Death Valley Dogs

by Susie

The caravan of vehicles snaked slowly across the desert floor. Halloween weekend was Sam’s birthday and also the first weekend to be “just right” in Death Valley. Sam was so excited. He hung his head out the window, eyes closed, tongue lolling out of his mouth. The air was clear and still. He sniffed and caught a hint of wild growing things. It made him drool. Sam knew his friends were in the other trucks. Also in the trucks were coolers filled with goodies for the weekend. Off in the distance he could see their destination, a wonderful hot spring, so far away from city lights that you could see shooting stars as they raced across the night sky.

Sam loved camping. SHE took groups of dogs and people to the mountains and desert all the time. For a little black poodle, Sam’s social life was extensive and very fun. The trucks pulled up a short distance from the spring and everyone gratefully climbed out, stretching and gathering. Sam was a pretty laid back guy; he didn’t care about the “Alpha dog” stuff but he knew that his best buddy Griffy would be right there. The dogs were doing the circling ritual to find out who was today’s Alpha. As usual, Griffy made the cut. His large shepherd/lab body and cool persona usually took the lead. Sam and Griffy had camped and hiked together for a long time. They even had an old sleeping bag that they curled up in together. The dogs suddenly broke from the swirl and made a beeline for the open desert. A cloud of dust followed the pack of fifteen joyful canines. The human newcomers looked up and began to talk uneasily. SHE just smiled. She had seen this before. As the dust cloud got further away she laughed and said, “Don’t worry. Where are the coolers?” they all relaxed. “Oh yes,” they said.

The humans unpacked the tents and started building the weekend camp. A few grabbed towels and went off for a quick dunk. “Don’t forget to carve the pumpkins,” they were reminded. As the dogs pounded back into camp, they gulped down great mouthfuls of water and looked around for a cool place to rest. Sam smiled contentedly from under the truck. His eyes drooped into a nap.

A little time later, Sam rolled over and stretched. He got to his feet and gave a shake. All the tents were up and the campfire was waiting for a match. The bowl was still empty, so he strolled over to where SHE was working on the pumpkin. “Need a little something?” she asked him. “Woof,” he replied, of course. A large peanut-butter dog biscuit came his way. He heard large footsteps come up behind him, and without turning he knew it was Griffy “on the mooch.” “Here’s your buddy,” SHE said, as she passed him one too. After cleaning up the crumbs, the two patrolled the campsite. Lots of pumpkin carving and mooching going on.

Griffy put his nose in the air and snuffled. “Rabbit,” he whispered. Both scanned with nose and eyes and went off running after a whisper of a smell. Feet pounding and tails up they raced. The smell disappeared but still they ran, this time just for the joy of it. As they slowed, they investigated some coyote tracks and sniffed some scat too. This was a female who had recently had pups. Sam loved puppies. The desert sun was sinking slowly. Its promise of a spectacular setting stretching shadows till they disappeared into the pitch black of pure desert night. Soon the stars would come out. Sam and Griffy breathed in the heady desert sage and Manzanita and turned towards the brightly flickering campsite. The people were in the spring that was decorated with pumpkins lit with candles flickering in the desert breeze. As the dogs padded around the campsite a sound of the desert came clearly. Several of the dogs lifted their voices to join the chorus. Woofs and howls bounced from the rocks and canyons.

Laughing together, the dogs gathered for the trick or treating. Backpacks were settled on doggy shoulders as they began the round of the tents, gathering all sorts of treats in the packs, showing off their learned tricks with pride. Back to the fireside where birthday cake was waiting. All kinds of stinky stuff baked to perfection and divided up into their bowls. Sam was in heaven. SHE was the best. Griffy hopefully checked Sam’s bowl but he was too late, the last smear had been cleaned away. Back the humans went to the spring. Wine glasses glittering in the candlelight, they leaned back in the steaming water and counted shooting stars. Life was good, “Yup,” thought Sam, “This was perfect!”

Sam’s nose twitched. He opened one eye carefully in the sun. In front of his shiny nose was a curiosity. It was hairy, black and had lots of legs. Sam sniffed curiously but didn’t move. “Good boy,” SHE said, “Come here.” Sam turned his head and walked to HER. “Good dog,” she patted his back. “That’s a Tarantula; best not touch,” she told him. Lovely smells were coming from the campfire, but first a visit to the campsite perimeter. A long one. “Ah that’s good,” he thought. The growling in his tummy guided him to where the bowl sat empty. SHE poured some kibble and Sam buried his face in it. A quick drink for the humans and then into the truck to the hike beginning.

Strolling up the little canyon, dodging prickly plants, climbing over rocks, the desert smells wafting with the occasional breeze drifting down the trail. As the hikers rounded a curve, the high canyon wall came into view. Water dripped off the edge down a wall of ferns growing from the shady cliff. They all found a boulder to sit on and took a long drink from bowl and bottle. The shade was so welcome after the blinding sunshine on the desert floor. Griffy lifted his nose and Sam looked to where he pointed. He caught a whiff that was new. “Donkeys,” Griffy told him softly. They padded away from the group, working their way to the top of the cliff by an almost invisible path. They peered over the edge and there was a herd of donkeys browsing on the lush grasses growing near the seep – one male, three females, two young – shaggy coats, long tails and black crosses across their backs. These must be the descendants of the beasts of the old miners who died in the desert. What a sight! With a spray of gravel, they turned in unison and ran, kicking up divots behind them. Sam and Griffy sat watching the donkey family head away into the haze. They heard voices calling them. They too turned as one and descended at a full gallop to where the humans were waiting. Off again, they bobbed over and around rocks, catching nose glimpses of knowns and unknowns. They could see the cluster of trucks at the end of the hike and as a group they all raced, ears flapping and tongues lolling, till they fell in a heap and rolled to a stop under a huge boulder. The folks broke out the pumpkin pie and the dogs milled about, hoping for a taste. Fat chance. The rawhide wasn’t bad though. As they caravanned out to the road, Sam looked at HER with a big toothy grin. “We are great together,” he thought.

June 26,2013

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