I was discussing summer hiking plans with some friends of mine when I committed the ultimate in social blunders. I said, “Don’t take the dog.” Well, they looked at me like I’d shot Old Yeller myself. So I want to clear up any misconceptions right away. I like dogs, I really do, but I think the place for them is in the home, the back yard, the pick up truck, or, even at a pinch, hunting, but NOT on a hiking trip. Let me tell you why.
Many years ago, I went on a two week hiking trip in the mountains with a friend, who I shall call “Bob”, and his large, high-strung, over-bred, under-intellectual Irish Setter named Elsie. I really liked hiking, being younger then and less apt to need a pry-pole and a winch to get me out of my sleeping bag in the morning, and I liked Bob, but I thought taking Elsie was a big mistake.
For one thing, there was the problem of food. A large, healthy Irish Setter eats more, every day, than a family of six at Christmas. So, instead of doing the sane thing and leaving her home, Bob decided to make Elsie her own backpack. Because of death threats, the only thing I’ll say is that the kit came with the words “Sew Your Own Quality” written on it and Bob certainly did that. Let’s just say it took longer to sew the pack than it did to destroy it.
Elsie didn’t think too much of the pack. She tried, in the first three hours we were on the trail, twenty-five different ways of dislodging it, twenty of which worked. What with finding the pack, finding Elsie, holding Elsie still, finding the pack again, and putting the pack back on Elsie we covered about one mile in those three hours. It was then lunchtime. We had six more hiking hours and nineteen miles to go before we reached our proposed campsite. Elsie was fresh as a daisy and I was dead.
The next morning, Bob figured out a way to tie the pack on Elsie so she couldn’t get it off. We made much better time in spite of the fact that Elsie stopped and sat down every five minutes, trying to figure out what had happened. It was a beautiful, sunny day. We were on a remote, pristine, ribbon-thin trail that cut through steep slopes covered with glistening, slippery leaves. Elsie, for the tenth time, sat down to investigate the pack that stuck. We stopped and watched her. Bob reached down to pull her up and along just as Elsie, with a magnificent, aching howl, rose from her seat and plunged straight down the mountain. Behind her rose a buzzing, yellow-black cloud.
By the time Bob yelled “Yellow jackets! Run!” I was already doing my Olympic trials, and doing quite well if you overlook the fact that I was screaming the whole time. Somehow I not only managed to run a mile in five seconds, but I also managed to stay on the trail, which is amazing, considering how narrow the trail was and that ten kamikaze yellow jackets were stinging me for all they were worth. When I saw three of them crawling on my hat, however, I went into total hysterics, during which I almost died and the yellow jackets did. The hat remains upon the mountain to this day. Anyone who finds it is welcome to it.
Five minutes and two heart attacks later, Bob had cajoled me down the trail and past the yellow jacket nest.
“Where’s Elsie?” he asked. We looked around. Elsie was huddled by a tree fifty yards down the mountain. She looked lost, forlorn, and miserable enough to break your heart. “What should we do?” he asked.
“Leave her,” I said, and we did.
Oh, quit worrying. She caught up with us. We found a stream and were bathing our wounds as she came scampering up. She was fine. We were the ones sick as dogs. Worse, we were physically changing. Bob had been stung about ten times on his face, and was swelling visibly, like a bad horror movie. I’d gotten all my stings in my hand, which had already doubled in size. I was waiting for the skin to break when Bob asked, “Is there anything good for stings?”
“Tobacco,” I said.
“Do we have any?”
“You made me leave my cigarettes at home. You said my lungs would collapse out here.”
“Well, I didn’t know this would happen.” My look must have been unfriendly, because he quickly said, “It’s not my fault.”
“You brought the dog.”
A sullen silence followed, during which I remembered the pancake mix. At the time it seemed perfectly logical: pancake mix has baking powder and soda in it; baking powder or soda (I couldn’t remember which at the time) was supposed to draw the poison out of the stings. I mixed up a thick batch of it and we plastered it all over ourselves. We even put a thick layer of it on Elsie’s rear, but she just licked it off so we never knew if it helped her or not. Then we sat in more silence and watched the pancake batter, which was bright yellow, swell and dry and crack.
It wasn’t until some other hikers came down the trail that we realized the sight we presented. Imagine walking through a mountain paradise. The air is full of golden coins of sunlight, teasing scents of wildflowers and pine, lilting echoes of birds. There is absolute peace. Then you round a curve and come across two nuclear mutants -- or yellow lepers -- howling as they run after a large yellow and red dog. Elsie had routed out a rattlesnake.
Like I said, leave the dog at home.