked with enough canned food, water and beer for a week or more.
Thoroughly isolated, there was nothing to do but play. We chased lizards, mapped stars, made up songs about fleas and sticks, and barked profound declarations into the night.
When the urge struck, I wrote languorously in my journal while Bear napped in in the dirt. Or I napped and Bear sat alertly, defending our nest from buzzards, flies and long-tailed mice.
The morning of the fourth post-flood day, a white Jeep appeared.
It was the sheriff, and in his Jeep were two lawyers from Boston, out to visit the scene of a recent death in the area. Dehydration. Outward Bound student. Lawsuits were piling up, and these men were there to investigate.
“What are you doing out here? Don’t you know that this is one of the most remote places in the country?” the lawyer in the front seat howled. “Sure. That’s why we’re here,” I replied, grinning through cultivated whiskers. With cables I had already pre-started in hopes of eventual rescue, the sheriff jump-started my truck, and the investigation expedition disappeared.
I looked around and decided that this place is where I’d like to rest when it’s all over – somewhere quiet, open and unspoiled.
“Well, old buddy, I guess we’d better get back home,” I said. “Load on up.”
The tired dog leapt into the passenger seat with the ancient stick still in his mouth. When I got in he dropped it in my lap, and looked up at me with an expression of what had to be absolute contentment.
“We’ll get lost somewhere good next year,” I said, scratching his dusty brown head as we bounced and slid back down the muddy wash.