Michael King, a hard-drinking homeless man, was once guzzling cheap booze on the outside of a Portland, Oregon diner late one night when he saw “two glowing eyes peer up at him from under a table.”
Those two glowing eyes belonged to a cat whose battered appearance upset him.
“Her stripy white fur was covered with dirt and motor oil,” wrote Britt Collins in the new book, “Strays: A Lost Cat, A Drifter, and Their Journey Across America” (Atria Books).
“One of her eyes was swollen, and she had a raw gash on her face. She looked even more beat up than he was, and she was scared.”
Thus began a whopping 10-month odyssey for King and the cat, who embarked on a cross-country adventure. There was only one little problem: The cat had an owner, named Ron Buss, who spent the entire time distraught, thinking a neighbor had murdered his beloved pet.
Buss was a shaved-headed guitar dealer back in his early 50s. After guitars, his life completely revolved around his two cats, Mata Hairi and Creto, including throwing them “fancy birthday parties,” even making them dinners of “organic chicken and wild-caught salmon from Whole Foods,” and actually writing songs in their honor. Usually his cats were allowed out of the house during the daytime but they always came home before dark.
However, when Mata disappeared on Sept. 1, 2012 and didn’t return for days, Buss feared the very worst. He actually suspected that his neighbor Jack, a “hulking, muscular ex-wrestler . . . a sketchy character with a hair-trigger temper” who “took perverse pleasure in tormenting Ron, whom he hated for being gay, overweight and a cat fancier,” Collins writes.
The fact was that Mata had wandered a little too far from home where she eventually bumped into King and his friends at their encampment.
King didn’t want a cat, however, when Mata just so happened to return to his spot several days in a row, he quickly developed a paternal feeling for the animal. He went on to name her Tabor, after the cafe he discovered her by, and crafted a bed for her out of one of his old sweatshirts. Within just a few weeks, he had absolutely fallen in love with his new friend, who had the added benefit of enticing people to give more money when he panhandled.
In time, King became so concerned about the cat’s welfare that he cut back on his drinking, both to ensure the cat’s safety and to prevent anyone from claiming he couldn’t properly care for the animal.
When King prepared to trek south to California for the cold winter, he told his friends that “taking Tabor on the road south is a compulsion of the heart.”
Hitchhiking through the US with King, Mata went on to experience adventures unheard of for a 2-year-old house cat.
During one side trip to Yosemite National Park with friends, King set up Tabor’s food and water and was tending to his own liquid refreshments. It as at that time that “Tabor looked up from her dish, her ears flickering, and sniffed the air. Suddenly she arched her back, and all the hair on her body stood up and her tail puffed into a brush.”
King looked ahead and spotted a huge brown bear that “surged out of the thicket of big old oaks and pines.”
“As the bear came closer,” Collins wrote, “Tabor started hissing and spitting, trying to scare it away.” King tossed Tabor into her carrier and scrambled toward his friend’s car. Once inside, they “watched the bear look in their direction, finish Tabor’s meal in one swift scoop and then amble off back into the trees.”
Another time, in Ventura, King awoke from his squat by the beach to find himself and Tabor completely surrounded by coyotes. Terrified for the cat, he grabbed her and some cat food and quickly “scrambled up a tree” until the predators wandered off.
King grew to feel so truly and deeply for Tabor that it changed how he viewed his life.
“With Tabor at his side, he wanted to leave the past behind and wanted to live again, not drift like a ghost across the country,” Collins wrote. “Most of all, he wanted to give the cat a better life. What an amazing feeling it was being with someone you cared about and the way it changed how you felt about everything.”
Buss, meanwhile, began to grow more anguished as the months wore on, to the point that he consulted an animal psychic to try to locate Mata. Friends began expressing concern about his mental state.
Ten months into his journey, King visited his foster father in Montana, who insisted that Tabor actually be taken to the vet for a checkup. When the vet scanned the cat, a positive ID chip was discovered. Suddenly King experienced his own heartbreak when he learned that Tabor belonged to Buss and couldn’t possibly be his any longer.
The vet called Buss, who immediately burst into tears upon hearing the news.
“I can’t believe Mata’s in Montana,” Buss stated. “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Back in June 2013, King brought Mata all the way back to her true home in Portland. As he approached Buss’ “white, two-story house with gold-painted pillars,” he thought to himself, “a normal house for a magical cat.”
Buss ran out to the street as he saw them approach.
“Before Michael could even introduce himself, Ron had slipped his hands behind Tabor’s shoulders and pulled her into his arms,” Collins wrote.
King cried as he spoke to his travel companion for the last time: “You be good, Tabor. Love you.”
However, Buss’ initial feelings of joy and relief turned to awkwardness once he got Mata inside and sensed that his cat no longer recognized him or Creto.
After seeing how sad Mata was, Buss remembered that his pet at one time loved music. He went on to play the Beatles song “And I Love Her,” as he said, “This is for you, Honey Bunny.” The music seemed to jog her memory.
“After a little while, Mata jumped on the bed, and before long she and [Creto] were sniffing each other and touching noses,” Collins wrote.
“Then she looked at Ron and suddenly seemed to realize she was home. She rolled over on her back and purred away. She was finally home.”