Sunday, January 10, 2010

Christmas Break

Standing atop the sun-drenched Colorado Rockies at 12,500 feet, I looked down forlornly at my dad who, minutes before, had navigated his way through the death-inducing moguls that now separated us. Dad and I had just emerged from Araphoe Basin’s whale of a chairlift that belches skiers out at the highest commercial peak in North America. To my right glared even higher runs that could only be skied after hiking to the top of a perilous summit. To my left, across a tree-filled valley, rose the Continental Divide that Dad and I had mischievously driven under earlier that morning. And below stood my dad, waiting in the shade cast by the hill upon which I stood. Having arrived in Colorado more than 30 hours before and having visited two of the Rockies’ legendary resorts already (Breckenridge and Keystone), we sagely dispensed with committing A-Basin’s map to memory and instead navigated our own route down the mountain using our innate skiers’ sense. That is to say, we had no idea what the hell we were doing.

Shortly after finishing off the last of the Pecan Pie and just before beginning the annual Thanksgiving Day football game, I had prodded Dad about his commitment to skiing the Rockies over Christmas Vacation. Since Dad is a teacher, and my office offers charitable leave, we both have lengthy holiday breaks. In previous years, Dad toiled away in the classroom coaching over achieving debaters while I drank away the short winter days at the bar or in the basement. This year, I had decided, we should spend our money providing new material for John Donne prodigies by beneficently placing our lives in danger. Living in Iowa, that is no easy feat.

And in addition to my desire to ski the superlative-laced peaks of North America, I also wanted to visit my long-lost college buddies in America’s most patriotic city: Boston. And so, what began as a need to ski, turned into a 10-day, 8 different bed, 15 state odyssey that rejuvenated me for months to come.

Amtrak, America’s worst passenger railway company, was supposed to provide the only symmetry to my trip by delivering me to the airport and sweeping me back from Boston. It failed on both accounts. I have taken Amtrak exactly five times in my life and have been satisfied exactly once – on a 30-minute trip. And so, it was this French military like reputation that opaquely penetrated my limited concentration as I made my way to Washington’s Union Station at 3:40 am on Christmas Eve.

In a little over three hours, the United States Senate would pass a wide-sweeping health care bill just a few blocks from where I was walking, and in a little over eight hours the warmth of my Grandmother’s embrace would lift me out of the cold Iowa winter. As I entered Union Station, these blissful thoughts swashed around my head, and so it was with a clamoring thunder that the Union Station clock chimed 3:45 and Amtrak announced its 4:00 train to BWI Airport would not be leaving. Like the French after their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, I was despondent but in no way surprised.

Actually, my acceptance of the cancelled train wasn’t quite this lucid. Instead, I must have looked like a newly indebted homeless man as I swiped my credit card in the ticket dispenser 23 times. When my itinerary failed to appear after the second swipe, I figured I had the wrong card. After trying all my credit cards, my dad’s credit card, my Barnes and Noble Card, my Social Security Card – remember it was 3:45 am – I finally realized my train wasn’t going to the airport. Fearing the looming ice-storm in Chicago and blizzard in Des Moines, I knew I had to make my 6:00 am flight before the weather reduced me to spending Christmas with a United ticket agent at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Not a prospect I found too appetizing. After gathering from a cabbie, that the $12 train-ride to the airport would cost $85 by car, I returned to the waiting room to cajole my fellow stranded passengers into sharing a cab. Just as my bank account began to prepare itself for a momentous loss, an oasis appeared.

“Hey, are you going to BWI?” I asked a woman walking towards me with a suitcase designed only for stuffing into an overhead compartment.

“Yes, and I’m going to drive, and you can ride with me.” Now, as you can imagine, I was elated and immediately gave this woman a squashing bear-hug. Actually, that’s what I envisioned myself doing, but instead I answered with some erudite response, like, “Oh ok, sounds good.”

After my new friend, Alison, got us lost and asked for directions to the airport, I soon realized how fortuitous it was for her that I had generously agreed to accept her invitation to the airport. I was the Good Samaritan. Alison was older than me, mid 30s I would guess, and had dark hair and glasses. She was skinny and seemed hardened by something in her past.

After walking the two blocks to her car, Alison and I had driven back to Union Station, run through the departure lounge offering rides to the airport, but failed to acquire any additional passengers. With just the two us, Alison’s little Saab negotiated the early morning traffic and made its way to the highway.

With about 10 miles left, the conversation turned to our assorted travels abroad. Since Alison’s job was out-of-bounds, “Navy Intelligence,” we instead focused on what we both would rather do for a living.

“I spent a year after college teaching English in Hungary,” Alison offered. Flabbergasted, I gushed,

“I lived in Hungary for a year during college.” Alison, for the first time that morning, took her eyes off the road to look me up and down and evaluate the veracity of this claim. And since she was “Navy Intelligence,” the prospect of lying to her seemed as if it might place my life in jeopardy. I had no intention of doing so.

“So, did you speak any Hungarian before you moved there?” I inquired.

“Yea, actually I won a scholarship to take Hungarian during the summer at a college in Illinois.”

“Was it Beloit College?”

“Yea it was,” Alison answered, again looking at me with her military-sharpened deductive skills churning in her head. I continued my line of questioning like a focused prosecutor,

“And was your teacher’s name, Maria?” I delivered my final question with a satisfying flourish - wishing a jury sat in the back-seat instead of dirty socks and K-Mart receipts.

“Oh my God, Yes it was Maria,” Alison exclaimed as the car crossed first a dashed white line, then a solid white line, and finally rumble strips that announced Alison’s impending crash and jolted her into straightening out the car.

“How do you know Maria?” she asked.

“She was my Hungarian teacher when I studied in Hungary!”

In due time, Alison relayed that she had visited Maria the previous summer and maintained a frequent correspondence. This bizarre coincidence that placed me in Alison’s car reminded me of a Bill Bryson story – one of Iowa’s most proudest productions I must say – about bizarre coincidences:

After saying good bye to Alison, I sat back in awe as the overcrowded bus approached the terminal. But before I could dwell on my Brysonian story, I found myself learning about the nuanced intricacies of various Caribbean Islands.

“We’re heading to Jamaica this time. We love Jamaica – went for the first time in October. We were in the Bahamas for Easter, but the water is just too cold this time of year. St. Mother Teresa [or some such island] is also great, but the crowds there are just terrible over the holidays.” I didn’t know whether to be impressed or horrified about the brazen temerity with which this couple displayed their wealth. But their dissection of the Caribbean distracted me enough to miss my stop.

“Have a great time in, er, the Caribbean,” I wished the couple, running back to the lowly domestic terminal unable to remember what intricacy of which island had attracted their fancy this year.

When my plane touched-down in Des Moines, the grey-cast sky dropped light rain on the plane’s windows – withholding the ice and snow for later that day. Dad was there waiting for me with the only foreign car in all of Iowa, and we were soon on our way to Grandma’s house for Christmas Eve – eyes peeled for reindeer. My eight-hour expired thoughts returned as soon as I walked in the door. Smoked ham and mashed potatoes appeared on a plate in front of me before I could take off my coat. I was finally back in Iowa.

My family has been going to Grandma’s house for Christmas Eve since before I was born. It’s all I know, and I’m rather confused as to what I’ll do for Christmas when I’m no longer going to Grandma’s house – more importantly, what I’ll do without Grandma’s gifts. As always, Grandma reliably delivered, like a drug dealer, with a wonderful array of presents. The prescience with which she provides me bestsellers off of my Amazon wish list is stutter-inducing. Grandpa’s touch was also noticeable in one gift: he had artistically returned all the bent nails I had left in his woodshop over the years. He crafted a newspaper-sized nametag out of bent nails, and while he only spelled out D-A-N, I’m pretty sure he had enough of my used-and-replaced nails to spell my name as it appears on my birth certificate – twice.

Mother Blizzard prevented us from getting home to Mom and Dad’s house following Grandma’s rehearsed celebration, but with the morning light and warnings of more snow to come, we quickly evacuated Carroll on Christmas morning and did our best to make the 2-hour drive last as long as possible – coming in at just under 4 hours.

While the Altima and Jetta successfully navigated the iced-over country roads to Okoboji, there was no way they were getting into the drift-filled driveway without firing up the yet-to-be-christened snowblower. A little over a month before, just after I successfully manipulated my dad into agreeing to take me skiing in Colorado, Mom and I had purchased a snowblower intending to deliver it to Dad on Christmas Day. But, with God hating Al Gore as he does, Iowa received a record snowfall in early December requiring the early use of the no-longer-a-surprise gift. However, since the charade was co-opted, I got to use the new machine before opening presents – something I longingly desired after my snowless winters in D.C.

I bolted out of my brother’s Jetta before it came to a stop and had the snowblower churning before Mom had undone her seatbelt. This delay turned out to be fortuitous when my relative inexperience with operating the contraption caused me to neglect the snow’s chute, and I inexplicably placed the first row of snow directly on the Altima’s passenger window. Sorry Mom. As I suffered through displacing the snow from our driveway, Mom, Dad, and my brother Matt dodged my work and unloaded the cars.

After the driveway had been charitably cleared, Mom demonstrated her inherited Christmas aptitude by surrounding me with dozens of perfect gifts. An Appalachian Trail calendar, without apparent Mark Sanford associated irony, and a new coat were just a couple of the highlights. And since Dad already had his snowblower, he didn’t have any presents to open – sort of like a modern day Tiny Tim. Matt got some presents too.

What followed, though, were some much needed peaceful days of rest. The three guys of the family spent the vacation torturing Mom into playing card games, and I made an appearance at the local bar – mostly to belittle the locals. Dick Cheney would have been proud.

After just two nights, and 10 inches of snow, Dad and I departed sleepy Okoboji for the mountainous city of Denver. To continue with my theme of extended fits of transportation, we turned what was supposed to be a 10-hour drive into a 14 hour slog. The flat, open, sprawling plains of Nebraska, with an estimated population of 232 people, somehow put enough cars on the highway to crowd the road through most of the state. Thankfully, we arrived at my Aunt’s house in Colorado wholly intact.

After a delicious dinner, a few hours of sleep, Dad (with glasses in place) and I were back on the road at 6:30 am. Now, it’s important to establish that I love skiing more than Henry VIII loved wives. In 5th grade Dad took me skiing at the misnamed Holiday Mountain in Estherville, Iowa. Dad took me outside, slammed me into my skis, pushed me towards the bunny hill, and made his way back into the ski chalet before I could say stop. While some sons might have been angered by this ominous inauguration, I was not to be deterred. As I coasted down the bunny hill, the increasing speech with which I hurtled toward the river below grew alarmingly apprehensive, and so I threw myself to the ground. But, after about 30 seconds of boredom, I got up, and started tumbling down the mountain. Again, the ground started passing between my legs alarmingly fast, and so my face again met the ground, again. They were becoming fast friends.

By the time Matt and Dad made it out of the chalet, I had precociously tackled all of Holiday Mountain and was too confident to be bothered with such a speed bump of a resort. Sadly, I would have to wait another 12 years before I could summit a real “Holiday Mountain” in the form of Breckenridge, CO. It is with this promising beginning that I found myself, 12 years later climbing into a Gondola at the base of Peak 7, Breckenridge, Colorado at 8:00 am. I was in heaven. Dad and I emerged from the Gondola at the base of the mountain when 20 scarily cheerful employees dawning bright blue coats demanded we allow them to point us in the right direction. We relented.

Quite easily, the highlight of Breckenridge is the mountain’s t-bar that ejects skiers above the Colorado tree-line. Little did I know, the only runs that came down from this t-bar are categorized as Double Black Diamonds. And while I do love skiing, no one would really characterize me as a good skier. But soldier on I did, and Dad and I found ourselves returning to the t-bar three more times before the day was out.

The “Little Boy Feeling” is something I have coined and believe is something for which I deserve praise and fortune. Everyone has had the LBF at some point in his or her lifetime. And as we get older, it diminishes in correlation with age. Essentially, the LBF is the sensation that swarms over your body and reminds you why you are human. It’s like a first date, the first time you have sex, and your first home run all rolled in to one. For me, the LBF usually occurs when I walk into a baseball stadium for the first time. I remember it most clearly the first time I saw Fenway Park:

The first thing that hits you is the smell. As you catch a glimpse of the green corners of the stadium, you see the Citgo Sign light up, and the smell known to baseball fans everywhere, composed of hot dogs, sunflower seeds, sweat, and beer, dominates your nostrils. After presenting your tickets and entering the grandstand, you are transported back to 1920 envisioning Babe Ruth smoking a cigar and making his way to the field. And then the best part of all – you emerge form the concrete mass to catch your first site of the bright green field stitched with bright chalk lines, stretched beneath the Green Monster, and the LBF overwhelms your senses. That simple feeling of pure pleasure, childhood innocence, and blissful ignorance, is what I call the LBF. As I’ve grown older, it occurs more infrequently, but every so often it crops up, and I remember what it’s like to be 10 and content. And that is exactly how I felt when I stepped off the t-bar at Breckenridge’s highest peak. Laying in the snow, water creeping into my pants, and skis careening down the mountain, just 2 minutes after my arrival, the LBF was no longer on my mind.

About 3:00 in the afternoon, the altitude, the 14-hour car ride, and the 7 hours of skiing finally got to us. We made our way to the run, creatively titled “4:00 run” that delivers skiers to their cars at the end of their day, and eased our way off the mountain. To a kid from Iowa, who had no recollection of America’s highest peaks, I was smitten.

Day 1 of skiing ended peacefully enough, Dad and I returned to Denver in search of new glasses.
Dad had misplaced his in the struggle to put on his skiing equipment, and the glasses apparently won. A mad dash around suburban Denver ensued, and after a bowl of chili and time with the cousins, we had a full stomach and brand-new glasses. Time for bed.

Day 2 of skiing brought its own surprises. Dad and I summited Keystone, Colorado, which is a bit smaller but far less crowded than Breckenridge. Dad decided skiing moguls and black diamonds was too easy with two gloves, so he placed one of his in the valley of a chairlift, as we ascended on the seat rising above. He chose the resort’s most remote lift in which to deposit his glove, as if the challenge of skiing with a frozen hand seemed unstimulating. The ski patrol, though, was nice enough to give him a bright pink covering, a badge of honor I guessed, and we were back to the slopes – the talk of the town. Back to the car for a quick brunch, Dad and I shifted course and made our way to Arapahoe Basin to finish out our trip. A-Basin, as the locals call it, draws the Denverites and the extreme skiers while the tourists and posers spend their time and money at Breck and Keystone. Clearly we didn’t fit in at any of the three.

Soon after our arrival though, we immediately made for A-Basin’s highest point, which was attained easily enough as half the mountain was closed due to insufficient snow. After a day and half of skiing, and nearing complete exhaustion, I found myself staring down at my dad across the hardest moguls I had ever seen.

As I began my descent, composing my last words and remembering my Catholicism, I was quite literally, and metaphorically, departing from the zenith of my ten-day holiday vacation. While the break wasn’t about to cascade quite as precipitously or as violently as I was, leaving this peak meant beginning the trudge back to the office on Monday morning. Despite my “Danger Will Robinson” feelings, I navigated the moguls much to my dad’s amusement. The mountain had finally conquered me. While earlier on the trip, I had been daring enough to attempt any run, my tired legs and fragile constitution, prohibited any additional attempts. After making our way through those moguls, we breezed through a few blues, enjoying the scenery of A-Basin and taking our time to wind down our long-awaited skication.

Begrudgingly, Dad convinced me to return to the car, and we began our drive back to Denver. Again, Sara provided a delicious dinner of meatball sandwiches, and soon after, Dad was on his way back to Iowa. I dropped by my cousin Gordon’s house, to catch his wife throwing paint at the walls. The paint fumes added quite nicely to my near state-of-exhaustion, and I passed out before 10 pm.

Gordon was kind enough to deliver me to the airport next morning, and due to the crotch bomber’s sudden rise to fame, security was a nightmare. The flight got to Boston easily enough though, and Courtney Griffin was there to shepherd me and my 50 pounds of luggage back to New Hampshire. Having gone to college in Vermont, it felt great to be back in New England. Small towns, plaques recognizing houses, and monuments to obscure 19th century presidents dominated the landscape. And in my quest to visit all 50 state Capitols, I dropped by the New Hampshire version, four blocks from Courtney’s house, and shouted with disdain: "Why is it that New England can’t figure out how to do representative democracy correctly?"

New Hampshire has over three hundred state representatives, and its website proudly declares this is the third largest legislative body in the English-speaking world. Is that really something to brag about? I presume that this large number of toiling bureaucrats was the reason they couldn’t even afford to provide them with desks, just chairs on the floor of the House. After our 30 second tour of the statehouse and 30 minute tour of Concord, Courtney and I had conquered the town. Nothing left to do but celebrate by going to Olive Garden! Life was good.

Courtney and I also had the chance to see Sherlock Holmes, and I’m fast becoming a fan of Robert Downey, Jr., much to the worry of the unblighted veins in my forearms. The movie, however, is expertly directed, though emphasizes Sherlock Holmes’ bizarre jujitsu acumen. Still, once one separates the Holmes created by Sir Arthur from the one created by Guy Ritchie, the film comes alive. I found myself remembering the delightfully fun Encyclopedia Brown books of my childhood.

Courtney, two of her high school friends, and I drove to Boston for New Year’s where we, mostly I, prepared a delicious feast of homemade pizza. Perhaps a little too heavy on the sausage for most, I did my best to single-handedly prop up Iowa’s struggling pork industry - unsuccessfully. The four of us made our way to a Bates party, and shortly thereafter, I appeared at a Middlebury reunion that felt exactly like the Bates party except that I knew everyone. How NESCAC schools differ like Caribbean islands.

New Year’s morning brought the necessary day-after brunch, and my breakfast was coyly named the Eggstravaganza. The “Gourmet Deli” where we ate, had no more than four customers, two of which had registered complaints by the time we left. Although we prepared ourselves for a “gastrointestinal Chernobyl,” the food left us unaffected. Soon after, I abandoned the charming ladies from Concord, and met up with the Middlebury crew for a Boston Classic viewing. Once a year, the NHL uses electric shock therapy to prod two teams into playing an actual game outside. This year the game was scheduled for Fenway Park on New Year’s Day. Lacking imagination, our crew ended up at the House of Blues across the street from Fenway with 500 screaming Bruins fans glued to a screen the size of the Citgo sign.

“The Bruins Score!” screamed out the announcer as Boston won the game in overtime. The roars form the stadium next door drifted into the bar, and the place generally exploded. What a welcome to Boston.

Later that night, I met up with my friend Kevin, who almost single-handedly elicited the LBF in me – by presenting me with Hungary’s finest pastry: pogacsa. Kevin had spent his Christmas in Hungary and New Year’s in Bulgaria. He was just returning from a two-week trip abroad and found enough room to bring back my two favorite things combined: Hungary & food. While I was jealous, I was also fascinated. Naturally, we had dinner at an Irish pub to celebrate our Hungarian nostalgia.

Saturday brought with it my departure from Boston, and finally I was due back in Washington, again via Amtrak. But first, I acquired one last, and lasting, memory of Boston. With about two-hours to spare before my train, I wandered into a bar in South Boston, where a Chinese bartender named Hawkeye gave me a coke, and the Italian owner sat lurking in the kitchen. After about two minutes of sitting at the bar, taking in the Ole Miss game, I soon learned about Hawkeye’s adoration of porn. Oddly enough, the native Bostonian sitting at the other end of the bar was teaching the Chinese bartender how to run his computer. And all the bartender seemed to view with his computer, was porn.

“You sick fuck,” is how the Bostonian gently put it. As I was trying to watch the game on TV, to my left, at the bar, these two men bickered about porn-watching habits while also conducting a computer tutorial. To add to this fun, I took in a biography of Hawkeye’s lengthy life.

“I’ve got a 40 year old daughter, and a 40 year old wife. How ’bout that,” he said to me with a knowing smile. Time to go.

Amtrak didn’t fail quite so annoyingly on the return trip to Washington, and only delivered me to Union Station an hour after our scheduled arrival. On time really for Amtrak. Another half hour metro ride, and $15 cab put me at my front door at 2:45 am. Unable to sleep, I turned to that childhood classic, Mighty Ducks to put me out. Finally, at 5:45 am, after fully recounting my trip to some of America’s finest locations, I ended my holiday break.

1 comment:

greg said...

Dan fails to mention how sore I was!