Hiking with CoCo

Michelle Connor, Forterra’s president and CEO and a longtime dog owner, once confessed, “I don’t understand cats.” Then CoCo entered her life, deepening her understanding not only of cats, but of the natural world and herself.

Stand in a field of lupine, and the flowers will probably hit about mid-calf. Sit and those lovely blue bonnets might graze your elbows. But unless you bend down, crane your neck, and position yourself just so, they’re not apt to reach your nose. For Michelle’s cat CoCo, however, those flowers are right at nose level, as if cat and flower had made some sort of evolutionary pact. Like her owner, CoCo loves the natural world. But unlike Michelle, who tends toward a brisk and steady pace when she hikes, CoCo takes the time to explore small spaces, to observe and sniff without the push of time or the pull of a destination. In Michelle’s words — and in the words of so many others — her feline hiking companion has literally taught her “to stop and smell the flowers.”

Michelle and CoCo met in Hawaii. It’s wasn’t at all romantic. Michelle and her husband Mark were busy with their picnic and shoed the various feral cats away. But CoCo was steadfast. She kept coming around their campsite, interested in companionship and not just food, presenting them with a dilemma — abandon this abandoned cat or take her home to Washington. “I sat her down for a talk,” Michelle recalls. “We have a dog. I don’t know anything about cats. You won’t like the things we do.” But CoCo was undeterred. So, Michelle and Mark tracked down a pet carrier and boarded the plane with CoCo in tow. Far from being intimidated, CoCo was curious. She learned to do all the things she was warned about: charming the household dog Calli, camping, kayaking, and chief among them hiking in Michelle’s beloved backcountry (in areas where pets are permitted).

It took persistence, Michelle says, repeated trials with the leash until CoCo (short for coconut in a nod to her tropical origins) came to associate this tether with the freedom and adventure of the outdoors. CoCo will hike the first half mile or so in Calli’s wake, though perhaps “hike” is too heavy a word for such a light-footed creature. When she tires, her owner simply “pops” her atop a backpack, where she stays until they break for water, a view, or weary legs.

CoCo has proved to be more than an indifferent companion. On one hike, in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Michelle and Mark struggled with a particularly long, hot, dry trail leading to a lakeside campsite that even in their exhaustion proved too bug infested for them to pitch their tent. They pushed on until they found a new site, a bit overgrown but free of bugs. Suddenly, CoCo leaped up to Michelle’s shoulders, fur on end, hissing and growling in a way she never had before or since. But, Michelle was too tired to make anything of it.

Forterra CEO & President and CoCo

That night Michelle woke with an uneasy feeling. She roused Mark and forced him to join her in clapping, hooting, and stamping around the tent site, though no trouble was in evidence. The following morning, they discovered water bottles punctured, everything but the food they had strung up in a tree scattered, and her husband’s pack, which had been right against the tent wall, missing. An hour or so later, after following various animal trails through the brush, they were able to assemble most of their gear, all of it somewhat shredded, gnawed, and clawed. CoCo had tried to warn them but they hadn’t paid attention.

Hiking with CoCo today is different. She has three legs instead of four, having lost one to cancer earlier this year. Unfortunately, the amputation didn’t stop the cancer so these two humans, dog and cat have spent as much time as possible out and about in nature. CoCo’s joy and curiosity in their outings has helped Michelle to slow down, to be absorbed by the present as animals are. Given all the pressures of the year, there really isn’t a better place to be than in the present, especially when you’re in the mountains, meadows, and river canyons of Washington with an orange tabby atop your pack who loves the smell of flowers as much as you do.