Tuesday, April 28, 2009

First Climb of the Season

The weather on Shasta is very unpredictable this time of year. Traditionally, the months of April and May are considered the best, but in recent years this has been sort of hit and miss. From my experience late May tends to have very unstable conditions, and I have no recollection of a single Memorial Day in the five years we’ve been here as having nice weather. I can remember many spectacular weekends in early May where I always thought to myself, “This is a perfect day for climbing.” April has always seemed to me a little too cold. That sounds weak, a mountaineer complaining about the cold. I really don’t mind the cold, when I’m on a climbing trip specifically to climb some far away mountain, but when my warm bed at home is only one hour away, I just have some problems with it. It’s for this reason that the past couple of summits of Shasta we’ve had we’ve done the route all in one day. This year is different, however, as it’s all part of the Master Plan of Training for Bolivia.

The cross-training is going really well so far, if I do say so myself. We’re up to the max, 18 miles, on our training runs for the marathon. The theory of the training regimen we are doing is basically if you can run 18 miles, you can run 26.2, so that’s the longest training run we will do. I’m feeling really good, my repaired knee is not giving me any trouble at all. I’ve also notice a great side-effect, and that’s my mountain-shape is following along quite nicely. I carried a 32 lbs weight vest up to 9500’ on Green Butte a couple of weeks ago, and felt strong doing so. Every time I climb Shasta, I feel like I’ve forgotten how tough it can be, but this year I’m feeling especially good about my physical conditioning and very positive about climbing soon.

The first plan that came to me was to make an attempt this coming weekend, May 2-3. Gina and I really want to do a 2-day climb again this year, it’s really so much of a nicer way to climb Shasta and enjoy it more. Also a new co-worker and friend of mine, Brodie, is really interested in climbing. Therefore we have a great opportunity to introduce someone to our favorite mountain and there is no better way than by ascending the mountain in 2 days. The All in One Day option is too much suffering to be pleasant.

After glancing at this week’s forecast however, Gina and I thought better of it and have decided that the following weekend, May 9-10, is a much better choice for our first summit climb of the season. This week the weather has been bad as predicted. Next week is supposed to be much nicer. I didn’t even realize, Brodie told me after I let him know of our revised plan, that May 9th is the Full Moon. So that should make for really cool climbing conditions, as long as we can actually see the sky and it’s not cloudy or stormy. We’re feeling fit and ready. This weekend we will do work around the house that needs to get done and run our last 18-miler. (Our regimen has us wind down now before the marathon, running shorter distances to avoid injury.) Hard for me to believe, but it’s been almost two years since I’ve been on Shasta’s summit. (With Gina’s Everest trip last year I ended up never going.) Thus it will be really good to be back on top again soon. Fingers crossed for calm winds and clear skies the weekend of the 9th!

Saturday, April 25, 2009


My first memory of Johnny was of when he was a little kitty. He was not our kitty at the time, but belonged to one of Gina’s customers. Gina used to clean a lot of houses in Orinda, an upscale Bay Area neighborhood. This particular house had a separate Mother-in-law unit, probably 50 feet down a hill from the main house. The daughter of the family lived there, and so it was part of the cleaning detail. It was just a bedroom and a bathroom, basically. Gina had told me about this really cute kitten who lived there, one she always felt sorry for because he was locked in this room all by himself all day long. She would go to clean there and he would follow her around the whole time, looking for attention. When I started helping Gina he was just as lovable towards me, often darting in and out between vacuuming sweeps. The room/apartment had 2 big windows across the front of it, looking out. When we would leave, Johnny would run the length of both windows following us as we walked away, meowing the whole time asking us to stay a little longer. He was always so heartbreaking to leave.

After I finished CAD school I got a job and Gina returned to cleaning houses by herself. All the time Gina would tell me about her day, and always when she cleaned that house she would talk about seeing Johnny, and what a cute and lovable kitty he was. I remember her telling me one day that the family who owned Johnny was getting a divorce and was going to move, meaning that Gina would have to find a new customer. I really didn’t think much else about it, though. Gina would do a move out cleaning, a lot harder work but more money, for them and that would be it. It was late spring and I was looking forward to going home soon when Gina gave me a call. She was really upset. Apparently the family was moving to a new apartment that didn’t allow cats. She had told her customer (unbeknownst to me) that she would take Johnny. However, Johnny had disappeared, the moving company people had made a lot of noise packing everything up and probably spooked him. Gina had returned to the house and looked for him, but the house was locked up and empty with Johnny nowhere to be seen. The house had in fact already been sold to new buyers. “You need to come to Orinda and help me find Johnny.” She explained to me with a good amount of worry in her voice.

So I drove to Orinda and arrived at the house where Gina was waiting. She explained to me the family had moved – they weren’t coming back – and she was really worried what would happen to Johnny. I walked down to the daughter’s old room/apartment and looked inside. There were no signs of life. I found though that one of the windows had not been fully locked, and was able to slide it over enough to get to the screen. I jimmied the screen loose and was able to get myself inside. “Johhhhnnnyyy” We were calling, wondering if he would show up. There was a small closet on the wall – like a closet for a fire hose or something, maybe two feet by two feet and two feet deep, that I noticed was slightly open. I checked inside and there was Johnny, complete with his signature “lost and confused” look that we would get to know so well through the rest of his life. And with that Johnny came home with us and became a part of our family.
First of all, Johnny was a confirmed indoor cat. He was overweight, having never been able to exercise in that tiny room they kept him in. Living with us, however, he would have to get used to spending the majority of his time outside, and only coming in when weather conditions called for it, or at night to sleep. (We didn’t allow him on our bed or the furniture either, instead he had his own bed and later a cat condo.) It was really a rough transition for him at first too. The funniest moments of that first summer came watching Johnny try to walk on top of the wooden fence - this fat cat nervously taking one step at a time, trying to keep his balance.

Later that same year, in November, Gina’s sister Graciela came to visit us for a few weeks. We didn’t have an extra room, so she slept on our couch for that time. Johnny took advantage, and Graciela didn’t mind having Johnny snuggle up to her. After Graciela returned to Costa Rica, Gina was talking to her on the phone and mentioned how Johnny was missing her. Graciela replied, “Oh yes, I miss having Johnny keeping me warm at night” to which Luis, Graciela’s husband, reacted with shock, “Who’s Johnny???”

At our first house we rented in Walnut Creek we had a fairly large apartment building located directly behind our house. We had the aforementioned wood fence, then about six feet of unused brush, then there was the back fences to the apartment units small outdoor patios. One day we got a call from some good Samaritans, “We found your cat” they told us. We were a little confused because Johnny wasn’t lost to our knowledge. Of course, we had given Johnny a nametag though, with our address and phone number. “You live on Walnut Blvd right?” Our address was Walnut Blvd, but the apartment building was on street called Sharene Ln. – I guess that’s why they figured he had run off from somewhere. “We found your cat, Johnny. He was on our patio looking lost and confused.” I opened the screen door to take a look in our backyard to see if he was, indeed, not around. I was like “Really? Where do you live?” They answered back “On Sharene Lane, the Such-and-such apartments.” That’s when I heard kind of a strange echo in the phone. I climbed halfway up the fence and looked over towards the apartments. Through the slats I could see a man on the patio of the apartment directly behind us holding a phone in one hand and Johnny in the other. Laughing, I told him “Just throw him on top of your fence, we live right behind you!” Johnny just sort of always had that look on his face. The look that made people just want to pick him up and see if there was anything they could do for this poor, innocent, helpless, wayward kitty cat.
Sometimes when we go away for a couple of days, we would save the kenneling costs on Johnny and let him stay at home by himself. Can’t do that with the dogs, but Johnny just needed a litter box, some food and some water, and he could be left alone. The only problem would be when we returned. We’d open up the doors and expect Johnny to go flying out, eager to explore the outdoors he’d been kept away from for the last couple of days. Instead he would hang out by the door, asking to be let back in, and constantly meow. Not just an occasional meow, mind you. He was like “meow, meow, meow, meow” etc in quick succession and nonstop. If I let him in he would not stop meowing, either. He would follow us around the house, “meow, meow, meow, meow.” We could pick him up and that might stop him, but as soon as you put him back down again he started right back up, “meow, meow, meow, meow” Like he was chewing us out for leaving him alone all weekend.

As Johnny grew older the fat melted away and he became a lean, stout, muscular little guy. Unfortunately he never got rid of all the excess skin from when he was a fat cat, so it would just kind of hang down. This always gave him the appearance that he was underfed, another quality he used to his advantage on our unsuspecting neighbors. Everywhere we lived we are pretty sure Johnny had alternative families who gave him food and attention. Whenever Johnny wasn’t around for awhile, we didn’t worry. We knew he was just spending time with his “other” family.

Johnny never ran away like some cats do. He would always show up every night, and he definitely knew his name when called. We could just step outside and call him, and in a few minutes we would hear the jing-a-ling of his bell. We put a bell on his collar just because, not because he was going to catch a bird or anything. There was no danger of that – Johnny was the worst hunting cat ever. Ever. I mean it was comical to watch him try and hunt, he was so bad at it. We could always count on Johnny to be home at night though. One night he didn’t return though, and we got a little worried, even to the point that we wondered if we had any pictures of Johnny to put on a flyer if he didn’t come home. It was then we realized the only pictures we had of Johnny were of him sleeping when he was fat, pictures were you could not see his legs either. Johnny finally showed up that morning, but we wondered how we would be able to describe on a flyer a cat with no legs running away. During one vacation we decided to get a pet sitter to watch our animals and our house while we were gone. Johnny, ever the Casanova, was quite a hit with the young lady we hired to watch them. She fell in love with him over the two weeks we were gone. After we returned she let us know if we ever needed to find a new home for Johnny, she was more than willing to take him. That was just the effect Johnny had on people, there was no way not to fall in love with him.

Johnny would stand in front of the door when he wanted out, just like a lot of other cats do. What was funny about Johnny though, is sometimes it seemed like he fell asleep waiting. You would walk over and look at him, he would be sitting there, but his eyes would be closed. It was like he was just catching a nap while he waited for you to open the door.

Our lives really changed when we moved up north. We bought our first home, in a brand-new subdivision still under construction. At first, we worried with all the cement trucks and contractor vehicles constantly going up and down the street that Johnny might have a hard time to the new neighborhood. We soon found that he made himself right at home, getting “adopted” by neighbors and taking the neighborhood for his own. Whenever I come home from work, Johnny would be sitting right there out front, watching the yard and front garden like a cat gargoyle, surveying his domain. Johnny even had himself a girlfriend for awhile, a little calico from up the street. She would be waiting for him to come outside in the mornings and some nights would try to follow him in to the garage. During the evenings, a lot of times we left the bottom of the garage door open so Johnny could come and eat as he pleased. More than once we found him and his girlfriend inside, Johnny the gentleman letting her eat from his dish. She also left “presents” for him by our doorstep – mostly birds, but one morning even a rabbit.

Our friend Tony visited us once from Australia to climb Shasta with us. Since we were taking 2 days to do the climb we put the dogs in the kennel, but of course Johnny would be ok on his own. We left him in the garage during our climb with enough food and water. When we got back, however, instead of the usual meow serenade Johnny just took off. We set up a nice breakfast outside. That’s when we noticed Johnny over on the roof of our neighbor’s house. This was the house whose yard we shared the back fence with. Johnny was up on the roof and the meow serenade started. We were calling him and calling him, trying to get him to come down. He wouldn’t move though, and made us believe that he was trapped on top of the house. Hours went by. Johnny just stayed there and waited for us to come and get him. Eventually, I walked around the block to the neighbor’s front door. Johnny ran around the roof to the front of the neighbor’s house and watched me approach. “My cat is stuck on your roof” I explained. “Can we take a look in your backyard and see if we can get him down?” “Why sure” the friendly old man let us in his backyard to retrieve our cat. But before we could walk out into the back, Johnny leaped down from the roof and ran across the man’s backyard, leaping back over to our side of the fence in a single jump. Johnny had accomplished his mission; he had made himself the most important and the center of attention.
Then this past December I noticed something wrong with Johnny. He wasn’t eating, he didn’t ever seem hungry. At first we thought his “other” family might be going too far, actually adopting our cat away from us. But I could tell there was something really not right with him. I took him to the vet and they found he had a urinary tract infection. It would clear up with antibiotics, though. Johnny was at the vet for about a 3 day period. Then, on the last day – the day I was supposed to pick him up – the doctor discovered something else. Johnny had a lump on his neck. It was something they would have to check back up on. Over the next couple of weeks the lump grew and we knew the tumor was something that was getting worse. It was also on his thyroid gland area, and Johnny’s calcium levels were unnaturally high. Finally Johnny went into surgery to remove the tumor and we waited for the results of the biopsy. They came back with the scariest word – malignant. The tumor was out but there was no way to know if the cancer had spread to any other areas of his body. Over the next 3 months our fears were confirmed – Johnny was not getting better and in fact he got worse and worse all the time.

I can’t go on with how much it hurt to watch him deteriorate. Just know that every day it made us so sad to see. Johnny’s outdoor days were over, and I’m sure it must have been depressing to him to have to stay inside all the time. We would set him in the dog kennel, a big cage we bought for Denali, and let him sit out in the sun on nice days. Trying to make him happy so he could do the things he used to do and love best. Finally we could take no more of watching him suffer and I had to take him in. I’ve never had to do that for an animal before. I know Johnny is in a happier place now. A couple of days ago I got a note from our vet. The autopsy confirmed that Johnny indeed had another tumor growing under his breastplate. The cancer had spread microscopically throughout his body and it’s questionable anything could have been done to save him.

For me, I’ve had other cats, though none quite like Johnny. For Gina it was even harder. Johnny was her first and only cat she ever had. He was more hers than mine, she was the one who had saved him and brought him into our family. Gina is what you would call a “dog person” but she made an exception for Johnny. My memories of Johnny’s last days will always be this – as I would leave for work in the mornings, Gina would be working away on her laptop and Johnny would snuggle right up beside her. Johnny always wanted to be near Gina in his last months, as if to thank her for the wonderful life she had given him which he knew he would be soon departing.

In the end one of the most satisfying things to see happen was to see our Siberian, Denali, finally accept Johnny in his last months as one of his pack. All our animals are our family, but Denali as a puppy could never overcome his natural instincts to be predatory towards Johnny. Until those final months, that is. Denali would come inside and find Johnny, lick his stitches and the wounds where Johnny’s intravenous drips had been placed from his frequent visits to the vet. Johnny would sit on the floor just inches away from where Denali would be laying, sleeping inside, and the two would even just sit there looking at each other for entire evenings. The whole week after Johnny died, Denali would rush inside, searching all of Johnny’s usual hiding spots. Unable to find him anywhere, Denali would just lie down and sniff the carpet – wondering where the smallest member of his pack had gone to. If Denali could understand I would tell him, “Johnny has gone away to Cat Heaven. But it’s Ok, I’m sure in Cat Heaven Johnny has finally caught himself a bird.”