I miss the cat

“Everything that moves serves to interest and amuse a cat. He is convinced that nature is busying herself with his diversion; he can conceive of no other purpose in the universe.”
— F.A. Paradis de Mocrif

Dogs and hiking are a natural fit. There are great hiking blogs out there featuring dogs (I’m looking at you, Tom and Atticus). The hiking forums and message boards are full of pictures of happy pups on the trail, and there are several growing businesses that make hiking gear for the canine crowd.

Cats get short shrift from the hiking universe, and for good reason. With one notable recent exception, they don’t hike. They don’t follow directions, they don’t come when called, and they won’t get between you and a bear. If you fall and break your leg, they won’t go for help, but they may steal your wallet.

That’s not to say cats don’t have something to teach us about the great outdoors.

It’s been about three months since our cat, Cassie, died of kidney failure. She had been with us for more than a decade, coming to us as a rescue from the local shelter. She had a compelling back story — as a kitten, she stowed away on a Florida casino boat bound for Gloucester. The ship’s crew didn’t realize she was there until they were somewhere off the Carolinas. Upon arriving in Gloucester, the crew dropped her off at the shelter, where the staff named her Casino.

It was obvious even then she could fend for herself. We live near a busy road, so we intended for her to be an indoor cat. She wasn’t having it — in about a week she figured out how to get outside, and was smart enough to stay away from the road. She could also be a stone-cold killer, chasing dogs, possums and other cats from the yard, and bringing dead and half-dead birds, mice and squirrels into the house. Our son had a salamander for two days — the length of time it took the cat to figure out how to move the latch on its cage.

Our back yard, and the three neighboring yards it abuts, became her world. It’s where she taught me the beauty and drama of nature is as alive and vibrant in a city half-acre as it is deep in the Pemigewasset Wilderness.

The most comfortable chair I own is an exceptionally sturdy, locally made Adirondack chair my wife and son gave me for Father’s Day several years back. As the weather warms, I sit outside after work, thankful for the chance to be away from flat screens, ringing telephones and computer monitors. Often, I’ll crack open a beer and listen to the Red Sox on the radio as the sun goes down.

Cassie would almost always join me, sitting on the chair’s wide arm, looking at what I thought was nothing in particular while I zoned out to the sounds of the game in my headphones. Every once in a while, she would jump off the chair to sniff at something in the grass, wind her way through our vegetable garden or disappear beneath our giant azalea. After a few minutes, she would return, jump back onto the chair and resume her vigil.
After one particularly bad Sox outing (I’m looking at you, Dice-K) a few summers ago, I turned off the radio in disgust. The breeze was nice and I didn’t want to go back inside the stuffy house, so I started watching the cat, trying to see what she saw. When she jumped off the chair and strutted to the middle of the lawn, I followed. She had sensed movement in the grass that had turned out to be an ant carrying a dead bee across the lawn. The bee was several times the size of the ant, so the journey was full of stumbles, not unlike a trip across the upper reaches of the Crawford Path with an overloaded pack. I had had a few beers (the Red Sox will do that to you), so I was willing to crouch there and watch the trek for as long as it took. Cassie was not as patient. After about 30 seconds, she grew bored and pounced, crushing the bee carcass and sending the ant scuttling to safety.

We returned to the chair and sat a bit. I followed Cassie’s gaze and saw a gopher scurrying along the edge of our neighbor’s garden. In our azalea, a pair of sparrows were arguing with a blue jay. Seagulls floated on air currents above the river. The setting sun backlit insects of all shapes and sizes.

We sat there well past dark, just watching, quietly, moving only to paw around in the dirt (her) or grab another beer (me).

The next night we did the same thing. I didn’t bother to turn on the game. We just sat still and watched, and listened.

It became a routine. Sometimes we’d sit for hours, sometimes only minutes. But there was always something to see, from mockingbirds to butterflies to the family of skunks at the back edge of the yard. We usually saw only the mother; her babies were just a hint, the tall grass swaying back and forth as they moved along our fence, safely out of sight.

When we hike, and especially when we climb mountains, we live for the view, the vast, breathtaking panoramas seen from the Carrigain firetower, Franconia Ridge or the lip of the Great Gulf. Sometimes, however, we miss the little things — the tiny white diapensia blooming on Eisenhower, the butterfly struggling against the stiff breeze on Caribou, the tiny salamanders skimming through the muck on Monadnock’s Pumpelly Trail. What I’ve learned is that if you’re climbing for the views, you’re missing out on half the fun.

I was thinking of Cassie Friday, as I sat on the summit of Mt. Chocorua on a nearly cloudless day. The views went on for miles, and for a good half hour I had the summit to myself — a rarity on one of the most-climbed mountains in the Whites.

The views were incredible, and the summit itself is an entirely different place when it’s free of (other) people. After a while I spied a small chipmunk working its way toward me. I looked away, trying not to scare it. After a minute, I heard a rustling and turned to find the chipmunk trying to get at the food in my pack. I said “Hey,” and he scurried about a foot away and stared straight ahead, as if he was trying to take in the same view I was. I turned my head and he went for the pack again. I rustled the bag and he moved away again, looking off the ledge toward Mt. Hedgehog. Not to anthropomorphize, but the dude was totally playing it cool.

We went back and forth like this for about 10 minutes, until I finally caved and sent him away with a few morsels of trail mix. A few minutes later he was moving along the windy summit, his belly pressed to the rock, to greet a pair of hikers who had just arrived at the top and opened their packs.

It was a small but cool moment, one I never would have had if I hadn’t spent summer nights in the backyard with the cat. Cassie would have appreciated the moment.

And eaten the chipmunk.

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