Fifteen, almost sixteen, and on the road- to where?
Oh, the contradiction of the “Based on a True Story!” story.
This book opens with the standard “The characters and situations in this book are wholly fictional… and are not intended to portray any actual persons or events”, which is immediately followed by a Note From The Author in which she describes the True Story this is totally based on, in which she witnesses a teenage hitchhiker struck by a car on the McDonald-Cartier highway in Ontario. When an ambulance is summoned to the scene, the paramedics inform her that the girl’s injuries do not appear to be serious, and the author collects the teenager’s belongings:
…a back-pack, one shoe, a small silver crucifix, a paperback book and a well-worn notebook.
It was not my intention to intrude into the privacy of a personal diary. I opened the book in search of identification, perhaps an address. What I found instead was such an honesty of response and wholeness of vision that I could not stop myself from reading. I read through the night and finished the diary at dawn.
Now I offer to the reader the following remarkable document.
The Plot: In the first entry of the diary, 16 year old Cat Toven introduces herself and spells out her intentions to run away from home, manifesto-style:
1 That I shall leave here in the morning before the sun comes up;
2 That I shall not discuss with anyone my reasons for leaving here;
3 That I shall write in this diary every day;
4 That I shall not hate anyone or be disgusted or pass judgment;
The reasons that emerge as the entry continues include inspiration from Bennett, the local grocery store heir/marijuana enthusiast; being down about the bombing of Cambodia, Kent State shootings and Nixon administration (heavy); and first and foremost, bickering parents who won’t just shut up and get a divorce already.
Cat leaves Harrisburg, Pennsylvania before sunup on June 4, 1970 with the intention to hitchhike to Corning, New York, following in the footsteps of a generation who sought to start a new life in the wide-open spaces of Steuben County, or as they called it back then, FREEDOM VILLAGE USA.
Actually, Cat quickly discovers (as many of us have) that there is not much going on in Corning. She meets a hippie couple on their way to Provincetown, but they part ways over whether The Who, Simon & Garfunkel or Donovan is the best, and also because the other girl thinks she trying to move in on her man.
Cat philosophizes mightily over observing a child eating an ice cream at a Dairy Queen overlooking a graveyard (SYMBOLIC!) and also acquires a German Shepherd, which she considers naming Bennett, Ringo (“he’s cuter than Ringo”) Paul Newman (“Stupid”) or Abbie Hoffman(“Sounds like a girl’s name”) before settling on “Mike”.
She also meets up with an aging, turned-on, tuned-in, dropped-out Temple University PolySci professor and his Old Lady, who got it into their heads to borrow a colleague’s boat and float across the St. Lawrence river into Canada (or FREEDOM VILLAGE PART 2: CAJUN JUSTICE). Robbie and Ruthie Robber (!!!) are also hauling around a teenage boy who is on seriously bad trip:
He was sprawled over in one corner and he looked like he was about my age, maybe older. He looked dead, except now and then he’d open his eyes and mumble a few dirty words about President Nixon. Old Robber really got a bang out of that…
The kid looked like he could understand everything that was going on but couldn’t answer. And he had wet himself. Ugh.
After spending the night sleeping in the front seat of the van, Ruthie and Robbie Robber boning away in the back, Cat is eager to get to Canada and away from them. The border crossing in the rickety motorboat passes uneventfully, and she passes a few days living in the 1000 Islands Skydeck. Eventually she catches a ride with a tomato farmer to the Farmer’s Market in Montreal.
But FREEDOM VILLAGE PART 2 isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Lack of a shower and change of clothes has made her too smelly even for the other hippies, and everyone is all talking French and stuff. She eventually befriends Thersea, an older woman with a trailer full of Jesus knick-knacks behind her fruit stand. She stays awhile (we’re up to June 10), despite the fact that Theresa’s goiter seriously creeps her out. Jeez, remember Point #4 on your manifesto, Cat!
She eventually leaves Theresa and catches a ride to Quebec City, which is full of French-talking Québécois separatists who are not interested in hearing about how her name is an acronym (Catherine Ann Toven) or the fact that her mother totally did not dig her interest in zen koans.
She eventually gets a ride with a Catholic priest to Stoneham, QC where she and Mike take to the mountains.
At this point the narrative becomes progressively weirder, possibly because Cat spends an entire day staring at the sun:
I began to see a kind of electric white-blue light that hurt my eyes and then all of a sudden it changed to a soft white-gold. And I kept staring at it, letting the water run over me and through me and around me and all of a sudden there seemed to be sound coming out of the sun, a high speed sound that sort of whined at first, and then shattered into a series of trumpet hoots that seemed to climb up the circles of white-gold and the white-gold did not remain steady, but even as I was looking at it, it became orange, yellow, blue, green, and beyond that a black mirror-like transparency, always curving and turning back on itself.
Every once in a while she hauls her fried retinas down the mountain to help a kindly shopkeeper, who pays her with bags of groceries. However she is troubled by the appearance of a mysterious man who she suspects has been following her since her departure from Quebec City.
After disregarding the pus oozing from her scraped leg, Cat falls victim to a non-specific illness that leaves her delirious for an unknown length of time, during which the mysterious stranger appears and silently cares for her, bringing her food and clothing, always staying the day and then leaving at dusk. When Cat is finally well enough to write in her diary again, he has vanished.
When she makes her next trek into Stoneham, she is alarmed to see his face on the front page of the local paper: he was an escaped mental patient, who had been holding up local businesses and was subsequently killed in a shoot-out with the police.
The events sent Cat into a depression, as the entries in the diary become erratic, dated as “sometime” “dark” “later”. Four days in a row the only entry that appears is “I don’t understand.”
She does snap out of it, and on August 11, she announces:
This is a fine day!
I have a few things to say to some people. And since they are not here, I must go where they are.
Attention Mom and Dad: THIS MEANS YOU!
The last entry is dated August 15, as Cat prepares to leave Stoneham:
When I say me, I mean you. When I say you, I mean me.
I SWEAR I’M BEGINNING TO MAKE SENSE OUT OF SOME OF THESE THINGS…
The book concludes with another Note from the Author:
We have no way of knowing what she did between August 15 and August 25 when she was struck by a car on the McDonald-Cartier Highway. Obviously she was on her way home. But whatever transpired during those ten days, she chose not to tell her diary, or felt no reason to tell her diary.
I would like to thank Mrs. Marion Toven of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Mr. Archibald Toven of New York City for sharing this diary.
Cat Toven died on August 27, 1970 at 8:09 am in the Brockville Hospital of massive head injuries.
Sorry, distaff Sals and Deans: hitchhiking still = DEATH for you (arm yourself with ceramic clown figurines accordingly). Although I guess Cat’s wish for her parents to get a divorce was granted. Still, bummer.
Sign It Was Written In 1971 Department: “Not a bad idea. Canada. I mean I’m not burning a draft card or anything like that. Don’t know what I’d do if I had one.”