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May 2, 2011

The Off Season: On the trail with Max the Mushroom Cat

TERRE HAUTE — The wet weather and a busy calendar have kept my wife and me from doing what we’ve really wanted to do for a while. Ever since the thermometer began to stay consistently above 40 and the grass started to green, we’ve wanted to get outside, get some sun on our arms, and get down to the wetlands to watch the geese make their landings with a flourish and a honk.

We don’t seem to have much control over the sunshine, or rather the lack of it, so despite the recent bouts of wind and rain, we got up two Saturday mornings ago with it already fixed in our heads that we were going to walk our woods and hunt mushrooms and hike along the pond, our schedules and commitments and the rain be hanged. But we never expected to go on our journey with friends…

My son, who has been bitten by the mushroom bug as of late, wanted to go with us, and after we’d pulled on our boots and grabbed our walking sticks and had shoved bags in the back pockets of our already-grubby jeans, we headed into the woods behind our barn. It didn’t take long to notice that another traveling buddy was coming, too; one of our cats, Max, an 11-year-old, orange and white furball who knows our acreage better than we do — for he spends his days exploring there — decided to accompany us.

I have written about Max in this space before. He may not win any beauty prizes, and he’s far from being the Steven Hawking of cats, but Max has had quite a life — or should I say already has used about seven of his nine lives. His body tells his story almost as well as if he had taken pen in paw and written a Samuel Pepys-like diary. He is scarred from neighborhood rumbles with other tomcats, limps a bit from a nasty encounter with the grill of a Buick Regal — I still don’t like to discuss the bill we had from the veterinarian — and has had, it is fair to say, all sorts of misadventures involving his tail and our garage door.

His nose is spotted with black leopard-like spots, so he has an odd, freckled appearance, too. He was game, though, for a saunter through the woods with us while our other felines just yawned and stretched on our deck that day, their breaths reeking of tuna-flavored cat food. Who were we to deny him the pleasure of a little exercise?

As we descended into the woods — on our property you are pretty much either going down or going up, for it is mostly hillsides, gullies and hollows — Max matched us step for step, stopping on occasion to scrape at a leaf, gnaw a twig, climb a limb or square off with a ground squirrel. As we scraped along hunting for spongy treasures, he often just sat on the corpse of a rotting stump, content to wonder, I suppose, just what we were doing as we wandered in circles and stopped to stare at the ground. Twice, we found box turtles, and he took great interest in meeting them.

It has been a few years now, but the three of us remembered a time when Max had gone on a hike with us, and it had not gone well at all. On that excursion, we had gotten a good distance from the house when we noticed he had lost considerable enthusiasm for adventure. It was quite warm that day, and Max, hardly in peak athletic condition, began to pant like a lion in the heat of the African veldt. His tongue hung out of his mouth, and he drooled, and he began to spend more and more time lying in the shade of the May apples, apparently hoping we’d return for him like an injured miner begging his friends to help him back to base camp in a Jack London short story.

We did help Max home, eventually carrying him over our shoulders like a sack of fertilizer, putting him down on occasion to see if he had mustered enough strength to walk on his own. I think he slept for two straight days once we sat him down on the cool back step of the house.

But, on this trip, Max looked like he had been in training for hiking the hill country.

He wandered between Evan and Joanie and me, ignoring the light rain that fell on us, padding under the briars that troubled us, and using tree after tree to sharpen his claws or scratch his backside. We walked farther and farther away from home, up and down the Alpine-like hillsides, around our pond and down along the old railroad grade, up to where the wetlands were blocked from draining away by a huge clot of deadwood, then back into the woods yet again.

Max did panic a bit when he saw us leap a ditch of fast-running water. We watched him — heard him, too — as he followed along the far side of the ditch, never letting us get out of his sight; we felt as if we were being tailed (no pun intended) by a yellow-clad secret police operative. About the time that Joanie had decided he wasn’t going to find a way across to join us and was headed to his side to help, he jumped a good 4 feet to a downed tree and promptly plopped down in our path to clean his feet as we picked our way through the weeds in search of morels.

The woods in April are a lovely sight, something not lost on us that day, and apparently not lost on Max, either. The sycamores and beeches — perhaps my favorite trees — have tiny lime-colored leaves on them now, and we saw the beginnings of purple blooms on the larkspur; the dogwoods and redbuds are in full glory. The variegated leaves of the trillium made the forest look like it was lined with tropical hothouse plants, and the spring beauties, their pinkish and white blossoms covering the ground in patches, were a welcomed contrast to the brown and black dregs of that which was winter-worn and shabby.

We did, indeed, see our Canada geese, their flapping and splashing always in our ears, even when we couldn’t see the water for the trees. Joanie and I had made it to the wetlands in late March, on another gray but colder day, and we hoped to see the American Coots we had seen that day, too, but they were no shows for this springtime party.

Once again, we were reminded that we have riches at our feet and fingertips, not in oil reserves or seams of coal, or even in an abundance of mushrooms, but in the songs of our birds, the leaves of our trees, and in the scents of good soil and moving water. We had a good day, our old cat and us.

As the weather warms, my wife and I are planning to get outside more and more, but if Max decides to come with us, I guess he’s going to have to learn to ride a bicycle, too…

Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at hickory9l3@aol.com, or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar.corn/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. He is currently working on his third book of stories.

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