Michael King, a hard-drinking homeless man, was guzzling cheap booze outside a Portland, Ore., diner late one night when he saw “two glowing eyes peer up at him from under a table.”
They belonged to a cat whose battered appearance upset him.
“Her stripy white fur was covered with dirt and motor oil,” writes 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 10-month odyssey for King and the cat, who embarked on a cross-country adventure. There was only one problem: The cat had an owner, Ron Buss, who spent the entire time distraught, thinking a neighbor had murdered his beloved pet.
Buss was a shaved-headed guitar dealer in his early 50s. After guitars, his life revolved around his two cats, Mata Hairi and Creto, including throwing them “fancy birthday parties,” making them dinners of “organic chicken and wild-caught salmon from Whole Foods,” and writing songs in their honor. Usually his cats were allowed out of the house during the day but came home before dark.
But when Mata disappeared on Sept. 1, 2012 and didn’t return for days, Buss feared the worst. He suspected 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.
But, in fact, 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, but when Mata returned to his spot several days in a row, he developed a paternal feeling for the animal. He named her Tabor, after the cafe he found her by, and crafted a bed for her out of one of his old sweatshirts. Within a few weeks, he had 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 with the cat’s welfare that he cut back on his drinking, both to ensure her 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 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 experienced adventures unheard of for a 2-year-old house cat.
During a side trip to Yosemite National Park with friends, King set up Tabor’s food and water and was tending to his own liquid refreshments, when “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.”
‘What an amazing feeling it was being with someone you cared about and the way it changed how you felt about everything.’
King looked ahead and spotted a large brown bear that “surged out of the thicket of big old oaks and pines.”
“As the bear came closer,” Collins writes, “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 surrounded by coyotes. Terrified for the cat, he grabbed her and some cat food and “scrambled up a tree” until the predators wandered off.
King grew to feel so 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 writes. “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, grew more anguished as the months wore on, to the point that he consulted an animal psychic to try to locate Mata. Friends started expressing concern about his mental state.
Ten months into his journey, King visited his foster father in Montana, who insisted that Tabor be taken to the vet for a checkup. When the vet scanned the cat, an ID chip was discovered. Suddenly King experienced his own heartbreak when he learned that Tabor belonged to Buss and could be his no longer.
The vet called Buss, who burst into tears upon hearing the news.
“I can’t believe Mata’s in Montana,” Buss said. “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”
In June 2013, King brought Mata back to her true home in Portland. As he approached Buss’ “white, two-story house with gold-painted pillars,” he thought, “a normal house for a magical cat.”
Buss sprinted 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 writes.
King cried as he spoke to his travel companion for the final time: “You be good, Tabor. Love you.”
But 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 once loved music. He played the Beatles song “And I Love Her,” and said, “This is for you, Honey Bunny.” This 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 writes.
“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.”