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Many anecdotes and experiences from my time Down South did not make the final draft of travel memoir, In Search of Captain Zero. Here is one of them; call it a “lost chapter”:
My dog Shiner is gone.
She disappeared four nights ago from this river valley deep down the Baja peninsula and I haven’t seen her since. The valley is lush and until this happened was quite beautiful, with a shallow meandering river and a quaint little pueblo nearby, along with scattered ranchos and fincas. On the map, the river has no name but its source is many miles to the east in the Sierras de Santa Isabel. I’ve been driving its deep wide bed east and west, searching for Shiner, four-wheeling it until I dare not go further for fear of bogging in the soft river mud. I then climb to La Casita Viajera’s roof and scan the bush with my binoculars, before proceeding on foot, calling out for her to come.
Knowing Shiner has the same affinity for the sea as I do, a couple days ago I attempted to paddle my surfboard the eight miles down the river to the sea (the coast here being roadless) but soon encountered a vast mud flat that was too shallow to paddle across and so soft that when I tried to negotiate it on foot I sank up to my thighs with each step. And anyway, after careful examination of the spoor along the flat’s edges, I came to the conclusion that Shiner had not taken that route in her wanderings — her tracks are distinguishable from a coyote’s by their greater diameter and depth.
The valley is lush and until this happened was quite beautiful…
I’ve alerted the village folk, offering a 400 peso reward for information leading to her return, although the people that have looked the hardest have told me that they will not take my money. The sons of a local rancher organized a search by horseback and I watched them from my roof as they crossed and re-crossed the river, whistling and calling her name (which they pronounce as “Chiner”) in case she’d gone to ground in a thicket or was injured and frightened and needed encouragement to show herself.
There had been signs, little indications that all was not well with her — obvious in retrospect, but like a parent whose child has suddenly gone severely astray, I have only lame excuses for my inattentiveness. Back up north at El Rancho de Chicho, for example, when I was running the rig’s engine to charge La Casita’s battery, she made a conscious move to lie down within a foot of the exhaust pipe. Like most people who don’t have or seek a lot of human companionship, I talk to my dog as if she understands. I remember saying, “Hey. If this is a suicide attempt, it ain’t gonna work. You need an enclosed area, preferably airtight.” I’d laughed at the image of a dog trying to kill itself in this manner but now of course the humor is gone.
I’ve alerted the village folk, offering a 400 peso reward for information leading to her return…
She’d also stopped grooming herself and would sack out in the dirt, or fango — the latter is a Spanish word I’m fond of, meaning muck or mire — and had even lost interest in her daily brushings. She wouldn’t bother to stand up, and I’d have to pull her to her feet by her collar to reach her underside.
But I think the real key to her disappearance manifested itself in the changes in her behavior after dark. My habit has been to pick campsites as far from the highway and populated areas as possible and often at night coyotes would yip and howl nearby. Her daytime lassitude would give way to a heightened alertness at night in these remote places, and she’d started making nocturnal forays, especially when the coyotes were vocal.
My fear is that she’s gone feral, decided to change her life much as I’ve done, and has embarked upon a journey of her own into the hills or up the riverbed, and is now many miles from here. I also fear the possibility that she’s come to grief, shot by a rancher who came upon her near his livestock, or assaulted by those same coyotes whose call I believe she has answered.
I’m not taking her loss very well. Earlier today I was talking to a young soldier with a scar on his face at a little garrison up the river valley. I wanted him to know about her so he wouldn’t shoot her as a stray, which is done in Mexico, and I was telling him how I’d had her for ten years, ever since she was muy pequeno. Well, I lost it right there in front of him, just started choking back sobs without any warning. I tried to wave it off and walked away, but as I was getting in the rig I heard him and his buddies laughing, so I yelled FUCK YOU AND YOUR FUCKING SHIT HOLE OF A COUNTRY! I’m sure they understood the gist of it and although it was a terrible thing to say — the part about their country anyway — I’m only sorry because it’s now more likely that they’ll shoot her if they happen upon her.
The sadness and depression come in waves, like yesterday when I was walking the dusty streets of the pueblito, hoping that hunger might have driven her to seek out humans. The little schoolhouse had just let out and a group of children passed by me and I heard a young girl refer to me as “El gringo con la perra perdida.” The American with the lost dog. I was suddenly so sad that I became disoriented and had to sit down on a nearby rock on the side of the road. I could not get the young girl’s words out of my head. I kept hearing them over and over and they summed up who I was at that moment. El gringo con la perra perdida.
… the American with the lost dog, a pathetic figure sitting alone on a rock in a river valley in Baja, Mexico…
I tried very hard to see past this, to the positive things I’d accomplished in my life, but I couldn’t. All I could see was this horrible here and now in which I was only one thing, the American with the lost dog, a pathetic figure sitting alone on a rock in a river valley in Baja, Mexico.
Over the past couple months when I’ve had doubts about the journey I’ve undertaken and the abandonment of the home I had for so long, I’d simply think about the road that lay ahead and the people I’d meet and the words I’d write and the photographs I’d take and the waves I’d ride and the idea of finding not only my old friend Christopher but of discovering a special place, a little piece of personal paradise, and the doubts would dissolve. I’d see myself as I imagined others would see me — an adventurous, even romantic figure on a solitary quest of discovery and enlightenment. But this was the reverse epiphany, wherein none of it was clear or made sense. This sensation has lingered and is overlayed onto the feeling of grief at the loss of my dog, producing a numbness and an apathy that has stultified me in body and soul.
I know that at some point I may have to leave the river valley without Shiner, but when I picture myself ascending to the highway, I have trouble with the image of turning south and continuing on with my journey — I count on Shiner in many ways and would not have begun this journey without her companionship. When I think of the alternative, of turning north and retracing the route back up the peninsula to the United States, I cannot picture myself doing that either, since I’d have no where to go in that country, and nothing to accomplish. I have burned bridges behind me.
I have been yearning for someone to talk to who might understand what I’m going through, and the one person who comes to mind in this context is Christopher, given his ability to adapt to trying and in some cases horrendous circumstances, and to not only accept them if need be, but to do so with grace and even good humor.
So I imagine him ambling up the valley with his dogs, Sweetpea and Jumbie, finding me camped here by water’s edge, and after a grin and a hug, asking me where Shiner is. I’d tell him what has happened and ask him what I should do. I imagine him advising me that because of my bond with Shiner I should stay here until I find her, or discover what has happened to her, no matter how long it takes. But I also imagine him telling me that in spite of our bond, it’s finally time to leave and get on with things, since it’s unlikely that she’s anywhere nearby, or even still alive. It is not of course the real Christopher who is saying these things, but me, using his voice to express my equivocality. The real Christopher, I’m quite sure, would take the shorter route and simply say, “It’s your call.”
Now the sun is low over the thick bramble in the west down the valley and the sky above and to the east is the cobalt hue that seems unique to Baja just before the quality of the light softens and warms at the end of the day. I decide that I’ll bathe and shave in the river, which I haven’t done since the day before Shiner disappeared.
As I’m setting up my camp table by the river, laying out my shampoo and razor and shaving brush, I glance downstream and see a flash of white maybe a hundred yards away. I yell out “Hey!” although there is no reason to yell anything because it has not yet occurred to me that I’m seeing Shiner standing there at water’s edge, the white blaze on her face stark against the muted green of the high brush. When I do sense this, that it’s Shiner, the implications are slow in registering. I stare at her mindlessly for some period of time, seeing but not seeing. For her part, in response to my shout she emits an odd sound, something between a whine and a bark and she’s looking from side to side, everywhere but straight ahead, which is where I am. I yell out her name but she still doesn’t zero in on me; she’s in fact very nearsighted and often won’t recognize me upon approach until I’m just a few feet away.
I call out her name again, this time with an edge high and squeaky with emotion and I find I’m walking toward her. Now she sees me and knows it’s me from the sound of my voice and from my gait but I sense a heartbeat of hesitation and I think my God she’s going to run away, she really has gone feral. But then she’s galloping toward me at full bore with her ears flapping and I’m running too and even in the heat of the moment as we’re having our reunion in the soft fango I’m thinking how incredibly sappy this is.
I’m up at first light and even before firing up the stove I step outside to see if Shiner is still there — last night I made the decision not to tie her up. She’s not in her usual spot under La Casita’s overhang and my heart sinks, but she appears quickly out of the near darkness, nuzzles my leg, then stretches and whines and even barks once. I smile because she’s normally a blear and droopy riser and not given to this sort of display in the morning. Then I squat on my doorstep sipping my coffee as the clear sweet light gathers and the valley is a beautiful place again, a lush winding ribbon through this wondrous foreign land.
I make my way up the valley, crossing my own tracks and no others except the hoof prints of the searchers on horseback in the damp red Baja mud. I veer to the right, climbing the gentle slope to dry ground, avoiding the soft sand where I bogged on the way in the day I arrived here, which seems so long ago now.
I rumble down the hard washboard grade of the pueblito, and as the kids are converging on the little schoolhouse, I tell the teacher who had spread the word among the populace through her pupils that I had lost my dog that all is well now, and I thank her and ask her to call off the search. Some of the boys run along with the rig smiling and pointing at Shiner beside me and roosters crow and a little Chihuahua barks from in front of the village tienda as we tool on by.
For more of my favorite Shiner photos, Click here.
I pass the church where there was a wedding two days ago, a joyous occasion which of course made me feel even worse about having lost my companion; then the road widens to almost two lanes near the rock I sat on and thought about who I was and what I was doing with my life, but then the road narrows again immediately as I cross the river twice where it forms a shallow oxbow.
I’m at the edge of the highway now and for the first time in a week I shift out of 4 x 4 low range and hit the road as the sun cracks the barren eastern hills, sending shafts of light westward down the river valley toward the sea. I’m feeling good and fired up and hopeful about the future and this journey and am very much in the mood to take a big southward chunk out of the road called Mexico 1.
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