Where to go and how to get there

 

My dad loved maps. Trip planning was his favorite pastime, and it didn’t matter if it wasn’t his trip he was planning. If someone he knew even mentioned that they heard about someone else going on a trip, he planned it for them. The dining room table would be covered in folding maps, atlases, scribbled notes on scraps of notepaper. He drew arrows, and lines, and annotated every town and scenic overlook and point of interest on the proposed route.

Once, when I was driving from the east coast to Washington State to get on a ferry to Alaska for a job, he had me roaring across the plains at breakneck pace so I could get to a certain truckstop that he had heard made the best cheeseburgers in the country in time for dinner. Don’t get me wrong; it was a great cheeseburger. But that cheeseburger was the only reason I was even in Montana!

Our family trips were always major productions. We moved so frequently, each summer holiday was a relocation process, involving cars, trains, planes, boats, dogsled (no, seriously, that happened twice), water buffalo (also totally true), ambulance (nobody was injured, it was just a very small island and that was the only available vehicle), elephant, you name it, I probably rode it on my way to another new home. We always took a broadly circuitous route, detouring hundreds of miles sometimes in order to see all the things on his carefully crafted itinerary.

“Guess what? We’re going to see the World of Pigeons!”

       “Really?! Is that on the way?”

“Well…sort of. Not precisely. Okay, no. But: World of Pigeons! We can’t miss seeing that!”

He was also the master at packing anything. Luggage, grocery carts, car boots, trunks, cigar boxes, whatever, he would pack and repack until it was the picture of Tetris perfection. We never left on time, but by George, our shit was well sorted!

Some of you who know me well are laughing now, as apparently I have inherited this trait. When I pack for a month-long trip to Europe, it’s a process of several trial runs before I get it organized to my satisfaction. But, much thanks to my dad’s habits, I can indeed pack for a month in a 40L backpack, and still have room to bring home books. It helps that I’m small.

My dad died before smart phones existed, and I often wonder what he would have thought about Google Maps and GPS, and the precision manner in which most people travel now. He was fond of gadgets, so I think he would have loved the ability to find weird stuff to look at or places to eat en route. But I bet you anything he would still have relied on his heavily highlighted, post-it noted, folding maps and atlases. They were like topographical travel journals by the time he was finished with them, dog-eared and coffee-stained, road weary representations of the miles covered and the adventures had.

After I reached adulthood and was traveling on my own, I always followed his plans, without question. He had traveled extensively, knew people everywhere, and constantly read about places he had not yet been, so he had, by the time I was a young adult, a rather encyclopedic knowledge of world travel. Every Christmas he gave me a new road atlas, pre-loaded with his handwritten liner notes about places he thought I might like to go, and names and addresses of people he knew in each state or country he suspected I might pass through that year.

No matter my destination, in geography as well as in life, he was the guy to get me there with the most interesting experiences along the way. And isn’t that the whole point of it all?

16 December

Every year I would rush, I would panic, I would hurry, to finish exams early, pack my bags, do my shopping. Every year I would beg early dismissals of professors or bosses and hitch rides with other students and sit in busy airports and drive alone down dark highways for hours.
 
 
I had to be home in time for my Dad’s birthday.
 
 
We made a fuss of it, to ensure he had a separate celebration even though it was so close to Christmas. That was important enough. Cake, and presents, and usually a prank or two. (One year I snuck five new fish into his beloved aquarium without his knowing. Each evening before bed he would sit and talk to them as he fed them, making sure they were well and happy and felt loved. It took three days before he finally realized that he was having conversations with several fish he did not know. We laughed for hours.) 
 
 
16 December was also the day he and I put up the Christmas tree. 
 
 
Wherever we happened to be in the world, Christmas was always my father’s favorite time of year.  A lot of people say that, but for him, it was not just the superficial aspects of the season that he loved. He was a very serious adherent to the concept of goodwill toward men. The Christmas season, as he saw it, was when people were a little kinder, and a little more giving, and smiles were brighter and more genuine. This time of year also meant full immersion into the holidays for all under his roof. 
 
 
The tree was the centerpiece of our holiday festivities, and it never felt like proper Christmas until it was up and decorated and presents were piled at its base several layers deep. The entire house was buried beneath layers of decor, but the tree was the focal point. So, I’d arrive by plane, train, dogsled, or whatever, in time for 16 December, and there would be that naked tree, awaiting our attention.
 
 
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There was a sort of ritualistic order to it, including the annual recitation of holiday expletives for which my father was known.

First we’d drag the tree in the door, and for a couple of hours Dad and I would pleasantly argue about where to put it, how it fits in the holder, whether it was straight, and if it was truly secure enough to withstand the cats of the house launching themselves into it without the whole thing crashing to the floor. (This is about where the swearing began, which was always punctuated by debilitating laughter.)

 

That resolved, we arrived at the worst part — the lights.  Dad had a collection of Christmas lights, all of them different and each string holding some special meaning to him and him alone. For some reason, they were also always in tremendous disarray when they were removed from their box. Each string was plugged in, untangled, and stretched out in all directions, so the house resembled a blinking minefield. The primary rule of engagement was that the big lights were put on the bottom half of the tree, and the little ones were placed closer to the top.  The finer points of these rules existed only in my father’s head, and it had to do with the shapes of the lightbulbs and the cardinal points on a compass. Some bulbs were pinecones, some were train cars, some were flickering candles, and so on. There was a mysterious hierarchy involved that I never fully comprehended. My post was on one side of the tree, my father’s was on the other, and together we would wind the lights–just so–around the tree, for hours, until we reached the top.

 

Smooth sailing from this point.

Sort of.

 

Fortification was an absolute requirement. This was usually the point when we rounded up coffee, booze, and cookies, to prepare for what happened next: ornaments.

I believe we had something like 2000 Christmas ornaments, each of them carefully wrapped and boxed. It seems like there should have been no problem putting the little buggers on the tree and getting on with it, but that was not how it was done.

Regardless how many people were involved in the process, each individual ornament was held aloft for review, discussed at length — my dear old friend so-and-so from Uganda gave us that one in 1962. He died last year in an incident involving a motorbike and a cheetah, blah, blah — and then ceremoniously the ornament was placed on a branch. The ornaments came from around the world, from people and places I sometimes knew or remembered, and sometimes did not. This process could take up to three days before we arrived at the grand finale of placing the fuzzy angel on the top.

Supposedly we alternated years for that honor, but somehow nobody could ever remember who did it last. I suspect that my dad didn’t want to tell me I was too short to manage it, so all the confusion was to disguise that fact. I don’t recall it ever being my turn putting the angel on, now that I think about it.

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The last tree we did together. He died the following summer.

 

The holiday season is a solitary endeavor for me now. In spite of that, and although I haven’t felt much holiday spirit since my dad died, 16 December is the day I try hardest to find some. At the very least, I’ll fortify with holiday spirits. 

And every year, I always have a Christmas tree. I swear continuously (consider this a sort of ritual chanting) as I unravel all the weird strings of lights I inherited from my dad. I remind myself of the origins of every ornament on it. I have added some new ones. Some older ones have not survived. It continues to evolve.

Much like life.