People say that having a child changes your life. I say that traveling with a cat alters your destiny or at least your destination.
I used to be a spontaneous traveler, a fluid nomad of sub-cultures, a born again gypsy; now I’m a 50-something, widowed too early, with a hairball who holds court appreciating no one and nothing. Tomorrow morning we leave San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles, a place I’d planned to be for three full months, but our Air BnB rental was not, as the owner had originally indicated, available for the entire summer. If I were willing to share the apartment with the original tenant who happened to be absent for the month of June, I was welcomed to stay.
I do not want to share a place with a complete stranger, and I definitely do not want to share it with a man. I don’t want to share. There wasn’t enough time to be as upset as I probably should have been because instead of spending that first week developing a temporary community, I was instead dedicated to finding a rental with a view for July and August that was a) still available, b) not ridiculously expensive, and c) feline friendly. The owners, aside from this not-so-small oversight, have actually been gracious and kind, inviting me to dine with them on several occasions, no doubt hoping my wine intake would diffuse any travel wrath; it did. But this last week of June, when I should be editing, I have instead been secretly packing, something I must do on the sly so as not to alert Gatita’s now fully formed road phobia.
(Speaking of editing: I’m making progress! I went off track for a bit with all the road travel in May, but the shortened time in San Pedro actually helped to spur me into rewriting action.)
At the moment, Gatita is napping in the bedroom, something she does 15 to 20 hours a day now. She is 12 human years which equates to an elder 70 in whiskers age. I have closed the bedroom door so she will not hear me as I tip toe my luggage and packing containers onto the patio for easy transport. This strategy is a necessary process if I’ve any hope of Gatita remaining calm tomorrow when I place her, my final package, into the Jeep early in the morning. We have a four-hour drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to central California and a place called Morro Bay. I’d like to remember that coastal drive as howling-free.
But if you were thinking of feeling sorry for me because I have to contend with a psychotic cat, you’ll want to keep reading. My girl is justified in her newfound dread of the highway. Let’s just hope this does not repeat itself, ever.
Cat on a Freeway
Before entering Los Angeles, Gatita and I had to make our way out of the hot state of Nevada and into the arid part of California untouched by ocean breezes or water of any kind. I’m convinced that someone, somewhere captured photo(s) of the worst ten minutes of Gatita’s and my life on westbound Interstate 15.
Her continuous crying began two days earlier as we left Idaho and headed into Nevada, using all their dusty backroads with heat floating up from asphalt. When we left Las Vegas that morning, I didn’t turn on the air conditioner but instead rolled down the windows so a cross breeze could keep us cooled off. My more frugal side did this primarily to save on gas, but also because the only temperature that seemed to be coming out of the 2001 Jeep’s outdated air conditioner was warm air.
I tried not to think about what the lack of cold air would mean between Nevada and California, another 200 miles of mostly desert land, better known as the Mojave. And so it was just outside of Barstow, 60 miles west of Las Vegas when temperatures started to inch towards 100 degrees, and it wasn’t even 10 o’clock in the morning yet. We passed a white and black road sign that read:
$1,000 fine for abandoned animals on the highway
Who in the hell leaves a pet out here? I was thinking as we passed through the city of Baker, headed toward an exit for Zzyzx. It’s apparently so scorching in the desert that people gave up trying to use vowels in their town names.
I’d left the Jeep windows down a little lower than usual, not concerned that Gatita would see this as a primary escape route. She was too intent on sitting up towards the back of the truck, her mouth open as she faced the driver behind us, panting as if to cool herself off but really it was flat out dyspnea, so distressed was she from our continued driving.
Then all of a sudden, the 70-mile an hour slowed to 50 mph then 20 then a snail’s 10. Throughout this trip, I have stayed in the far right lane, sometimes designated as the slow car and truck lane. Other cars sped by far faster than the legal 70 mph, oblivious or in defiance of the other posted signs of speed radar by aircraft. Of course, I never saw any aircraft and obviously neither did any of the speeders but it no longer mattered: All of us were now inching along at a mere 5 miles per hour.
I rolled the windows down even more because our slow speed did not allow for any air, hot or otherwise, to be felt. Gatita had been at the back of the Jeep crying, and I had managed to block out her voice so when the crying stopped, I didn’t notice immediately. It was purely by chance that I thought to glance in the rearview mirror, but when I didn’t see her, I turned my head towards my blind spot, first on the right then on the left. Already, her body was half-way out the window as she dragged her belly through. If I tried to roll up the window to stop her, I would injure her ribs.
“No! Gatita, no!” I yelled but it was too late.
She had done the unthinkable and squeezed her body through a narrow opening of that backseat window, landing in between two lanes of the highway surrounded only by dried, spindly shrubs. Had cars been going their normal 70+ speed, she would have been killed instantly. But when she landed on the freeway, she stayed still. I maneuvered the Jeep onto the shoulder of the road and slammed on the brakes, opening the door before I’d even placed the gear into PARK. Jumping out of the truck, I placed both palms up as I faced drivers while mouthing the word Stop so I could grab her. But one car in a hurry to drive 10 mph instead of 5 mph ignored my plea and sped up in front of Gatita, spooking her and causing her to dart across the final left lane and onto the desert median, almost three lanes in width.
“Gatita, come here little kitty, please girl, please come here.”
I did not dare run after her, but only walked quickly, at a pace that would not frighten her. Every couple of steps, she veered farther south until she was almost halfway across the median. On the other side of the highway, cars were heading east at a normal 70 and 80 mph. She would be hit for sure. If she weren’t she would be lost forever, her pink collar absent from her neck and no doubt under the Jeep seat where she always managed to get it caught on something, pulling until it snapped off.
“Gatita, please, please stop,” I kept saying in an elevated voice but not yelling, trying hard to sound normal and not desperate.
Yelling would make her quicken as would any speed faster than what I used to keep up with her, praying with every step that I reached her before she reached the other side of that freeway.
All of a sudden, she turned east and began heading back towards Las Vegas. Clearly, she had lost her kitty mind. But, she was not close enough for me to lunge for her so I did the only thing I could: I kept up with her. And we walked like this for a solid five minutes. If I tried to accelerate my stride even a little, she picked up speed. Surely someone was filming this from a smartphone if only to report me to highway patrol when the carcass of my cat was eventually found.
Although the air felt cooler outside of the Jeep, I knew this was a deceptive dry heat, famous for its ability to send a body into heat stroke or exhaustion, the lack of humidity detrimental regardless of human, animal or plant. Now I knew why the Department of Transportation for Nevada and California put up the white with black lettering signs — for idiots like me.
Gatita seemed determined to walk all the way back to Las Vegas while I wondered how long I could stay out here parched. I’d already stopped sweating in the dried air, a bad sign for both of us. Maybe she’ll wear herself out and let me catch up. I pictured us both passing out on that median, nobody dumb enough to stop and help us. There would be no point. There was nothing and nowhere to go for sixty miles in either direction and only barren land on both sides of the highways.
Then a trucker beeped his horn causing Gatita to jump and veer back north towards the westbound lanes we had come from. I smoothed my voice even more as I made non-stop lip smacking sounds, difficult from my saliva-free mouth. She was so close to the shoulder of the lanes now and even though the cars were slow moving, they weren’t stopped. She was scared enough to run directly in front of a rolling tire.
I whispered, “Gatita, como estas chica, que paso?”
And that’s what did it, hearing Spanish because she was, after all, a Mexican cat, born in the state of Morelos, the city of Cuernavaca. She is what I brought back with me on the airplane after my Mexico sabbatical ten years prior. When she heard the familiar Spanish, she stopped abruptly on the shoulder, crouched into a tight position, miserable as her tiny paws rested on the hot road, but allowing me to catch up to her.
“Okay, okay,” I whispered as I reached down. She didn’t try to fight as I gently picked her up, wrapping my arms around her.
I pet as I cooed, “You’re such a good kitty,” while thinking, I’m going to kill this cat!
“It’s hot, I know, but we’re almost there.” Damn it, Gatita!
The westbound lanes were still backed up but not going as slowly as before, and impatient drivers were still hurrying to go nowhere. Once she was in my arms, most cars slowed down in anticipation of me crossing the highway lanes, but the semi-truck that I needed to cross in front of had a loud motor sending Gatita back into a panic. I felt her struggle against me as I realized that she could still spastically bolt from my arms. The truck driver must have noticed when I did because he turned off his engine, the silence calming as I looked up to mouth, ThankYou!
Once we were both inside the over-heated Jeep again, I continued to hold Gatita until I turned the key in the ignition so I could roll up all of the powered windows. When the engine was running, I tried the air conditioner. Still warm air. Dammit!
As pissed as my cat was at me, she did not leave my lap right away. Instead, she moved her face so that her mouth was next to my ear, better for me to hear her cry I guess. But I was sweating in that Jeep.
“We’re stuck with each other until we get to Cali,” I said as I placed her on the passenger seat.
She meowed as she walked across the console and onto the baggage in the back of the Jeep to stand once again facing the drivers behind us, her mouth open while she panted. There was little for me to do except hope the traffic started up quickly. We still had another hour of desert highway to cross, two hours until temperatures started to fall by twenty degrees.
I inched the windows down. Try to get out of that! Within minutes, the flow of traffic started to accelerate to 25 mph until we were going 70 mph again. All of a sudden we had the cross-winds and it was as if that bizarre ten minutes on Interstate 15 never happened.
By the time we reached L.A., the Jeep’s air conditioner was pushing out a cooler temperature once again.
The Gatita Chronicles I to IV
So where it used to be only the veterinarian or a male stranger who received a hiss, now it is me, her beloved owner, a misinformed Herodotus who thought to honor this Siamese by taking her along on a 10,000 mile road trip. I don’t always know when it’s coming, that sharp pressure of air pushed out from her opened mouth, her body stiffening while her ears flatten. Sometimes she gives me a half-second warning of a low growl, while her tail moves in between her legs as though she’s having a flashback and before her paw swipes at whatever part of my body is closest to her.
If you’re wondering about the first four Gatita Chronicles, they look like this:
I. North Carolina: a drive-by from Hurricane Joaquin and red fox
II. Michigan: blizzards and water leaks
III. South Dakota and Montana: tipis, torrential rains, snowstorms, coyotes, and mountain lions
IV. Wyoming: bison, grizzly bear, and altitude
V. Nevada: no air conditioning crossing the Mojave
VI. California: earthquake and probably mountain lion (recent sightings in the Morro Bay area!)
Maybe there really will be #TheGatitaChronicles but I can promise, she will not want to star in them.
More from Morro Bay … so long as we can keep this to a minimum:
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