Sometime before Thanksgiving, a 2-year-old, gray-white cat named Lazarus disappeared from a small town in southern Illinois – failing, inexplicably, to show up for dinner.
A few weeks later, neighbors in Raleigh’s Wayland Heights neighborhood noticed a scruffy feline stranger poking around their yards, eager for a head scratch.
Then the outrageous truth emerged, thanks to a microchip. This vagabond cat was Lazarus, who had mysteriously strayed 722 miles from home. After a phone call from a strange area code, Roy Finley drove 24 hours into a different time zone, over the Smoky Mountains and down Interstate 40 to collect his furry wanderer.
“The main question I’ve been asked 100 times so far,” said Finley, a father of three from Fairfield, Ill., “is how does a cat get to North Carolina. We asked him questions about what happened. Every so often, we get a meow out of him.”
There is, of course, precedent for domestic animals covering vast territory in search of their owners – most famously “The Incredible Journey,” the fictional Walt Disney heartstring-tugger that follows a bull terrier, a Labrador retriever and a Siamese cat across 300 miles of Canada.
The sketchier pages of the Internet offer dozens of globe-trotting cat stories. A Persian named Sugar reportedly crossed 1,500 miles from California to Oklahoma at the rate of 100 miles a day.
But most tales of fantastic cat wandering involve animals tragically separated from their owners – Sugar, for example, jumped out a car window in Sacramento – who are then reunited after a four-legged odyssey. Lazarus managed to cross six states while moving away from home, and for all we know, he wasn’t finished. Given another week, he might have made it to Charleston and pushed his kitty odometer into four digits.
But here is Finley’s theory:
His family lives near some land that gets leased for hunting. Not long ago, folks around the community recall, some Tar Heel hunters came through hoping to bag Illinois trophy bucks. Lazarus must have found his way inside one of their vehicles and dozed all the way to Raleigh, where the road-weary outdoorsmen either shooed him away or missed him hopping out over the luggage.
“I don’t think hunters came clear from North Carolina to steal my cat,” he said.
A domestic cat can sprint up to 30 mph, so it is technically possible for Lazarus to reach Raleigh in 24 days if he ran the entire route at maximum speed.
Either way, Finley got a call last week from Annetta Hoggard, a mother of two who lives off Oberlin Road and who toted Lazarus to the vet for microchip inspection. By the time she picked him up, he had already gathered three nicknames around Wayland Heights: Rhonda, Randy and Squeak.
The vet told Hoggard that Lazarus hailed from Wayne County.
“We were thinking Goldsboro,” she said.
But she dialed the number with a curious area code and got a return call from an entirely different set of Wayne countians.
“They were in Illinois,” she said. “We were both flummoxed.”
“I don’t know many people who would drive 24 hours for a cat.”
Finley couldn’t afford to fly Lazarus back to Illinois. But his mother, who lives nearby, was particularly attached. So he loaded two of three children inside a Dodge Ram and drove straight through on Sunday night, documenting the trip through Facebook photos.
“I found out why they call them the Smoky Mountains,” he said. “I figured it was just a name.”
After a grateful meeting with the neighbors, a roughly hour-long stop during which time Lazarus got packed into his crate for his return to the Midwest, the Finleys turned around to reflect on the courtesy of strangers.
“Fabulous people,” said Finley. “They’re clear in North Carolina. They could have kept their mouth shut and kept a great cat. It’s like somebody found your wallet in the park full of cash.”
But I think wanderlust lies at the heart of this story. Lazarus, true to his Biblical namesake, simply had more life in him than Illinois could hold. He needed to stretch both legs and spirit. He needed to see what lay beyond the backyard fence.