- Eat & Drink
- News & Features
- City Life
- The Hamptons
- Las Vegas
- Los Angeles
- New York
- Orange County
- Palm Beach
- San Diego
- San Francisco
- Silicon Valley
- Washington, D.C.
Graham Hacia | Photo: Gary Kavanagh, iStock.com/Photo illustration by Clark Miller | April 21, 2017
When a five-pound pup goes missing in the middle of Death Valley, the race is on to rescue her before nature does its business.
Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about our relationship with the natural world, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the May 2017 Great Outdoors Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.
“Graham, did you take off Peanut’s jacket?”
It was approximately 1 a.m. on New Year’s Day in Death Valley National Park, and my friend Adriana was holding a tiny navy-blue jacket in her hand, the one that belonged to Peanut, her four-year-old, five-pound, black-haired, white-chested Chihuahua-Yorkie mix. Peanut’s jacket was supposed to be on Peanut, who was supposed to be sealed inside our four-man tent at the group campsite that Adriana and I had booked with 11 of our closest friends for the holiday weekend. But she wasn’t there. Where the hell was Peanut?
My head swimming in cheap champagne and whiskey, I staggered over to our tent. The zipper had been ripped back, and there on the tarp, the dog jacket, sans dog, had been found. We’d left Peanut inside the tent for a little under an hour while we’d wandered off to an impromptu dance party in a hillside cul-de-sac. Now, to our horror, we realized that the smallest and least capable among us had disappeared into the smothering, cold, feral darkness of one of the earth’s least hospitable places. Adriana clutched the tiny dog jacket in her arms as if Peanut was still safely wrapped inside of it. The rest of us grabbed flashlights. “Peanut!” we hollered into the uncaring desert night. “Peanut, where are you?”
For the next two and a half hours, we patrolled the perimeter of the campsite. Some of us went in pairs or trios, but I opted for the lone-wolf route, clambering half drunk up craggy hills, whistling and calling out the missing’s name like a mantra. Peaaaa-nut... Peaaaanut... Peaaaa-nut... At around 3:30 a.m., I stumbled back to camp. Adriana, bundled up in blankets, was awake, huddled next to the fire. Everyone else had turned in. She planned to sleep outside that night. Not wanting to leave her, I grabbed a couple of quilts and sat beside her. Flames crackled amid the silence.
In a soft voice, she asked, “Hey, everything’s going to be OK, right?” Not knowing what to say, I went for the easy lie. “Yeah,” I said, and squeezed her shoulder. After maybe 30 minutes, we decided to return to the tent but left the front flap open, holding out some small hope that Peanut might wander in during the night.
I awoke with a start at 7 a.m., my heart sinking as I realized that Peanut was still gone. Her tiny blue jacket was balled up in a corner of the tent. The what-ifs began. What if I had just taken her with us to the dance party? Why hadn’t we just locked her in the truck with Chapo, her brown-and-white toy fox terrier “boyfriend”? Why did we bring her to Death Valley, of all parks, in the first place: a vast wilderness where, each year, an average of two people die of heat-related illnesses, while still more die from car crashes and snakebites?
Losing Peanut here was not like losing her in the city. It was a borderline death sentence. She could die of dehydration. She could be killed by a coyote, a bobcat, or a mountain lion. She could perish in the talons of a hawk or owl or eagle, or be struck down by a scorpion or rattlesnake. She could fall into a ravine, impale herself on a cactus, drown in a flash flood. Before we even began our search, we had to armor ourselves by facing the very plausible reality that we might never find her.
As soon as we awoke and threw on some clothes, Adriana, our friend Christina, and I climbed the closest peak and scoped the horizon. Peanut was nowhere in sight. We hiked back down the hill, got into our truck, and drove through the Texas Spring Campground, asking every early riser we encountered if they’d spotted a small black dog wearing a bright-red harness. Nobody had seen anything. We found the camp host, a white-haired, mustached man ambling about the tents, making his morning rounds. We relayed the story to him. “I’m worried about her,” he said. He recounted some macabre tales about owners witnessing their tiny dogs get snatched off the leash by hungry coyotes. Something similar, he intoned, might have happened to Peanut.
I wanted to sock the dude. But of course, we knew he was right. Peanut made easy prey. Even within her mixed-breed litter of toy dogs, she’d been deemed a runt. A shivering and scruffy mutt who rarely barked or even growled, she had a skull no bigger than a golf ball. Her fragile frame had soft muscles and meager fat, and her petite jaw could inflict little harm on most predators. For Peanut, the world was a large and dangerous place, a mean terrain necessitating submission rather than aggression in the face of attack. How long could this coddled city pup survive the harsh primordial landscape?
On our way back to our site, a young guy stopped us, inquiring if we’d lost our dog. “A woman asked me last night if I’d lost mine. She told me that she’d tried to catch her but couldn’t. They were over there,” he said. He pointed us toward a cluster of tents pitched beside our own. We issued a flurry of quick thank-yous and were off, moving down the line of campsites, interrogating everyone we encountered. No one had seen Peanut, but what we did gather was that someone had been lighting off fireworks to ring in the new year. This, I presumed, must have spooked Peanut to the point of frenzy, causing her to tear through the tent zipper, wriggle out of her jacket, and escape into the night.
Adriana, Christina, and Haley—another of Peanut’s many aunties—went off to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to notify a ranger of Peanut’s disappearance while I queried campers as they awoke. Still nothing. At this point, I couldn’t stand around anymore. I had to search. I hiked east into the hills, alone. There was no logic to my choice of direction, only an obstinate gut feeling. Over every crest, around every bend, I was drawn deeper and deeper into the desert by a singular doubt: What if I turned back too soon? What if the one ridge, the one valley, the one burrow I left unexplored was the one place Peanut was hiding? Eventually, I found myself overlooking a rugged plateau that stretched for miles to the Funeral Mountains. The only signs of civilization were the telephone poles, bleached gray like dried-out bones, picketing a desolate road.
According to the local Timbisha Shoshone tribe’s legend, Death Valley was once an Edenic land of plenty where natural springs fed a large basin lake and a range of wildlife dwelled in the lush vegetation. The human inhabitants of this fertile garden were ruled by a capricious queen whose vanity and greed led her to enslave her people for the construction of an opulent palace—one, she insisted, to rival the mighty Aztec monuments to the south. Impatient with their progress, the tyrant began whipping her slaves, but when she lashed her own enchained daughter’s back, her incensed offspring cursed her mother and her brutally attained paradise. Exhausted by her toil, the daughter dissolved into a mound of sand, but her curse remained. The sun’s heat cranked higher. Flora withered and fauna perished, while the springs and lake evaporated into a sweltering mist. The queen died alone and in a fever, but it is said that the ghostly apparition of her half-built palace can still be glimpsed like a rippling mirage on the desert horizon.
Something like that mythical abode shimmered in the distance as I marched to the south, where the hills tapered off. It turned out to be the swanky Furnace Creek Resort, at the base of a stony hillock beside state highway 190. With its ostentatious palm trees and crystal-blue swimming pool, it was a comically cushy oasis in an otherwise barren landscape. I asked the doorman if any of the guests had reported seeing a small black dog with a red chest harness. He answered with a grimace: “I hate to be grim, but I’m guessing you’ve heard about the coyotes by now.” He referred me to the front receptionist, who also hadn’t heard anything. I gave him my name and phone number and forlornly returned to camp.
There I found my friends trudging about in a mournful daze. “Did you see any fur or blood?” Haley asked. I hadn’t. Adriana sat in the truck crying, calling her friends and family for support and reciting the Padre Nuestro prayer she’d learned as a child. A staunch atheist, Adriana had promised both her mom and God that she would re-embrace the Catholic faith if Peanut was found alive. “She loves that dog,” Haley said. “She won’t be the same without it.”
I was an agnostic myself. But that hadn’t stopped me from journeying to Death Valley from the Bay Area as if on a spirit quest to close out 2016, a truly dreadful year in which reality transformed into something darker than our bleakest satires. Was it a sign from some higher power that, in these first hours of the new year, we might be forced to deal with an even more personal tragedy than the ones that had befallen our country recently? Perhaps it was.
Christina, Haley, and Haley’s boyfriend, Ben, stayed behind with Adriana while I set out on my second venture. This time I walked north, navigating the camp’s circumference in a counterclockwise zigzag. It only reached a high of 66 degrees in the valley that day, but the temperature seemed to fluctuate rapidly, and I kept going from hot to cold and back again. (Having a hangover probably didn’t help.) And no matter how much water I drank, I could never quench my thirst. It was a small mercy at least that we hadn’t lost Peanut during the spring or summer months, when air temperatures can soar to 134 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest on earth.
How long had it been since Peanut had drunk anything? Would she have the wherewithal to find what little water was present in the valley? Passing along the western rim of the campground, I tracked a small creek cutting east to west through the hills to the south. The higher up the bluff I went, the deeper the gorge delved, until I was 20 to 30 feet above the gurgling water. What if she had fallen? I screamed her name, over and over. No response. I journeyed home. It was sometime before 2 p.m., about 13 hours since Peanut had gone missing.
When I came out of the hills, I went straight for the water spout. Christina called my name hopefully. Adriana’s head whipped back. I told them I hadn’t seen anything. Christina’s own dog, Chapo, sat on Ben’s lap beside Haley. Drawn to him, the five of us huddled together on a carpet of quilts. Our nerves frayed, we tried to deaden the hurt. Adriana and I cooked sausages. Christina gave tarot readings. The three of us smoked a joint. Nothing worked.
I had to go back out. The sun would set at 5 p.m. and predators would soon be on the prowl, hungry for supper. This would be my third and final outing of the day. I moved west. While descending a rocky strip banking Highway 190, I felt the tears come. This, a ranger had told Haley, was where the coyotes liked to hunt. To an observer, this sobbing man with a naked and sunbaked back, screaming something about his lost “peanut,” must have appeared deranged, but I didn’t give a shit. I was gonna find that dog.
That’s when I saw a crow, pecking at something among the rocks. Thinking it was feeding on Peanut’s corpse, I ran at the bird, arms flailing, mouth screaming: Gawwwwwhwwwwaaaaa! The crow flew off and left behind some jackrabbit carrion. I took a deep breath and kept moving into the basin of the valley.
The earth on the opposing side of the road turned into a spongelike clay, sucking at my tired soles. Prickly, dried-up brambles dotted the desert gulch. Intermittently, my heart skipped at the dog-shaped blur of a jackrabbit bolting through the brush. Haley called at 3:28 p.m. The rangers might have spotted Peanut, she reported. They’d tried giving Christina a ring three hours earlier, but she’d missed their call. Haley instructed me to meet her at the service road a mile north of the entrance to our campground. The rangers had told Haley, after she’d called them, that they’d chased a little black dog with a red jacket—her harness—into the mountainside valley there.
I hurried to the rendezvous point, arriving less than an hour before sunset. Ben drove up in the truck with Haley, Christina, and Adriana. They’d brought extra coats, flashlights, and snacks. “How are you even standing right now?” Haley asked. My mind zapped, I muttered a confused response. We split up; Christina and I took the high ridges, while the others scoured the dried creek beds.
As we walked atop narrow crests, our calls rebounded through the jagged glens. Soon it was dark, and then very dark. At one point I had to get down on my hands and knees and feel my way along a ridgeline to keep from toppling down a 40-foot ledge. About half a mile in, the cliff came to an abrupt halt. I shimmied down the rocky slide, then continued up the creek and into an adjoining valley. Adriana called at 6:12 p.m. They were at the truck, ready to call off the hunt for the night. We would return in the morning. “All right,” I said, and hung up.
After hiking for over half an hour through a pitch-black vent, I finally saw the high beams of our truck. About 20 yards from the finish line, the ground suddenly dipped. I fell on my ass, and my palm struck the sandpaper gravel, shaving off a flap of skin. Blood sopped the cuff of my peacoat. Head hung low, I got into the truck. I checked my iPhone’s pedometer. I had walked 20.3 miles that day.
“We’re going to find her today,” Adriana told me the next morning. It was now Monday, our scheduled departure date. Haley, Ben, and some of the others had already left, returning to their respective jobs and responsibilities. I didn’t know how much longer any of us could stay and search. But if we left, we would likely be leaving Peanut to die.
Adriana, Christina, our friends Zach and Paul, and I departed camp at around 9 a.m. to resume our search of the valley. Once again we split up, and once again that nagging feeling began: What if I had turned left at the fork when she’d gone right? Or right when she’d walked left? I stood on a ridge to the far east, scanning the horizon. In the distance, Zach and Christina yelled back and forth—a warbled communiqué I couldn’t decipher. Then their words got through to me. “I found Peanut!” Zach was screaming, hoisting the scrappy runt triumphantly.
Zach had been searching for about 45 minutes when he spotted a black-and-red dot against the white backdrop of sandy rock. He squinted. It was a little dog with one ear up and one ear down—Peanut! She was wandering a deep branch of the hillside valley, a mere football field’s length from where we’d parked. “Oh my God! Adriana! Adriana!” he yelled. Nobody heard. He sidestepped down the steep hill, only to have Peanut dart away. “Fuck!” he shrieked, and began chasing the panicky runaway. Then, realizing that Peanut could easily outrun him, Zach halted, took a breath, removed his backpack, and got down on one knee. Their eyes locked, and after 10 seconds of uncle-to-niece coaxing, she crawled into his arms, “shaking,” said Zach, “like a saltshaker.”
I met them near the truck. Zach set Peanut down, and she scurried into my outstretched hands. I cradled her in my lap, fixed a bowl of kibble, and filled my water bottle cap with water. She drank capful after capful for the next five minutes straight. Once satisfied, she rested her chin on the crook of my elbow and fell asleep. I kissed her scruffy head, in utter disbelief.
Adriana, Paul, and Christina came running out of the hills shortly afterward. Letting Peanut loose, I watched her run to Mama. “Come here, baby!” Adriana cried, dropping to her knees and squeezing Peanut to her chest. With her fingers, she fed Peanut her favorite peanut butter treat. While I choked back tears, Christina asked, “How you doin’, Papa Bear?” and gave me a hug. Our embrace turned into a group hug of five grown, crying adults, with an exhausted, stone-still Peanut nestled safely in the center.
Peanut slept atop a mound of blankets on the ride home. After surviving 34 hours alone in Death Valley, she’d been found a little over a mile from our encampment with a single wound, a minor scrape on the lip. Chapo, sensing his girlfriend’s exhaustion, kept a safe distance. Christina and Adriana took turns driving while I sat in the back, my hand tucked beneath sleeping Peanut’s chin. She awoke on occasion to lick my palm and watch the road disappear behind her.
I scratched the dog’s scrawny neck and thought about how Adriana’s prayers had been answered. The greatest miracle might have been that Peanut had somehow shed her navy-blue jacket as she’d wrenched free of the tent on New Year’s Eve. Who would have seen a pint-size black dog darting among the rocks if it hadn’t been for that bright-red harness underneath—a tattered band of cloth, the dividing line between life and death?
Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco