Chapter 1

Small Surprise

“Why did you name your dog Oats?” It’s a question I hear often from well-meaning strangers and friends, as people try to find a reason. “Oats? Why Oats?”
“Well…she’s the color of an oat field in August,” I explain.
“You must really be into health food.”
“No…the name just came to me.”

There is a reason, but it’s a long story, and sometimes I lack both the time and the courage to tell it. A few years ago, we traveled to San Felipe in Baja, Mexico—the birthplace of the fish taco. My boyfriend Tom had loved the town when he visited years ago and wanted to go back there again.
He remembered a sleepy fishing village, but when we arrived we saw that it had grown—now there were rows of oceanfront homes, owned mostly by Americans, all along the outskirts of the town. Still, the town itself had maintained a certain ambiance, the kind of place where you can sit on the beach with your dog and not be bothered by anyone.
JJ, my cattle dog mix, came along with us. But before we left California, we took her to the vet for the health certificate that’s necessary to bring her back across the border.
“Now don’t let her fraternize with those local dogs down there,” the vet had warned. “I’ve heard there are strays running all over the place.”
But JJ didn’t seem to recall that advice, because as we relaxed on the beach, she went off and introduced herself to the local crowd.
“Well, I guess it’s OK,” I said to Tom as I watched JJ frolic with her new friends. Most of the strays were edgy and stayed away from us, but some of them were friendly, and they seemed nice enough.
We watched the fishermen pull their boats up onto the beach and unload their catch. There was no dock, so they dragged their small, flat-bottomed boats right up onto the sand. A large rock was visible a few miles offshore. That was where they would go to catch the shrimp and other fish to sell to the local restaurants along the beach.
We ate at the same restaurant every day—the first restaurant we had tried—because they let us bring JJ inside and order quesadillas for her. The food was good, and the proprietor would give us a big smile and motion us all inside, including the dog, so there was no reason to go elsewhere. JJ looks like a fox with her upright ears and reddish-brown fur. I had found her the year before at a dog pound in Los Angeles, and she was perfect for traveling, about thirty pounds with a friendly expression.
At night, we camped on a deserted beach a few miles outside of town. It looked like there had been a campground there at one point—there were some paved remnants of camping sites and a couple of dead toilets. But beyond that, miles of beach extended in both directions with nothing around, and in the morning we would watch the sunrise light up the giant cardon cactus that grew near the edge of the ocean.
We decided to take a short side-trip and headed south about fifty miles where the road ended at Puertocitos. The seaside town was arranged around an indigo cove, and the coast was very rocky—there were no beaches, but overhanging cliffs and hot springs near the shoreline.
Not much to the town, I thought, observing the wrecked gas station, a boarded-up restaurant, and a post office the size of a telephone booth. There were dozens of houses of all types—trailers and shacks, but also nice places. The town was mostly deserted, and three young men running down the cliff with their fishing poles in hand told us that it was the off-season.
After a couple of hours, we had walked all of the footpaths and JJ had fraternized with all of the loose dogs. Despite the words of caution from her vet, she just seemed fascinated by the local strays. At the time, we didn’t know how this would end up affecting us.
“Let’s go,” I called to JJ as I opened the door to the truck. “Hop in.”
We headed back to San Felipe. The asphalt on the old road was worn and broken, and the loose sand underneath it had eroded, leaving deep holes ringed with pavement. It was impossible to avoid all of the potholes, so the ride was jarring because at least one tire was always bottoming out.
“Why did they even bother paving this thing?” Tom said. “A dirt road would be a lot better than this.”
We were almost back to San Felipe when I noticed a sign that said, “Giant Cactus.” Intrigued, I told Tom to pull in. It looked like a local man had an enterprise going…pay-per-view cactus. You couldn’t see inside the high walls, but there was the promise—“Giant Cactus.”
“Let’s check it out,” I said.
Tom rolled his eyes. “I’m sure they’re just the same old giant cardons we’ve seen growing all over the place around here.”
“How would you know?” I said. “It might be worth a look.”
I remembered pulling over one time to see a five-legged cow. I had expected to see a cow frolicking merrily on five legs, but had been saddened to see the poor animal with a deformed extra appendage hanging from its chest. But optimism dies hard, and I hated to miss out on something.
“Fine, then. Just forget about it,” I said.
Tom was driving, and it was obvious he didn’t want to deal with anything that might turn out to be a big, stupid tourist trap. Best to travel solo, I thought, or at least without anyone who doesn’t have four legs. Next time I’ll leave him at home.
I stared out the window of the truck, JJ’s head resting on my lap, until we got back to San Felipe. It was sunset by then, so we walked the promenade between the beach and the little strip of shops and restaurants as the sun sank low in the sky. Neither one of us did much talking.
“Where’s JJ?” I asked, breaking the silence between us. I looked around and couldn’t see her. “JJ!” I called a couple of times, but there was no response.
You come here, she said to me.
Let me explain why the four-legged characters in this story have speaking roles. A few years back, I’d decided to spend a year on a remote Indian reservation to become better acquainted with a dog. This was a life-changing experience, as I realized the consciousness of animals and began a lifelong quest to communicate with them. As time went on, I began to hear the animals with varying clarity, as a voice of thought inside my head. An idea, an image, an impression—not one of my own, yet alive and urgent, winging its way into my consciousness, seemingly from the animal whose company I kept. But more about this later.
So I heard JJ, in a mind-to-mind way, and I scanned the promenade looking for her. There she was, standing with her paws up against the side of a large planter that contained one small struggling palm tree. She was staring intently into the planter.
Tom covered the block-long distance first and looked down into the planter. “Well, look at this!” he said.
When I got there, I saw the two stranded puppies, along with a Dixie cup with some water in it and a couple of animal crackers. The dirt was about a foot below the surface of the planter, so the puppies couldn’t get out. They scrambled toward the attention, little paws moving mightily, and we realized they had been in there for a while.
“What should we do with them?” I said. We talked it over—of course we couldn’t leave them there, but we didn’t think about keeping them either, knowing that we had to have documents to bring them back across the border. We assumed it would be impossible to bring these little guys back home with us…at least legally.
Tom remembered seeing a veterinarian’s office on the way into town, so we hurried there, hoping to find a kind-hearted vet willing to take the puppies. When we burst into the dismal office, we interrupted the veterinarian, who was busy mopping the floor.
“We’ve found two abandoned puppies,” I said. “Could we bring them here since we’re traveling and won’t be able to take them back to the States with us? They probably need vet care, and we’ll pay for it.” Luckily, the vet spoke English, but she began to shake her head.
“No, I can’t take them,” she said. “There are too many street dogs here.” But she told us there was a dog rescue place just two blocks down the street that might take the puppies off our hands.
“Thanks,” I said, and we dashed out the door. The puppies had survived this long without my interference, but now I felt responsible for them. After all, they had ended Tom’s and my disagreement, or at least distracted us from it—we’d forgotten all about the giant cactus episode.
We hurried inside the green-walled building that was the home of both “Gringo Food-to-Go” and the San Felipe Dog Rescue. On one side of the room was a chilled deli case filled with macaroni and cheese, potato salad, baked beans, and a variety of other north-of-the-border delicacies. On the other side of the room was an assortment of dog handling materials and information about the rescue effort. I could hear barking dogs out back.
I’d had nothing to eat but fish tacos for several days and found myself staring at the macaroni and cheese—it looked delicious, as did the rest of the food. But then I remembered why I was there and snapped out of it, focusing instead on the tired-looking man behind the counter. “Hi,” I said. “We’ve found a couple of abandoned puppies. Can we bring them here?”
“We’ve got too many dogs here already,” he replied. “We just can’t take anymore. There’s an abandoned mother with a whole litter of puppies that were just born two weeks ago,” he said as he pointed toward the back of the restaurant. “All our kennels are full.”
“But we’re traveling and can’t possibly keep them,” I said. “They’re tiny and they’re stuck in a planter and…”
“OK, OK… bring them here,” he said. He seemed mad at himself for being unable to say no. His eyes hardened as he looked at me and said, “I guess we’ll find a place for them.”
“Great,” I replied as I hurried out the door. I skipped the mac-n-cheese because I didn’t want to give the man a chance to change his mind. To soothe my conscience for bringing in more strays for the man to deal with, I told myself I’d leave a donation along with the pups when I returned. That will make things right, I decided.
We raced back to the promenade and were relieved to find that the puppies were still in the planter. As I looked at them more closely, I noticed they were crusty and crawling with fleas. The fleas were red and stringy, different from the ones in California, and there seemed to be hundreds on each tiny pup. I wondered if the puppies had mange. Some of the street dogs had bald patches of thickened, wrinkled skin—a symptom of the contagious disease.
I worried about JJ being exposed, so I went inside the camper and found an old bread bag and a paper grocery sack. Slipping the bread bag over my hand, I reached into the planter, grabbed one squirming pup, and placed it in the sack. As I reached in to grab the other one, I felt guilty—what kind of animal lover would put two scared puppies in a sack? But the puppies were filthy, their coats matted with unidentifiable crud, and I wanted to protect JJ.
I folded the top of the grocery bag over and we all climbed into the cab of the truck. When I put the sack on my lap, I could feel their warm bodies through the paper. JJ sat upright in the middle of the cab, and Tom drove. There was lots of wiggling going on in the bag, and JJ sniffed it curiously as we drove through town. With a sudden burst of energy, one of the pups managed to pop her head through the folded bag, and I looked down to see her staring up at me intently.
My heart stopped, and I said, “Look, Tom, it’s Oats!” Tom quickly turned to look for himself.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes…I think so…” I said. “Yeah, I really think it’s Oats…”

back to top^

Webdesign by Jaa