Sunday, December 22, 2013

too big for the harness: Steinbeck, love, winter and snowballs, but will Elliott survive?

It is indicative of Elliott’s size that the one-size-fits-all cat harness that I bought for him to wear while traveling across country does not fit him. It is too small. I adjusted to its greatest length the strap that goes behind the front legs and did manage to get it around him and buckled, but then when he lay there on his back, apparently unable to move, eyes wide and tongue sticking out between his teeth, looking all the world like a cinched-up balloon about to pop, I worried. I unbuckled the strap, Elliott rolled away, found his feet, dashed up to the loft.

Later, Elliott tried to fit in this box, which had arrived
from California with a stash of catnip from Cousin Frankie.

It didn’t quite fit either.

Planning for this trip west is proving haphazard at best, and there is no reason not to blame the weather. I admit, the cold did let up a bit toward the end of the week as inserted into the forecast amidst “snow” and “snow showers” was “patchy freezing drizzle,” but nonetheless extreme cold has been no stranger, and not only does it harden water and suck moisture from every pore, by logical extrapolation it also slows brain synapses and motor reflexes, the latter also being severely affected by the rolls and rolls of material we swathe our bodies in, the layers and layers of cotton and wool and flannel and polyester and nylon and rayon and Spandex and fur and faux fur and microfleece and leather and what have you, all these modern, super-age materials designed to keep out the cold or keep in the warmth, all the while “wicking away moisture” as if the cold doesn’t do that well enough on its own, and the more new materials they make, the more we put on.

Yes, winter is playing with my head.

I am obsessed with the temperature. A number of times each day I check the temperature online, and why I do that, I don’t know. The weather is right there, outside the door, and in here, wherever I am. But I look online and see: current temperature 28 degrees. Say what?!? Where’d that blast of warm air come from? I look lower on the screen at the little squares of forecast and see: today’s high 16 degrees. What?!? I look at my thermometer outside there hanging on the edge of the porch and see 10 degrees or 10 below or five or zero or two or one, but never, ever, 28. Maybe 16.

So has the official temperature recorder brought the official thermometer inside to warm up? Or is he (or she) just hittin’ the sauce? Maybe that explains “patchy freezing drizzle.”

It messes with my head.

All this griping—from a person who loves winter! Let me tell you, I love winter. Yes, I did get cranky on a 10 below morning—and another thing, it is mid-December, after all, and the days are narrowing, closing like the curtains of an upper window in a spooky old house where you’ve caught the glimpse of a shadowy figure with a slow, spooky smile, but she (or he) is just an apparition slowly pulling tattered cloth across milky glass  ...—when I had to get up at 4 a.m. because once again the cabin was so cold. I got the fire going, sat next to it covered in blankets and Elliott. A few hours later I decided to head up to Houghton for shopping, and as I traveled north on the icy road I was smacked up the side of my head by the beauty of it all. Along with the cold there has been continual snow—big flakes, small flakes, flurries, showers, driving, gentle, wind-blown, and swirly—and it now lies heavy on branches, rooftops, and power lines (somebody should look at those power lines). It hangs off the roofs of houses, barns, sheds, trailers, and wood huts in massive dips and curls. You wonder how it does hang on, hangs so low, stretches so far.

Discovered out in the field: Snowball trees.

This drive to Houghton is through woods and farmland and one small town with one small grocery, a restaurant, a ballfield, and an abandoned brick schoolhouse. It usually takes 20 or 25 minutes to get from here to there, but on this day, on this ice-covered, washboard road, it took a bit longer, just about long enough to witness a slow December sunrise. As I headed out I noticed behind me, low and to the right, a rippling sheet of lipstick red cloud spreading across the sky. The cloud softened to pink and then became a strange kind of orange. The snow-covered fields and trees and rooftops off to the west and northwest took on hints of pale icy pink with undertones of watery blue. The shift of light and scenery was slow, rhythmic, and, at times, dramatic. When the road turned east for a stretch I looked south across a field, past a barn, and there sat the sun, balanced on the horizon all blazing orange, doing its best to convince us of day.

Winter can be beautiful.

Anywhere can be beautiful.

But somehow to me this here seems uncommonly beautiful.

Thinking about the pending trip and feeling a certain frustration with getting down to the actual planning of it, the details of it, I turned to “Travels with Charley,” which I found, of course, on my Steinbeck shelf. My copy of the book is a hardcover published in 1962. Its dust jacket is yellowed and torn. The book once belonged to Alida V. Forsyth, as best I can make out, as that is the name scrawled in pencil across the top of the inside cover, which displays an illustrated map of the United States. A wobbly line and several small drawings indicate the path that Steinbeck and his dog, Charley, took as they traversed America from New York to California and back in a pick-up truck topped with a camper. Steinbeck named the camper Rocinante.

Here it is. The illustration is by Don Freeman.

I settled into bed and began reading. With the very first page I found relief from some of the reticence and other assorted nonsense that had begun to crop up in my head in relation to my trip.

Steinbeck was 58 when he hatched his plan to travel America, and later, writing about it, he begins by describing a wanderlust that he had yet to outgrow. Now, wanderlust is not the impetus for my trip, though the trip itself might stir up some, and I’m planning nothing like Steinbeck’s several months on the road in a camper, staying in this or that farmer’s field at night (and, when in Chicago, at the Ambassador East Hotel)—heck, I’m just driving to California to spend time with family—but that Steinbeck began his cross-country trek by stating that he was not too old for it, and by doing so admitting, of course, that one might think 58 too old, well, that immediately bolstered me. Because I had, earlier that day, standing at the kitchen sink, thought, I am too old for this, I really should just stay put, just let things be.

“I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself,” Steinbeck wrote.

It’s funny how certain things resonate whether you’re 16 or 56. I have a vague recollection of being a teen-ager reading “Travels with Charley” while sitting out on the patio behind the house where I grew up and falling in love with John Steinbeck and falling in love with writing. While some loves move through us and disappear, others stay. Whether we know it or not.

Along toward the middle of the book, Steinbeck writes about aloneness. It must be a word after all, and I found it then, not in my usual dictionary, the one kept by my chair and consulted last week, but in the larger one, the one that resides in a bookcase up in the loft. Buried deep within the definition of alone, I found: —a·lone′ness, n.

Now I am getting to the details of my trip. I am leaving, maybe, by the end of the week, and Mason City, Iowa, will be my first stop. My mother was born in a farmhouse just a tad northeast of Mason City, near Nora Springs, and that was just about 94 years ago. My mom didn’t care much for the farm. In 1931, the family moved to a house in the town of Aledo, Illinois, and my mom later wrote: “It looked good to me—indoor plumbing and hardwood floors.” Plus, Elliott now has an ID tag. The harness I will exchange for a larger one, perhaps one to fit a small beagle. Or maybe I’ll just get a collar.

I do, of course, relish the dwindling days brought on by winter. The absence of light, the softness of light. This week it has been easy to go up to bed early, but long after dark, to open a book and settle into wanderlust. To head down a road with a poodle and a camper, with love and curiosity.

Yikes. I sure hope that curiosity doesn’t kill the cat.



  1. Enjoyed the post and the song :)

    1. My favorite this-time-of-year song since I don't know when ...