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A Tale of Two Sprinters
How a feline family became an integral part of our travelogue
This is either a story about a camper van that also includes cats, or a story about cats that happens to feature a camper van. You decide.
Whenever Leslie and I are preparing for our next trip in Next Chapter, one of the first steps is finding out when members of our housesitting team are available, singly or in combination, to take care of our three cats while we are on the road. This is not necessarily something we anticipated when we embarked on this life of frequent travel in retirement, for we had no pets when we took delivery of our van in September 2020.
The house where we spend most of our time is in the middle of an avocado orchard in the hills overlooking Ventura, backed up against thousands of acres of undeveloped canyons and hillsides. This means we do not have many human neighbors, and also that we have more than our share of nonhuman neighbors with some objectionable habits: orchard rats and field mice, which are always seeking (and often finding) a way into the house; deer that eat the roses; and coyotes, which correctly regard us as interlopers in their territory, and are not shy about letting us know that by leaving scat memos on the deck and surrounding the yard at night to serenade us.
So it was surprising one day in July 2021 when Leslie saw a cat out of the corner of her eye, darting through the garden outside the downstairs office. Any cat in our yard would have had to survive a gantlet of high-speed rural traffic and hungry predators to make it that far. Odds did not favor the feline.
But there she was. And over the next few days, she popped up in other areas near the house. Too skittish to approach, she quickly disappeared into the trees whenever she spotted us. She was small and slender, but did not appear malnourished, suggesting she was an able hunter. And her survival in coyote country suggested she was wary and wily as well.
Cats had always been in our plan; when we remodeled this house before moving in we had ID chip-reading cat doors installed. Because, rats and mice: A ranch house needs the equivalent of a barn cat or two to discourage the resident rodents. So, Leslie began leaving cat food out during the day to see if our unexpected visitor might stick around.
She did. Eventually, she grew slightly more comfortable around us, and although she would still bolt if we approached, she began hanging out under the van, which lives in the driveway next to the garage, and on the second-floor deck of the house.
A week or two later, getting ready for an August trip to the Pacific Northwest, we prepared to pull the cover off Next Chapter and noticed that there were holes torn or chewed through it just below the hood. And, more ominously, there were rat droppings on the ground beneath the engine compartment. Rodents are a constant threat to recreational vehicles parked outdoors on a ranch, and they can wreak havoc with wiring and hoses. This was not a welcome development.
I popped the hood, half expecting a scene of mechanical mayhem, potentially even a scurrying tide of rodents fleeing the sudden wash of sunlight.
Instead, I was face to face with the stray cat. She’d found a comfortable perch atop the cabin air intake, and was staring at me with startled eyes about the size of silver dollars. We held that gaze for a moment, and then she leaped out of the engine compartment and sprinted for the orchard.
I imagined the scenario: A nighttime convocation of rats hanging out in the engine compartment, noshing on windfall avocados, feeling secure in the cramped darkness, when suddenly a hungry predator shows up to send them scurrying and gnawing their way to safety through the van cover. Maybe some made it. Maybe some did not.
After being startled out of the Sprinter van’s engine compartment, the stray cat began hanging out on the deck, sleeping in a corner. Leslie found a cardboard box, tucked a towel into it, put it in the corner and the cat happily moved in. That’s where matters stood when we headed out of town, bound for Oregon and Washington, leaving a house sitter behind to care for plants, collect the mail and put out food for our volunteer rodent control specialist.
On Aug. 10, our house sitter sent a string of frantic texts. Stray cat was in the box on the deck, along with four newborn kittens. “What should I do?” he asked. “Nothing,” we replied. “You’re not a mother cat.” Two days later, he reported that mom and kittens had disappeared. Knowing that it’s common for mamma cats to move their newborns to a secluded place in the day or two after birth, we figured we would sort things out when we were home the next week.
After we returned, it didn’t take long to figure out that the feline family was hidden beneath a tangle of shrubbery against the wall beneath a bathroom window. This was convenient, for it allowed us to monitor their activity from inside the house without alarming the mother and perhaps prompting another move.
As they grew, the kittens began venturing out of their hiding place to play in the surrounding landscaping, which includes enough pounce-ready boulders and climbable bushes to keep a nation of cats happily engaged. Leslie made sure to hang out and handle them for hours each day, so they would be socialized with humans in a way their mother was not.
The kittens’ increasing boldness, however, also made them increasingly vulnerable to our resident coyotes. And as the weeks went by, we debated when to try to move them indoors, and how to do that without alarming their mother so much that she would spirit them away to a place we might find more difficult to locate.
By this time, we’d gotten to know them well enough to bestow names: Jinx, the male striped tabby, and Sistah, his lookalike female sibling, both of them strongly resembling their mother; Sid (AKA Sid Vicious, named by the friend who would later adopt him), the scrappy, rambunctious and fearless ginger tabby; Boo, wide-eyed, jet black and smallest of the quartet; and Sprinter, the mom, both for her first chosen home in our yard and for her habit of running away at top speed whenever we got too close.
In the end, the cats decided when to come in from the cold. Early one morning, Leslie went out to fetch the newspaper, and found the four kittens in a pile on the doormat, staging a dawn protest at their exclusion from all the warm goodness they knew must be inside the house. Sid, of course, appeared to be the ringleader.
So, they all moved in — even Sprinter. She had clearly lived indoors at some point in her earlier life, for she took quickly to the cat door and litter box, and although she spent much of those first days and weeks hiding under furniture, she eventually relaxed. Sort of. The kittens, on the other hand, quickly made the entire house — and everything in it — their home.
For a while, we continued to let them come and go through the cat doors, a privilege Sprinter took advantage of at first to deliver a steady stream of captive lizards into the house as a teaching tool for her young hunters-to-be. But eventually we decided the threat to our resident reptile and bird populations — and the blithe lack of wariness on the part of the kittens, which rendered them oblivious to the predatory dangers lurking in the orchard — required that we lock them down.
The indoor life
They’ve been full-time indoor cats for most of the past two years now, and the kittens are all grown up. We adopted Sid and Sistah out to friends when they were young, and our household entourage consists now of Sprinter, Jinx and Boo. Boo has become a large, elegantly slender cat who loves to play fetch with a stuffed toy mouse and sometimes watches television with us.
Jinx has grown into a sweet-natured 17-pound hulk; when the cats play-fight, he’s like a furry sumo wrestler, smothering the others with sheer bulk. And Sprinter? Well, she still sprints away from us when we approach too close, but she also sleeps on the foot of our bed sometimes. She approaches us as if to play, and then flees when we reach out. She is one ambivalent cat.
Early on, we wondered if the kittens had the making of an adventure-cat team to accompany us on our forays in Next Chapter. (I’m not making this category up. It’s a robust social media thing: Search for #adventurecats on Instagram and you will turn up nearly half a million posts depicting cats on trails, summiting mountains, hanging out in backpacks, floating in kayaks and lounging in woodsy settings.) But that quickly seemed like a bad idea.
We prefer our van excursions unencumbered by dependents and other external responsibilities. Living with three energetic indoor felines at home is adventure enough without adding harnesses, leashes, a mobile litter box and countless new backcountry dangers to the arrangement. We do miss them when we’re away, and we grow anxious if too many days go by without a status update (and hopefully a photo or two) from our house sitter. But we are happier with them safe at home.
The cats get a bit antsy when we load the van for a new trip, and they always seem glad to see us when we return. They remain remarkably uninterested, however, in our tales from the road. They’re cats, after all.
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