Michael Beaumier said at the end of a long day on the Appalachian Trail just recently, he was in his tent when he looked up. His traveling companion just strutted in, a live chipmunk in its mouth, which he deposited in Beaumier’s lap.
“That was a gift to me. I could tell. He looked at me straight in the eyes,” he said.
It was just another day on the trail with Rico the Hiking Cat.
Beaumier is the 23-year-old son of York Middle School teacher Tony Beaumier, who made Michael and Rico’s travels a learning experience for his sixth-grade class. Tony set up a map of the trail, and he and the students would track the duo’s progress, and as Michael sent photos, they would go up on the board, as well.
“It’s epic that he is bringing a cat on such a hard journey,” said James Stack. “It’s challenging enough, and then every day, you’re feeding and taking care of a cat. I think it must be exhausting to do everything.”
Classmate Conor Fell agreed. “It’s so cool that he brought the cat along. I never really thought you could do that.”
Actually, said Michael and Tony, they weren’t entirely sure, either. His dad said Michael “had his heart set” on hiking the trail — he is going to be a through hiker — when a friend with whom he intended to travel dropped out. He wanted to have a companion, said Tony, and so several months before he left he adopted Rico, a Siamese.
“He did train him to hike with him on a leash on some local trails,” he said. “But as soon as he got in the woods, he’d unleash him and call him. Rico would eventually follow him. He’s a very smart cat. I thought a dog could hike but I didn’t think a cat could.”
Michael, who happened to come off the trail when the York Weekly was interviewing his dad, said it didn’t take long before he and Rico got into a routine. Rico was rarely on leash. He kept pace with Michael for about the first five miles of the daily hike.
“He’s very intelligent. He knows that if he gets separated from me he’s in trouble,” Michael said. “When he does get separated, he cries and cries. If I put him down and I get distracted, he starts wailing. It’s not like having a cat at home. We’re really close. I haven’t had this kind of relationship with a pet before.”
After a while, Michael carries Rico in a button-up shirt until he pitches the tent for the evening. That’s when Rico goes off exploring on his own for a couple of hours, often clambering up trees. That got him in trouble once, when he followed a squirrel to the end of a branch, which broke and injured Rico. The pair had to leave the trail for several days while Rico recovered.
On another occasion, said Tony, Michael was setting up tent when he heard twigs breaking. Rico was out on his evening prowl. Not knowing what was out there, Michael headed to the tent and zipped it up. A bear lumbered into the site and grabbed for the food bag, which was not high up enough in a tree. Before long, two coyotes came into view, flanking the bear, and they stuck around for a while.
“Michael thought the coyotes got Rico. He was devastated. But then in the middle of the night, he heard scratching on the tent,” said Tony. “Michael said he was probably up in a tree watching the whole episode, and came down when things quieted down.”
Hiking the trail is an opportunity for Michael to learn more about himself, to dig a little deeper. Rico has certainly provided a life lesson, he said. He also has consciously avoided technology. Cell phones don’t work well on the trail anyway, he said, and he’s found it freeing to “get back to my roots, to be quiet. It’s nice not to know everything all the time. I feel like phones control us in many ways. When you don’t have them, you’re free.”
Any day now, Michael will be giving Rico back to his parents for the duration of his trip. He’s been hampered from logging as many miles as he would like because of Rico and wants to finish the trail at Mount Katahdin in time for his Aug. 23 birthday. To do that, he’ll need to hike 20 or more miles a day, which isn’t possible with Rico at his side.
Tony and his wife will be meeting him somewhere in Maryland by the end of June, and they will bring Rico home with them. It will be the first time they’ve seen their son since March. But Tony is in training to join Michael for the last two weeks of the trek, in New Hampshire and into Maine. “I’m almost 60 now, and I’m going to have to be in shape,” said Tony.
Meanwhile, Michael said he’s unhappily contemplating a Rico-less trail.
“I’m going to be absolutely devastated. I’m going to miss him so much. He’s my big boy,” he said. “I feel like we don’t give cats enough credit. Give them freedom and trust and form a relationship with them, and they’ll rise to the occasion.”
Michael’s sister set up an Instagram account with photos of Rico at ricothehikingcat.
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