Numeral V of The Gatita Chronicles

HDU_SanPedro

View from our apartment in San Pedro. Yes, that’s the ocean. Good-bye!

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.

Whaaaat?

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. Instead of spending that first week developing a temporary community, I was 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 San Pedro Air BnB owners, have actually been gracious and kind (aside from this not-so-small booking oversight), 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 her experience in the Mojave does not repeat itself, ever … read on:

Cat on a Freeway

HDU_Desert

Crossing the Mojave via IH-15

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:

When she hears the click-click-click of the keyboard, she decides it's nap time in my arms.

When she hears the click-click-click of the keyboard, she decides it’s nap time in my arms.

Very difficult to type like this.

Very difficult to type like this.

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Congruence in Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks

CLICK to enlarge: 200 feet from my back door!

CLICK to enlarge: 200 feet from my back door!

Unlike the Lost Colony that landed in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1587, my whereabouts in Kitty Hawk will be well known if only because I am a lone, Texas woman traveling with a cat.  Gatita does not, however, partake of the beach with me on my early morning walks or my end-of-the-day strolls.

I was so anxious to see the ocean on that first day, August 19th, that I emptied as much of the Jeep as I could, hurrying in my sky blue flipflops to the entrance of the beach as though the water might disappear before I got there.

I walked north first, to the Kitty Hawk Pier, my face looking out toward the white swells of water rushing in to greet me.  I swear I could hear, Welcome, we’ve been waiting for you…  A mixed laugh-cry almost escaped with that first view as I felt all the second-guessing of this trip recede with the tide.   And my chest, heavy with joy, almost giddy, and holding the most important part of me, knew that my faith had not been for naught.

This is exactly where I am meant to be.

~   ~   ~

Whatever final tears I hiccupped out as I drove away from Austin on August 13th, I did while saying out loud, almost in defense of myself, “I have to do this!”

The oppressive, 104 degree heat from that last day had not only worn me down, but left me with a dusty smell and a shirt that stuck to my back, while sweaty running shorts continued to crawl up my crotch.  I’d spent the last four hours in Austin shuffling small possessions back and forth between the Hook House and the storage unit while I battled a stuffed up swimmer’s ear that still has not completely gone away. I was starting to feel not as though I’d never get out of Austin, but that I’d never escape the hell of south Austin.  It was 10:30 at night when a drug-free Gatita and I hit the road.  Since I was determined to leave regardless of the late hour, my sister-in-law, Mary Joy, suggested I stop in Waco, so I’d at least be out of Austin but halfway to Dallas.

I took her advice which was easy to do because my eyelids drooped as soon as I left the city.  Since I hadn’t researched venues that accepted pets, I checked into a Motel 6 knowing the price was in my budget.  I assumed a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and requested a room on the bottom floor to easily transport the cat to and from the Jeep. Aside from crying for the first 30-minutes of our trip, Gatita was exceptionally calm at least until we realized that there must have been hookers in the room next to ours. Doors opened and closed all night long, but oddly this motivated me to be freshly showered and on the road by 6:30 am, making for a cool, early morning drive into Little Rock.  The tunnel of green trees lining the highways in Arkansas was a welcomed sight from the browning, burnt foliage in Texas. When we crossed state lines, I whispered, “Good-bye for now,” in anticipation of everything good, especially my first visit with an old friend and colleague from the mid 1990s.

CLICK to enlarge: The blue line is what I've traveled thus far; The red dots where I expect to stop. Question marks are for states I'd like to go but doubtful I'll make it. If Gatita is up for it and I'm far enough along in my writing, I may.

CLICK to enlarge: The blue line is what I’ve traveled thus far; The red dots where I expect to stop. Question marks are for states I’d like to go but doubtful I’ll make it. If Gatita is up for it and I’m far enough along in my writing, I may.

After two nights in Little Rock, I drove east toward Nashville and met up with the daughters of one of my best friends.  My plan was to stay only one night, but I hadn’t booked a long-term stay in Kitty Hawk yet.  Even though I’d already called three realty agencies representing a good portion of the 200-mile stretch of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks, and even though I scoured Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO sites while sitting inside a well decorated, cat-friendly La Quinta (way outside our budget), and even though I spoke with private owners who indicated “pet friendly” on their websites only to openly practice feline discrimination, my options for finding long-term accommodations that would accept a cat were dwindling fast.

There was one more hour before I had to decide whether to re-map a route from Tennessee up to Michigan by way of North I-75, instead of remaining on East I-40 straight into North Carolina.  Although Kitty Hawk was my preferred destination, I’d spent so much time on the internet and the phone that I would have agreed to any place that allowed Gatita. Otherwise, I was going to have to alter my entire 12-month driving route.

~    ~    ~

Sea Kove in Kitty Hawk

Normally, I'm not a paper lover except when it coms to maps & books!

Normally, I’m not a paper lover except when it comes to maps & books!

When the cat and I arrived Kitty Hawk, our heads hummed from the accumulated 1,720 miles I’d driven.  Although she has been an ideal travel companion, her map reading skills are nada, and my brusque, unfolding of paper maps seemed to freak her out at inopportune times.

My co-pilot

My co-pilot

But I want to write, here and now, that I am forever grateful to the travel and cat gods for the presence of Gatita.  I absolutely love having her with me and only slightly more than I love, Love, LOVE living in Kitty Hawk.

Three days before, on the 16th, I’d spoken with Bill, whose kind, southern accent I knew would lead to an elderly gentleman.  He runs a series of rustic cottages called Sea Kove with his artist wife, Cari.  He promised to call me back even though his website clearly states: We are unable to allow any pets.  I explained my sabbatical and how I was looking for a place to write for six weeks, and would he consider allowing me and my cat to rent one of his inns?  I probably said I was quiet, that Gatita wouldn’t be any problem; I may have even offered to breathe less oxygen.  I’ll have to ask him why he altered his long-standing pet policy since I hadn’t dropped the widow card, nor blurted out how this was messing up my plans to create a whole new life.

Bill said that my “kitty cat” was welcomed and that although he didn’t have the same cottage for the full six weeks, he would make sure I had a place at Sea Kove for my entire stay.  The next day, Gatita and I left Tennessee, making an overnight stop in the rural town of Hickory, North Carolina. This halfway point from Nashville to Kitty Hawk allowed me to have dinner with a friend, my first tenant that leased out my home in north Austin during the Mexico sabbatical in 2004; forever spoiling me to expect perfection from future tenants.

And all the foot dragging I did before getting here? It inadvertently helped me to avoid most of the summer beach pricing.  In another week, I’ll be in off-season rates making this a perfect fit for a sabbatical budget.

~    ~    ~

CLICK to enlarge: The view from my back porch.

CLICK to enlarge: The view from my back porch.

In my room of retro wood-paneled walls and vinyl faux tile floors, there is no microwave but wi-fi and cable are free – a television treat I never allowed myself in Austin. Central air does not exist but a personal a/c wall unit above the electric stove, with burners wrapped in tin-foil, keeps my efficiency ice cold.  The rock hard mattresses might squeak when I lay down but not before I say goodnight to the rhythmic sound of the ocean from my private backdoor porch.  While I do this, Gatita takes her nightly dump underneath the cottage on stilts, in what has become her gigantic, sand litter box.

Yes, we are in harmony with our new home.

CLICK to enlarge: Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks

CLICK to enlarge: Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks

In the mornings as the sun beats in from the southeast, I walk out the front door to sit in the long, shaded balcony that connects me with my neighbors. This is where I sipped my coffee that first morning as the cool northern breeze floated in, and where I met Becky, another a widow of only nine months.  She lost her husband of forty-nine years, Big Dave, to congestive heart failure.  I remembered what nine months felt like for me. The only reason my cottage was available to rent was because someone from Becky’s family, who’s been coming to Sea Kove for over 20 years, wasn’t able to make it this summer.

Becky was “Mom” and “Grandma” to her family, but she was a woman with a broken heart to me. Before she left three days later, we exchanged hugs and information about a book, Seven Choices, written by a Texas professor, Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld, who lost her husband after only four years of marriage. Seven Choices led me to find the strength to do this sabbatical because even in grief there are multiple junctures where we must choose:  To stay stuck in the past or dare to move forward.

No widow wants to lay in misery, to remain rooted in sadness, but it’s a Sisyphus kind of existence, seeming as though no action will ever lead to a different ending.  HDU_WarriorofLoveI was hardly a woman who was half a person when I met my husband.  I was then as I am now — whole — but when you love someone, you meld into one another.  They do not leave this earth without a part of your own spirit going with them. You don’t even have a say so, and this isn’t something that heals in a year. Harper Neeld gathered research data that indicated — on average — four, long years to move past grief when it is no longer the primary way in which you identify yourself.  In the future, when you meet a widow and she is happy again, know that time does not automatically heal all wounds.  That widow had to work at it.  She is a warrior!  We are all warriors — my widowed friends and me — because we dare every.single.day to make choices that test our emotional boundaries, hoping that these actions will carve a path to a future full of joy again.

~    ~    ~

Had I remained in Austin one more night, I would have insisted on staying in my emptied house, pulling Hook’s thermal sleeping bag from the Jeep, unrolling it upstairs on the shampooed carpets then wetting my pillow with tears until I fell asleep.  Instead, I only wept as I drove away.  I apologized to Allan for not being one of those widows satisfied with starting over where things ended.  Or, maybe there was guilt wrapped up in the fact that if it weren’t for his death, I wouldn’t be taking this sabbatical at all.

In the past when I’ve needed a re-boot, a healing of sorts, I would venture out, leaving my homeland for extended periods of time. This sabbatical is not about the travel, though; It’s about the writing.  In the same way, that it was the spilled words of grief that saw me through the first year, I will write my way into this next phase of my life, doing finally what he and I have been waiting for me to do all along: Set myself free.

The book I’ve chosen as my debut will be the reality fiction story of Ava and Daniel, about love, loss, and the beautiful struggle to find joy again. It’s got Hollywood written all over it. The working title, Down Under (In The Land of Oz?), has little to do with Australia or at least I don’t think it does.  I’ve already written 70,048 words because I’ve been rough drafting on and off since last November.  I’ve yet to plot the timeline or even create descriptions for the characters, so I’ve weeks and weeks of background work to organize to get it to a place where I can move into a second draft.

CLICK to enlarge: My shell booty in less than a week!

CLICK to enlarge: My shell booty in less than a week!

In the meantime, I jump out of bed each morning hoping to hit the sand before 6:30 am.  I give greetings of “Hello!” and “Good Morning!” to my fellow disciples of this liquid healing, sitting in meditative state, or walking with the woosh! of the waves, our only music. We are the new pilgrims of the 21st century, welcoming the sun or saying good-bye to the moon.

At night, my gluteus maximus aches from the twice daily hour of sand trudging. But even though I worry about the intense sun on my adult face, I am a child in wonderment each time I bend over and reach down to collect the black and gray and beige shells littered along the shoreline.  I cannot resist these treasures from the ocean any more than I can hold back the transformation in my heart that is happening.

The second anniversary of Hook’s passing is coming. Until then, Gatita and I are comfortable in our place of contemplation and with life on the Atlantic.  And if I may, I’d like to dedicate this post to those Warriors of Love, whose widowed paths I’ve had the good fortune to cross, who have helped me at various steps along the way: Gail, Greta, Celia, Karron, Cindy, Tomas, Valerye, Kristen, Russell, Felicia, De, Sharon, Laura, Becky in Colorado, Becky in Maryland, Loretta in Arkansas, and the young ones – Erin and Taryn.

And to Megan Ehrisman for recommending the unbelievably, perfect Outer Banks when my original plans for San Diego fell through.

The first shell I found on the beach the day we arrived. I think it's a sign!

The first shell I found on the beach the day we arrived.

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