Cat chronicles: on the road again.

Last Monday we packed up the car once again and got on the highway, heading west. I had piled all of my stuff to one side of the back seat, so that Murray could have two spots: his blankey on the front seat, and his basket on the back seat, with his litter box on the floor. He likes to have options on long rides.

Not only did he reject both carefully laid out beds in favour of wedging himself on top of my mountain of things, but about a half an hour into the seven hour drive, he also decided to poop on the mountain of things. So there I was on the side of the highway, truckers zooming past while I tried to clean up my poopy cat and the blankets, backpack, and embroidery basket he was roosting in with a spare roll of toilet paper I found in my trunk. He showed little to no remorse.

We’re back in Ontario now, camped out/squatting on the property of a century old farmhouse that’s being restored, where the camper I bought on a whim last month without actually seeing was located. The camper is adorable: a classic little vintage road tripper, which I‘ve already started ripping apart. My clothes and belongings (now washed since the incident) are all stuffed in the back of my car, and Murray and I sleep on a futon mattress in the half gutted trailer. If I want a shower on a weekday, I have to do so before eight when the crew arrives for work, as the bathroom door has no handle, and a habit of blowing open at inopportune moments.

While it’s a bit disorienting having nowhere to really unpack or settle, this feeling of being totally untethered is very freeing. I’ve set up a blanket island under a big old maple tree where I drink my tea and for now it’s as much of a home as I need. I’ll spend the next two (?) weeks here trying to get as much renovating done as possible on the camper before moving it for the summer. Sometimes I find myself scrolling through Instagram accounts of van-lifers, thinking damn, that’s so cool that they live like that, and then I realize with a smile that I, too, am living like that. The modern day nomad. Life on the road is becoming far less of an abstract idea for our generation, who have found ourselves coming up against significant barriers when trying to replicate the lifestyle that our parents had by our age. The good old you know when I was your age refrain now holds no logic, like comparing apples to overpriced oranges.

I’m planner, by nature. But I never could have planned the events that led me here. I never would have gotten to this place of total freedom, road tripping across the country with my cat had I not just jumped in, then worked things out as I went along. And nothing bad has happened so far…

We were here.

I couldn’t put my sandals back on because they were full of slugs. I had been sitting in the swing down by the lake reading the last of the books I’ve packed, and as I stood up to head back to the cabin when the sun began to slip, I noticed a slimy brown slug had made its way into my right flip flop. Not wanting to displace her, I walked to the cabin barefoot, with the intention of coming back for the sandals later, when the slug had moved along.

But when I came back later, there were three slugs in the right sandal, and one in the left. So I’ve been barefoot ever since.

I remember my roommate, back when I lived somewhere else, in an apartment which had a terrace and big sunny windows, he used to always say, “Mate, please. My duvet,” when I would flop on his bed at the end of the day for a chat. His duvet was white, the soles of my feet were always black. Oh well. I hope I left a dirty footprint on some corner, for him to remember me by. That’s what you have to do, right? Leave your mark? Like those scribbles of spray paint you see under bridges that say “BRAD WAS HERE.” At the maple farm it was the beginnings of a cedar fence we built. Here it was a clay sculpture of a flower I left on a rock by the creek. Or maybe my flip flops down at the beach, if the slugs don’t vacate soon.

A few more days until we’re packing once again. See you later, Quebec.

An ode to a friend.

Yesterday I took my cat for a kayak ride, thus fully slipping into my roll as cat lady. Am I becoming the classic spinster? The one seen pushing her cat/rabbit/pug around in a baby carriage, talking his ear off all the while?

When I headed down to the lake after breakfast with a life jacket slung over my shoulder and a paddle in hand, Murray was lounging on the beach (he has very much embraced lake life). I looked at him, and at the kayak, and thought, why not? And scooped him up and plopped him into the bow, quickly jumping in and launching before he knew what was happening. I knew if I was too slow he he would jump out onto the beach, but that once we had left the shore, he wouldn’t for fear of getting wet. One swift movement and we were off. I think that what makes me the cat lady is not that I took my cat for an early morning kayak ride, but more how darn happy I was doing it. As I paddled around with him balanced in my lap and peeking over the edge, the sun on my face, I caught myself thinking, this is the life!

In the weeks leading up to departure, he never complained when I cried into his fur, as I wondered if I was making right choice. In the many kilometres it took to get here in the car, he just mosied between his basket in the back seat, and his blankey in the front. He embraced tiny living in the caravan, always came back from his forest tours, and on the days I didn’t think think I could get out of bed, he rubbed his furry face on mine and made little cooing sounds until I did (he was hungry).

When I was beginning to make arrangements for leaving town, I thought I’d leave him with a friend. It seemed easier… after all, he’s a house cat, how would he adapt to life in the wilderness? To a constantly changing routine? And where would I even put his litter box? It was just temporary, maybe he’d be better off in a house, with his cozy bed, an outlet to plug in his favourite water fountain…

I am very glad I changed my mind. As much as I’ve been learning to embrace solitude, having some quiet company has been more important than I could have imagined. He’s my furry copilot, my sounding board, my confidante. And who needs a fountain when you have rivers, lakes, and puddles? (And the pot of dishwater on the counter. And the mug of water I keep next to my bed at night).

Now we go for walks together. Casual evening strolls in the woods. Around the time I’m cleaning up from dinner, he’ll go and sit silently by the door. I’ll throw on a sweater, and off we’ll go, wandering through the forest a few steps at a time. I don’t even mind anymore if the neighbours hear me talking out loud to him. Who cares? I have things to say. Sometimes I follow him, sometimes he follows me. But there’s never any rush. I’ve learned to practice patience when he he walks five steps then stops to sniff a leaf for five minutes. It gives me time to slow down, to take a closer look at spring, bursting into bloom all around us now. The fiddleheads unfurling, the wild strawberry already beginning to flower, the violets timidly poking up between blades of grass, and the forget-me-nots nodding in the wind.

Yes, I think I fully accept and embrace my cat lady status.

Along the way.

A year ago, in utter desperation to find a home, I was scrolling through pages and pages of listings for something in the cabin for rent, cottages, really anything out of the city category. Something that at least had trees. Even a tree. I would have settled for a single tree. My search yielded nothing but disappointment, and ritzy lakeside rentals at a grand a week. But finally, here I am after having forgotten all about that time, exactly where I wanted to be; nestled in a log cabin on a lake, surrounded by cedars, white pines, and spruce. My time here is in exchange for helping the elderly couple who own the cabin move some summer furniture around, air the place out for summer rentals, and perhaps stain a deck, “if there’s a good day for it.” I guess you have to step out into the world to find the places you imagine. To meet people, talk to them, give them a piece of who you are and accept what they offer in return.

When I pulled into the laneway off the twisty cottage road, I quietly danced when I saw the old tin roof, the single lightbulb hanging from a cord over the porch, the windows with the bright red trim. I poked around, heading down to the water… There is a PRIVATE BEACH! A little horseshoe of lakeshore just for me, complete with a rickety old swing and a bright green kayak. I made up my bed, dragged out the busted Adirondack chairs that had been mended with tuck tape, and settled into my new temporary home.

Murray is thrilled. We have a chair, with an ottoman, by the woodstove. A place to sit that isn’t also the bed. There’s a couch too. He goes in and out of the screen door a thousand times a day, sipping water from the lake. I don’t think he’s ever seen a lake before. It took him a few days to figure out how waves work.

And there’s a shower! It’s outdoors, in a little wooden shed, and I have to walk up the road and through a path across a creek to get to it, but it has a light, and hot water. Hot water that just pours out, without me having to heat in on the fire or in the sun. It feels like such a luxury after six weeks without plumbing.

Every day I walk up the road to see Pierre, to fill up a jug of drinking water in his kitchen. He’s eighty something and I always seem to catch him at a bad time. Yesterday he came to the door all covered in shaving cream but happy to see me nonetheless. He talks a lot, squinting his eyes shut when he can’t remember a word in English. I’ve got the lowdown on which grocery store is good for what.

As I was packing up at the caravan last week, (I hardly even cried saying goodbye!), I had a thought… I thought, maybe I should just go home now, and get started working on my camper. I was feeling eager to start preparing for the west coast, to get to the next step, without this detour. But skipping to the finish line makes for a damn boring race. And how do you know where the finish line is? You could spend a lifetime skipping ahead, only to realize later you’d missed the whole thing…

A witch’s broom

Oh, witch’s brooms make great fire starter, says Marie, holding up a big ball of craggy branches, all twisted together like a squirrel nest. She hucks it onto the massive bonfire we’ve started, where we’re slowly turning a bit of forest into a horse paddock.

What’s a witch’s broom? I ask. The flames are twice as tall as me, dancing their way towards the azure sky.

Those, she says, pointing at another, lodged in a spruce tree. Don’t you say that in English? I said I didn’t think so, grabbing some more brush to launch onto the fire.

Not long before I moved here, a friend lent me the book “Outlawed” by Anna North. It’s a feminist western in which barren women, who were believed to be witches at the time, formed a gang out in the dessert, dressed as men, and became bandits (with vague allusion to Billy the Kid… in a sense implying that the notorious Irish-American outlaw could have in fact been a woman). The badass women in the story rode around robbing banks and stealing horses, in order to survive in their hidden camp. Sometimes when I’m out riding on long country roads with Marie, or stealthily bushwhacking on horseback through the grumpy neighbour’s land to get to the best river spots, I imagine us to be feminist outlaws. The fantasy always makes me grin and sit taller in the saddle.

Being here has been the medicine I needed. Not only did I get to meet some strong and capable women, but I realized that I’m one too. In the absence of scrutiny, I was able to split wood to keep myself warm at night (without someone mansplaining axe handling to me, or taking it out of my hand), haul all my drinking and wash water by hand from a spring in the woods, cook on an open fire, and rock climb my way along the river bank to see what was behind each bend, just for the joy of it. I fell off a horse at a gallop, dusted myself off and got back on.

One evening, just as it was getting dark, I was inspired to re-hang my shower stall from some better trees, in a more private spot. As I was balancing on a log, rope held between my teeth, I heard allo? and spotted Marie coming down the lane, beer in hand. I’m back here! I called, as she followed my voice. What are you doing? she asked. I explained to her, showing her how the solar shower works. I am always so happy when people like you come to the land, she said. I always learn so much. My heart swelled with pride, to know that I’m someone who others believe they can learn from. After all, I’ve learned so much from her. Like how to gather my reins quickly when a horse takes off. Or set a mouse trap (sorry mouse), or build a gate out of cedar logs. After a cycle of feeling small, trying and failing to fit myself into a box, I finally had the space to find a different box, or maybe just to torch the box altogether.

Burning our way through this horse paddock, I no longer hesitate, branch in hand, to ask, is this too big? I simply launch it on with an oouf, and watch the sparks disappear into the night sky, a smile playing at my mouth in the dark.

To the coast…

Things change. It’s like some days the wind has a change of heart, and then off we go in a new direction, the old plans withering in our dust trails, cast out the window with much less fervour than that with which we snatched them out of mid air, and claimed them for fact.

I was heading east. I made a playlist called, Heading East, just so it was for sure. My “loose plan,” I told people (when in fact it was a very planned plan), was to make it to the ocean by summer. This sounded more poetic than the careful itinerary I had laid out in my mind, complete with pros, cons, and kilometres.

We will make it to the ocean, my cat and I, but not that one. Not the one we planned for. But then when have my planned plans ever really worked out? I got a job on the west coast, so I guess the playlist is now Heading West? Does it matter?

How to reconcile a love of nesting with the need to roam? Buy a vintage trailer. I will nest the heck out of it, then take it along for the ride. A tiny home on wheels.

Summer projects:

  • convert the propane fridge to solar
  • insulate for winter
  • figure out how I will shower
  • paint cupboards
  • somehow make the floor less ugly.

Then I guess we’ll just jump the water and see what floats…

Sorry for the Irish goodbye.

Today there was just enough sun to be out in the hammock with a book. As I lay swinging under a scarf that’s also a blanket, a little mow? beside me draws my attention to my housecat-turned-wilderness-explorer, looking for a way into the hammock. He tries putting his little paws on the edge, which simply causes it to swing out of his reach. I hoist him up.

I am reading a literary journal, leant to me by a friend before my departure. The editor’s letter refers to a phrase by Pico Iyer that says, “we travel most when we stumble,” a sentiment that feels truly familiar. I’ve only ever left when staying became impossible. When some heartbreak or other caused me to stumble over the edge, the sensation being what I imagine a lobster must feel before finally shedding it’s too-small shell, finally admitting that staying is more uncomfortable than going, than the unknown.

I love the way the time stretches here. Mornings reading by the fire with a cup of tea, wandering down to the river, horseback rides in the woods… I’m trying to feel it all lightly. To know that even though I’ll say goodbye eventually, I can come back here. And if I never do, that’s okay too.

The goodbyes have always been the hardest part. I’ve gone a lot of places, and the “going” always fills me with dread. The dull ache in the pit of my stomach the weeks before, becoming a constant lump in my throat in the final days. My grandfather saying, don’t worry, we’ll water your houseplants for you, is too much to bear. My mom waving goodbye in her housecoat from the driveway is a tiny tragedy all its own.

As unceremonious as it may be, maybe I understand the Irish goodbye. Maybe that’s why I did it, when I left town. Or maybe I was afraid he didn’t care for the goodbye nearly as much as I did. That in doing it, I would see that it didn’t split his life into before and after, like it did mine. That maybe barely seeing his silhouette in the hallway, as he headed out into the five a.m dark for work, and quietly whispering the word without giving away my intention to be gone before he was back… maybe that was the only way. But I guess the letting go, the goodbye, the walking away, I guess it doesn’t have to make the thing left behind any less special. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t good, while it existed. Right?

The things I carry.

Traipsing down the laneway late last night in my rubber boots, on my way back from a moonlit horseback ride, I am laden down with: a huge butternut squash (a gift from Marie’s garden), a jug of lamp oil, and a fist full of candlesticks. I feel like Baby, in Dirty Dancing. I carried a watermelon.

I revive the fire in the stove with icy fingers (I should have worn gloves!) and I reflect on the things brought, the things left behind. I’ve done this dance many times, deciding what makes the cut, trying to see the future and know which items I will laugh about later, tossing aside unused, and which I will wish I had thought to bring. I remember once standing over my messy, open suitcase next to the bag check in some airport, crying into piles of clothes and trinkets, hastily trying to decide what to cast aside to lighten my rejected suitcase, to decide which memories could go in the trash, which items were irreplaceable, while the lineup behind me moved around my inconvenient pile, huffing their frustrations.

Things brought:

  • Two fancy bars of soap, dressed with rose petals and poppy seeds, and a bag full of bath bombs
  • a large rubbermade storage bin, for use as a bathtub
  • not one but two pairs of overalls, one black and one yellow
  • your old blue t-shirt, which no longer smells like you in the least
  • a single feather earring, bought on the beach in Liguria, the mate existing somewhere else in the world with an old friend
  • a ukulele I can an only kind of play

Things left:

  • A spare towel
  • any sort of attractive footwear at all
  • an extra pencil
  • a can opener

I guess you can never do it right. But as Molly Beer pointed out in Yak Meditations: A Traveller’s Burden, “if we have everything we need when we begin, I reason, to what end is the journey?”

To the water hole

Today I walked to the spring with my cat. The thing about going for a walk with a cat is, you’re really only going to get to go where the cat wants to go, unless you’re okay with losing your cat. So although there is a beaten path between the caravan and the well, I ended up bushwhacking, getting slapped in the face by branches and slipping in the mud while my cat slunk through the underbrush, making his own path, awed as he is to be in “the wild.”

It’s usually only a five minute journey, but after about twenty, we were still spiralling our way there, me a few yards ahead, pausing every few seconds to make sure he was still coming along, waiting as he sat down to clean his normally white paws each time he stepped in a puddle.

As I filled four jugs of water, he laid down on a patch of moss and I guess he liked it there, because he was not prepared to move, no matter what tactics I tried to lure him back in the direction of the caravan when I had finished filling. Cats.

It’s slow living, being in the woods. This morning I bumped into Francis on my walk. He needed a hand cleaning one of the sap tanks, now that sugar season is done. So I found myself inside a big metal vat, scrubbing and rinsing with creek water, which he handed down through the hatch in a bucket. Why not?

I continued on my way, following the rapraprap of a woodpecker, but was sidetracked by a small pond. Frogs dove for cover as I approached, and from the edge I could see hundreds of eggs, clinging to sticks, the edge of the pool, or just floating in gooey clumps. I’ll have to remember to go back tomorrow.

Found some feathers, saw a deer, spotted the woodpecker, sat in a field, wandered back, drank some flat beer. And it’s not over yet.

Strange times.

It’s been a week since I moved to a hundred acre maple forest in rural Quebec. First it was was chop wood, stay warm. Boil tea, stay warm. Bury myself in blankets, stay warm. Try to embrace the cold while my bare ass hits the seat of the outhouse first thing in the morning, then light the stove to stay warm. But the rhythm has changed, since the sun came out. I now have an outdoor kitchen, with a two burner cookstove, a jug of water, and two basins for washing dishes. I have a solar shower hanging from a tree, behind an old white curtain, the result of which is finally clean hair. I slung my hammock between some birch trees, and can read in the sun while my cat snuffles around, following deer trails here and there only to zoom back at top speed at the slightest sound of anything.

At night, sometimes we sit by the fire up at the camp drinking gin and sugar water, boiling the last of the sap under the stars, or sometimes I curl up with a book by the light of my borrowed oil lamp. I can no longer see my cat’s breath when he meows for food in the morning. Coltsfoot are pushing up through the soil, turning their sunny yellow faces towards the April sun. My laundry, washed in a bucket early this morning, flaps in the breeze.

The other day I was sitting on a patch of moss, my cat beside me watching the dust trails in the sun, slanting through the trees in that golden, late-afternoon kind of way, and I had that feeling, that everything is so strange. It’s so strange, to be here on my own, when a month ago I was paying three dollars for laundry in an apartment with gleaming hardwood floors and original light fixtures. So strange that my legs are sore from riding horses in the woods, my shoulders sore from hauling buckets of sap, but that I’m finally sleeping well. I feel optimistic, that someday I’ll find my little place in the world. It’s not here, soon it will be time to move on. But it’s somewhere, near water, and it will have trees and fires and bookshelves and oil lamps, and I’ll see the stars at night, and dig in the dirt in the day…

“… beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.“ – Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.