The Appalachians just west of Asheville are already getting get cold. There is no risk of snow just yet, but the autumn chills are settling in and familiar aches returning. Weather isn't the only reason for the aches, of course, as the memory of a tired and hungry body's journey from the Atlantic coast is still fresh in bones and muscles. It has taken five weeks to get this far, and a desire to return to a Californian mountain lake once called home ensures that aches and pains will be endured for another few months. If, that is, a body no longer conditioned can remember younger days long enough to make it.
A month ago, everything was lost. Career, money, life... everything. So a journey was begun. A dying truck on its last miles sold to ensure food, at least, could be had. As companions, loyal dogs would remain beside, hunting their own meals and occasionally sharing the unlucky squirrel or rabbit. The two smaller dogs, a pointer-mix and a beagle-mix, would often range together, but always pick up their master's scent and return. The German Shepherd, true in camaraderie, would never roam too far away.
An old Army backpack was packed with what clothes, soap, and toothpaste could be carried. There was a cell phone, of course, but one no longer paid for and soon to be inactive. Most unusually, a cat carrier containing two cats, a gray-white and a dark mackerel-tabby the sole remnants of a family once numbering ten or more. A hard journey made more difficult by a stubborn reluctance to part with what were considered children.
Naturally, the cats had to be let out of their cage to relieve themselves and to eat, but never without a gentle hand holding tightly to neck or back. Initially the cats found themselves at odds with such an arrangement, but they learned to accept it eventually. Still, they continued to despise it, unaware of the great care taken to prevent their getting lost so far from any home they've ever known. A great care taken despite the great burden.
But their master is not invincible, and a feeble attempt at staying warm in the Appalachian forest serves pitiful proof of this. Exhausted, no forward progress had been made in days. A decision is made to let the cats roam around, hoping they would somehow recognize their temporary abode. At first, the cats are weary of leaving the safety, if confinement, of their cage. Soon, however, playful dogs and the sounds of an open wilderness provide the motivation to set foot on strange land.
A tired smile. Pairs of cat eyes make contact with human. An unspoken trust providing some comfort where none is to be had.
"Don't go too far," a voice cracks. Less for the words and more for the sound remembered from happier days and telephone conversations from the next room. "Don't go too far."
The cats cautiously prowl around, under both the watchful eyes of an adopted parent and the curious eyes of canine cousins. Toys reveal themselves as leaves fluttering in the wind, insects hiding under decaying bark, and the rare evidence of previous encampments. Slowly, but surely, the playground continues to grow, all the while the melody of "don't go too far" plays in the background.
But the Autumn chills are increasing, and strength has to be preserved. Human eyes close, and a voice quiets into a slumber. Dogs, sensing the need for warmth, huddle close. But the cats continue to play, further and farther away. Further and farther away, until the instinct that home lies somewhere to the East overwhelms the knowledge that such place was no longer home.
In the morning, hours of calling, and perhaps a few tears shed, ultimately give way to a westward journey continued.
And an empty cage remains in the mountains west of Asheville.