The Cats Who Saw America
August 30, 2003

3100 miles. Five days. Fifty-three driving hours. Twelve states. Two cats. That's gotta be some kind of record -- we even left really late on our first day. It's all due to Dr. Mathra's superb driving. And my superb putting in and taking out of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and My Family and Other Animals unabridged CDs and tapes, courtesy akg and Ma Keckler, respectively.

The poor cats. The day we took off there was absolutely nothing left in our apartment, save the enormous cat carrier that I had already lined with a blanket. With nowhere else soft to sleep, both cats ended up sacking out in the carrier hours before we even loaded them into the car. I felt like such a traitor when I finally closed that gate behind them. They spent the first eight-hour day in the car staring out at us with wide frightened eyes and retreated further and further back each time they heard a new sound from the road. On the second day, I got wise and arranged my sweatshirt in such a way that it shrouded the gate a bit. It calmed them down not to be able to see right out the windshield from their position on the floor behind us.

You know how you see (and feel sorry for) those parents who get on a plane staggering under great weights of stuff for their baby? That was us. Just exchange diaper bags, stroller, portable changer, and misc bags full of bottles, plastic nipples, burpee cloths, and Desitin for litterbox, extra litter, scooper, plastic baggies, big blue plastic mouse full of toys, bags of food, food and water bowls, special catnip-filled Boogie mat from Nate and Genevieve, special soft blanket that got left behind in Princeton, IL, and, of course, two cats in a cat carrier chateau. I think we had more stuff for them than we did for us.

After two nights of sneaking the cats into seedyish motels under cover of darkness and a blanket over their carrier and litterbox, we finally stayed in a seedyish place in Ogallala, NE that welcomed cats. (For those of you who don't travel too far west of Pennsylvania and are always astounded to find that civilization does actually exist elswhere, "NE" stands for Nebraska.) As soon as we got the cats shut into the bathroom and Mathra started bringing stuff inside, I flipped on the television to catch the ending of That Darn Cat, which was directly followed by The Cat from Outer Space and then an encore airing of both. Apparently, this place was so pet-friendly, they had an entire channel devoted to movies in which animals appear. Okay, not really, but you have to admit, it was very coincidental. The pet-friendliest place we had stayed in before Ogawalla, NE was only such because we had a room that came equipped with a cricket. Hunca Munca was enormously pleased.

But no matter where we stayed, Hunca Munca's routine upon being released from the carrier was always the same: like a teenage girl, he'd run around to all the mirrors and check himself out. I kid you not. It was the weirdest thing I've ever seen a cat do in repetition. It was made even stranger by the fact that his reflection reverses his off-centered moustache smudge, so when I saw his reflection, he really did look like he was doing a "Little Tramp" impersonation. Poppadum just hid behind the toilet until she was sure the slickery, scratchy motel bedspreads weren't really trying to attack her.

In our last conversation where my vet was impressed to learn how much I had researched the Cats on the Road Problem -- thanks in in no small part to Catness and others on Chicklit -- Dr. Widman assured me that when cats travel, their systems slow down to a degree that they can get away with using their litter box only at the end of the day. That was good to know since their carrier wasn't big enough for both of them and a litter pan and because I had no intention of letting them walk freely around the car. Especially not after Dr. Widman told me what she tells clients who want to travel with their pets in an unrestrained environment: "Put a grape in a can and shake it around. That's what will happen to your pets in an accident. They won't go through the windshield, they'll just crash against it." I didn't need any more convincing than that.

Fourth day on the road, the cats actually became so comfortable with their set-up that they were not too shy to demand bathroom breaks. At least Hunca Munca wasn't. Passing through Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming, Huncus started chatting with more urgency than normal, so we pulled into a rest stop at "the highest point on I-80." Before we actually found the rest stop, though, I started chucking individual pieces of kibble back into their carrier. I figured that if our ears were popping because we were going up and down mountains, their ears could be doing the same and they might not know that yawning would help them. The kibble was to give them something to chew on and achieve the same results as yawning would. Yes, I know. I'm an obsessed mother.

Since I had been mentally hashing out an emergency sandbox procedure before it even happened, I knew exactly what to do once we got to the rest stop. First, I pulled several boxes out of the back before shutting myself in. Next, I maneuvered their carrier to face the opening of the hooded litter box and then opened the carrier gate so there was nowhere else to go but the litter box. After thwarting several attempts by Hunca Munca to explore the mini-van, I herded him into his personal lavatory where he took his sweet Attention Deficit Disorder time to get down to business. We listened for the telltale scraping and covering of a job well done, after which I guided him back into the carrier, assuring him all the while that there was nothing else of real interest in the rest of the car.

Poppadum was a little more modest in that, after having communed with nature, she decided not to come back out of the box. She seemed to indicate that she would prefer to travel the next two days to California sitting in the litter. We had other ideas. Ensuring first that he wasn't interrupting anything important, Mathra banged on the box to invite Poppadum back into her carrier. I locked the carrier door again, re-situated the boxes I had removed and got back into the passenger seat. When Huncus asked to go not three hours after we had been on the road, I caught myself saying things like, "Why didn't you go before we left?" and "Next time, try to go in the motel -- you can always go just a little" in a scary parroting of my mother on other car trips.

It both pleased and annoyed me that Hunca Munca was smart enough to ask to go to the bathroom. On the one hand, he could be the cat who meowed pee and just do it for the chance to walk back and forth from his carrier to the sandbox repeatedly. But on the other, at least I no longer felt the need to monitor their every move in the hotel room to make sure their bowels were acting normally, which had become annoying and embarrassing for all of us.

These are some well-traveled cats. They've now seen Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. As for me, I was already so well-travelled that I only had to add Utah and Nebraska as states I hadn't already been car-sick in.

Some signs on I-80 that made us giggle:

Bort Rd, OH

Fangboner Way, PA

What Cheer, IA

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