Now it was time to go back home. After a marathon 32 hour drive and the 4 hour rescue of 2 tigers and a bobcat there was no time to lose. We mounted up the vans and headed back down the road. It was about 8 PM and it was starting to drizzle. I was first up to drive on the initial leg of our return trip. The adrenaline and excitement we felt on the journey up to Montana gave way to exhaustion and fatigue. Within 20 minutes of being on the road everyone else in our van was fast asleep including little Nola, the bobcat. She was resting comfortably in a large dog crate draped with a blanket. Everyone was getting some well deserved sleep except for me and Stephen. Stephen was driving the sprinter van loaded with the tigers.
The darkness had reduced the beautiful Montana scenery to a winding patch of asphalt stretched out only as far as my headlights would allow. Earlier in the day we were so amazed at the beauty of the mountains, the river and the little farms we passed along the way, that I didn’t realize how winding the road actually was. At night the drive became more tactical in nature: follow this road back to Texas. I suspect, with an extra 800 pounds of weight in the sprinter, Stephen was thinking the same thing. He slowed down ahead of me every time we entered a curve in the road. What was a 75 mile per hour sprint to Noxon was now a very calculated regress down winding hills on a 2 lane highway. We were on a tight timeline but it seemed that the highway gods were on our side. It was nighttime and the roads were mostly empty. Nothing could go wrong.
We drove for 3 hours and finally stopped in Missoula for gas and to give the tigers some water. Keep in mind, we do not sedate the cats during transport. Due to the many stresses on the cats already, we had planned to stop more often to make sure they were ok and had plenty of water to drink. We also minimize the amount of food that may eat during the trip because they can experience motion sickness. Plus there is the, how do I say, occasional evacuation of the digestive system. We don’t want to encourage that. There's nothing worse than driving across the country with a tiger poop in an enclosed van.
This was the first time we would be in close contact with Mork and Mindy since the were loaded into the van. The roll cages were secured with heavy straps so they would not move during the trip. Aside from the guillotine doors on both ends of the cages, they also had small openings along the side at the base to allow things to be put in or taken out. A long plank of plywood covered the opening during the trip. Mork and Mindy had a layer of straw to cushion them during the ride. This meant that if the boards were removed the straw would have to be pushed away to allow the bowl to be placed inside. This could be tricky with feisty tigers. First up was Mindy who was in the cage closest to the drivers. Mak poured bottled water into a stainless steel bowl all the while talking calmly to her. “Hi girly!” she said. “Are you thirsty?” She carefully removed the board and slid the bowl into the the cage. Mindy quickly started to lap up the water with her long tongue.
While Mindy was drinking Mak poured water into another bowl and turned her attention to Mork. He wasn’t as pleasant. As soon as she opened the back doors he began to pace in the roll cage. Every time she got close to the remove the board he would growl loudly, or as we say, “bark”, and then he would lunge at Mak. He was being 100% tiger. I don't think there's anything more bloodcurdling than a 450 pound tiger, 10 inches away, barking right into your ear. As she talked to him in a gentle voice she managed to remove the board and carefully slide the bowl into the cage. He also began to drink the water. After a few minutes they were done. Mak distracted Mork with one hand as she pulled the empty bowl out of the cage. Her soothing voice calmed him down considerably. She closed the back doors and did the same with Mindy. Then we were back on the road.
Mork was quite calm while we were driving. He would pace jut a bit and then settle down facing towards the front of the van. Mindy, on the other had, began to pace within the roll cage. She couldn't seem to get settled. She would lay down only to get back up and pace some more. She was a big girl. Thick. Ok, fat. That led to the suspicion that she may be pregnant. We were told she had been pregnant before but that the 2 cubs were stillborn. If she was pregnant it would be a huge concern. Especially if she had the cubs on the road. Aside from the complexity of managing a tigress with cubs, the state laws regarding the transport of multiple tigers was murky. What if the sanctuary in Mississippi wasn't equipped to handle newborn cubs? What if they didn't want them? Since she had stillborn cubs before, what if she went into distress and needed a c-section to get the cubs out? For our sake we were hoping she was just fat and couldn't get comfortable.
I was really tired and didn’t know how much longer I could go. We drove another few more hours and at 2 AM I was ready to “tap out”. I radioed to Stephen that I was done. We stopped in Butte, Montana. I had driven 6 hours. At this point, Mica took over and I went to the back of the van and fell asleep…hard. We stopped in Bozeman and then again in Billings as we made our way out of Montana. The next few hours were sort of mundane. We drove and stopped and drove and stopped. At this point I was riding shotgun and Mak was driving. I had some time to think about my next step in life. At the same time I kept going back to the finality of it all. It was hard to wrap my head around my situation. Maybe it was because of the sameness I lived for many years. Then again, it could have been because of the extreme juxtaposition of my current location: on the road, 1,500 miles away from home with spectacular scenery. Everything was just so different now. I felt so liberated yet so useless. What was I supposed to do? Was this all part of a greater plan? Was this the soul cleansing I was looking for? I was warned about feeling this way. I didn’t want it to ruin my adventure but the reality of it all wasn’t far behind. Things started rushing though my head as I nodded off again.
We were somewhere south of Casper, Wyoming. Mak and I were having an interesting conversation as the mile markers wooshed by. We talked about many things but especially about her love for animals. There is an obvious passion there. I could tell by the energy she exuded as she told me about her experiences. It wasn't a giddy excitement. Mak is not that kind of woman. It was more a glint in her eye. An attention to detail reserved for passion. I began to think about what truly motivates me. I guess I do like a lot of things. Different things. But the things I love tend to be the people and animals closest to me. But Mak? Mak loves animals. All animals. Even the ones she’s never met. It’s refreshing to see someone so giving to nature's creatures. I see that working with animals is her calling. I envy her in that it seems so clear. But what is mine? Have I heard the call but not listened? Have I been living it but just not noticed? Just then, Mak said “Oh no”. The van started to sputter and shake. We drove another mile or two and then she pulled over. Our adventure had suddenly taken a turn.