Kitty hitches with hikers in a walk against materialism.
By Jill Schensul
When a French couple set out from Miami two years ago to complete a trek of more than 9,000 miles, they were outfitted with only day packs, good walking shoes and a message: Money can’t bring happiness.
They had no idea they would soon meet a small, orphaned kitten who could.
Guillaume Guimaraes and Laetitia Casareto’s journey would take them to Ushuaia, Argentina, the very tip of South America. Their plan was to walk the whole way, spending no more than the equivalent of one euro each a day. The idea was to spread the idea “money is not all there is on earth,” Guillaume explained. “It is necessary to have some, certainly, to live … but it’s time to replace money, which has become the center of the world to humans…. with more meaningful goals and rewards.”
Friends and family all but rolled their eyes. Some bet they’d be home within six months. The cynicism only made the Bordeaux couple more determined, Guillaume said.
“It is only by taking risks, and going toward the unknown, that we learn and discover,” Guillaume said.
Guillaume and Laetitia, 26 and 23 at the time, tried to meet local people wherever they went. Every night, they would knock on a front door or two and ask the residents if they could set up camp in their yard.
“Obviously, we could sleep in a park or the garden of the church,” Guillaume said, “but the idea is really to share a night with a family – to share a moment.”
It wasn’t until Day 38, in Baton Rouge, La., that they shared a moment with a local who would change all of their futures.
They had just crossed a long bridge along Interstate 10 when they noticed two kittens sharing licks on a caramel by the side of the road. Fearing the tiny creatures would be run over, they managed to catch them. They hoped to place them in homes far from the perils of traffic.
The first family they encountered adopted the more melancholy kitten. The travelers figured they’d find a home for the other orphan the next day. Twenty-four hours and no takers later, Guillaume decided he and Laetitia should adopt the kitten.
“If you would have told me Guillaume, you could travel with a cat? Categorically the answer would have been no,” Guillaume writes in his self-published mini-book about the adventures of Kitty, as she came to be known. “Especially since I never had a cat, and for me, the cat is a simple animal that spends his time sleeping and eating. I had no real affinity with cats. Just respect.”
Yet after one day with Kitty, he begged Laetitia to agree to bring Kitty on board.
They didn’t have to worry about many of the obstacles to traveling with pets, like restaurants, hotel rooms and mass transit that disallow them, because they were staying in a tent, cooking their own meals and relying on foot-power only.
But their journey did present some unique hardships, which were immediately apparent to Laetitia.
Kitty-carrying, for instance. Toting a 2-pound kitten was one thing, but what about when Kitty was full-grown? Laetitia asked. And did Guillaume expect the cat to walk alongside the trekkers the thousands of miles they had to cover to their final destination?
In his Kitty journal, Guillaume recalls the scene: “This isn’t a vacation,” Laetitia reminded him. And then, speaking of both the project and the cat as travel companion: “It’s madness.”
Guillaume countered: “But look how cute she is.”
Laetitia soon caved – based on a few caveats: Guillaume would do all the cat-toting. And they would make Kitty street-legal, getting all the papers and shots necessary for crossing borders during the 13-country trek.
When the cat needed a trip to the vet, the doctor accepted photos Guillaume took of him with the cat as payment. The couple asked: Can she withstand the pace? The vet said the cat would need just three things: food, love and playtime.
Guillaume and Laetitia agreed that if, at any point, Kitty seemed to be flagging or otherwise suffering, they would interrupt their journey to find her a good home.
Kitty’s life on the road
The first month or so was trying. Kitty didn’t have the benefit of a home-based routine – from time in a litter box to controlled temperatures. But she eventually fell into step, adapting to life on the road. After a while, she made her needs known by meowing; Guillaume began to pick up the nuances in her vocalizations, knowing whether a “meow” meant she needed a bathroom break, to stretch her paws, or to stop for a drink.
She quickly proved herself an asset: In the afternoons, many children and even their parents would stop to take pictures of the threesome – “Well, mainly Kitty,” Guillaume admitted.
When they started knocking on doors around seven each night, Kitty would assume her greeting-new-people position: round-eyed and draped over Guillaume’s shoulder. It made it much harder for people to say no.
When the sun got too intense, they bought a kitten-sized umbrella. Kitty could walk along with her humans when she wanted, and learned to leap into the safety of her backpack perch at the first sign of danger … an over-curious dog, say.
The team breaks up
Things weren’t so easy for the humans.
“Nothing went the way we envisioned,” Guillaume said. For instance, when they left Miami, they expected they would be able to walk their way to Ushuaia in 500 days. But by the 500-day mark they had only traveled about halfway – to Cali, Colombia.
Also, the traveling party had dwindled from three to two. In Panama in July 2009, Laetitia decided to go home. “She was fatigued, psychologically and physically,” Guillaume said. An abundance of alligators in Central America was the final straw.
Kitty stayed on, however. “It was in the ‘contract’ from the start,” Guillaume said. “Kitty would stay with whoever continued the expedition. And I think, above all, that Laetitia thought that I would need her to continue.”
The trip has become more difficult for Guillaume since she left. “It’s another type of voyage, more solitary,” he said. “Contact with the locals is different; the people have less confidence. A man alone is always scarier than a couple.”
It’s also been difficult, at times, to get across the original point of the trip. “Often they don’t understand why one would do this,” Guillaume said. People often think he must be trying to atone for something in the past.
Hardest of all, Guillaume says, is “to not doubt. Never doubt yourself.”
Keeping the faith
Still, Kitty has helped Guillaume keep the faith. And spread the word about his project. Kitty has even generated her own buzz with her own Facebook page, feature stories in newspapers and periodicals in various languages, as well as TV news reports and online videos. She’ll even be featured in an upcoming segment on “Animal Planet.”
Some who’ve heard about the journey worry it’s too much for one small cat. Her fans on Facebook, however, say they’re inspired by the depth of the human-animal bond.
Guillaume’s trip continues. He’s currently taking a break in Colombia, where he is producing videos about several youth-oriented social issues.
But he hasn’t lost sight of his goal: “To finish a dream, to arrive in Ushuaia.”
After all this time on his euro-a-day budget, Guillaume has done a pretty thorough test-drive of the money-can’t-buy-happiness theory. His conclusion?
“Money can’t make you happy but not having it can make you unhappy,” he says today. On the other hand, “These years on the route don’t have any price. Everything that I’ve lived and learned exceeds all imagination.”
And so does the travel companion he’d never expected.