If mice had evolved to have long, silky hair and generate purring sounds in their throats, they might be curled up in our laps right now. Of course, a pet mouse is somewhat small, so a rat would be better. Perhaps people do grow to love pet rats. Ron Weasley tried, but that rat turned out to be a servant of the Dark Lord.

Of course evolution didn't go that way. Mice and rats are vermin and prey for cats and owls. Actually, cats are also prey for owls, but who would let an owl perch on your shoulder, let alone curl up in your lap? Hmm. Harry Potter had an owl pet, and Hermione Granger had a cat. Along with Ron, their pets formed an interesting triangle, don't you think?

If people resemble their pets, as hypothesized about dogs and their owners, do they also act in ways similar to their chosen animal? Cats jump on counters, knock over lamps and vases, and race around batting balls on the floor. Mice sneak around and hide in nooks and crannies, coming out when the house is dark and silent to forage for food. Are certain people like that, too?

Let's take a peculiar social arrangement among humans: that of guest and host. Sylvia moves through her house like she owns it, because she does. My movements signal the opposite, because I don't. Her footsteps resound on the floor, but mine are barely audible. She turns on lights when she enters a room and often leaves them on when she leaves, but if my need for the bathroom drives me into the house before she is awake, my hands and dark-adapted eyes guide me through the darkened rooms to my goal as discretely as possible.

It isn't that she would mind my turning on the lights, and even waking her up. In fact, my desire to have the least impact on her life probably irritates her more than a light coming on or a heavy footstep. It's my perceived role as house-guest that makes me creep about. Sylvia welcomed me heartily, no mistake, but the fact that this is her space makes me want to be invisible.

That makes my situation in the studio rather interesting. How would a house-mouse coexist with four of her daughter's cats? You might expect me to hide and only poke my nose out when they are sleeping, but no. We more or less share the space, since all of us are on an equal footing as Sylvia's guests. They sleep next me on the bed, and sometimes want to sit on my lap or have me pet them. They entreat me to feed them in the morning. I guard them and they guard me.

Why would they need guarding? That is another interesting story, of which only the outlines exist. A few days ago a knock sounded on the back gate and a person called out Sylvia's daughter's name. The person was a slight woman standing in the alley with her dog on a leash. She began by expressing her frustration in her friendship with Michaele, and how it had taken her a long time to work up the courage to confront her fears and knock on the gate. Perhaps because of my house-mouse role, my attitude was friendly and open, and we struck up a conversation.

When Sylvia appeared the mood changed. Sylvia was guarded and bristling, like a cat ready for a fight. She countered the woman's accusations with questions about her mental health and seeking therapy. The woman likewise hardened her stance, much like a dog facing a spitting cat, wary but not willing to back down. The confrontation ended in a stand-off, both sides “forgiving” each other, without any of the promised relief that true forgiveness creates.

That encounter made Sylvia nervous about Michaele's cats staying alone in the studio, and led to my moving back in, to protect them from cat-napping, of the kidnapping kind. Since then the cats and house-mouse-house-guest have made friends and seem to be living in harmony. The lion laying down next to the lamb is no more fantastic than a mouse sharing a bed with four cats. It's all a matter of defining your role and everyone agreeing to the conventions for smooth social interaction.

 

 

 Some events disrupt the order of my world, however tenuous that order might be. Even though you would have been hard pressed to discern much organization in the pile of stuff in Sylvia's studio, it was still cataloged in my mind. Maybe that explains my upset at having to move it all out again.

It didn't help matters that Sylvia was helping. My usual slow pace at packing and moving wouldn't give Sylvia enough time to get the studio ready for Michaele and her cats, so Sylvia started carting boxes of fermented food, grain, kitchen utensils, sauerkraut, and all my other belongings to the house. My protests that they could all go back in my truck were futile, as my sister was determined to make the transition as convenient as possible.

She had even given up her bedroom to me, saying she could tolerate the traffic noise in the front bedroom better than me, and besides there would be two of her cats in there with her, the ones that had been in the back porch. Her daughter Michaele was arriving that night to leave her six cats with her mother to care for during her ten-day trip to Italy. The cats had to be segregated into compatible groups, and that required two going into the back porch and four going into the studio, which required me to move out of the studio.

If you aren't a cat person, you won't understand. That includes me.

Maybe my personality is OCD or even somewhere on the Autism Spectrum, but Sylvia taking all my stuff and depositing it on the kitchen table in the house just seemed wrong to me. It didn't belong there. It offended my sense of order, first because it junked up her house, and second because it was so sudden. She had transported it all to the house in less than five minutes. It had taken me days to pack my truck with all that stuff.

That must be what made me decide to put it all back in the truck, despite Sylvia's protests. It started with the fermented food, with the reason that it would be cooler out there at night. Then it progressed to the grains and flour, since that wouldn't be necessary until my fermented food or bread ran low and required more cooking. Finally, all that was left in the house was my duffel bag of clothing, my small bag of personal items, and my computer.

While packing the truck, the thought came that it would have been better to have camped in the desert for a few weeks before coming to California. That would have put my arrival after Michaele's trip to Italy and the studio would have been cat-free again. It even flashed into my mind that with everything packed in the truck, it would be simple to just get in, fire it up, and head for Arizona right then, just like a gypsy.

Of course, that would have hurt Sylvia's feelings. In fact, she couldn't understand my reaction to her efforts to help, saying “I don't get it!” My response was that no, I wasn't fooling with her head, but just felt more comfortable with all my stuff in one place, and that the inconvenience of having to go out there to retrieve food wasn't that onerous to me.

Do you sometimes get the feeling that a supernatural being is looking over your shoulder? Well, this one must have read my mind about bolting to Arizona, because that would explain the “no glow” situation that developed with my truck. Since Michaele was going to park her car in the driveway, it would box my truck in for the duration of her trip unless the truck was moved to the street.

That was when the “no glow” turned into “won't go”. Normally the truck's glow plugs heat up to prepare the cylinders for fuel, because when the engine is cold there isn't enough heat generated by compression alone to burn the fuel and start the engine. When you switch the key to the run position the relay clicks and the glow plugs light comes on. This time that didn't happen. Nothing. Nada.

That effectively kills any notion of pulling up camp and heading for the desert, at least until the truck's glow system functions again and Michaele returns from Italy to remove her car. By then it will be Christmas and my daughter will be here. So much for impulsive reaction. So much for “free as a bird”.

This situation sobered me, and Sylvia too. “What if that had happened to you in the desert?” Indeed, that would have been interesting. My fermented food would keep me going for a while, assuming my water jugs were full, but it would eventually mean a long walk to the nearest town. That would surely ground my gypsy caravan. What better place to be grounded than at my sister's home, having to “endure” her taking me on painting trips, her feeding me stuffed peppers, shrimp with Parmesan cheese, and roasted chicken? It could be a lot worse, and not much better.

 

 

When you have trouble choosing an option, look to the sky. That will often push you in one direction or another. In my case it was the weather that convinced me to go west on the shortest path to California, rather than south through Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. It looked like cloudy skies in Arizona, so that made camping with my telescope not as attractive. Also, it was too late in the season to camp in New Mexico, which would have meant breaking ice in my water jugs in the morning.

 

Interstate 80 seemed like the best choice for a western route, since all of the secondary roads through Colorado and Utah were impacted with the latest snowstorm. That meant trucks passing me, since my pickup is low-geared and only goes 60 MPH or so. That is, it used to say 60 when the speedometer worked. That has been broken since my last attempt at going south in the truck two years ago. Despite a new speedometer cable and gear, the pointer still stays on zero. There is a worm gear inside the transfer case that is also worn out, but that would be a major repair.

 

So for now it is just go with the flow of the traffic, and be conservative in urban and residential areas. It was difficult to calculate fuel mileage, though. What was much easier to measure was the amount of money it took to fuel the beast. Andy had given me cash for the trip, in payment for helping him with his Power Wagon project, and it took about $50 to fill each of the two fuel tanks, depending on the price of fuel ($3.09 in Laramie with a Safeway card, $3.39 in Las Vegas, and $3.99 in California).

 

Of course it didn't help that the truck developed a fuel leak in the diesel injector fuel return line circuit. That became obvious when fueling in Las Vegas, upon backing the truck up to reach the opposite fuel tank. Imagine laying on the concrete under a truck at 3:30 AM with a flashlight, reaching up between the exhaust pipe and oil pan to replace a tiny fuel hose on one side of a fuel injector, and you can understand my plight. Actually, it was relatively warm and the concrete was relatively clean, and there was just enough room to reach the clamp with some pliers, so it really couldn't have been better.

 

It probably was leaking slowly before the gusher at the fuel station, since the bottom of the truck was wet with fuel, but even with that the truck got somewhere around 16 to 17 MPG. That isn't bad for a fully loaded ¾ ton pickup with low trailer-pulling gears. Wound up at highway speeds, the engine roars just as a seven year-old boy would growl when driving his wagon around, making you think you are driving a big rig. Actually, that isn't far off when you have to make sudden stops, as my somewhat ill-chosen detour through Palmdale in California demonstrated with its changing stoplights and my panic attempts at not overshooting into the intersection at a red signal.

 

It irks me to pay big bucks for a motel room when my mind won't let me sleep anyway, so parking in a rest area for 3 ½ hours provided enough semi-conscious downtime to keep me going without danger of falling asleep while driving. The cookies that my friend Scott gave me also helped. My reasoning was that the brain needs sugar, right, so why not dose myself with sugar whenever my brain threatened to shut down? At least that was my logic at the time, and now that my brain is somewhat rested, the flaws in that logic are more obvious. So now that the cookies are gone, it is time to wean myself from sugar again.

 

Actually, traveling at night has its advantages. If you have to get lost in Las Vegas, 2:30 AM is the time to do it. The streets, at least in the southern outskirts where the “last chance to fuel up before state line” ARCO station was, were completely deserted, so there was nobody to honk at a disoriented driver from Wyoming. To add to my frustration, the ARCO station didn't sell diesel fuel, so cruising the empty streets to look for the Interstate on-ramp on two empty tanks made it even more exciting. Finally, it occurred to me that the TracFone Andy loaned to me might connect to Google Maps, and suddenly it was like the break of day, with the streets and nearby fueling stations laid out on the display. The world seemed manageable again.

 

Back on the road again at 4:00 AM and headed for the state line, the bag of onions and butternut squash on the floor under my cooler filled with fermented food started weighing heavily on my mind. California inspection officials would probably ask me if there were any fruit or vegetables in my vehicle, and lying to them would be unethical, but hey, there was probably $10 worth of produce there. My plan had been to cut them up and ferment them before leaving, as there was no way they would bother me at the border for onion sauerkraut and soured shredded squash.

 

This had actually bothered me from the beginning of my trip, and made me consider going 100 miles out of my way through Nevada toward Death Valley to sneak into California through a back door, one without an inspection station. The dark and snow in Utah, plus road construction on Highway 6 in Nevada made me reconsider, though. It wouldn't do to break down in the middle of the night on the Loneliest Highway in America. Actually, that wasn't exactly true, since my route was not Highway 50, maybe 50 miles to the north, but it was close enough, going through Nye County in central Nevada.

 

Here's a smuggler's secret: the inspection stations on the state line between Nevada and California, at least on a Saturday morning at 5:00 AM are unmanned. You can bring whatever contraband you want into California in that case, be it onions and butternut squash, or even grapes and bananas. The grapes and banana that Scott gave me had long since vanished down my throat, but try that with 10 pounds of raw onions and you will be sorry later, if not within seconds. So it was a huge relief to sail through the gate with the flashing yellow light and continue into the Mohave desert of California.

 

What a delight it was to be back in the desert! The early morning sunlight lit up the cacti and hillsides, putting everything in high relief, with crystal clarity. This was especially beautiful to my eyes after a long night of snow and dirty road spray coating my windshield. The air smelled good, too. It seemed like homecoming to me, after two years of frustrated attempts to return during the winter. The sky was boundless and beckoned to me and my telescope.

 

My route now included finding the backdoor way to Ventura and Ojai, where Sylvia waited for my arrival. Driving through Los Angeles in an overloaded 34 year-old pickup wasn't a good idea, especially after driving since 10 AM the previous morning. The tricky part was finding the right cutoff to get to Highway 4 heading south to Santa Clarita, which my map showed the Palmdale highway as a possibility. It did get me there, eventually, after much two-way roller-coaster whoop-de-doos in the undulating desert terrain between Victorville and Palmdale.

 

Despite the narrow roads and stoplights, the landscape was fantastic, and justified my choice to come this way. There were numerous big saguaro cacti, like a forest almost, and lots of signs advertising land for sale. Of course, there were also shacks and trailer houses out there too, with the lowlife that inhabited them. Living in an RV myself in Wyoming, they were just my kind of people. That might have been the area where my uncle Johnny bought a lot to store his treasures from all the swap-meets he would frequent, lovingly preserved by the dry desert air.

 

All of my effort in finding Highway 4 came to naught when the turnoff to the Fillmore and Santa Paula Freeway eluded my attention. Actually, it seems that my mistake was in not taking the I-5 North exit at the southern end of the triangle at Santa Clarita. It must have seemed wrong to me to go north, so my choice was to take the I-5 south to Los Angeles, believing the turnoff to Santa Paula was already behind me somewhere. Actually, it was still ahead, but by then all that was for map-maker academics to debate. Los Angeles was coming at me, like it or not.

 

Staying in my lane became my primary focus, and somehow getting on the freeway to Ventura the imperative, so when the turnoff to the 405 to Santa Monica came, that seemed right. After a while, the 101 to Ventura appeared, and even though the person behind me in the exit lane didn't want to yield, my old truck against a newer model sedan was no match, a gap magically appeared, and soon the off ramp led me to the final leg of my trip. Along the way some familiar sights came back to me from previous trips with Sylvia, and my memory served me well enough to find the right exit to Ojai and the Tico Road cutoff to Sylvia's house in Meiner's Oaks.

 

What a relief to turn off the motor and press Sylvia's doorbell! She came to the door, surprised and happy, saying she expected me to show up that afternoon. It felt like afternoon to me, somewhat time-lagged by the night driving and time change, so it surprised me to learn that it was only 11:30 AM. We had a nice lunch of soup and later Sylvia fixed a celebratory meal of salmon, baked potato, squash with melted butter, and a side dish of avocado, cucumber, and cherry tomatoes. It seemed like a feast, and a great reward to all my efforts in getting here.

 

 

 

Of course my vantage point was the best, with a view of the pier with loading crane, and the dramatic rocks in the foreground, with the waves breaking on the sweeping curve of wet sand. Funny how everyone else had set up their easels looking other directions, to boring views of the ocean with the Catalina Islands in the distance and the off-shore oil platforms. What were they thinking?

 

Feeling on top of the game, it was easy to dive into a sketch and skip the instructor's demo. Even though it had been five years since my last watercolor painting experience, my paints were still soft, except for two, a green and a red. My last painting of the Mission and fountain in Santa Barbara had been fairly successful, even if the details were vague in my memory.

 

My plan was to make a quick sketch to block out the shapes and values, and maybe choose my focal point and simplify the scene. Then after transferring that sketch to my watercolor paper the actual painting could begin. By skipping the demo, my painting should be under way by the time the other students got their paints out.

 

The sketch turned out to be just as big a challenge as the painting. My first attempt focused on the rocks in the foreground and they wound up way too big, crowding the pier and crane out of the picture frame. The curves in the vegetation and path up the hill to the side of the rocks took on a crescent shape and seemed to grab attention away from even the rocks. What was going on?

 

My mind was magnifying certain elements in its own model of the scene, and my drawing reflected the distortions in that model. The goal was to draw what was out there beyond my eyes and brain, not inside my skull. It reminded me of what Professor Evans had said about my drawing of a plaster bust of a Roman senator back in drawing class in my university days: “an interesting caricature”.

 

Starting over on the backside of the paper, my attention fixed on the horizon line and the boundary between the water and the sand. A few lines indicated where the pier stood, and just some blocks sufficed for the rocks. A few circles and parallel lines suggested the driftwood logs. So far, so good.

 

Then a funny thing happened. The sketch started taking on a life of its own, with lines connecting and shapes flowing into each other. Erasing here and there, adjusting lines, thinking about light direction and shadow, using hatching to render shadow, the time gradually slipped away. Soon the other students drifted in to find their spots and start their paintings, and my sketch wasn't even finished, let alone transferred to my watercolor paper.

 

The sketch wouldn't let go, and after a while it became obvious that my painting would be a quick affair if it happened at all. A glance at my sister Sylvia, further up the hill and painting one of those “boring” scenes of the ocean, confirmed that she was well on the way to completing her painting. Well, that was to be expected, since she had been painting outdoors for at least thirty years.

 

By the time we were ready to leave, my sketch was still just a sketch, and not even a well finished drawing. There were some attempts at rendering volume and shadow, but nothing very definite and certainly not dark enough to define adequate contrast. My rendering of the clouds in the sky was weak and vague, and the actual shapes had long since disappeared. My phone camera had captured a few interesting events in the scene, though. One was a shuttle boat that carried workers to and from the offshore oil platforms docking at the pier, and another was a woman and her two children returning from a walk on the beach to retrieve their bicycles.

 

My plan, as explained to my sister and the instructor as we were making our parting remarks, was to refer to the photos and work on the painting at home in Sylvia's studio. Maybe the sketch could be simplified when transferred to the watercolor paper. That at least was my way of easing my chagrin over not producing a painting on the spot.

 

Later that evening, carefully studying some watercolors in a library book Sylvia had checked out of the Ojai public library, it dawned on me how ambitious my scene was for a beginner. It was way too complicated. Maybe the more experienced artists in the class knew that, and deliberately chose simpler subjects, painting the water or the clouds, and not attempting to pack lots of detail and compositional elements into the picture. My task was to start thinking like a painter, not a photographer.