Never a Wrong Turn: The Story of Luka

I found a puppy burrowed beneath a dead horse on the desolate flats north of Canyon de Chelly.

Horses run free on the high mesas of Navajoland between Canyon de Chelly and the San Juan River. They graze along the weathered highways while cars precariously speed by. All too often, the horses are struck and killed by motorists or attacked by ravenous predators. Carcasses in various forms of decomposition are frequent along these desolate and lonely stretches of road.

After I passed the “Welcome to Arizona” sign, I realized that I had made a wrong turn some 20 miles back at the junction in Yah-Ta-Hey, a small village north of Gallup, New Mexico. I had not planned on being in Arizona for another few hours; my original plans were to enter Arizona briefly near Four Corners and continue into Southeastern Utah. I was meeting my friend John form Tennessee that evening to camp amongst the massive rock monoliths in Valley of the Gods. After consulting with the map, I decided to press forward through Arizona on Indian Route 12 rather than backtracking. The highway runs along the New Mexico/Arizona border through Fort Defiance, Tsaile and Rock Point. The route would give me a chance to see new scenery.

Driving north on the winding Indian Route 12 provides a spectacular display of red rock laced valleys, forest and high desert mesas. On the high desert plains, north of Canyon de Chelly, I passed dead horse after dead horse. Some lay on the embankment while others made it a bit further into the scrubland before dying. The third dead horse I passed provided surreal scene. A black puppy was playing in the grass tufts behind the massive carcass. I immediately decelerated and made a u-turn. As no shoulder exists, I drove down the embankment and stopped a good distance short of the black puppy that was now fleeing. As it ran, I called to it in every silly voice you would try when attempting to woo a puppy. I whistled and clapped, but nothing seemed to stop it. My heart sunk as I watched the dog fade into the distance.

Movement in the shadow of the dead horse caught my eye. It was another puppy; this one was black and white. My steps were slow as I approached and talked sweet to the little dog, hoping it would not bolt for the hills. Then I saw why she couldn’t run away, or even sit up for the matter, her belly and paws were riddled with spines and goat heads. The packed earth beneath the dead horse’s ruptured belly was pink and packed as if the little dog had rolled beneath the beast for days. The torn horse hide hung like drapes over her burrow. It was clear that she had been eating at its flesh and had licked parts of the hide bare. The smell of decay was heavy in the air. I let her get a view of me for a minute or two before getting closer. She squirmed and grunted as I reached down for her, but she didn’t growl or snap. While sweet talking to her, I picked her up and held her to my chest; her tail started to wag. The spines and goat heads embedded in her skin made holding her like embracing a cactus. As I walked back to the truck and scanned the barren horizon I couldn’t believe she was still alive—she was a miracle.

 Never a Wrong Turn: Part II

She was amazingly calm as I tried to comb my fingers through her fur; she grunted and licked my hands as I worked. It took me a good 15 minutes to rid her little belly and paws of the spines and goat heads that immobilized her. Bits of dried flesh and blood clung to her stubbornly. I had to cut the chunks of filth out with my Leatherman scissors. I filled a bowl with water and watched in awe as she downed it in seconds. I filled it a few more times before she slowed and was quenched. After rummaging around in my ARB fridge I emerged with a few slices of cheddar and ham. Her tail furiously wagged as she snatched the morsels out of my hand. Seems the fastest way to a dog’s heart is with processed meat and cheese. The foul odor of the pup was overwhelming, almost as if the horse had come along too.

We set off with the windows rolled down due north on Indian Route 12. My new ambitions were to find a bath for the pup. Looking at the desolate landscape, I figured I’d be lucky to find a half-full cattle tank. I wasn’t sure I could hold out for the San Juan River, which was two hours away in Southern Utah. A few miles down the road I came across a state trooper that was clearing debris from the highway. I asked him where I might find a gas station or car wash. Without a word he wiped his brow and pointed north quickly returning to his work.

An hour later we pulled into Mexican Water, a community marked by little more than a sign and a gas station-diner. The throwback building sat in the center of a dusty lot surrounded by gear laden SUVs and ranch trucks. I went inside and asked the cashier where I might find a hose and she directed me around back. “Don’t leave it running” she said as the screen door slammed shut behind me. Behind the station, a twenty-something guy wearing a wife beater was hacking weeds, a cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. He slowly walked up to the truck and rested his arm on the door. His weed whacker still sputtered in his other hand. I asked him where I could find a hose. Eyes squinting, he leaned inside the window to take cover from the sun. The rotten smell must have aroused suspicion in him. He curiously peered down at the floor mat. “I’ll be damned” he mumbled as he looked at my pup. “Guess you need a hose then?” He pointed at a spigot and curled hose underneath a tree. “Hold on, I’ll be back”, he put his machine down and walked into the backdoor of the diner kitchen. Moments later he came out carrying a green five gallon bucket. He handed me the bucket and took refuge under the tree, lighting up another cigarette. Smoke wafted from his mouth as he spoke, “That oughta do the trick”. In the meantime, I had scrounged a spare leash (used for my other dogs), Dawn dish soap and a towel from my truck. The loop handle of the leash fit perfectly around the pup’s neck.

Suds billowed from the top of the bucket as I sprayed the soap infused water. I had an image in my head of those Dawn commercials where they feature their soap heroically cleansing sea creatures of oil spill muck. The pup’s story would have had their PR department watering at the mouth. I carried the little dog from the truck over to the bucket; she immediately started to flail knowing she was going in. I put her in haunches first and she put her front paws on the bucket rim in protest. She then realized that she liked the feeling of the cool water and settled down. She looked scrawny once she was wet and her fur was matted. I lathered and rinsed the pup four or five times until the bath water lost its pink tinge. Each time, she’d shake the water off while I held her with one hand and refilled the bucket with the other. Soon I was just as soaked as her and standing in the mud hole I had created. All the while the handyman looked on with amusement.

Once finished, I carried her back to the truck wrapped in a towel and dried her off a bit. She looked magnificent compared to dog I had lifted from the horse carcass a short while before. I thanked the handyman and offered him compensation for helping me; he chuckled and said the entertainment was payment enough and went back to his weeds. With that, we drove off bound for Southern Utah. She was now clean and ready for her new life—as if she had been baptized in Mexican Water.

Never a Wrong Turn: Part III - Her name is Luka.

As the sun sank in the cloudless sky, we entered Utah near Boundary Butte. After crossing over the San Juan River, the road to Valley of the Gods meanders between sheer red rock cliffs and smooth sandstone formations. The scenery became more spectacular with each passing mile. The vibration of the road lulled the little put to sleep. With each bend in the road, her eyes would flicker open and shut.

The pup awoke as I turned onto the washboard dirt road leading into Valley of the Gods. I was late by a few hours to meet up with my friend John from Tennessee. I had befriended him during the Borderland Overland, a trip that I guided along the US/Mexican border to the Overland Expo in back in April. John was traveling with his buddy Blaine; the two were zigzagging across Southern Utah in John’s VW Syncro Campervan. As I rounded the last bend to Castle Butte, I spotted the drab green van. It was situated below a towering rock spire at the end of a narrow two-track. While we greeted, I opened the door of my truck and the pup jumped out. She darted into the nearby bushes and hunted for a place to pee. Under normal circumstances, I’d start handing beers out while explaining my tardiness. In this case, rescuing a puppy from under a dead horse was excuse enough. The guys immediately loved her.

Photo: John's perfect set-up, in the perfect spot, at the perfect time of day(the case of Pacifico doesn't hurt either)- Castle Butte, Valley of the Gods, Utah

Photo: Determined to follow me as I photograph the valley from a high vantage, Luka scales the steep hillside- Castle Butte, Valley of the Gods, Utah

I staked the last corner of my tent as the sun disappeared behind Castle Butte. The pup had been lazily watching me work while she lay under my truck. John suggested that we head into Mexican Hat, a tiny community about 30 miles south, for dinner at the Swingin' Steak. The rustic outdoor eatery provides patrons with thick cuts of local beef, seasoned and grilled to perfection over an open fire. The restaurant owner, who doubles as the grill-master, swings an iron grate over the fire with one hand while he holds a beer with the other. What more could a parched and weary traveler ask for? He had no problem with letting the pup sit beneath our table. As we sipped beers and exchanged stories, we fed the pup from our plates. All the while a group of German kayakers looked on with amusement. After the feast, we returned to camp with full bellies and enough leftover beef to keep the pup fed until I could buy proper dog chow.

Photo: Swingin' Steak Grill Master- Mexican Hat, Utah

Photo: Vegetarian Plate (so long as you give the dog the meat)- Swingin' Steak, Mexican Hat, Utah

That night at camp we tipped the bottle and exchanged stories around the crackling campfire. I leaned back in my chair and gazed into the heavens. With the closest city lights hundreds of miles away, Valley of the Gods has the most spectacular night sky I’ve ever seen. Infinite galaxies, stars and planets contrasted themselves against the darkness. While we conversed, the pup lay fast asleep under my chair. Although she had been free to wander camp, she liked to stay close. When we finally retired for the night, she followed me to the tent and climbed in like a regular. She plopped down on my pillow and sprawled out—smart pup I had found.

Photo: Fireside John Franzen- Castle Butte, Valley of the Gods, Utah

In the morning we broke camp and loaded our rigs. We ascended the switchbacks of the Moki Dugway and hiked to Three Rooms Ruins by way of Cigarette Springs. After parting ways with John and Blaine, the pup and I pressed north through the grand landscapes of Cedar Mesa, Comb Ridge and Manti-La Sal National Forest bound for Moab. The main purpose of my trip to Utah was to attend Cruse Moab. The annual off-road event brings hundreds of 4WD Toyota enthusiasts from around the country to test their skills and equipment against Moab’s infamous trails. Aside from camping and four wheeling with my Toyota friends, Cruise Moab is one of the biggest off-road events I photograph each year. When we finally arrived in Moab, I took the pup to the local vet. The vet examined her thoroughly and concluded she was in excellent health. After the pup was immunized, we were free to go.

Photo: Castle Butte, Valley of the Gods, Utah

Photo: Moki (Mokee) Dugway, Route 261, Utah

Photo: Three Room Ruin, Cedar Mesa, Utah

For the remainder of the trip we camped in Moab near the Colorado River. At night the pup would wedge herself between my sleeping bag and the tent wall. With the slightest noise outside, she would sit up at full attention and grumble. Usually around midnight, she would transition to my sleeping bag, waking me up as she wiggled in. Sometimes while she slept, her little legs would twitch and she would make muffled grunts; almost as if she was dreaming of chasing a rabbit.

Photo: Salt Valley Overlook, Arches National Park, Utah

One morning I woke to a wet sleeping bag, she had peed in it during the night. I could hear her rustling around in the tent somewhere. I got out of my soggy bag and found the dog head first in my duffel bag burrowing into my clothes. As I pulled her out I realized she was soaking wet. I spent the rest of the morning washing gear and clothes. I draped everything over the tent to dry in the sun, while we were out running trails. Another day she managed to find my cell charger, IPod dock and a handful of maps while I bought groceries. She chewed through the cords and shredded the maps in a matter of minutes. I was lucky to have another charger, but my iPod was rendered useless—it would be country radio from then on. On Cliff Hanger, a trail made famous for being precariously etched into the side of a cliff, she tried to jump over the center console while I made a sandwich in the back. She became so excited from the scent of lunch meat; she peed into the console tray which contained my wallet and spare change. As her personality seemed to develop, so did some bad habits. She would pee whenever I picked her up. She would bark uncontrollably at her food bowl when it was empty. She would scratch at the tent door to get out, only wanting back in seconds later. These were just some of the games she liked to play. I did, however, like how she constantly rolled in the dirt—the dirt did a fine job of soaking up the lingering odor in her fur.

During the next week we traversed over 300 miles of rugged backroads and trails around Moab, Canyonlands National Park and Canyon Rims Recreation Area. She liked riding shotgun on the passenger floor board of the truck. Her spot was shaded by the dash and situated below a cold blowing air-conditioning vent. She didn’t seem to care much about the constant bouncing while I navigated rugged canyon bottoms and high shelf roads. Sometimes she would get up on the seat and put her paws on the window to take in the view. Despite her skittish bladder, the pup was quickly becoming the ultimate trail dog.

Photo: Cliff-edge climb- Cliff Hanger Trail, Canyon Rims Recreation Area, Utah

Photo: Hell's Gate- Hell's Revenge Trail, Moab, Utah

She drew much attention, whether it was out on the trail, walking through Moab or back at camp. People would often ask what kind of dog she was. As they pet her, I would respond by saying that I had rescued her. Sometimes I’d add: “from a dead horse”. In the extended version, some would lean back from the pup and wipe their hands, some would pull their children away, and some would laugh in disbelief. Most would keep on petting her while they listened to her story. It was nice to hear so many people offer to take in her if I could not. It was too late though, I had already fallen hard for the little pup.

Photo: Luka at Amasa Back- Cliff Hanger Trail, Canyon Rims Recreation Area, Utah

On my return home, I retraced my steps through Navajoland to visit the place I found the pup. Along the lonely Indian Route 12, I passed a sign for Lukachukai, a small Indian village nestled against the Chuska Mountains. I said the village name Lukachukai in my head a few times before it came to me. “Her name is Luka” I said aloud. Although I had been bombarded with a many name suggestion, I had been holding out for such an epiphany. The name was simple and would serve as a constant reminder of her story. When I spotted the dead horse, I decelerated and pulled off the main road. The corpse had been ravaged in the week since I had seen it last. I scanned the horizon for the black pup that had run away. The only sign of life were buzzing flies and a black crow perched atop a slanted wood post. I couldn’t help but feel sorrow for that black pup. The setting sun illuminated the surrounding landscape, painting it with brilliant shades of red and orange. As a cool breeze rustled the grass, I reflected on the blessing of finding the little pup and I paid my respects to the dead horse for providing her shelter. I looked over the landscape one last time, but still no black pup. On a somber note we departed, Luka plopped her head down and gave a long grunt.

The engine strained as I drove through the forested hills south of Greasewood. In the fading dusk light, I watched a pack of wild dogs running between the trees. They looked like jackals pursuing their next meal. I looked down at the little pup lying asleep on the floorboard—her path had been forever changed.

-I found a puppy burrowed beneath a dead horse on the desolate flats north of Canyon de Chelly. Her name is Luka.

Photo: The little pup, moments after I found her- Indian Route 12, Navajoland, Arizona