Halfway up the trail, we passed several joggers with dogs that were coming back down. The joggers would come trotting toward us and breathlessly tell my children not to be afraid of their dog. “Don’t worry,” they would say, “Conan loves children.” and they would vainly tug at Conan’s leash as the massive hellhound greedily pulled back and eyed my children through the steam rising up from his flared nostrils. (There was no indication of why Conan loved children. That was left up to our imagination.) The next jogger would pass and do the same, only this time Conan would be named Tiger, or Keeper, or Gorloth the Flayer of Man. Just friendly titles for friendly Alaskan dogs who were one broken leather collar away from forming an army of friendly Alaskan dogs that would rise up and destroy us all.
My children are scared of dogs. They grew up with a pug in the house. So, saying that these dark powerful creatures that they pass on the trails are dogs is laughable to them. It’s like calling a gun a tomato just because you happened to find it discarded in a field one day. They are not the same thing, and one is clearly dangerous. One is soft and squishy and you can kiss it and it mostly just takes naps a lot. The other is hard and violent, loud, angry, locked away, terrible on a salad.
Lydia especially is scared of canines. She often tells us about her nightmares and they typically involve wolves, or angry neighborhood dogs or a wild thin desert animal that Gideon refers to as a “High Cody”.
So, it was a bit of a shock when we started up a very narrow set of stairs on the side of the mountain and Clara called back from the front, “Look out guys, there is another dog up ahead!”
I glanced ahead and saw nothing. “Are you sure?”
She waved a hand and stepped blindly back down a couple of stairs. “Yes! I don’t see anyone with it though. I think it might be loose!”
I sighed and pushed my way to the front of the expedition. Sure enough, a hundred feet or so in front of us, something was meandering back and forth along the trail.
I squinted and slowly crept closer. The creature sensed me and sniffed at the air, and then turned and attempted to climb off of the trail. It was this moment when I suddenly realized what we were facing.
“Hey, guys! It’s not a dog!”
“Oh no!” Lydia melted from the back.
“No, settled down. It’s a porcupine!”
As if understanding its own name, the creature turned and looked at me with its prickly body standing on end crowning its tiny face and eyes like little sewn on black beads.
“It can’t move very fast, but don’t get too close to it. I’m going to try to get us past it.”
It was more anxious to get off the trail than we were for it to get off the trail, so it didn’t take much conversation to convince it to move, but it was terribly bad at following directions. Although I told him several times that he would never make it UP the mountain and that he should instead go the other way and go DOWN the mountain, the needly little rat still tried to waddle its way up a steep cliff of muddy dirt and eventually got himself stuck there, nose to nose with a rock about 15 feet off the side of the trail.
“Okay… Kids, I need you to get past me and up the trail as quickly as you can, okay? The porcupine will not hurt you, but he is kind of stupid and he seems to have gotten himself stuck. I’m pretty sure the only way he can get out of this is to roll down the hill like a terrifying bowling ball, and I don’t want you below him when that happens, okay?” But I received only blank stares from my children. And they approached in the slowest and most clumsy way possible. Bumping into each other from behind and turning around to bop each other on the head and then argue about it, like a scene from the Three Stooges.
“Guys! Guys, just get up the dumb hill. You’re as bad at the porcupine!”
No sooner had they finally scampered past me than the trap was triggered and a little ball of pine over pork came tumbling across the trail where we had just been standing. The little man righted himself and shook a bit before quietly looking back up the hill he had just fallen off of, no doubt readying himself for a second attempt. Who knows, maybe he had been at this all day already.
“Okay. We should keep moving. There is nothing else we can do here.”
The rest of the hike to the top of the trail and back down again was halted every ten feet by a waved hand and a warning over someone’s shoulder saying that they thought they had seen or heard a porcupine blocking the trail ahead. And I would wipe my hand across my face and check the time and sigh and tell my children that for better or for worse they would probably not see another porcupine again for a long long time.
“How long do porcupines live?”
“I don’t know, actually.”
“So they could be a thousand years old?”
“Well, what do they eat?”
“I’m not sure.”
“So, they might eat PEOPLE?”
“That’s not what I said. They do not eat people and they are not a thousand years old.”
“Well… maybe it was just really really hungry because it hadn’t eaten someone in a long long time. Like several hundred years.”
And I was outvoted in this fact by a vote of 3 to 1.
As we approached our car in the dark blue twilight of the evening Lydia yawned a great smiling yawn and announced. “I have decided that I will no longer have nightmares about dogs and wolves anymore.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Oh really? That’s great, I guess.”
She bowed slightly, “Yes,” and the last glimmer of the freshly set sun sparkled in her eyes for a moment. “Now I’m going to have nightmares about porcupines!” This got excited high fives from her brother and sister.
I put my arms around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head. “I hope you do that, little girl.”