Sidekick by Shelli Rottschafer

I pull out of my driveway.  The cooler rests in the well of the passenger side. My hiking boots stand at attention behind my seat waiting to be strapped on my feet. And, Makeda, my canine child is loaded in the back.

Together we are on a road trip; the journey to find calm.  Makeda is there because she is my companion.  Her unconditional love bounds toward me on the trail when she looks over her shoulder to make sure I am behind her.

On one of our first stops, I pull into a scenic picnic area at a reservoir. We have crossed over the Colorado state line into Valdez, New Mexico to take a break from the hum of the rubber wheels on asphalt.  The afternoon breezes in the monsoons which just finished pouring down a curtain of water.

I open the hatchback of my white Subaru Outback.  Makeda leaps out and eyeing the water, she wades in knee deep. The reservoir reflects the periwinkle sky and the caldera mountain range surrounding the pond.  Its mirror is broken with the ringed wavelets of her footsteps. She laps the water. Her long pink tongue scoops the liquid.  Her ribs sigh in pants after her sequester in the car. Back on the shore to shake, her black water soaked skirt shrivels to expose twig-like legs.

I continue beyond the pond, walking toward a mowed meadow. Cattails and water reeds line the shallows beside me.  Ranchers have brought their cows here to pasture.  Just as I realize, the cattle must have been herded down to be watered, a waft of something ripening in the sun reaches my nostrils.  I turn to put Makeda on her leash.  It is too late.

She writhes on the ground. Her incisors smiling in ecstasy.  I yell a slow motion, “Noooo!!!” and grab her by the collar.  “Dammit, Keda!” I drag her to the shallows and wash off what I can.  Like many female dogs, she basks in the rank.  Back in the car, her funk fills the cavity of the vehicle.  At this moment, I remind myself, “I love her. No matter what.”

The rationale for this trip is to expunge the pain that I feel.  I am in mourning.  Mourning the loss of a relationship is like mourning a death. Tears spring at unlikely moments.  I realize I am going through the different stages of grief.  I am long passed denial.  I have let go of the anger. I no longer want to bargain.  The depression is moving toward acceptance.  My hope is that I will encounter my old self, my true self, on the road like an old acquaintance that I have left behind.

I reach Taos later that day, before the five o’clock cocktail hour rings.  Laury waits for me.  It has been over a year since I have seen her.  Before we allow Makeda indoors, I douse her with doggie shampoo.  She wriggles to avoid the chilly hose water.  The burst of water parts her hair, exposing white skin.  I scratch in the lavender smelling goo.  She is none too happy, and inches away the cleanse.  As I bathe her, I wonder if this road trip will wash away my pain.  Will the miles and reconnections be a cathartic respiration allowing me to let go?

That afternoon Laury and I catch up.  I happily climb in her wagon as we tour about town running errands. We stop at a friend’s Airbnb.  We indulge in fresh squeezed lime margaritas.  It is dark by the time we return home.  Makeda hovers at the front door, ready to be let out to do her business.  I put her flashing red light clip to her collar and she launches into the darkness.  Because she is black, she blends in, only her arching flashes confess her location in the yard.

Our evening is not quite done.  Laury needs to go to the acequia madre.  The mayordomo of the irrigation ditch has released the key from up stream.  It is Laury’s turn to open the gate, flood her backfield so that the grass will turn green, the peach tree blossoms will spring, and the parched ground will have her fill.  To disperse the water, Laury, and her mother, Mary tunneled lines throughout the backyard trickling from the orchard patch to an outcropping of flowers and beyond to the grassy knoll.

Since it is the first time this month that anyone has been up to the house, the tunnels lay blocked with pine needles, grass clippings, and other debris.  Laury grabs a shovel, and I a hoe.  We rake the water through, pushing it along its path to inundate the brittle green.  Makeda looks on as she watches her two humans playing in the wet.  She sits observing our labor, the red light reflecting in the pool of water. She stands to attention when I leap across the ditch to work the other side of the trough.  The toes of my hiking boots glisten in the moonlight from my vigorous scrapping.  Laury tries to navigate the jump as well but her legs are not quite as long, and our margaritas leave us less than sure footed.  She falls face forward, chest deep into the mucky arroyo.  I cackle at her misstep.

“Oh my god Laury, I think I just peed.” We laugh hysterically, ending the evening giggling off to our beds.

To be honest, this road trip is something altogether different.  In actuality, I am mourning something else that I have not verbalized to anyone other than my own internal monologue.  Before I left on the trip, my doctors diagnosed me with an abnormality in my breast.  They gave me the permission to go on this trip, one last hurrah, before I go in for my biopsy. I anticipate the verdict with dread.  The unknown puts into question my mortality.  The doctor’s suspicions preemptively give me the permission to say, “The hell with it.  I am going to do what I want.”

And what I want right now, is to satiate my craving, that wanderlust that has long been neglected.  The Four Corners is one of my special places.  It is the place I feel grounded.  I discovered it so long ago while working at a camp outside of Creed.  Durango is home to Fort Lewis College, the Durango – Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and Steamworks Brewing Company.  Here, my friend Faith has a condo within a stepping-stone of Purgatory, a ski area in the San Juan Mountains.

Faith and her girls welcome Makeda and I as we pull into the wildflower-lined driveway.  I always enjoy time spent with Faith, Marin and Dylan.  Faith inspires her namesake in others.  Her girls provide me with the proud moniker, Tía Shelli.  They are two of the precious ones in my life who give me the chance to love maternally.  Something that time, age, personal decisions, and health have made not possible.

Faith inquires, “How is everything going?”

I have confessed my upcoming biopsy.  It seems safer to tell my kindred spirits who live afar rather than those who are close to home.  She notices my worry.  Her mom passed due to cancer.  She understands the dreaded C.

The following day our group of five heads to Purgatory Bluff.  We pile into the Subaru, Faith and I in the front.  Dylan and Marin midway and Makeda enters through the hatchback.

Our hour climb leads us up to a precipice, which overlooks Lake Durango, Electra Lake Reservoir, and Lizard Head Peak toward Telluride.  When we reach the top, we all look out.  Woman, child, canine. We sit on a log overlooking the view.  Makeda nears; she sniffs the peanut butter Power Bar that I extract from my CamelBak.  She sits dutifully, anticipating a morsel.  I split the bar into pieces, offering it like a communion wafer to toast our success.

We ladies look on in silence, each lost in our own thoughts.  Mine travel to the upcoming biopsy and the scars that would put into question my femininity.  The future diagnosis would test my understanding of identity.  But before that could arise, I turn from my fears to notice my sidekick licking my shin, tonguing up the saltiness. And Faith announces to the girls, “It is time to travel back down to the car.”

1 Author Beginning of Road Trip NE Colorado

BIO: Rottschafer writes Poetry, Creative Nonfiction, and Fictional Narrative. She is an outdoor enthusiast and can be found running with her black Labrador-mix along the Lake Michigan beaches. Or, during the colder months, the San Juan Mountains beckon her winters.