We pulled off at that exit because we saw a grocery store sign from the freeway. Our destination was still hours away and we wanted to have a beer when we arrived, but by that time the stores would be closed. So it was a practical thing.
I’ve been to quite a few, but not nearly all, of the exits on the 5 in the Central Valley but never this one. I had no memory of visiting this particular grocery store chain anywhere between Sacto and the Oregon border.
I’d been driving since leaving Ashland in mid-afternoon and the sun had just sunk behind the coast range here. The sky was lit up with a dusty orange glow. The summer was slowly waning from its peak as September approached and we were thankful there’d been no big fires yet. It felt like it was only a matter of time before everything burned—every last tree from Del Norte to Tahoe and from Klamath to Marin—but perhaps we’d be spared any record breakers this year.
That seems the most to hope for in these days of new highs, lows and days-in-a-row: that this month won’t be the hottest, wettest or deadliest every recorded; that some respite, however temporary, might be felt, if only for one’s nerves.
For, what is it to live in such times? When talk of “the end of the world”—in some sense or other—is no longer just crazy, like it was not so long ago?
I slowed down at the end of the ramp, did a California stop (as we called the roll-through growing up in Nebraska), and turned left. Crossing back over the interstate, we were briefly elevated above the vast agricultural plain and glimpsed unobstructed the ridge line of the Sierra Nevada, catching the day’s last sunshine. On the other side, I turned left again, into a driveway. On the left was the grocery store, and on the right a gravel lot with—what? was it? yes! a cat!
“Look!” I announced, slowing down and pointing. In the very middle of the lot, which was at least a quarter acre in size, and was otherwise featureless, was a cat, white with tabby-striped patches, sitting on his haunches and looking west.
Cautiously, I pulled into this lot and entered it very slowly. I stopped the vehicle, put on the brakes and turned off the engine, leaving the headlights on. The cat hadn’t moved except to track our movement with a turning of his head. As carefully as I could, I opened my door and stepped out onto the ground. The gravel crunched under my feet and that was enough to spook the cat, who quickly made for some vegetation at the eastern edge and ducked into its shadow.
“Do you want to get some food?” I asked my traveling companion, who said, “Sure!” “Wet stuff,” I suggested, and she headed to the store.
I stepped out in front of the truck and squatted down on the the ground, my elbows on my knees, letting my forearms hang loosely in front of me. I started clucking my tongue and calling out, “Kitty! Kitty!”
The air was sultry. The day’s high has been 101 and the heat was slow to fade, even as evening as crept across the sky. No breeze stirred, but it was not entirely still. A very slight movement—almost just a vibration—lent a freshness to the atmosphere. The sounds of the highway were close and the smell of exhaust unmistakable, but didn’t dominate.
The lot itself was open to entry and exit along its entire northern edge. The other sides were buffered by a weedy strip. To the south, and across the road, was a gas station, its tall logo sign lit up brightly. To the east were three squat evergreen trees whose wispy branches marked the direction of the prevailing wind. And to the west were two dense shrubberies, one of which was sheltering the cat. “Kitty!” I pleaded.
Before long he poked his nose out, then stepped into the open, looking right at me. I wiggled my fingers at him, with a tried-and-true cat-beckoning gesture which both displayed my lack of claws and promised a scratch behind the ears. Having taken exactly as many steps as he wanted to, the cat then sat down and regarded me with what turned out to be intermittent curiosity interspersed with casual bathing.
I sat still, re-issuing my invitation regularly but without any real expectation. After all, cats can play this game for hours.
Then a moment arrived. There was sharpness—a slight buzz from a coffee procured earlier in Red Bluff and that keyed-uppedness from so many hours behind the wheel at high speed—and there was a softness—the caress of the warm air and the tinge of the setting sun. Time as measured by clocks fell away, followed by place as marked on maps. This spot was all there was; no past, no future. The cat and I made eye contact and regarded each other directly for an undetermined span. Then he turned back to licking his paw.
This moment didn’t arrive in a place of aesthetic beauty, like a lake in the forest by the mountains or something. Nor had I prepped myself immediately beforehand with a ritual or exercise. And though it was a moment of deep joy, I would not describe it as “happy” in the way that “happy” is not “sad.” That is the nature of transcendence—that it transcends these things.
Behind me I heard footsteps as my companion returned. She had a box with six individually packaged servings of wet cat food, a well-known, conventional brand. Rather than the cans I was expecting, everything was plastic and foil. As soon as we opened one and peeled off the top, we had the cat’s attention. I set the small tub down about ten feet in front of him and backed off. He wasn’t shy for long and was soon devouring the food.
Then, thrillingly, a second cat slinked out of the shrubs, this one a dusky tabby. We opened another tub and soon they were both eating happily. Before long, they had finished their meals so we opened two more.
This whole while, the moment out of time and place still thrummed, sometimes stronger, sometimes more faintly, from background to foreground. Its pulse was like water or wind, filling space and receding again. When it was gone I forgot it, but its return was always welcome.
I wonder now, is that our real home? Not a country or culture, not a house or habits, but a presence without shape or measurement… something at once infinite and intimate… a sense of fullness that doesn’t contain anything…
If words exist to describe what I am trying to convey, English doesn’t have them.
By whatever name, cats seem to live there full time. As do plants, and the hills.
We are cursed, it often strikes me, by nothing except a belief that we are separate from “nature.” This is not factually true—not by a long shot—but we insist on it regardless and make decisions on that basis. The sad state of affairs in the world that results from this heresy are all too obvious: the suffering, pollution, extinctions, etc.
We are acting as if we not at home, which doesn’t make any sense at all.
Neither cat finished their second tub, though I’m sure they were emptied by morning, if not by them then by other critters. My companion took over driving and I got one last glimpse of our furry friends as we left. They were both busy grooming themselves, and if they were surprised or even pleased by the meal, they didn’t show it.
Out on the darkening freeway, the heat finally started to break, and the air rushing through my window was a welcome relief. We might’ve listened to the Beatles.