When the Thomas Fire hit Southern California, we were in Chile, in a remote valley eight hours from the nearest airport, with no cell service and wifi that disappeared when the generators turned off at midnight. I’ve written elsewhere about the flood of frantic texts and voicemails, the panicked calls to our kids and to the friend who was pet-sitting, and the long trek home to the devastation.
But I want to tell you about the cat. The cat is a parable, as we are weeks away from the Presidential Election of 2020, and days after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. So please bear with me as I explain.
When we learn about the fire, it has already swept through our neighborhood, leveling my music studio, my husband’s home office, and the homes of dozens of our neighbors. Our house is intact. On the long drive from Valle Chacabuco to the airport in Balmaceda, as cell service permits, we get status reports and make travel arrangements as my husband speeds down the rutted roads. He’s a lawyer for a living, and he also volunteers as the Captain of a Search & Rescue team. He asks a couple team members to spend the night at our place putting out spot fires and watching over our abandoned neighborhood.
Our friend Greta tells me she managed to pack up her young son, our two dogs and two cats and a bunch of our photo albums before she fled, as the fire raced up the canyon. She drove to Oak View, a town about ten miles away, to some friends’. Our two dogs went in the front yard and they put the cats in a chicken coop. I thank her wholeheartedly and tell her we’ll find someone to come pick them up as soon as we can.
We learn that our older daughter Sarah, who lives nearby, raced with her dog to Santa Barbara, flames licking her truck as she drove up 101. Our younger daughter Stella, in college in Boston, fielded from afar panicked phone calls and questions about the gas shutoff and the location of photo albums.
It’s going to take three flights and two days to get home. The fire is headed towards Oak View, and the folks sheltering our pets might have to leave too. This is the moment where you ask for huge favors. Another friend will come take our critters to Santa Barbara, and then a cousin from San Luis Obispo will pick them up and bring them home to our house. He’ll also bring a generator.
Okay. It’s going to be a shitstorm once we get to California, but right now all we can do is kill time in a small airport. Catching our breath, we begin to take stock of what we’ve lost. It’s so much. I lost all my musical instruments and all the memorabilia from my career, all the recordings I hadn’t uploaded to the cloud, as well as the family memory boxes that were in a shed by my studio. Same for my husband; all his personal stuff – hiking journals, artifacts from thirty years with SAR - burned. All our girls’ drawings, notes to Santa, programs from school plays, gone. But compared to our friends, we are so lucky. Our house is standing.
Before we board the plane, we check in again with Greta, who informs us with mortification that our cat Tobias has escaped the chicken coop in Oak View. Oh no.
But also: Greta, it’s not your fault. You’re a hero for saving all of them, especially a barely-domesticated barn cat like Tobias, who won't even wear a collar. O man, he's not even wearing a collar. He is chipped, but...
We adopted him and his sister Maeby to replace our daughter Stella’s dear departed cat Dewey. And then Maeby disappeared that summer. We did what you’re supposed to do – opened every closet & every shed, asked all the neighbors to do the same, walked around at night calling her name, left out food – but she was nowhere. She was a tough little killer so we’re pretty sure only something as strong and silent as a screech owl could’ve gotten her.
So, it was a hard year for Stella and cats. And now the fire. And she’s far away from all of us. I can’t believe I have to tell her that Tobias has disappeared.
We fly from Balmaceda to Santiago. When we land we check in again. Fire now roaring west. Any sign of Tobias? No. They’ve put out food and water for him, but nothing. The town of Oak View is on evacuation alert.
Maybe he’ll hear our dogs barking in the front yard and decide to show up.
We get on the plane from Santiago to Panama City. The stress and dread are starting to sink in, and my husband and I both cope by beginning our insurance lists. Might as well write everything down while it’s fresh in our minds. Might as well take stock of what’s gone.
In Panama we learn that our critters (minus Tobias) are now in Santa Barbara. The fire has circled the city of Ojai and is now advancing west towards Ventura and northwest towards Carpinteria. I picture our orange cat cowering in bushes in a strange neighborhood by himself. Hang on, Tobias.
We also learn that there is now a fire on the 405 in Los Angeles – you know that video clip of flames and cars on the freeway that they always show on the news? – so we might not be able to land at LAX. Okay.
On that third flight, I look out over Mexico in the dark, watching towns fall away below us. I think about Tobias. I think about looking in vain for Maeby. And I start thinking about the movie The Martian.
I’d watched it again on the flight south so it’s fresh in my mind. I think about the climactic final sequence, when the rescue mission arrives in Mars orbit and must intersect with Matt Damon’s character as he jettisons himself towards them. I think in particular about the moment when the Captain – Jessica Chastain – is told the trajectory is wrong, the speed is wrong, they’re going to miss him. “Work the problem,” she says.
I think to myself, “I’m going to find that cat."
When cats take off, they either really take off, or they are right there somewhere just not coming out. (I read a million websites about this when Maeby went missing.) Your best bet is to call to them calmly at night when things are quiet, so that is what I plan to do.
We are indeed able to land in Los Angeles, and as we do we see the flames in the hills above the 405. The kids are relieved we’re back in the USA and so are we. We don’t have a car at the airport, so we have to rent one. My husband‘s law office in Ventura has a company car, so the plan is to stop in Ventura, get the car, and I’ll go to Oak View to look for Tobias while my husband Bill - using his Sheriff’s ID to hopefully get past the roadblocks – drives home. They are evacuating the entire city of Ojai. Oak View, northwest of Ojai, is still on evacuation alert, but there is no order yet.
I’m going to spend as much time here as I need to, even if it takes days. I’m finding the fucking cat.
Adrenaline and exhaustion can make you weirdly exuberant, and that’s our mood as we make our way north into the disaster zone. When we get to Ventura it’s about 1:00 am, smoky and quiet. The fire burned hundreds of houses along the hillside. As we pull into town, there’s just darkness on hills that were normally dotted with lights.
We stop at a Circle K for some energy bars and bottles of water, then go to Bill’s office for the car and a flashlight. We know from previous fires that cell service can go out, so we caravan to Oak View so Bill can see exactly where I’ll be. As we drive up Highway 33, dying flames glow from both sides of the freeway. A small stream of cars heads the other way, stragglers from the Ojai evacuation.
I had asked Greta to tell her friends I was coming so they wouldn’t be freaked out by someone outside their house. I pull up in front and park the rental car. Bill stops and gives me a hug, climbs back in his car, and drives away. It’s 5 am in Boston so I’m sure she’s asleep, but I text Stella to tell her I’m there and am going to start looking for her cat.
It’s still. I feel calm – I don’t know why. I guess I’m channeling Jessica Chastain. “Tobias?” I call quietly. “Hey buddy, are you here?” I walk up the driveway, shine the flashlight around. I walk down the street, talking to him. “Hey Tobias, where are you, kitty? Are you right here somewhere? I’m here. I’m just walking around looking for you.”
The phones are working. Bill calls to tell me about his adventure with a CHP officer manning the blockade. I figure Tobias won’t differentiate between me talking on the phone and me talking to him, so I stay on as I walk back up the street and around the corner, keeping my voice low so as not to drive the neighbors crazy, hearing about how the officer wasn’t going to let Bill through even with his badge, and how Bill told him to call the Watch Commander at the Ojai Substation and see what he thinks about that, and the upshot is that the CHP guy let him through but wasn’t happy about it. Bill is now driving up the hill towards our house and everything is smoldering. He’ll check in again once he gets home and assesses the situation.
What goes on in the mind of a cat? Looking around bushes and parked cars for an hour, I am trying to figure that out. He might be hiding right there, or something might’ve scared him off and he could be long gone. It’s been two and a half days, and it’s not like there are any familiar smells or sounds here.
I decide to go back to the house where he took off. “Hey, Tobias, hey buddy, are you right here somewhere?” I walk up the driveway, shining my flashlight back and forth. I don’t see the chicken coop he escaped. It must be in the back yard.
All of a sudden, I hear something. I think I hear it, a croaking meow. I spin my flashlight towards the sound and there he is on the other side of the garage, behind a chain-link gate.
Oh my god, Tobias! Please don’t let the gate be locked. It is not. Before he can bolt, I scoop him up, flee down to the rental car, and fling him and me inside. I sit for a second, my heart rushing, then open a bottle of water and pour some into a cup for him. He is way too freaked out to drink. He is yowling. But I am now laughing and crying in relief. I figure Stella won’t mind if I call her in Boston. She sleepily answers and, just like Jessica Chastain in The Martian, I yell “I got him!!”
“I got him, he’s in the car, I’m taking him home.”
I inform the rest of the family, start the car and drive away through the eerie empty town with a freaked-out cat climbing across my lap, the back seat, the dashboard. I come upon the CHP checkpoint. The grumpy officer makes a “turn around” gesture. I pull out my driver’s license, roll down the window enough to talk but not enough for a cat to escape.
“Hi, how are you tonight, you know that Search and Rescue guy who came through before? I’m caravanning with him, but I had to get this cat.”
He looks at me and Tobias in disgust and points forward. “Just go,” he says. “Thank you so much,” I reply. “Have a great night.”
I drive through abandoned Ojai, up the hill past glowing embers towards my house. It’s pitch black, but the devastation is palpable. As I head up my road, the street is a patchwork of darkened houses and smoldering remains. It smells so strongly of acrid smoke.
I pull into my driveway. I can’t see much in the dark but the charred trees by the garage. A generator chugs away. I clutch Tobias to me and carry him through the gate to my kitchen door. Inside my husband has set up a camping lantern and pouring us a whiskey. I set Tobias down and he darts off meowing, patrolling the place. I hug our other kitty and our dogs.
Bill’s cousin is asleep in the other room. Tomorrow we'll hear about his harrowing journey bringing our pets home. We sit down and sip the whiskey. Tobias finishes his reconnaissance, slurps some water, and then climbs inside an open cat carrier, where he will sleep most of the next couple of days.
The recovery will be long and hard, but we have our cat.
* * *
This is a parable for the Presidential Election of 2020. All we can do is work the problem.