Where getting dressed up means putting on socks

(ARCATA, Calif.) — I can’t believe it has been so long since I’ve written. I know explanations (at least mine) are usually boring and kind of defensive, so I’ll just give a short one. I’m on shore leave from my trip right now, visiting California and my family (I flew out from Wilmington, N.C., where my trailer is temporally parked). My grandparents just had their 60th wedding anniversary, and I was in Redding for it. It was good to see my mom’s big, extended family, and I’m realizing that the more I know my grandparents, the more I like them. My grandmother can’t hear well but she’s friendly and unfailingly supportive. It seems my grandfather gets funnier and intentionally goofier all the time. This time around, he made sure I got a picture of him bugging out his eyes. In short, the whole trip was pretty good. Now, I need to get back to myself. I’m visiting the town where I went to school, and it feels so good to be here, in the wet, crisp air and small-town vibe. A lot of people and businesses smell like a combination of patchouli and pot and body odor, and I just don’t care. I plan to be showered and to wear decent clothes today, but I love that I don’t have to do either of those things. A lot of people I’ve met recently in other parts of the world don’t like Arcata, but none of them had a reason to spend three years here like I did. The beautiful truth of this town is that it doesn’t have a lot of rules. It’s not just a hippy haven. It takes everybody. I think it’s like Australia or New Mexico, made up of misfits and troublemakers and artists who aren’t afraid to live off the grid. And it makes me proud of it every time I come back.

Hey, enough of what’s going on my head. I’d rather talk about kittens — and my trip. Here’s something about my last few days in Harrisonburg, Va.

On the night of Friday, Dec. 20, I was clasping two wet and shivering kittens to my chest. Swaddled in towels, they were still steaming after the first bath of their lives. When they looked up at me with their huge, innocent, kitten eyes, I melted into a girly puddle of goo that pooled onto the floor. This was such a nice surprise.

Sometimes, the idea that you can plan anything feels like such a joke.

My original plans for the night had been to avoid myself. All I wanted to do was forget my world for a few hours and dive into Paranormal Activity. I was on day three of squatting in Harrisonburg’s Wal-Mart parking lot, and I was surrounded by corporate sprawl in every direction. While I loved the access to free WiFi and lack of camping fees, the corporate culture all around was beginning to wear me down. In a strange, big box half world like that, nothing feels quite real, and absolutely nothing has character. While I find people to be just as friendly in those strip malls as they are anywhere else, I never feel quite like myself. After a while, I start to become heart sick for the rest of reality.

That’s where I was at nearly two weeks ago. I just wanted to write and get all my stuff done, but I simply couldn’t. I was too distracted by the aggressively impersonal nature of my location. That’s when I hatched my cinema escape plan. It was 4 p.m., still matinee time on a weekday, so if I knew anything, it was that the movies would be both depopulated and cheap.

A select few reading this right now are smiling and asking themselves the same question: Oh my God, does she live under a rock?

You see, that Friday was the opening day of New Moon, the latest installment in that teen vampire saga, Twilight. The theater had begun showing the movie at 10 a.m. that morning and was starting a new show each half hour until 11 p.m. But that was not enough to contain the swell of Edward Cullen-loving teens, tweens and their parents. Not only were all of the Twilight screenings sold-out until 10:30 p.m. but nearly every other film was also filled to the max with the overflow of vampire devotees.

Grumbling, I trudged home across three packed parking lots. People and cars were everywhere, and a resentful mood filled me. I so badly wanted to escape from all this and couldn’t. I felt sorry for myself for about 15 minutes, but when that was followed by self-loathing, I decided to really get out of my head and go for a run — my first in two months. It was one the best ideas I had had all week.

The instant I hit the pavement, I started to feel better. After 17 years of running, I’m amazed that I ever forget the alchemy of it. Traffic was still intense but the scenery changed quickly. Soon, I was running alongside a graveyard and little, scrappy houses made out of brick. After about a mile-and-a-half, I turned onto Harrisonburg’s Main Street and was greeted by the comforting sight of historic storefronts containing old-time sandwich shops and a hipster-looking coffee house. There were signs pointing to the colleges in the area and a downtown square, and I felt so relieved to know that this town had a soul. I had actually tricked myself into believing that that commercial mess in which I had been camped really was the town (as if people could survive on that alone).

It had just begun to get dark, and I was feeling pretty good and energized, when something stopped me dead in my tracks.


On my left was a spacious storefront filled with kittens and cats running freely around a 10-year-old boy. He was wielding a laser-point, which was driving the kitties crazy, and when he saw me he gestured me inside. There was no way I wasn’t following his lead.

What I found when I entered Cat’s Cradle is a rarity, I think — a friendly, welcoming animal adoption center, where I didn’t feel weird for just walking in. The laser kid was kind of like me, just there to hang out and get his cat fix. I was sweaty and hadn’t taken a shower in a few days, but for some reason I didn’t feel that self-conscious. The situation was too enjoyable and kind of perfect for that.

A kindly volunteer was part of that perfection. I asked her, a 50-ish woman who seemed so put together, if I could hold the kitties, and she said yes and then left me and the kid alone to play with them as she did paperwork. That little act of trust was touching. Soon, she was done with her work, and the kid left, and she and I were alone and talking as I picked up and petted the slightly resistant, squirming felines.

It turns out that she knew all about the desire to travel across a country — she had done it herself, back when she graduated from nursing school. It was 1970 then, and she left with a friend for two months in her Volkswagen Beetle and traveled from somewhere in the middle of the country (Minnesota, maybe? Damn, I can’t believe my memory is fading so fast) and then across Canada. She looked proud and wistful when she talked about the trip. She said it was beautiful. She and her friend even entered Québec at one point, even know neither of them spoke any French and though it was not a particularly popular time to be an American in that province. No matter where they were, they did everything on the cheap. When it was time to stop for the night, they would drive from one motel to another, looking for an option they could afford. They ate cheese and meat out of a cooler — until someone stole all of that in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

“What a scummy thing to do,” she told me, “Steal someone’s cooler. Who does that?”

When she and her friend finally returned back to where they had left (and damned if I can remember where that was), they were offered their old jobs back, like they had never left. They began working as nurses again, as if nothing had changed, but I’m guessing that in reality everything had changed, at least within her. She said that after that, she began to move around a lot and didn’t live anywhere too long. When I asked her, somewhere in the middle of our conversation, why she had left in the first place, she answered quickly, like it was a question she was used to.

“I was afraid of getting bored,” she said.

I understood then — even though I probably wouldn’t have a couple of years ago.

On a side note, let me say that since I graduated college, my whole life (financially, romantically, socially) has been so on the edge of crisis that I haven’t had time to get bored. Sure, I’ve made ends meet, and I’ve made some great friends, but I’ve always felt very spurred on by the idea that my world might crash and burn at any moment. My world had been beautiful at times but always risky. Yet, those few days living in the Wal-Mart parking lot hadn’t felt so edgy. They had been ordinary and unworried, and I had been content with doing very, very little except writing and watching DVDs. My life had become, finally, boring. And by that last night, I was impressed with how much I could not stand it.

The volunteer and I became more and more engrossed in conversation, and soon she was closing up and getting ready to wash the littlest kittens — the few, tiny love bugs who had actually let me hold them close to my chest and coo over them. When drenched, they looked like angry, yet adorable, little monsters. Wordlessly, the volunteer handed two of them to me, and I cuddled the precious cargo through their bulky towels. I was smiling so wide, and I was so pleased. I felt lucky in a way I could not have predicted.

Sounds like the definition of a good night to me.

1 comment to Where getting dressed up means putting on socks

  • hi stina im at scool my crush just told me he loved me. might be a joke im floating on air oh well.love the blog ,your beaming cousin, ruth ps im also comatose from boredom science ugh well bye for now ruth

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