Friday, January 1, 2010

A Christmas Story, Part I: The Ride Down South

All roads lead to Peoria. And then they lead away.

We drove down to Chattanooga for Christmas this year, the first time my side of the family has gathered south of the Mason-Dixon Line for Christmas since, well, ever. My Uncle Bob and Aunt Linda had just moved into their new house a few months ago and since they had never once in their married lives celebrated the holiday in their own home - alternating between Philadelphia and, on Linda's side, Nebraska - they wanted to have us all come there.

Well, when you put it that way, how could we say no?

So arrangements were made, cars brought up to vacation trim, school calendars scrutinized, bags packed, and the family made ready to gather from the four corners of the US, or at least from the Northeast Corridor and the upper Midwest.

We have never packed light in our house. And with two growing children, a packrat and a wife whose motto is "It could be useful," packing light is no longer even a goal. Throw in the fact that it was Christmas, with all of the gifts and paraphernalia attendant upon such a holiday, and we had more baggage than a medieval trading caravan. Silk Road, here we come!

I am the Baggage Loader around here. It is my job to figure out how to fit it all into the car and still have room for the people. Like George Carlin and his refrigerator, I decide what stays and what goes. It's not much power, but I'll take it.

Fortunately, loading cars is one of my talents. I once fit an entire dorm room - including the refrigerator and stereo system, back when stereo systems did not slip easily into your shirt pocket - into a 1979 Mercury. If I could do that, then certainly I could fit a week's vacation into a station wagon, couldn't I?

Well, yes, it turned out. It's just a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, really. Don't ask me to retrieve anything - Kim made the mistake of leaving her book in her bag when I was packing, and it was just easier for her to go get another book - but for packing a lot of stuff into a little area, I am The Man.

All hail me.

We set off fairly early on the 23rd, into the teeth of what weather forecasters call "snow showers," which for those of you not familiar with the term is the preferred jargon phrase for "not enough snow to provide an excuse for staying home but too much to drive at normal speeds." But we were headed south, so it fairly quickly turned into rain. And rain can be driven through at normal speeds.

Some observations from the drive:

First, Tabitha and Lauren are the world's best travelers. We set them up with a book full of DVDs and their movie player, a bag full of actual books as well as paper, pencils and assorted activities, their DS players, and a pair of binoculars. We were on the road for about 12.5 hours, including stops, and they did a marvelous job.

Second, what is it about the South and churches? We have churches up in the North too, but few if any have 40'-tall white aluminum crosses looming over them. Such things dotted our route like standing stones. I'm sure they were meant to inspire awe or something like that, but all I could think of was the scene from Shrek, where the ogre stares up at Lord Farquaad's castle, turns to the donkey and says "Think he's compensating for something?"

This sort of thing continued once we got to Chattanooga, too. The churches in that part of Tennessee are uniformly huge, prosperous and shiny - several that we passed had separate entrances for children, which I thought was a bit much really, though that might have been because the church I grew up in had about ten kids in it and such an entrance would have been overkill. They were quite the sight, these churches.

Our favorite church sight, though, was one we saw on the way from one place to another down there. The church had a parking lot right next to the street, and they had erected signs there to let you know where to turn, if that was where you were going. The name of the church was in tiny little letters on the bottom, though, so from any distance all you saw was a sign that said "CHRIST -->" . Whoa, nelly! In person, no less!

The oddest thing we saw on this topic was on our way over from Elizabeth and Brian's house (where we were staying) to Bob and Linda's on Christmas Eve, where we passed a man dressed in a white robe dragging a 9'-long cross behind him along the road. Brian and I sort of looked at each other when we saw this. "Isn't the whole point of the season that somebody else has already done that?" we asked each other. Oh well.

Third, nutritional rules are always suspended on long drives. When the best thing you can hope for is a roadside meal of fast food, there is no real point to worrying about it. Nutrition can resume at your destination. So we hit the road with a dietician's nightmare of salt, sugar, fat and carbs, all neatly packed in a bag along with some clementines for appearances' sake, and we lived like kings all the way down.

Come to think of it, medieval kings were also round, short-lived and gout-stricken. Maybe they traveled a lot too.

Fourth, if it's not churches, it's fireworks. Tennessee has more fireworks stands per mile of interstate highway than can possibly be healthy. They all feature a smiling antebellum white man in a white suit on their logos, and they all promise to have the lowest prices of any other such establishment, even those in Alabama, which must be the benchmark in cheap fireworks once you get outside of China. The highlight is a stand not far north of Chattanooga that, because of the way the road bends, looks like it sits smack in the middle of the highway, and as you drive up to it you get this odd feeling like you're going to be driving right through the checkout lanes. Maybe they just throw stuff into the trunk as you drive by and debit you at highway speeds the way Illinois does with tolls now.

We finally found our way to Elizabeth and Brian's house around 10pm EST. They have a wonderful house that is far neater than we could ever get our house to be again even with a crack squad of combat housecleaners and weapons-grade solvents, and we were glad to be there.

More Christmas to follow!


KimK said...

I appreciate your 3D puzzle skills!

Beatrice Desper said...

What's a DS?

David said...

Bea, you have spent too much time in France! A DS is essentially a portable video game player. It's a little smaller than a paperback and plays games that come on what look like SD cards - about 1 inch square and maybe 2mm thick. They're all the rage among the digital set.