With my two door Honda Civic packed to the gills, my drive home from Los Angeles to Illinois turned into eight days of bonding between me and my cat Lux as my lone companion. Along the way, I had peered into the abyss of the Grand Canyon. I had tried to feel the vibrations of the vortex in Sedona. And, in an unintended homage to Bugs Bunny, I had taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque and ended up in Durango, Colorado instead of Texas.
Being a savvy consumer, I shopped the local motels for the best priced place to lay my head. Trying to save every penny to plop into the gas tank, I turned away from the attractive desk clerk at the Quality Inn and rang the bell at the local, independent motel next door. A woman in her sixties with melting makeup that reminded me of a Picasso painting I had seen at the Art Institute in Chicago offered me a room for ten dollars less than the competition. I took the deal, and with fingertips stained yellow from nicotine, she dropped the old fashioned key into my hand and directed me to the second floor.
The dark wood paneling of the room absorbed most of the light from the switch I turned on as I entered. I hurried to pull the chain on the ceiling fan as it blew dust off its previously hibernating blades. The walls were covered with kitschy decorations bearing a cowboy motif that included a realistic lasso above the bathroom. I was beginning to doubt my decision to save ten dollars. I could be sharing a soda with Mr. Cute Clerk right now. It could have been the turning point in my trip, the start of an epic and unexpected love story resulting from wrong turn that lead to Mr. Right. But no, I had chosen to spend the evening with the winking cowboy woodcut above my headboard.Sighing, I took off my shoes and settled into my decision. I went into the bathroom and removed the lid from the top of the toilet tank and flipped it over on the floor, filling it with kitty litter. I am still proud of my make shift cat box skills. I recommend the technique to anyone not wanting to carry a stinking, plastic tub with them, which I would assume is everyone traveling with a feline companion.
As I sat on the edge of the stiff hotel bed, ankle deep in “vintage” shag carpet, I plotted where to go next. I still had around twenty hours of travel time to get back to Illinois due to my wrong turn, and sadly there didn’t appear to be many national treasurers not to be missed in Kansas or Missouri. However, on the edge of Iowa, was the actual house pictured in the famous American Gothic painting by Grant Wood. Still thinking about the Art Institute thanks to the melting face of the Picasso woman at the front desk, this would be my next major landmark stop.
I woke early the next day and descended the mountains of Colorado. I drove as far as I could before exhaustion set in. After an uneventful evening in Kansas, I started my morning with continental breakfast cereal and headed to Eldon, Iowa to see the house that inspired the pinnacle of the perception of life on the farm. Wood’s painting had fashioned the archetype of farmers within the minds like mine, urban Chicago museum goers. I recalled the haunting eyes of the wife, looking away from the viewer. I remembered her husband’s spectacles pinches to his nose. Both figures were dressed in dark, plain clothes to hide the dust with pursed lips looking as thirsty as the land. Their marriage bound by the pitchfork in his hand. I just had to see the real life version of the scene for myself.
I nearly missed the turn off the highway down the country road to the house. When I arrived, a busload of senior citizens were just finishing their own tour of the place. One of them saw me pull my guitar out of the trunk and asked if there was going to be a concert. I was suddenly shy and I felt myself blush as I watched encouraging smiles spread across wrinkled cheeks. Before I could answer, my handful of fans were ushered onto the bus by the tour director and I was left alone at the landmark.
Satisfied with my songwriting efforts and feeling hungry, I packed up my guitar and put it back in the trunk. My cat was no longer chewing clover, so I peered under the car, figuring she was finding shade from the sun. No cat.
“Lux?” I called her name and it was absorbed by the breeze. I listened hard to try and hear her, but I heard only birds and trucks in the distance on the highway.
“Lux?!” I called again, trying to stay calm. Why didn’t I put her on her leash? Why did I let her just wander? Looking around, the only thing on this part of the prairie for at least a mile in any direction was my car and the historic house. Finally, I heard her plaintive mewing, but not from under the car, from under the house.
“Lux!” I scrambled over and pressed myself to the ground to see under the porch. There she was, crawling away from me. She was way beyond my reach, so I just kept calling her name, hoping she would come to me. I began to get frantic when she didn’t come. After saving her from the shelter in Eureka over seven years ago, this is how it ends: my cat was abandoning me to live in this slice of Americana.
After twenty minutes of unsuccessfully trying to lure her to me through pleading and tears, I finally determined that maybe she was as hungry as I was at this point. I grabbed her bag of food from the car and shook it beside to the porch. Just the sound of the kibble rustling in the bag brought her darting out from under the house. Feeling sheepish that I hadn’t thought of that sooner, she munched a few pieces straight from my hand before I grabbed her and hooked her back up to her harness.
That was the last time I let her off the leash that trip.
Now every time I go to the Art Institute, I can’t help but imagine my kitty within the scene of American Gothic. Just a tiny blur of fur, sneaking away beneath the porch.