IT is a good idea, when traveling, to choose one’s fellow passengers carefully. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. When I set out for six weeks in south-central Kentucky recently, hauling a trailer full of furniture, my wife, Nancy, as always, sat in the front seat, wrestling with several maps. But in the back seat were two new faces — furry, wide-eyed, and expressing, very vocally, even more anxiety than the couple up front. Soda and Sweetzie, our two cats (who had no place else to go for the six weeks), were warming up for a performance that would last 1,500 miles, round trip, and set new standards for misery in travel.
11:30 A.M. Soda and Sweetzie are installed in back seat of Honda Civic, stuffed into separate carriers because they cannot abide each other. Both mew piteously. I position a clean oversize litter box in back window of car, which has never seemed so small. We roll forth from Astoria toward the Queensboro Bridge
11:45 A.M. Mewing has just started to abate when a sudden stop causes litter box to lurch forward and dump an avalanche of grit on both cats. Soda, a sweet-natured and dainty creature, lets out a howl of cosmic protest. Sweetzie, a huge tortoiseshell cat of smoldering intensity, volatile moods and tangled neuroses, produces a demonic sound new to us. Careful preparation for trip, involving administration of Rescue Remedy (New Age tranquilizing drops) and Benadryl smushed into bits of raw steak, has not produced the desired behavior modification.
12:30 P.M. A rising aroma makes it clear that Sweetzie, like many soldiers experiencing incoming artillery fire for the first time, has had an extreme fear reaction to the sounds of the tunnel or, perhaps, the litter shower.
1 P.M. I pull into the first available McDonald’s parking lot, grab a stack of napkins and try to clean out Sweetzie’s carrier. It is a big job. The deeper I reach into the carrier, the more Sweetzie feels cornered. She mounts a slashing attack, leaving bloody stripes up and down my arm, then does an imitation of Linda Blair’s voice in “The Exorcist.” Lingering fragrance suggests more work needs to be done.
2:15 P.M. Incessant cries of the damned cause me to open the cat carriers. Soda moves into new, improvised litter box on floor (baking pan acquired at dollar store along the road), and takes a jubilant dust bath. Sweetzie finds her way to a fleece cat bed on floor behind front passenger seat and hunkers down, eyes glowing with an insane luminescence. Peace descends.
6:23 P.M. We pull into a pet-friendly motel in Hagerstown, Md. Research on several Internet sites yielded a number of these oases dotted across the country. A surcharge of $10 over the standard room rate gets us all in. Soda, an enthusiastic eater, reacts ecstatically to bento box that I arrange on a tray, with frilled paper caps from the motel’s water glasses as decorative dishes. (Hair on back stands up.) Sweetzie dives under a bed and remains motionless for the next 12 hours. Any food offered causes her to recoil and unsheathe claws. I sleep restlessly, unable to envision a blood-free scenario for putting her back in the carrier, although I have now refreshed it with a bottle of Evian and innumerable paper towels.
8 A.M. Nancy pushes food tray at Sweetzie, causing her to flee from under bed and into my arms. Seemingly broken in spirit, she allows her limp form to be poured into the carrier. Soda, stupefied by high-calorie cat treats, also submits passively.
9:15 A.M. Both cats, released from carriers, return to their places on the floor and settle quietly, convincing me that I have discovered the secret to problem-free feline travel. This is a rash conclusion.
3:10 P.M. Arrive at destination. Civic cannot pull trailer up steep driveway. Cats remain calm, even as smell of burning tires and sound of cursing driver fills car interior. I carry both cats up driveway, arrive gasping for breath. Realize that both cats badly need to lose weight.
Return Trip, Day 1
11:30 A.M. Confident that all concerned are now old hands, I put cats in back seat, place litter box on floor and prepare for a serene, scenic drive back to New York. Soda settles into litter box. Sweetzie takes up position on fleece bed. A few peeps, then silence.
7:15 P.M. Check into different pet-friendly motel in Hagerstown. This one has a working television and a receptionist who does not hide in the back room talking on his cellphone to friends as guests crowd the front desk. Things look good.
7:30 P.M. Sweetzie dismayed by platform beds, which afford no hiding place. Soda thrilled at king-size format, ideal for lounging.
7:35 P.M. Sweetzie missing.
7:45 P.M. Sweetzie found, wedged into a two-inch crack between bed headboard and wall.
Return Trip, Day 2
3:15 A.M. Sweetzie, perhaps disturbed by employee slipping bill under door, begins yowling and pacing the room restlessly. She rejects food, water and neck massages. I roll up towels and put them against the bottom of the door to block sound and light. Sweetzie tears furiously at towels, pushes nose under door and lets loose at louder volume. No telling how tattooed guest with pit bull in next room might take this.
4:30 A.M. We leave motel in haste.
5 A.M. Sweetzie, nerves shattered, prowls the car, looking for an exit. Briefly takes up residence on brake pedal, then tries to press herself forward against the windshield, cutting off my view of highway. Ungodly wailing and lamentation. Cats also upset.
6:43 A.M. Sweetzie realizes that Soda has stolen her spot on the cat bed. More prowling and yowling. Soda is unmoved. Their mutual loathing adds to tense atmosphere in car.
7 A.M. After brief, eerie silence, we slip in a book on tape: Alan Furst’s “Foreign Correspondent.” Something about Alfred Molina’s voice sets Sweetzie off. We turn up the volume. Sweetzie responds in kind. As she claws her way past my left shoulder, I briefly consider lowering the window and giving her a nudge onto the highway.
8:30 A.M. Soda, responding to Sweetzie’s mood, begins prowling the car. She is easily bought off with five or six Deli Slices, a new-fangled calorie-bomb cat treat that appears to be as addictive as crack cocaine.
10:15 A.M. Arrive home. Return cats to their accustomed environment. Reward Soda with a Deli Slice. Cut off diplomatic relations with Sweetzie. Make inquiries. Does U-Haul rent a pet trailer? If not, all future vacations off.