by James McGirk
Going West is an adventure. Maybe not as much as was when you had to take a covered wagon and float across the Mississippi and shoot bison along the way for food, but still, it’s a thrill. My wife and I decided we’d had enough of New York City. She’d been there almost fifteen years, I’d been there ten, and as ostensible creatives it seemed foolish to work 90 hours a week before we even began our “real work.” So we scraped together as much money as we could, borrowed a bit more from my folks, and piled our belongings into a 20’-UHaul—which is about as long of a truck as you can drive without needing a special license or a third axle. Our cats, we chased down and crammed into pet cages. We strapped the three of them into the seat between us, a tower of cat cages, and set off. Destination: Oklahoma.
Half an hour in, one of the cats pissed himself and it dripped all over the other two and my wife’s trousers. I had to admit that I felt a bit defeated. I could rationalize leaving the city as much as I liked, but it hurt to go. Coming there I had a vision of success: a sleek penthouse perched high above midtown and the sort of artsy, exciting life you’d imagine accompanying it—something with awesome city views and sleek modernist furniture and lots of restaurant dining. I’d wanted that life since I was a preteen. And after ten years in the city I never even came close to living it. And it’s hard to abandon a fantasy, but it was harder still to imagine ever being able to afford to live a comfortable life in New York, let alone a luxurious one. Oklahoma, on the other hand, was completely alien to me. Not quite the South, but not the West or Midwest either. We had a few connections out there and the cost of living was so much lower. If we were serious about making a life for ourselves as artists, why not go somewhere completely new?
The first day, the cab reeked of piss and the cats yowled every time we went over a bump or revved the engine too hard for them. We drove south. The weather was fair, cold but clear and not too windy. I hadn’t realized there was a trailer mode that automatically engaged when you started the engine. The truck kept trying to compensate for a non-existent load. The brakes were touchy; the acceleration so slow it was frightening trying to catch up with traffic after merging onto the freeway. Cars and trucks would race around us–it took minutes until we were going as fast as everyone else. We made it as far as Winchester, West Virginia that first night and found a comfortable inn to stay in. The manager let us bring our cats in. We let them roam free the room—a huge mistake. For the hotel and us.
One of our cats is a bit spirited. My wife rescued her from a dumpster behind a deli and she’s never become accustomed to being handled by humans. She’ll let you pick her up when she’s relaxed and in the mood for it, but never when she knows she’s about to go in the cage. It wasn’t too hard the first time. I scooped her up by surprise and stuffed her in. But she was ready for me that morning in the hotel. Plus I’d lost one of the protective gloves I’d brought for grabbing her. She zipped behind a bolted-in cabinet as I lumbered toward her. I flipped the bed to get her, but as soon as I had her pinned I balked at grabbing a hissing, snarling cat, and she got me, slashed my forearms and scurried away into the bathroom. It took over an hour. I was afraid they'd call the police: I kept screaming at her to calm down and she kept snarling and spitting at me. Eventually I had to swaddle her with blankets and “drop her in like a shoe” (as the vets tell you to do if nothing else is working) to get her in. There was cat shit smeared all over the tiles and blankets crammed in the corners. Blood was running down my forearm as I signed the bill checking out.
We got a late start. The sky was ominously white. The radio warned of an approaching storm. We drove the length of Virginia, which grew ever more mountainous and had an inordinate number of Civil War monuments and presidential birthplaces. Ice coated the road. The engine groaned. The cats howled. We slowed to 55, then 40, then 35 mph. There were climbs and declines and slippery spots and the mangled remains of trucks lining Virginia’s freeways. Ice began to accumulate on the windshield. It was too much for the wipers, soon all I could see was a tiny scrap of road. After paying for the UHaul and the deposit on our new house and budgeting for the trip there was nothing left over. There was no margin for error. I couldn't just stop. It occurred to me that my entire life was crammed into that flimsy orange and white truck. We were so fragile. Our entire lives were compressed into that little space. One slight over-correction and we would have been garbage strewn along the freeway.
We drove on and on into sleety, icy darkness and finally found a hotel that would take cats (“only because this is an emergency”) near the turnoff to Dollywood (a Dolly Parton-themed resort) in the Great Smoky Mountains. The motel was appalling. There was a queer smell floating about the place. Cigars and frying food. We ordered pizza. The staff didn't know the address. There was a raucous party going on next-door and rust all over the icemakers. My wife stuck her last quarters into a candy machine which failed to disgorge her treat. I took a peek at the pool. There was a green crust floating on it. (Thankfully it was closed.) We had learned from the day before and not to let the cats out of the bathroom. But it got cold that night and the little infrared heat-lamp in the bathroom was missing its dial so I dug a space heater from the trailer and we made them a cozy little nest. They scratched at the door all night and squished their paws between the jamb and howled for attention. But we were glad we kept them confined because the next morning we woke covered in fleabites (we hoped they were fleabites). The feral cat was easier to catch. Only my hands were dripping blood as I signed the bill.
We crossed the Mississippi at sunset. It began to rain. Arkansas was dark and flat and the roads were rough and narrow. There were barriers blocking half of the road, and for hours I was driving at the head of a long convoy, too tired and shaky to go much faster than the speed limit. My eyes were strained. I kept thinking I was seeing UFOs. The state motto: The Natural State seemed sinister. We stopped before the border with Oklahoma, near the Arkansas River. It was too humid and the air smelled foreign. I wasn’t looking forward to our destination.
We woke early and the cats were easy to load into the carriers. They had adjusted to life on the road and barely made a fuss once we strapped them in. I too was finally accustomed to the U-Haul and enjoyed being perched above the rest of the traffic on the road. Oklahoma seemed like little more than dry farmland and endless plains at first but as we swung north into the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, the plains became hills and I began to feel a little more excited. It was winter so the trees were bare but you could imagine the blaze of green in the spring. Eagles drifted through the sky above us. We took a winding road through the hills and finally found our tiny town but it didn’t seem small and found our home and what we hauled out of the truck could barely fill the garage let alone the rest of the house. And it was quiet. And for once we had space.
I returned to New York a few weeks later for business: it felt cold, empty and expensive. The day I was leaving, I went to my old apartment to see if any of my mail had accumulated there. As I returned from the mailroom I watched a rental truck pull up outside what used to be my door. A young couple was moving in. They had a baby carriage. Didn’t they realize there was a rock and roll band with full a drum kit living next door? I was so happy to come home.