The Mouse Timetable
After I had walked about two thirds of the way across the panhandle of Nebraska, say on maybe day twelve or so, my road crew manager (who happened to be Matt during that stretch) told me I had a mouse in my vehicle. His evidence was the shredded edge of a roll of toilet paper. This wasn’t incomprehensible, because a mouse had made a nest in my car once before, when it was parked on a ranch in southern Wyoming for two weeks. Still, I didn’t want to believe him, and suggested the edge had shredded from being stuffed down between two things.
We borrowed a trap from our new local friends, and set it on the floorboard of the driver’s seat. (We were sleeping in a schoolhouse-turned-museum that night.) The next day the trap had been sprung,but no mouse. Honestly, this was too much for me to think about, obsessed as I was about walking. It took most of my energy to insure I had enough caloric intake to continue, and to get showered before falling into sleep. Mouse in my car? Whatever. We returned the trap as we left for the next base camp, and I failed to think any more about it.
Until about midnight, parked behind the high school in OshKosh, Nebraska, in my sleeping bag in the cargo area of my Ford Explorer. Matt had long since retired to the covered bed of his pick-up truck, parked nearby. Suddenly I knew I was not alone in this space, and spent too much of the night listening to the movements of my passenger.
Secretly, a part of me had been glad the mouse eluded the trap at the schoolhouse, because I really don’t want to kill mice. I just want them to leave, and my approach of denial and waiting combined with verbal instructions to vacate, followed by threats such as “I don’t want to kill you, but I will…” is only very rarely effective. The night of unrest was tipping me in the direction of more traditional approaches, and Matt and I discussed this some. Later, he dropped me off at that day’s starting point, the same place my walk had ended the night before, and he ran to town for a bit. He returned with glue traps, and suggested I set them.
Night number two behind the high school in Oshkosh, Nebraska,and once again Matt wisely retired early into the bed of his pick-up, and I stayed up too late, and realized I had not set the traps. Nor had I ever set such a trap. So I began squinting at the tiny printed instructions, noting that if you accidentally stick yourself to the trap, all you have to do is use mineral spirits to release it from your skin. Mineral spirits. One of the many things I do not carry in my vehicle is a container of mineral spirits. Not much is awake or open that late in this town of under nine hundred people on a weeknight, and the closest all-night store that carries mineral spirits might be a hundred miles away or more. That would be a long drive with a mouse trap glued to your hand.
Resolving to use great caution, I implemented the trap, and didn’t stick myself to it, and went to bed in the back of the vehicle. The next day, nothing. I eased the glue trap under the passenger seat and once again forgot about it, focused on all things related to walking. That night we agreed to check into a motel, in need of hot showers and slightly more comfortable beds. While we slept, the trap apprehended something, evidenced by a poof of fine fur and several mouse feces. The mouse had been there awhile, but somehow had extricated itself. Pilgrim mouse had now traveled around a hundred miles with me and foiled two traps, snap and glue.
That day, Matt left. I met a family who ate lunch at a neighboring table in the local café, introduced through their eleven-year-old son, Emmett, and they offered me use of an empty house they had just bought at auction earlier that day. My new road crew manager, Dale, arrived later that day. Having a house to sleep in made me once again less aware of the resident in the Explorer. I had walking to do, and I was nearing the end of my route.
On the Fourth of July, seventeen days into my walk, I crossed over the state line into Colorado at about ten in the morning. Dale and I drove back to base camp in Oshkosh in time for the parade and free BBQ and root beer floats. I luxuriated in the comfortable bathtub in the bought-at-auction house,and ate my plate of BBQ as it was propped on my knees just above the waterline.I was in no hurry to leave, depleted of electrolytes and recovering from the most significant sustained physical activity of my life. Plus, I could now allow myself to see outside of the walk. I had a mouse. A very determined, trap-savvy,entrenched mouse. And I didn’t quite know what to do next.
Luckily, Dale knew. He pointed out I had a house, one the owners didn’t expect to have back until July 5th. So at his suggestion, and under his power, the vehicle was completely emptied. All my travel gear, all the walking paraphernalia, the travel kitchen (a system of Mason jars), items I’d picked up along the route, electronics, music collection, all of it was hauled out of the vehicle and into the tiny house I’d been loaned.Quilts were shaken out before coming in, as the last thing I wanted was to move my Pilgrim Mouse from my vehicle into the house that had so generously been offered to me. I washed clothes and hung them on the backyard clothesline.
I don’t remember how it happened to be that I was standing with Dale in the driveway, looking into the hatchback, when he decided to tug on the trap door, the one that pulls off to reveal the jack and access to the spare tire. I think he said something lishaped nest constructed entirely from toilet paper, and a litter of mouse pups, so young they had no fur.
A lot of things happened right then. We jumped. Mouse mom seemed to calmly survey us, and then sprang into action, grabbing a baby and hauling it deeper into the recesses of the storage compartment. I asked Dale to bring me a dishpan and the camera, both of which were nearby. I then tried to block mouse mom as she grabbed another baby and hauled it just out of sight, all the while talking to her, explaining she could not store her babies in my vehicle.
When Dale handed me the dishpan, I asked him to start taking pictures, and I scooped the nest with the remaining babies into the red dishpan, and then held it, cocked slightly, in the spot where the nest had been. The deer mouse returned and hunted around for her babies, then looked over the side of the dishpan, and crawled in. I tipped it upright and began walking away from the vehicle, down the road, to a nearby cornfield where I deposited mouse, nest, and babies in the grass next to the field. I then went back and used a small tool to reach into the crevice where she had hidden two babies,carefully put them in the dishpan, and rejoined them with the others.
It was only afterward that I realized I had hand-trapped and relocated a live mouse family. A rare set of circumstances allowed it to happen that way, including good help, the right tools, a dedicated mouse that wouldn’t leave her babies, and a nearby site for relocation. I stared at the photographs, enlarging them and holding her gaze. I was proud of her. And I was damn glad she was out of my sleeping quarters.
Dealing with my stowaway had slowed down my exit from western Nebraska long enough to consider some options. A few days prior, I had met a couple on a gravel road, out for a drive celebrating their 75thbirthdays. They gave me an iced-down bottle of water and explained they bottle it on their property, a ranch that includes a stretch of the Blue Creek. We talked about their daughter who lives in Lincoln, my long walk, and they gave me their card. Now, done with my walk,mouse lifted from my car, belongings repacked, maybe I could call them and explore options. Yes, they agreed I could come out and spend time in the creek.Yes, that would be fine if we camped overnight.
We drove the long lane to their house, then followed them to their virtually home-made water bottling plant, got a tour, received a gift of a case of bottled water, and were escorted to the creek through a pasture gate or two. That night and the whole next day I barely moved from a hundred yard radius, sitting still in the landscape I had just walked. We parked all night on a bridge over the water, and the next day used quilts and scarves to shade the Explorer. We collected bouquets of wildflowers, laid in the fresh aquifer stream, sat in a spring-fed waterfall, drank the gifted water, collected handfuls of tiny rocks, and cleaned up every trace that we had been there before we left. It was there, locked in tight by beauty and wilderness, that I began to absorb the many revelations the long walk had presented to me.
You might think I give the mouse too much credit, and it certainly is possible that in this uprooted life I grasp at anything nearby to assign meaning to the happenings I experience. That said, if she hadn’t been apart of the story I may have bolted out of the panhandle sooner, my belongings dusty and disheveled from weeks of walking/driving gravel. And today I am writing this in part because of her counterpart, another mouse who took up residence in my vehicle three months later. I am at a farmhouse I own in western Iowa, and I am preparing to leave it. Most rooms have been emptied and swept, and I might have left, until I realized I had a mouse in my vehicle again.
This one made itself known by destroying the mouthpiece on the Camelbac hydration pack I had carried through that panhandle walking experience. Apparently this was a thirsty mouse, and the tell-tale blue shreds from the high-tech material gave it away, revealing it has been sipping from the dregs of my water supply. Again with Dale’s help, vehicle emptied. Shop-vac used in every reachable area. Still, mouse evidence appeared. Trap set. Again, trap sprung with no catch. My reluctance turned to resolve when I looked at the belongings I was about to load up and carry with me. I went to town. (We can assume the mouse did, too.) I bought high-end traps. Today I lifted the dead, trapped mouse out and walked up the road, dropping his body at the side where a coyote or vulture might make use of him.
My schedule is so different from any I was previously accustomed to, and different from any I have had role-modeled to me. How to decide when to do things, when to stay in a place or leave a place, has lost any familiar signposts. I have stayed places longer because of coyote pups, or an appearance of a luna moth. I am lingering at the farmhouse today in part due to that mouse in my vehicle, in part due to the arrival of osprey, and in part due to a salamander. I once had a watch. Today I have rodents, amphibians, insects, birds. From them, I am trying to learn how to tell time.