Once you’ve established that you can leave the house with your cat, the next question is – where will you go?
This is, of course, the real question we all face continuously from our childhood forward. Whether it’s wanting to go on a walk, a hike, a holiday, whether we’re just starting out to seek our fame and fortune, or looking to start anew after a breakup or layoff, or fleeing some horrible home-life or war zone, we find ourselves continuously confronting that same question: Where will you go?
Encased within that misleadingly short query, of course, lie a variety of bigger, scarier problems, like “How do you want to spend your life?” and “What are your suited for?” and “Who will have you?” Also, the wonderful, tingling awareness that it’s a very big world out there.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve never been great at answering the question. There’s just too many interesting options, and I don’t want to rule any of them out.
When I first started schlepping my cat Aífe about outside on a regular basis, and she started showing real improvement in her ability to handle The Vast And Terrifying World Outside, I got really excited, and my imagination started running way ahead of us. We were in Berlin at the time, and it was a humid 100 degrees outside (that’s 37 Celsius), in the very heart of a thoroughly paved metropolis. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get a visa to stay in Germany with my then-fiancé, and I began finding reasons I’d rather be elsewhere anyways. (You know, the thing where you reject the thing/person/situation you care about before they reject you. Defensive, fight-or-flight, the-grass-is-always-greener-elsewhere-anyways-so-fuck-you shit that I had learned from my childhood, and had grown so second nature in my young ‘adulthood’.) As fear melted with fantasy in the boiling brickwork, I had visions of Aífe and I heading back to America, hiking and camping and road-tripping our way through the extraordinary array of stunning terrain that my vast homeland has to offer. Retreating from the anxieties of immigration, romance, crowds, and humans in general, reasserting my independence from everybody except my cat.
There were three obvious problems with this grand vision, which were waiting to confront me as soon as I got home to Oregon that November:
1. I was broke. Totally broke. I had no money, no prospects of employment on the horizon, and – having sold my car to move to Germany – no means of transportation. My visions of some epic hikes and big, blog-worthy, Portland-to-Portland cross-country adventures would have to remain daydreams, as would anyplace anywhere more than a few miles from my mother’s home in North Portland.
2. I was far too much in love not to go back to Germany. Within a few weeks of being away from my partner, I was miserable. It was clear that I belonged with him, and he belonged in Berlin, so… that’s where I had to belong, too.
3. I was, in fact, a little bit of a weeny. My extremities turn blue at the drop of a hat, and I inherited dodgy knee-joints and flat feet. I’m more of a mellow afternoon ramble than battle to the summit person. Even if I’d had cash to burn and my own set of wheels, it was now winter, and I had no genuine desire to go freeze my ass off into Oregon’s wet and cold wilds, let alone drag my poor cat into them. Aífe and I would both much rather spend the season curled up with a pile of yarn by the fire.
Around this time, I was surprised and delighted to discover that there were already many people out in the world hiking and snowshoeing and cross-country skiing and even surfing with their cats. My twitter account was followed by a group called Camping With Cats, and then by AdventureCats.com. Both are exactly what their names imply – their websites were full of pictures of people out in the wilds with their cats – in tents, trees, boats, etc. Here I’d been harboring a vague ambition to go on some great, solo, ‘Cheryl-Strayed-but-with-a-cat’ backpacking trip, as a way of proving that it is possible to take cats out into terrain where usually only dogs are invited. Because I thought someone should to do it, and – as I had never met anyone else out even walking with their cat – I thought that I might be the only person who would do it. But suddenly, I was finding that there were already a bunch of genuinely outdoorsy folks with genuinely outdoorsy kitties, who boasted prolific Instagram evidence of their wild triumphs.
Discovery of this small but widespread adventure-kitty subculture was an experience of gleeful surprise. It was wonderful to find that Aífe and I weren’t the only cat-human duos out there who were trying to go out and experience the world together. But at the same time, part of me was a very tiny bit miffed, because my goal of a great kitten escape now seemed slightly futile. Many people were out adventuring with their cats – what would I prove by doing it in addition?
And with that thought, I realized that was the real question I needed to ask myself; what was I trying to prove?
Originally, I had started cat-schlepping with Aífe simply because I wanted to avert our fates as shut-ins, to alleviate the neurotic depression of spending every single day hiding from the world in a small room. I wanted to rejoin the realm of the living, and I wanted to bring Aífe with me. I didn’t want to have to choose between my best friend and the entire rest of the world. My paramount concern was to be able to keep Aífe with me, safely, whether I was going out into the garden, or off to another continent. Cat-schlepping wasn’t supposed to be about proving anything to anyone but her – proving to her that no matter where I wandered, I would keep her safe, and never abandon her.
I thought about the people out in the wilds, the mountains and oceans, with their kitties. I realized these people skiing and kayaking and surfing and mountain-climbing with their kitties were probably the sort of people who did these kinds of activities anyhow, the sort of people who already owned skis and kayaks and surfboards and grappling hooks and motorhomes and four-wheel-drive automobiles anyways. They were simply training their cats to match their lifestyle.
I thought about my own lifestyle, about how I choose to spend my time: writing, reading, running, walking, eating, knitting, yoga-ing, and sex-ing. These are all things can be done in or close to home, require only the most negligible expense and equipment, and are thus easily transposed from one small location to the next (as ‘home’ shifts between flats/ towns/ countries). I’ve never taken up gardening, for example, or woodworking, or sailing, or child-rearing, or any other activity that would require money and accouterments, or require me to set down any roots.
Taken altogether, I realized that I have designed my life to be as simple, cheap, and mobile as possible. It is evidence of an ongoing brokenness, as well as a driving desire to be free; to operate independently and straightforwardly, to be ready to travel and/or flee as and when I feel it necessary. Autonomy. Curiosity. Immediacy. Rather cat-like values/instincts, aren’t they?
I’d thought that I was going against that trend when I adopted Aífe, since she was an indoor-only kitten and a very grounding responsibility. I thought that I was settling down with her, getting off the road to adventure. But I was wrong about that, by a mile. And now that we have started schlepping, crossing town squares and rivers and international borders together, I have realized that Aífe is perfectly in keeping with the pattern of my life. She is introverted, yet inquisitive – just like me. She is the ideal companion for writing, reading, knitting, and yoga, yet she can be left at home when I run, can drowse with utter indifference when I have sex, and can be carried when I walk. She is on the lower end of the food, equipment, and maintenance spectrum of pets. She is small enough to fit in a book bag or with me in my sleeping bag, and within the size and weight restrictions for any airline carryon. So she can travel with me, can be carried on hikes and strolls, tucked into a bicycle basket, and smuggled into shops. She does, in fact, totally mesh with the wandering life that I’ve always wanted to live.
And she has been proving herself pretty well up for it. I was the one who hadn’t been up for it for a while there, and I had used her as an excuse to hide. Because that’s what depressed, scared people do – they look for excuses, and they hide.
So in the process of proving to my cat that we can be out in the world together, and that the world is in fact an extraordinary place for us to be, I have also been proving it to myself. We’re proving that the world has more in store for us than either of us would have imagined. Together. And that is the most important thing. But… I would also really like to prove to the rest of the world that cats can make for amazing traveling companions. Apart from a few far-flung, brave souls, who are apparently taking their cats camping and so on, the bulk of humanity seem to think that the only place for cats is in their homes (or indeed, in some substantial parts of Asia and Switzerland, in their dinners). They are missing out on a tremendous source of love and adventure. I would like to help these humans reconsider what is possible for cats, and for themselves. Hell, for all creatures.
In an ideal world, I’d seek to accomplish this grand ambition by traveling the whole world with Aífe and writing about it. Where would we go? Everywhere. We’d explore the possibilities of cat/human travel via every mode of transport available: trains, planes, boats, buses, bicycles, hikes, hot air balloons, segways, sleds, skates, even jet-packs if those ever become a viable option. Basically, I’d be like the Michael Palin of pet travel, filing charming pieces of journalism from Iceland to Singapore, for National Geographic and The BBC. We’d also have our own podcast, of course. And we’d also be busy helping out with big campaigns for animal shelters and welfare groups around the world. We’d be sponsored by REI, or possibly some other awesome gear maker like Patagonia, Eagle Creek, Osprey, Columbia, or Timbuk2, for whom we would help design and test-run sturdy, comfortable, cool travel gear for cats – something which simply does not exist at the moment.
As you can see, my daydreams are rolling bigger than ever. However, it is still my destiny to be a broke, love-sick, flimsy, city-dweller, for the time being. Quite intrepid in spirit, yes, and interested in experiencing all that our planet has to offer, but bound by certain restrictions of the pocket, heart, transit, and phalanges. And that’s okay. I’ve got the opportunity to write, to love, to explore a new city, and to keep working on Aífe’s training, and figure out where we go next. And anyway, it’s all very well and good to be willing and able to journey afar to find adventures, but the real trick to an interesting, rich life is to be able to find adventure right outside your front door. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from cat-schlepping, it’s to look at the world a little bit more from my cat’s eyes – through which everything is exciting.