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Frito the camping cat never quite accepted she wasn’t the alpha predator.

Camping Cat Frito finds her place in the food chain. —GLEN WARCHOL

It wasn’t until a camping trip to Gla-

cier National Park that our dominatrix ginger tabby cat learned her true place in the food chain. Frito had camped dozens of times, always assuming the West’s high-altitude deserts and craggy mountains were basically extensions of her Marmalade District ecosystem. There, the tiny street-smart tabby terrorized mice, voles, rats and squirrels. Lithe, endlessly patient and pitiless, our orange predator dragged home rats threequarters her size to share with her pride, to which, apparently, we belonged. Sure, the neighborhood had large dogs, but they were, Frito judged from a kittenhood friendship with the neighbors’ aging Belgian shepherd, just slobbery walking bean-bag furniture. At their worst, she filed them with garbage trucks under “Things to be artfully avoided.” Thus, in the wilds, we had to restrain Frito with a leash and harness —otherwise she struck off towards the horizon in search of adventure and fresh meat. She had zero clue that a walkabout could end with her own sudden death at the fangs of a coyote or the talons of a horned owl.

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Finally in Montana’s Lost Creek campground, as Frito led us up a deeply wooded trail, a mule deer stepped out into the sunlight a dozen feet away. We can’t know for sure what went through Frito’s mind when she and the buck saw each other. But we got a clue when she inflated to several times her size like an orange blow fish. The deer calmly drifted back into the shadows. After that, cat camping was easy. Frito preferred human backup at the end of a leash on her forays. She was the epitome of a good camper. On long trips she curled up in the driver’s lap or between his head and the headrest and dozed. Unlike a dog, Frito had no interest in sticking her head out the window, didn’t drool and never threw up. On arrival, Frito calmly waited until camp was set up, then hopped into a camp chair. Because cats sleep about 90 percent of the day, she was adaptable to any hiking schedule. At the campfire, she preferred a long tether, allowing

her to explore the outlying shadows. Later in our tiny “canned-ham” trailer’s bed, Frito slept on my wife’s head—a symbiotic relationship, particularly when we camped in Arches one snowy Christmas Eve when the thermometer sunk to single-digits. Two years ago, we were excited to introduce Frito to the towering redwoods in Humboldt County, California, figuring the smug, tree-climbing feline would be put in her place. It was an anticlimax. As we waited with cameras ready, Frito sat down at the base of a 300-foot redwood ... and began bathing herself. A drive to the nearby Lost Coast, however, intimidated her. The pounding Pacific Ocean surf sounded like a highway clogged with garbage trucks. During our last trip with Frito, camping across Washington to the San Juan Islands, she settled into her niche in the campground ecosystems with their target-rich environment of squirrels and various rodents and shrews. Only Frito’s retractable leash saved the scampering mammals. But in Lassen Volcanic National Park, she met her match. Frito would chase a pika into a hole, then curl up patiently to await their return, like a sewer rat, to the surface. Instead, the pika would pop out another hole, usually behind her, and whistle. Frito never got close to getting one, but never stopped trying. Shortly, after we returned, Frito disappeared. We’ll never know for sure, but her urban ecosystem is frequented by red-tailed hawks, great horned owls and, of course, coyotes. It’s a circle-oflife thing.

Salt Lake Magazine Sept Oct 2016  
Salt Lake Magazine Sept Oct 2016