Last week I and my partner drove across the country with 4 cats in a minivan. We left Seattle by 11am on Wednesday morning (Happy Beltaine!) and arrived at my folks’ in New Jersey by 8pm on Friday. Nathan says it was 54 hours with the time change, and I’m going to just let that ride because I have no interest in doing the math right now. That’s approximately 2865 miles, which google says should take 44 hours. So yeah, that’s about 10 hours in rest stops, gas, food, traffic, and trying to find crossbars and cargo bag for the van. The latter bit pretty much ate up at least 3-4 hours alone.
Anyway, it was a strange trip that seemed otherwordly, and I’m still not quite sure how we got through it. I mean, that’s a long time to spend in a van, and things get surreal after a while. Especially when you don’t have set destinations or a timetable like on a tour.
It made me think back to car rides of my childhood. Time passes differently when we’re children. The hour drive to the Jersey shore when I was little seemed like it took forever, and I knew every landmark along the way – highway and backroads. I stared at the trees until they seemed almost alien.
I figured (as a kid) sadly I’d never go some place like Australia because there was no way I could sit on a plane for 14 hours. But then in my late 20’s, work took me to Hong Kong and mainland China, which was a 16 hour flight. The company flew us over economy-class which wasn’t too terrible, but the power outlet and interactive screen for my seat were both busted. My computer ran out of battery about halfway through the flight, yet I somehow I managed just fine. There’s something that happens to your brain when it realizes there is nothing you can do about the situation, but sit and wait.
So when you’re looking at a minimum of 44 hours, and google maps is counting that down in days and hours, not minutes, you have to settle in. We initially thought we’d do the trip in 4-6 days, stopping at pet-friendly hotels that were easy to load-in and out of. In my previous life, I had done 3 nationwide tours with a cat in tow, so I preparing to deal with that times 4. With a fair amount of dread.
We set up most of the van as a cat haven – carefully placing the carriers like hotel rooms, building sitting places in baskets and pillows, securing the litter box, food and water dishes. Then came the moment we had to get the cats in their carriers as we left Seattle, and it was pretty traumatic for everyone involved. The idea of getting cats in and out of carriers for every night we stopped was terrifying, so we decided to see if we could just drive on through.
And we did. The cats took turns crawling into our laps, and there was very little singing of the song of their people. We had clear weather for the majority of the trip, just skirting freezing temperatures and snow in Montana and South Dakota. We saw the sun rise twice as we drove steadily to the east. We stopped to see “Dignity” in South Dakota, spied a fox trotting off with its breakfast, drove alongside horses and antelope, met with ravens and watched hawks scoop up meals. Mountains gave way to fields which gave rise to cities.
We had some trials. The roof rack crossbars the dealer thought were in stock, weren’t, and we had to travel to the next state to get them. Then we couldn’t find a cargo box, and settled for a bag. As we parked under a light in the lot to put it on, we discovered the straps were missing…so back in we went – luckily there was one more left and we checked for straps in the store (it was pretty chilly out.) This opened up more room in the van for the cats – and for one of us to recline their seat for better sleep. We battled against fatigue, long for the upcoming rest stop, only to find it closed, and the next one too – but thankfully spied a Walmart parking lot. Some guy thought it was a good idea to join us in our lane as we entered the toll plaza, but luckily everyone stopped in time, and he yelled “My bad! Sorry!”. Was really awake after that.
We listened to a lot of podcasts (The Moth, Reply All, Without Fail, The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week, Invisibilia were the main ones), and it’s amazing what suddenly seems relevant and applicable when you’re in the middle of moving of your life. We talked about a lot of things and got lost in music.
Driving around the clock means a lot of time spent on empty roads, not seeing other vehicles for quite some time – and you start to wonder if you accidentally got on a closed highway or slipped into another realm. The darkness changes the landscape in such a way that you feel like you’re in an endless tunnel of trees or mountains – and the odd light or marker takes on a surreal feel that you’re not sure what you’re looking at. You avoid being hypnotized by the lights of the trucker in front of you and seeing movement where there is none.
There is a trance and a state of mind that comes with all of this that feeds into the consciousness of the trip. There is a strong sense of being outside of time and space, and different ways of waking up the mind and body to keep focus. There are the things we do mentally and metaphysically to keep us safe. The vehicle becomes a magic circle, a container of life and intent, between worlds and homes.
The only thing it can’t protect us from is being unwashed for over 48 hours – and boy we were ripe when we landed. (Trust me, all of you people who said, “but you should have stopped and visited with us!” – Nope, trust me, you didn’t want that funk unleashed upon you. And mainly, this was all about the cats being happy.
Which, currently they are happy to be still for a while. They’re going to hate us when we pack up in a week to get to our new home, but they’ll be thrilled in the end.