Sep 3 2012

Take a Rat for a Ride

Melissa Crytzer Fry

I’ve become somewhat of a rat chauffer. Not by choice. But it seems that desert packrats enjoy taking rides in my car, up the quarter-mile driveway to the locked gate. On two occasions now, Fievel has accompanied me (okay – maybe Fievel was a mouse – and a cartoon character at that – but these rats aren’t the ugly, pointy-nosed Norwegian kind. They are pretty damn cute).

Meet the Desert Packrat (Neotoma albigula). Photo by Paul & Joyce Berquist, Arizona Sonora Desert Museum Digital Library.

I digress… Twice now, I have encountered large rats hopping from beneath my car after I’ve driven a good distance – most recently one that nearly skittered over my flip-flopped toes once I had gotten out to unlock the gate.

I was so startled by him, I did one of those monotone, drawn out “aaaaaaahhhhh’s” (not to be confused with high-pitched woman-like screams of terror). Well, apparently Fievel No. 2 was just as gob smacked, because he did a 180 and flew back under the car. When I pulled away, I saw him exit again, his chunky rump high-tailing it into the wash.

The first time: same thing, only Fievel No. 1 was already on the other side of the gate (closer to the road) and was especially happy to nose-dive into the protection of desert brush.

You cannot deny that this is a cute face. Another fabulous photo by Paul & Joyce Berquist, ASDM Digital Library. Click to enlarge.

While my rat tales seem rather humorous, these critters are a real nuisance. In fact, they are downright destructive. Lest you think we live in a desert dump, I assure you: rats are just part and parcel of rural Arizona desert living.

And they find cars to be very attractive housing and snack options. They have chewed my turn signal wires; they build nests on top of the engines of all our vehicles (prickly cholla cactus burrs, twigs, seeds); they poop all over everything, and, well – they’re just not fun to have around. Nonetheless, they did provide some fodder for my writing muse

Because they are nocturnal, white-throated woodrats are difficult to photograph. This brazen fellow was actually lounging under my car in the middle of the day. Yep - same car with chewed wires. Click to enlarge.

For Writers & Readers: You KNEW I’d go here, didn’t you ? You know, the whole writers-as-rats thing (well, packrats). Do you think writers have the propensity to be packrats?

In a conversation with author Ilie Ruby on Twitter, she told me, “My husband just made me throw away the last of my #roughdrafts. It was a painful parting. :)” [And by rough drafts, she is referring to printed draft versions. “I keep every shred of e-files,” she says). And author Jennifer Lyn King chimed in saying, “Sometimes the discarded rough drafts serve us well in another ms later (at least for me…)”

What do you think? Are you a keeper or a discarder? Are writers more prone to pack-rat-ed-ness, or is it a danger for everyone – writer, mother, reader, brother, accountant, doctor, astronaut?

A side note: Many of you know that a group of writer friends and I have started a book club blog and website called Great New Books and we have two very special things going on this week:

  1. A giveaway for our September book pick, Erika Robuck’s Hemingway’s Girl (beginning Wed., Sept. 5, 8 EST and until Sept. 7 at midnight); and
  2. A vote for our next three months of book picks at our Voting Page (We’re asking for input as we make our list of upcoming reads for the next five months). We have a Facebook page, too. Please join us in discussing Great New Books!

Jul 29 2012

Cat Tails & Cat Tales

Melissa Crytzer Fry

I love big, exotic cats, which is probably why these guys rule the roost in our house:

My Bengal babies may not be big (they're the size of a domestic), but they do have the wild & exotic Asian Leopard Cat in their lineage. Red boy is Macho; sister (behind) is Niña. Click to enlarge.

My love of all things “big cat” is probably also why, when I realized a bobcat was walking under our breezeway, I ran toward it (with camera in tow), instead of away from it.

This large bobcat (approx. 25-30 lbs.) has visited frequently, as well as marked our French doors. A mother & baby also visited this month. Click to enlarge.

So – let’s back up to how this ‘big cat’ obsession grew legs (so to speak). My feline love affair came to life when my five-year-old fingers stroked the underside of a stray tuxedo cat’s reverberating chin. That was Bubbles, who was followed over the years by Underdog, Tabby, Putt Putt, Obie, Fatty Boy and Chloe. But as I began to grow, my cat-fatuation also grew from a purr to a roar, and I began to love all things tiger. My first apartment was adorned with images of White, Bengal and Siberian tigers, then lynxes, snow leopards, jaguars and cheetahs.

So when I moved to rural Arizona, you can bet I was enthralled to think that mountain lions – our biggest cat in North America – roamed the desert countryside near my home. And you can imagine I also was a bit heartbroken when one was struck by a car a quarter mile from our house.

We have yet to capture a wild mountain lion on film with our trail camera, though I have seen lots of LARGE prints on the property. I took this image at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. Click to enlarge.

This year, we’ve heard all kinds of reports of additional mountain lion sightings very close to our home: another, tragically, killed in the same spot near the highway; one spotted right behind the train trestle by our house; and another across the road behind our neighbors’ home.

My dream come true, right? Yes. And no.

I love these big cats and can’t fully explain my excitement at knowing that we share the land with them. BUT as many of you know, I’ve also grown to love desert trail running and for two years have set off nearly every day on remote trails up and down the very wash where big cats have been seen of late (I’ve learned this area is likely a corridor frequented as they move from mountain range to mountain range in search of mates).

As my running shoes have pounded the dust over the past few years, I have been armed only with … well, my legs and a cell phone.

Look at that tail and the size of those paws! Photo courtesy of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Digital Library - by Rhonda Spencer. Click to enlarge.

With the emergence of these cat sightings, I started to wonder whether the “ignorance is bliss” idiom held more meaning than I cared to consider. Did I really need to step back and reassess my running habits (beyond the collapsible billy club I soon began carrying like a track baton. Can anyone say “false sense of security?”)?

This How to Handle a Cougar Encounter article gave me my answer:

Jogging in cougar country is verboten: Mountain lions do not actively engage in human hunting, but cats live for the thrill of the chase. Act like a cougar’s prey and you risk discovering the mountain lion’s predatory instincts.

Yep. Time for a new game plan. I shared my cat tales of woe with anyone who would listen (I seriously was depressed at the thought of not running outdoors because I have never been a fan of treadmill running). I happily learned that neighbor and friend, Kathy, was interested in running as well. Score – because the buddy system is one of the recommendations for jogging in mountain lion country (safety in numbers).

So, we’ve been running together on some remote roads – plus, we discovered a few alternatives:

This abandoned dirt track (once part of a now-defunct middle school) is a town away – a 24-mile roundtrip – BUT it is gated and safer, right next to the school district’s maintenance shop. Click to enlarge.

Another friend, Roxanne, alerted me to this dirt track circling an abandoned soccer field right in MY little town. (Yes, the theme of abandonment is common in these tiny, once-thriving but now economically depressed mining towns). Click to enlarge.

I’ve never been a fan of running in circles, but these track-running adaptations have made room for a new discovery that feeds another of my passions – reading. Come again, you say?

Audiobooks! Yes, glorious audiobooks. Because the tracks are fenced, I can run with earbuds (This was something I NEVER did during solitary remote runs. It was always far more important to ‘hear’ any animals I might have startled. I have come upon many a javelina and her offspring, coyotes, rattlers and even stray dogs).

Want to know the other wonderful discovery resulting from this cautionary cat tale? A renewed appreciation for the treadmill. Yes, you can crank up the text size on your Kindle, allowing for simultaneous reading and running. I might never have discovered this kill-two-birds-with-one-stone solution if not for Twitter friend and author Kelly Hitchcock’s article about the benefits of doubling up on reading and exercise. Audiobooks were her idea, too (she has lots of other suggestions in her article).

For Writers, Readers: My big cat conundrum taught me a great deal about problem solving – and that, sometimes, when you’re aiming for one solution, you can be blessed by two. Hooray outdoor exercise. Hooray safety. Hooray reading. (I guess that’s three).

Writers– Often we have to change course, come up with a new plan – be more adaptable overall – and find new solutions to plot, character, and pacing problems in our work (similar to my running complication). How has your adaptability benefitted you, your story, your success as an author?

Readers – Have you ever tried the reading-exercise combo? Does it work for you? What other workout equipment is conducive to simultaneous reading? What other ways do you squeeze in reading time?