LULU

Lulu.

Lulu.

THAILAND ELEPHANTS, WEEK TWO

Getting up to pee in the middle of the night in a mountain jungle village is a bit complicated. It’s not like at home where you can roll out of bed, stumble into the bathroom and take care of business without having to really snap into consciousness. Being over 40, normally I can pee with my eyes closed and continue to make out with Madeline Stowe in my dream. (Madeline Stowe is the beauty that Daniel Day-Lewis falls for in Last of the Mohicans.) And, like D.D. throwing his axe, my aim is still true.

But not in Huay Pakoot. First I have to dig for my flashlight. Then I have to pull on my pants. Then I have to slowly and carefully wriggle out of my mosquito net cocoon, in such a way that I leave no opening for the sieging insects outside to march in whatever hole I make to get out.

By the time I crawl across the floor and grope for the light I’m almost fully conscious, with the bugs, fired up by the flood of fluorescent light, kamikazing into my neck and face. It’s a good thing I am awake at this point, otherwise I’d probably tumble down the uneven wood staircase and roll down the mountain, because everything is on a mountain around here.

The first night I stumble toward the Outhouse-Plus, the symphony of jungle cicadas serenade me, and I look up at the night sky. I stop in my tracks.

In my life I’ve been on quite a few camping trips, in some beautiful places in Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Washington, and California. I’ve never seen a night sky as the one I am looking up at now. The stars throb and pulse so that they look like they are taking breaths. They dance on the heads of the mountains and shove their way through the milling clouds, demanding to be seen. The Big Dipper looks like I could slide it off a pantry hook, pluck it out of the sky, and drink from it.

I sit on the stoop, flashlight extinguished, and stare upward. The days are so hectic that the 3 am pisses become wonderful opportunities to bliss out in the jungle night.

By the second week I settle into a routine. I am jarred awake by roosters crowing at 4:30, try and usually fail to go back to sleep as my family gets up to cook and get ready for their day jobs farming rice in the fields. I dress, pack water bottles, sunscreen, bug repellent, and my Minnie Mouse lunch box into my backpack, and I trudge off to work.

Well, it feels like work, anyway. You know–early morning, carrying my lunch, hours of physical exertion ahead of me, saying hello to the baby elephant as I walk by.

– Okay, maybe not work, exactly.

I always greet Lulu, the youngest of the baby elephants, on the way to Base Hut. She is tied up overnight in the village while her mahout trains her.

All the elephants in this herd have chains attached to at least one of their feet. They have to be chained at different times for different reasons. Sometimes it’s for a health check, sometimes because the elephant may be close to another village’s territory (encroaching and feeding on someone else’s property could likely get the elephant shot), sometimes because us volunteers are feeding them.

While these elephants have been around humans their whole lives, there is always a dangerous and unpredictable element when dealing with them, and the staff always make sure to keep us volunteers at a safe distance. An adult Asian elephant can sweep up two grown men with it’s trunk and fling them like rag dolls.

The elephants will still wear the chains when they forage in the jungle, they just won’t be tied down. Remarkably, the chains, which trail behind them for fifty feet or so, never seem to get snagged. Usually the elephants’ sheer brute force is enough to plow through the obstruction. I did witness one mahout try to untangle a chain: the moment he touched it, the elephant decided to move, and the chain shot out of his hand, taking his fingernail with it.

The babies, on the way to a day of foraging.

The babies, on the way to a day of foraging.

Lulu quickly becomes a favorite elephant of mine, because I see her and talk to her every day. I love the tawny hair sprouting up from the fringes of her head and from between her ears, the baby with dyed old man hair. Lulu is the youngest elephant at three years old, new to the herd, and until about two weeks ago she has never been in a forest. She has spent her whole life inside a tourist camp.

Lulu's old man hair.

Lulu’s old man hair.

Lulu.  The forest is a strange place to her.

Lulu. The forest is a strange place to her.

This is Lulu’s first experience of the vastness of the jungle: the noise, the insects, the deluge of plant life. When she forages with Mario and Bpee Mai, the other babies, she scours their mouths with her trunk, to smell and touch what they’re eating. She’s asking them what’s good on the menu. When she grabs Mario’s tail with her trunk, most likely she’s feeling vulnerable and wants comfort. Sometimes she has a tendency to cling to the mahouts.

The most alarming trait I see in Lulu, however, happens the second she is tied down. It seems to induce a kind of trance in her. She rocks and sways in a jerky, monotonous rhythm. I feel like I’m watching a being in torment, suffering from some unseen demons.

Studies now show that, like humans, elephants can suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The swaying is a symptom of what captivity, abuse, and a life of boredom in the tourist camps have done to Lulu. Humans that have been prisoners of war know this trauma. The second Lulu is locked down, her personality disappears and she reverts to this rocking behavior.

Sometimes Lulu clings to the mahouts.

Sometimes Lulu clings to the mahouts.

When I pass by Lulu, tied up in the village, I stop and call to her. The first few times she stops, slowly turns, her trunk swings toward me, and she smells me. Her eyes widen and she stares at me.

We volunteers are instructed to not bother the elephants while they are tied up in the village, so I speak to her in hushed tones and I try to tell her it’s going to be okay. I feel like I’m outside prison walls, calling to a friend in solitary confinement.

Lulu swivels back around, turning her back on me. She resumes the rocking and swaying, as if yanked back into a nightmare.

After the third or fourth time of me greeting her, Lulu doesn’t even acknowledge me. She doesn’t turn, she doesn’t look, her trunk doesn’t grope for my smell.

She just rocks, back and forth.

The good news is that Lulu’s life is now infinitely better in Huay Pakoot. Over time, this behavior may lessen or even disappear.

On the day that I get to feed the babies, I seek Lulu out. Usually, the elephants are tied down for this, but not this particular time. Lulu is free to do what she wants. Her trunk frisks me for food. Her touch is much gentler than the adults. Lulu’s eyes open wide and her mouth stretches into a baby’s innocent grin.

I feed her bananas, pretending they are cakes with nail files hidden in them.

Feeding Lulu.

Feeding Lulu.

Helping to spring Lulu.

Gentle touch.

GET TO THE ELEPHANTS ALREADY

THAILAND ELEPHANTS WEEK ONE, PART THREE

Mana.  Mana would turn out to be the most photogenic elephant.

Mana.

There are about 3000 domesticated elephants left in Thailand, down from 100,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century. The wild elephant population is down to about 3000 (or even as low as 1000 by some accounts) from 300,000 in the same span of time. This qualifies the Asian elephant as endangered.

Most captive elephants in Thailand are now in tourist camps, a $15 billion-plus industry. When logging was totally banned in Thailand in 1989, the elephant trainers/owners, or mahouts, turned to the tourist camps to make money. In tourist camps elephants usually undergo cruel and abusive ‘training’ to make them perform tricks, give ‘rides’, and pose for pictures.

baby dirt bath

The babies give themselves a dirt bath. Dirt and mud protect the elephants from the sun and keep them cool.

In Huay Pakoot the elephants won’t have to do any of that. Neither will they be forced to paint, play soccer, or beg in the streets. They will never be completely wild, either. They are here and the mahouts are here because people like me are paying to visit the village and follow the elephants around as they forage in the jungle. The goal is to turn the business of this paid volunteerism over to the people of the village itself. That’s in the future.

In the meantime, the mahouts get paid a wage comparable to what they would make if they took their elephants to the tourist camps. So the real benefit to the mahouts in this program is not the money, but the opportunity to stay at home with their families. The elephants get the best deal, since they get a chance to live better lives, free from abuse and servitude.

In Huay Pakoot, there are eight elephants in this man-made herd. The oldest are Tong Dee and Kam Suk, both in their mid to late 50’s. Kam Moon is Kam Suk’s female offspring, she’s in her 30’s. Then there’s Mana and Sen Jap, also in their 30’s.

Mae San Jep.  The 'Mae' means 'Lady'.

Mae Sen Jap. The ‘Mae’ means ‘Lady’.

Tong Dee.  She was exploited for logging until it was outlawed.

Tong Dee. She was exploited for logging until it was outlawed.

Kam Moon.  The largest elephant of the herd.

Kam Moon. The largest elephant of the herd.

Kam Suk.  Her mahout is feeding her bark.

Kam Suk. The oldest elephant of the herd. Her mahout is feeding her bark.

There are three baby elephants: Bpee Mai, Mario (the only two males), and Lulu. They are five, four, and three respectively. Kam Suk, Kam Moon, and Lulu, three successive generations of elephants (Lulu is Kam Moon’s offspring), are brand new additions to the herd, and they have been here for only a couple of weeks. All the elephants are from tourist camps except for Tong Dee, who was used as a beast of burden for logging. Lulu has never been in a forest until only a couple of weeks ago.

Bpee Mai.  He is the "veteran" baby, and the other babies often follow his example.

Bpee Mai. He is the “veteran” baby, and the other babies often follow his example.

cute Mario

Mario. Mario was always curious about us volunteers.

Lulu.  Lulu had never been in the forest until now.

Lulu. Lulu had never been in the forest until now.

The first time I meet the elephants I am allowed to feed them, which is thrilling beyond belief. I feed Tong Dee, who looks the oldest, even though Kam Suk is slightly older. Maybe it’s all the hard labor Tong Dee has had to endure. Her skin is saggy and wrinkly, her eyes big and sad-looking. She nudges me with her trunk for the bananas in my hand. A nudge from an elephant is like a shove from a dock worker named Moose. Tong Dee snorts, chews noisily, her trunk poking at me for more. I stare up at her.

Feeding Tong Dee.  She became one of my favorites.

Feeding Tong Dee. She became one of my favorites.

In Hinduism and some other disciplines the god Ganesha takes the form of an elephant. He is known, among other things, as the Destroyer of Obstacles.

Later I see the photos of me feeding Tong Dee and I don’t recognize them. There is a strange smile on my face that I have never seen before. It’s like I’m looking at a different person.

I will snap hundreds of photos and videos of the elephants, but every one seems to fall short of what it’s like to actually be in the presence of one. When you see one up close and in person—and not in a zoo cage– you feel like you are looking at an animal not of this time, as if you are suddenly seeing a dinosaur stomping out of the forest.

Elephants are massive, slow, deliberate, and surprisingly quiet. Take your eye off them and they will surprise you. More than once I will pick out an isolated jungle observation post from which to safely view the creatures from a distance, only to turn around to find an elephant on top of me.

They forage at their own, relaxed pace, hoisting their trunks up like periscopes to periodically sniff the air. They are curious about us and they touch and smell each other. They snort when eating, trumpet when frustrated, squeak for who knows why. It is alarming to hear rodent sounds (albeit a large, steroid-gobbling rodent) coming from the belly of such a massive beast. They even growl when agitated or giving warning, but it’s not like say a big cat growl. It has a basso profondo rumble to it, like a giant awakening from under the earth.

Seventy percent of the day they spend eating, so they do a lot of that. Sometimes they take a few steps and just stop, pausing, eyes darting, trunk gliding a few inches off the ground. With their tufts of hair at the fringes of their lumpy heads, they look to me then like wise old men lost in thought. Every time I am near one I am struck with a sense of peace and awe.

Mario stomps on a tree branch to make it more bite-sized.

Mario stomps on a tree branch to make it more bite-sized.

Kam Moon touches her mother, Kam Suk.  Kam Moon never strays far from her mother.

Kam Moon touches her mother, Kam Suk. Kam Moon never strays far from her mother.

Each day there are elephant hikes, some longer (six hours generally), some shorter (about four hours). I go on all of them. This alone keeps me busy, and there are many other things to potentially do, including attending lectures, teach English to the children or the mahouts of the village, help my host family cook, weave baskets, and more.

In 2010 I quit smoking. I had smoked for over twenty years before quitting. Up until this week I had still been chewing Nicorette nicotine gum, usually two pieces per day. I had debated whether to buy another box before I left because I had counted them all out (as an addict will do), and had almost exactly enough for the whole trip, if I kept on the two a day dose.

Quietly, almost without me noticing, I stop chewing the gum. I don’t miss it. I am among the elephants every day and I am thinking about the phrase, Destroyer of Obstacles.

Who is this man?

Who is this man?

THAILAND ELEPHANTS WEEK ONE, PART TWO: BLOW-DRIED CHICKEN

In week one I eat my first meal prepared by the matriarch of my host family, Apah. She is told that I am a vegetarian. No eggs, either. She laughs, and after a translation, I am told she has said in her language: “Then what do you eat?” Throughout my stay she smiles, laughs, and tries to joke with me. Despite the language barrier, I understand her warnings about the low ceilings everywhere in her house.

At six o’clock every day I arrive for dinner, and every day I bonk my head on the low ceiling. Apah rolls out a rug onto a sort of porch area of her house. It begins to sink in that there is no furniture anywhere. People in the village sit on the floor to eat, relax, hang out. There is a lot of squatting. Tigers used to prowl the jungle here fifty years ago. After they were hunted into extinction, it looks like everyone went after the chairs.

My host family's house

My host family’s house

Apah and her daughter, Tee Ta Poh.

Apah and her daughter, Tee Da Poh.

I love Apah’s cooking, and from this vegetarian’s perspective the key to the food is not necessarily what it is, but how it’s flavored and spiced. Some of my favorite dishes are spiced potatoes, spiced pea puree, spiced peppers (perhaps you’re seeing a theme here), and sometimes Apah makes a cold paste out of red chilies that goes well with anything. Occasionally there is fruit, usually mango, pineapple, or watermelon, which is delectable and balances the other dishes well.

I have a striking view of surrounding mountains from where I eat. During this first week, a staff member eats with me and my family. After that I will be on my own, so I can either try to learn some of the language, or go the other way and just get down some really cool blank stares and grinning idiot poses.

The staff member knows a lot of Packinyah, which is the native language spoken by the Karen people that live here. As the staff member and my host family converse in fits and starts, I write down as many words as I can and practice pronouncing them. Packinyah is not a written language, so I write down the words phonetically. It’s hard to figure out grammar rules. A lot of it sounds like some weird version of French, like if Pepe Lepew had invented his own language.

One phrase I manage to get down is ‘Da bleu!’, which is a good all-purpose phrase, since it means hello, goodbye, and thank you. One little wrinkle is if you slightly mispronounce it, if you say ‘Ta bleu!’, you are calling the other person crazy. After a few days I’m da bleuing all over the place.

My view while eating dinner

My view while eating dinner

Apah packs my lunch for the day hikes in a pink Minnie Mouse plastic container. Breaking out a Disney lunch box in the jungle is a bit off (another British expression, I can’t stop myself), like if I clopped into a Disney board meeting with hiking boots and a backpack. (That might be my next trip.) All the other volunteers are jealous of my Minnie Mouse container, and they should be, with their plain no-mouse-eared food containers. I am very proud of it, beaming as I unscrew Minnie’s head. Lunch is eaten cold, either out in the jungle on the hike or at base hut if the hike is shorter. The food is good no matter what, even if you imagine it’s Minnie’s little mouse brains, which I would never do.

Minnie pre-lobotomy

Minnie pre-lobotomy

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And post-lobotomy

The bathroom facilities are in a separate building from my host’s house, in what is for all practical purposes an outhouse with ‘shower’ facilities. So, Outhouse-Plus. Here I am introduced to the squat toilet. This is a happier meeting than I expected–I thought I would be actually crapping down a hole. It is at least a toilet, made of porcelain, and even imprinted with the manufacturer’s name. ‘Otto’ is the manufacturer. Strangely, in the city, the toilets are imprinted with ‘Cotto’. The brothers Otto and Cotto, twin toilet titans of Southeast Asia. The toilet is set into the floor and the squatting takes some getting used to. I consider it a victory that I somehow escape crapping on myself.

The ‘shower’ is a big barrel of ice cold water in the corner across from the squat toilet. A little plastic pot is used to scoop up the water and pour it over myself. I start the week ‘showering’ (you can substitute ‘dump arctic water over my head’ if you like) once in the morning, and once after the hike.

Outhouse-Plus

Outhouse-Plus

By the end of the week I shower only after the hike. Morning showers are bracing but pointless, since I am clean for all of thirty minutes before the hike begins. They do get my attention. I stifle a shout as the poured ice water bashes me like a baseball bat made of ice. This feels great after a hike—or at least less like electroshock therapy–but only if I walk directly from the jungle into the shower without breaking stride. If my body temperature cools down even a little while I’m hunting down soap, towel, fresh clothes, etc.–then I will suffer an ice cold water beating once again.

After all the intense hiking, I am a little concerned about my protein intake. Since all the chickens are free range around here—and I’m serious, they’re walking around everywhere, in and outdoors, pecking, tending to their chicks, bumming cigarettes—I ask the staff to tell Apah that eggs are okay. After I lift the egg embargo my weekly egg intake goes from zero to a metric shit-ton. I get served rice and eggs, vegetables and eggs, egg omelets, fried eggs, hard and soft boiled eggs, eggs with a side of eggs.

Clockwise: rice, egg omelet, soup with egg, spiced pea puree

Clockwise: rice, egg omelet, soup with egg, spiced pea puree

There are a lot of other animals around here. All the village families seem to have chickens and pigs. Some families also have buffaloes, which look and behave roughly like cows. And there are stray dogs and cats everywhere. Or, sort of stray—it’s unclear. Many of them are fed to a degree and hang around certain houses, but when I stop to pet a dog or cat, invariably the animal’s initial reaction is to go stiff, as if unsure of what to expect from my contact. It’s clear that they don’t get much affection, especially the cats. The dogs are all of similar breed and on the small side. The cats are shockingly small, about a third the size of one of my cats. The pigs are confined in tiny cages or tied to stakes and are barely allowed to move.

Buffaloes often just lounge under the houses

Buffaloes often just lounge under the houses

Piglets at least have some freedom

Piglets at least have some freedom

I have to bite my tongue on this stuff, obviously I can’t be Mr. Animal Crusader around here. On the plus side, I am told that the people in the village don’t eat their pigs (they get pork elsewhere). I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I like to think it is.

There’s one famous chicken in the village. His feathers have grown out in a strange, almost afro-like fashion. He is dubbed ‘Blow-Dried Chicken’. When I first encounter him, he gives me a suspicious, sidelong stare and a wide berth, like a movie star avoiding the paparazzi.

Da bleu!” I bellow cheerfully at Blow-Dried Chicken, testing out my Packinyah on every soul I meet.

He waddles away, clucking imperiously at me.

Blow-dried chicken ducking the media

Blow-Dried Chicken ducking the media

Blow-dried chicken escapes after pecking attack on paparazzi

Blow-Dried Chicken escapes after pecking attack on paparazzi

LAND OF A THOUSAND SMILES

I have returned from my trip to Thailand with the elephants. A lot has happened and there was a lot to absorb. I’ll be blogging about my week to week experiences in Thailand in the days to come.

iphone_June25 071

THAILAND ELEPHANTS WEEK ONE, PART ONE

I realize that I am part of something special the Wednesday of my first week in Thailand. A heavy tropical storm has just struck, shooting bullets out of the sky, and I am kneeling on the floor, helping to chop lettuce for a girl cooking dinner for me and three other ‘gollas’, or foreigners. I look out the window to see a baby elephant munching on sugar cane leaves and scratching himself. He lifts one hind leg to scratch the other, almost human-like, snorting in the cool air, his muddy gray skin darkening to a dark chocolate brown in the downpour.

It hits me. I’m eating dinner with an elephant in the backyard.

Five days earlier:

I arrive in Chiang Mai, Thailand, after 22 hours on a plane. I check into the hotel and I walk around in a daze. Part of it is jet lag, part of it is culture shock, part of it is I see no one who looks like me in the first hours at the hotel. The white people are all twenty-plus years younger. High school and college kids mostly, an endless gabbing, hard-bodied, partying parade of them. At breakfast I see a guy in his mid-thirties. We share the look of the damned. The old and the damned.

I conquer my fear of eating at a restaurant where no English is spoken nor found on the menu. The owner and I grunt, smile, and gesture at each other until somehow there’s some pad thai in front of me, and it’s delicious.

I meet other people in the volunteer program, run by GVI, Global Vision International. We’re all here to help elephants. I have signed on for a month with these strangers. I’ll be sharing meals, hiking with them, hanging out with them. They are from New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Australia, Switzerland, and there’s a person from California, like me. The British contingent outnumbers all other nationalities, probably because GVI is based in the United Kingdom.

I arrive at Huay Pakoot, a tiny village in the mountains of northwest Thailand. It’s 3300 feet up, and there’s no flat land anywhere. This would be a good retirement community for mountain climbers. On my casual walks around, casually gasping for breath and casually waiting to hear the snap of a leg tendon, I get lost four times. I get lost looking for my family’s house, finding Base Hut (where the volunteers hang out), looking for the road that climbs up to the school. I get lost after a hike, which means I have another hike after the hike.

Huay Pakoot

Huay Pakoot

The blessing ceremony

The blessing ceremony

There is a dinner welcoming ceremony, where a few members of the village come to base hut to welcome new people and give blessings. The ceremony involves blessing a bowl of rice and going around a circle of us volunteers, tying strings around our wrists as a symbol of blessing and protection. I stare admiringly at the little twine ball around my wrist like it’s a Rolex. I do feel blessed and honored to be here. And I’m excited by string. My cats would be so pleased.

Base Hut

Base Hut

I meet my host family and they show me to my room. It has a thin not-quite-a-mattress on a floor, and a sleeping bag for a blanket. The key feature is the mosquito net surrounding the mattress and blanket. There are no such things as screens on the windows, so the mosquito net is my only sanctuary from the myriad of insects that swarm my room every night. Geckos prowl the walls and ceiling, announcing themselves with one of two strange calls. They sound either like an overstimulated squirrel or a frog that has taken voice lessons. They snap up some of the bugs but there are just too many of them.

By the end of the first week, with all the Brits around, I am helpless against the tendency to start spouting British expressions. I say things I would be shot for in America, like ‘sort out’, ‘have a go’, and ‘Hey gov, your googlies are well tarrowed in the henpot’. That last one I made up, but hearing the Brits speak I feel like they just make up words and expressions anyway.

After a few hikes, which I handle okay, and better than many of the younger people, the age gap fear fades. Does this mean that I’m okay to hang with younger people only if I can hike mountains?

Hiking in the clouds

Hiking in the clouds

Still, I am uneasy around the new volunteers and terrified of the veterans, some of whom are here for six month marathons. I am eager to score even minor social points with my fellows, so I accept an offering of some sticky toffee and chocolate candy that I have never heard of. Most likely it’s British. Here’s how that goes, roughly: “Hey Mike, want a barmy whompun-pat*?”

(*Not the name, but it could be. I’m telling you, they make this shit up.)

Does an elephant shit in the woods?” I quip smartly, and with a self-satisfied flourish, pop the unknown candy into my mouth. In my eagerness to impress, somehow I’ve forgotten that my teeth, through a combination of genetics and bad living in my twenties, have had to be systematically repaired and replaced over the last two decades, so that now they are like rows of pearly white condominium facades. They look pretty good, but one touch and everything collapses in a dusty cloud of porcelain veneer. The candy feels like a small rock liberally coated with Krazy Glue, and on chew number two I spit out the candy, and one of my dental crowns with it.

So I have to go to the dentist. The procedure should be simple. The crown is still intact, it just needs to be cemented back into place. Simple maybe, but this is the point I realize just where we are and how hard it is to accomplish certain things. There is a dentist in a little town about an hour’s drive away. The villagers are asked their opinion of this dentist.

Some of these villagers, incidentally, chew betel nut. Chewing betel nut looks roughly like chewing tobacco while wearing lipstick as your gums bleed. The locals also smoke thin, foul-smelling cigars, and have more than a few early check-outs from the Hotel Pearly White. They give this guy a thumbs-down. He must be a medieval torturer.

Next plan is another town where there is a small hospital. There is also a dental clinic there. Apparently for this dentist the whole dental gig is just for fun though, since the clinic is open only one day a week. Maybe.

So eventually I am shipped back to Chiang Mai. The clinic there caters to western ex-pats, in fact all the people I see in the waiting room are white. After a short wait I am called in and the procedure is simple, it takes about ten minutes. Total bill: $13.20. My dentist in L.A. would charge me thirteen bucks just for reading a magazine in his waiting room.

The ride back to the village is my first ride in a Sung Tao, probably the most common mode of transport in Thailand. A Sung Tao is a truck enclosed on the top and sides, with the back open. Benches line the two side walls, and there are railings attached to the ceiling. The railings are extremely effective in pretending that I have a sense of safety and control as I am spun, yanked, and thrashed around in the back of this truck on winding mountain roads. Lovely greenery shoots by in an acid-strobing blur, the tailpipe pumps in exhaust fumes unfettered by oxygen, and driving over gaping potholes allows my face to eat generous helpings of my knees.

I never thought I would rate a trip to the dentist higher than a scenic ride through the country, but I’m learning a lot about myself here.

View from Base Hut

View from Base Hut

The Outlaws: Butch and Sundance

Band photo

Here’s what we know about the notorious outlaw cats Butch and Sundance, who were cats and robbers active at the turn of the twentieth century in the Old West. Details are murky and accounts of their exploits vary widely.

Contrary to popular belief, they were more than just friends, but actually brothers. They may have been born to privilege, since even the earliest photos show them wearing full black and white tuxedos. Sundance has always been the quieter one and the better gunfighter. He also has more white fur. Butch is more outgoing, as well as the leader and brains behind the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang that they would later form. He has more black fur than Sundance.

Other members of this gang of ruthless outlaw cats included ‘Lefty Paw’ Lyle, an orange tabby who is rumored to have killed fifteen people and buried them neck-up in litter boxes throughout the American West. This is unconfirmed, and some written accounts found recently regarding Lyle’s exploits have the word ‘killed’ crossed out from the phrase ‘killed fifteen people’, and replaced with, ‘crawled into the laps of’.

The neck-up litter box burials are confirmed.

Another sometime member of this gang of infamous felines is the painter and ladies’ cat Picasso, a brown tabby. Some say that he actually lived much later than the rest of the members of the Hole in the Wall Gang, but they are wrong, and it is not necessary to look this up and check it, either. Picasso was active with the gang throughout his Cubist Cowboy period, and was of great help when Butch and Sundance fled to South America later in their careers, because he was the only cat who could speak Spanish.

Butch robbed his first bank in 1889, while still a kitten. He escaped with $21,000, a case of liver treats, and an unknown quantity of multi-colored yarn, most of it quite nice and sparkly. Soon after, his brother Sundance joined him, and together, they terrorized the west, robbing banks and trains, scratching furniture, biting toes, and throwing up on carpets.

Their usual methods involved storming in with guns drawn, yowling and hissing, fur on end, pawing the air menacingly. Surprised bank tellers and patrons would throw up their hands and give up all their money and shiny objects, muttering ‘Bad Kitty’ but otherwise helpless in the face of so many flashing claws and teeth.

Usually they would split up and go into hiding for a period after the robbery. Butch liked to hide under the bed, Sundance behind the TV. They would also frequent cat houses and saloons. Butch was a wily card player, and had an impressive poker face. He could sit on a royal flush without so much as a twitch of a whisker. He was a terrible sore loser, though. One Texan gentleman who dared take Butch’s money in a card game was shot in the back, his eyes scratched out, and then for good measure Butch pissed on his head, sending a message and marking his territory at the same time.

Almost immediately they became wanted cats. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was enlisted to track them down. ‘Lost Cat: Reward Dead or Alive’ fliers went up on telephone poles and horse hitches everywhere. The notorious tracker and enforcer Tom Horn was enlisted to help in the search. Horn tracked them through the High Sierras and was whisker-close to nabbing them at a cliff face on the edge of a river snaking through a canyon. Butch and Sundance, pinned on the edge of the cliff, and with no chance of escape, had the following conversation (according to local legend):

Butch: “Alright, I’ll jump first.”

Sundance: “Meow.”

Butch: “Alright, then you jump first.”

Sundance: “Meow, I said.”

Butch: “What’s the matter with you?”

Sundance: “I can’t swim!”

Butch (big lion laughing-at-a-gazelle laugh): “What, are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you!”

Sundance (after a long beat; eyes narrowing to slits): “We’re cats, dumbass. The fall’s not going to kill us. We land on our motherfucking feet.”

Butch: “Did you just call me a dumbass?”

They survived the jump and escaped. In all their years of crime and running from the law, they were never caught and never shot. Though once Butch did eat some dental floss which, after some time passed, had to be yanked from his ass, ever so slowly.

Legend has it that they finally ran out of luck after a payroll robbery in southern Bolivia in 1908. Cornered by forces of the Bolivian Army, Butch and Sundance made their last stand in a cardboard box they had crawled into out of curiosity. After a ferocious gun battle that left twenty-six soldiers dead, wounded, scratched, bitten, and peed on, Butch and Sundance rubbed noses one last time and ended it all.

Or did they?

Rumors persist that the two notorious cats escaped one last time to Southern California, where they currently reside (maybe). They hung up their holsters, shaved off their mustaches, and decided to live the straight and narrow life. Sundance married his old flame Etta Place, and the couple is expecting their first litter.

Butch came out with his own line of cat food and other items. He donates the profits to charity. He also races cars, takes acting jobs here and there, and likes to sit in the window and ogle birds.

cat gang 1

Escape Artist

In my late twenties I was a drunk and I suppose I was what many like to call a functioning alcoholic, though for me the functioning part was mostly an illusion. But I did manage to hold onto a job, and a girlfriend for a little while, and I had two cats.

Hooper was my second cat. I named him after the stuntman character of the same name in the Burt Reynolds film from the 70’s that is mostly forgotten–probably for good reason–though I sure loved it as a kid. I was a fan of Burt Reynolds movies from the 70’s, movies like Deliverance, White Lightning, Shamus, and The Longest Yard. My first cat, pal to Hooper, I named Bandit, but not after Smokey and the Bandit—I picked Bandit because he was a black cat and I just thought it was a cool name.

Like Hooper the stuntman, Hooper the cat could jump up to, and down from, ridiculously high places. He was young, agile, and he even had an old injury, perhaps from a stunt gone awry—a tail that bent almost ninety degrees about five inches down from the end of his tail. I got him from a rescue organization and they knew nothing about his history but I always liked to believe he got the bent tail bouncing out of a near-fatality with a car.

Hooper was sweet and outgoing. He was the only cat I ever had who would go up to a person on the first meeting. He usually met them at the door. That is beyond rare for a cat—that kind of brazen openness is dog territory. He was a good friend and playmate to my cat Bandit, and when I spoke Hooper’s name he would flop over on his side and writhe happily. The more I chirped his name and the higher my voice went, the more he flopped around in what looked like utter joy, as if he just couldn’t believe how great his name was. Or maybe he was just celebrating being a cat.

And he was acrobatic. He provided endless entertainment with his somersaults up the walls onto shelves and cabinets and the top of the refrigerator. But a lot of cats are acrobatic.  Hooper, unlike most other cats, also had a special ability that I have not seen in any other cat before or since. Hooper was an escape artist.

In Los Angeles all my cats are indoor cats. There’s just too much traffic to even entertain the thought of letting a cat outdoors. But Hooper performed his first escape within the first week. Thankfully I had a second door behind my first one in the apartment I lived in at the time, at the bottom of the stairs. So when he flew by me, scampering down the stairs, he was stopped dead by the front door at the bottom. I was alarmed at how quickly he had moved.  It was as if his secret identity had been revealed. Sweet cat by day, then by night he would slip out to do some contract killing for the C.I.A.

He was a master of the feint, where I might be answering the door and he’d pad by in a casual way like, Hmm, isn’t this nice you have a guest, I bet he’s a very nice pers—and here I fucking go, you’ll never catch me!–and he’d easily dodge feet and legs and bolt through a narrow opening in the door.

Needless to say, I was very attached to him, and didn’t want him going anywhere. Nor did I take his constant attempts to escape personally, as a judgment of me as a caretaker. I just figured he was an outdoor cat in his past life, and at certain times, he just got the urge to be out there again. To get another taste of the streets, or the wild, or wherever he came from.

This was new for me, because at that time I took everything personally. My girlfriend at the time was young, creative, and adventurous. She was taking improvisation acting classes and she was good at it. I was insecure and wanted to level the playing field by weakening her. On a subconscious level, of course. With all the booze I was imbibing I hardly ever knew what I was doing, and loved her in my stumbling way.

So I was constantly argumentative. I froze her out at every slight or modest disagreement. I was moody (a necessity for an artistic life, I thought) and opinionated. My heart was ghettoized by self-loathing and jealousy moved in to build sleek black condominiums.  I was desperately anxious that she’d leave me.

One Saturday morning she left for work and after sleeping off the hangover as much as I could, I got up to feed the one cat. Wait–one cat? Bandit was there, but where was Hooper?   I combed my tiny apartment but I already knew Hooper had escaped, and this time, he got by the second door. He had finally made it. And based on the past attempts, and his wild impulse, he was probably far away by now. He had no collar, he was not microchipped.  And my girlfriend, who knew very well about Hooper’s secret identity, had carelessly let him out when she left the apartment. He was lost. I circled my apartment, dizzy, paralyzed. Color seemed to bleed out of the world.

I picked up the phone, and my first call was not on behalf of my lost cat, but to let my girlfriend have it. Anger for me was so close to the surface that I could go from zero to apeshit in no time. But something happened in the fleeting moments before she answered the phone. I simply told her what happened, my voice cracking with anxiety. She was mortified, and almost hysterical in her empathy for me. And it took her empathy to uncover in me what was buried beneath the mountain of booze and insecurity: love. Not just for my cat, either. For my girlfriend. For myself—allowing myself to feel grief and loss. Real love, not tainted by strings or conditions or what’s-in-it-for-me.

She helped me make lost cat fliers. In addition to the bent tail, Hooper had an overbite that made him look like he was part donkey. She drew the tail and the teeth perfectly. We paraded up and down my neighborhood calling Hooper’s name and putting up fliers. “$200 reward” I put in big bold writing. In those days, $200 was big money for me, probably a third of all the money I had to my name.

Two days went by and I got two calls. One only offered that they ‘maybe saw’ a cat that looked like Hooper about 2 miles away, which made me even more forlorn, and the other said the cat he saw was wearing a collar, so it couldn’t have been Hooper. It was not looking good.

My girlfriend hugged me.  “I can’t believe you’re not mad at me for letting him out,” she said through tears. I didn’t answer her. But she was right–I wasn’t. And I didn’t blame her. It surprised me as much as it did her. Hold on, how come I’m not being a self-righteous dick about this? I searched myself, and I saw there wasn’t any resentment or bitterness. Just grief… and something else… another ‘g’ word was sinking in.  Grace.

I hadn’t come within a hundred miles of grace in my whole life—didn’t even know what it really meant–but in this moment, with my cat escaping and sadness and loss whirling around me, grace found me, and I knew what it meant.

It was on this second day that a woman knocked on my door. She was my next door neighbor. I hardly knew her, because I kept most people at arms length.

“I think I have your cat,” she said.

Hooper was sitting there in her backyard. He meowed when he saw me and he took a weak step forward.  I saw that he had a terrible crooked limp. Later when I took him to the vet I found out his right rear leg was broken, and based on everything we knew the vet and I guessed that after scampering out my front door he had climbed up the rear porch of the apartment building, then jumped or fell into the neighbor’s yard. The neighbor heard him meowing and took him in immediately. This all probably happened within minutes of his initial escape.

Total distance Hooper had traveled while on the lam: approximately forty feet, with twenty-five of that being vertical.

Hooper had to be confined to a cage to immobilize him while he was recuperating. It took about two months and he played with his buddy Bandit through the cage. The leg healed completely.

Hooper lived many years after that and he kept trying to escape. The girlfriend escaped, too. It didn’t take her quite as long.

Hooper portrait

Pit Bull

A couple of years ago I was driving my car with a good friend in the passenger seat. We were on the way to a pickup basketball game, and we were running late. I live in Hollywood (my friend used to live just down the street from me), and the game was in Playa Del Rey. It was a Saturday, so the traffic in Los Angeles was much lighter, but it’s still a far drive. I have a very keen sense of gauging time to distance, that is I can estimate within a couple of minutes how long a given drive can take, so normally I am punctual down to the minute. But there is something about appointments on the weekends, or perhaps it’s something about basketball–because the start times are kind of fungible with a lot of people drifting in to play from various parts of the city–that I inevitably drag my feet, and end up having to rush to be on time. It might have something to do with a thing about the weekends being my time. That’s a peculiar trait that seemed to show up after years of long hours at the job I was doing. When we’re on my time we’re on my schedule. It’s childish but there it is.

I’ve known this friend for about twenty years, since the time he first arrived in Los Angeles and a time when Los Angeles was still a strange, confusing wonderland to me. We bonded over drinking at first (all my bonds began with drinking in those days), but it went beyond that over time. He seemed fearless to me, brutally honest, intensely silly. But we are different in many ways.

One difference is he doesn’t get my thing for animals. I don’t really either. I was not a good animal caretaker as a child. I had plenty of them—hermit crabs and gerbils and rabbits and dogs, but they were just kind of like more toys to me, I suppose, and they were all okay as long as they bent to my will.

But something has shifted and it keeps shifting. I got a cat in my twenties. That seemed to work out pretty well, so I got another cat. And another. And another. The second one died and I grieved from a very deep and honest place for the very first time in my life. The first one got sick and I quit my job to take care of him.

And I became a vegan—well technically I’m still a vegetarian—and my friend reacted as if I’d joined a cult. “Do you know what being a vegan even means?” he said, and I really didn’t. It wasn’t a decision that came from the brain or the ego. I didn’t think about people judging me, or what it would be like now to shop for food or go out to a restaurant, or how I would be thrust face-to-face with the fresh hell of a hundred different kinds of tofu. I had reached the breaking point, the outer limit of my practical brain, the place where fear just can’t reach. It was a moment of simple grace, it came from the heart, and it was like flicking a switch: When it comes to eating animals, I have to stop.

On this drive to the basketball game, I’m speeding down Crenshaw Boulevard, a sketchy part of town, and I roar onto the freeway ramp. We’re running about fifteen minutes late and the freeway is a good opportunity to make up some of it—on a Saturday morning, anyway.

I have to slam on my brakes almost immediately as my car skids onto the ramp. Cars are backed up on the ramp. Brake lights are flashing. There is some commotion. Something’s happening.

It’s a dog, a little grayish pit bull puppy at the bottom of the ramp, only about twenty feet from the edge of the freeway and the Saturday traffic rushing along. He’s emaciated, his drunken gait indicates he’s obviously fatigued, there’s a wild look in his eyes. He wanders in between the braking cars on the on-ramp, stumbles back toward the freeway (and probably certain death), swings back toward the steep hill that rises from the edge of the pavement to a seedy neighborhood above—probably his best move, if he had the sense or the energy to climb a brutally steep hill like that. He’s bewildered, helpless, this little creature looking up, lost and pleading, at these cars trying to wade through and get by him.

A million things race through my mind: because in my heart I am already getting out of my car, scooping him up, and throwing him in back. But my brain races to the scene, sputtering through the myriad of possible consequences and calamities: a car will slam into you as you’re trying to get him… he’ll bite you, and he has rabies… you have nowhere to put him… you have cats, he’ll eat them…  you’re an insanely impractical do-gooder… It’s frankly amazing how fast the ego-centered brain can work in such a short amount of time; must be that bottomless slag heap of fear that it’s chewing through.

“Should we stop? Should we stop? Should we stop?” I keep saying, my car creeping along.  I see the dog in my side window, stumbling out of the way of another car–like mine–creeping forward slowly. My friend looks at me like I’m insane for even considering the idea. But I realize I’m not really posing the question to him, it’s more like my heart asking my brain. Pleading. As if the brain is ever going to go along with what the heart wants.

I have adopted four cats (well six if you count the ones that have passed away) and I have joined a cat rescue organization. I volunteer, forward emails about animals that need rescuing, donate to animal charities, and it all works as long as it’s within these invisible walls that I’ve built up that seem to have a phrase spray-painted on them: ‘As long as it doesn’t inconvenience me too much’.

I accelerated onto the freeway, watching the pit bull puppy in my rear view mirror. The guilt descended like a poisonous cloud almost immediately. “Dog like that, in a neighborhood like that, it did it’s thing and they just abandoned him probably,” my friend said, suggesting that he was a refugee from a dogfight. It sounded kind of melodramatic to me, but this was all very melodramatic. And if it was true, all the more reason to stop.

I played basketball with guilt gnawing at me, drove back two hours later and returned to the on-ramp. No trace of the pit bull puppy. Dead, hit by a car, and you could’ve saved him, my guilt chattered at me. When the guilt wasn’t eating me in the weeks that followed, the rationalizations came bounding in to help. Oh, someone else probably got him, you’re off the hook.

Driving home in the car, silent, my friend not saying anything and not looking at me, my heart seemed to poke up from the back seat. You’ve reached that point. Now you know.

Next time, I have to stop.

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