It was December 1990 and my family was living in Missoula, MT. The house was festively decked out for the holiday season including an honest to goodness real tree, a rarity for those of us who grew up in warmer climates. We were settling in for our third Christmas in Montana, looking forward to sipping cocoa by the fire while admiring the holiday lights in the valley below. My dad had passed away in May of that year and my mom had thought to visit us but had changed her mind when faced with the snow and cold, sending our presents ahead as we had done hers. Two days before Christmas she called, sounding woe begotten and lost, devastated by the reality of the first Christmas without her husband of 40 years. I looked around at the house, the kids, the dog and uttered the fateful words "Lets go spend Christmas in California!" We ran around the house in a flurry of activity, grabbing the unopened presents, stripping the tree then tossing it on the back deck, canceling in-city plans, packing for Christmas in Southern California.
It took 21 hours driving straight thru to reach my mom's house. 21 hours in a car with stops only for quick meals and even quicker bathroom breaks is only hard on the parents. The kids loved it. The excitement ramped up when we hit the California border, dimming slightly as we passed the desert towns of Barstow and Baker, only to reach a frenzied high as we neared the freeway turnoff that my 12 year old daughter recognized as the way to grandma's. "We're almost there!" she kept telling her 9 year old brother, dragging Cricket, our Springer Spaniel, onto her lap so that she, too, could see. "Almost at Gramma's!" Excited to be included, Cricket responded by licking the cold window and then Jenn's cheek, then the window again. "Yuck!" my daughter said, shoving the dog off her lap and toward her brother. "We're almost there!"
Christmas was wonderful. There was sunshine all week long and being with my mom, my cousin, my brother's family that first year without my dad was something I will always treasure. But eventually we had to return home on a drive I like to call the Nightmare After Christmas.
We were driving in the family car, a huge Chevy Suburban, with the back seat flipped down so that the kids and dog could sleep all the way to Montana. It had turned bitterly cold and the farther we drove North, the colder it got. Our windshield kept icing over and it was snowing so heavily that all we could see was a swirling flurry of white coming at us. It was after midnight and we were in Utah, a little south of Salt Lake City, crawling along, hoping we were still on the actual road, when we heard an odd thump from the engine. Had we run over something? The thump was followed by a strange noise like a banshee screaming in the night accompanied by a weird shimmy of the entire vehicle. Worried that pulling over and stopping the car would mean we wouldn't be able to start it again and we would be found frozen two days later by the side of the road, all curled around each other in a futile attempt to stay warm (I've seen that movie!), we limped into a small town, woke up the manager of a motel and settled in for what remained of the night. The next morning our hopes that the engine would have magically cured itself were dashed. We were advised that there was zero chance the car could be repaired in the little town we were in, so had it towed to a slightly larger town. All of us (including the dog) piled into the cab of the tow truck with the driver, a man who was inclined to run red lights and who had suggested that the dog ride on the flat bed of the truck because he was just sure she would love that. No, thank you, I said...my vacation was not going to be remembered as the one where the family dog, who had never ridden in the back of a truck, ends up road kill (I had seen that movie, too). We found another motel and began calling to find a repair place that was open on Sunday. Of course there were none. By this time it had stopped snowing and the whole eerily quiet town was covered in snow halfway up the doors. Nothing was open except our motel and a mini mart a long, cold block away.
The news was not good. The engine was toast. This was well before the advent of the Internet, so finding a new engine meant calling around to locate one that was available and within driving distance, which in Utah meant anywhere in the state. On the 2nd day one was located...it would be there within 24 hours...48 at the most...and it would be installed immediately, unless it arrived on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day or Sunday, which, of course, it did. By the time the new engine was installed, I had given up any pretense of shopping for nutritious meals at the mini mart and had taken to turning my daughter loose with a $20 bill and carte blanche. I spent hours making long distance calls on the motel phone, racking up astronomical charges, calling other Speech coaches to cancel a High School Speech Tournament I was supposed to host the following week (they were not happy), rearranging appointments and keeping my family updated. I finished 3 books, watched more TV than in the entire of my previous life, read enough magazines to supply a Dr's waiting room, and gave hourly thanks for whoever had invented the Nintendo Game Boys that my kids had gotten for Christmas. Tetris became our salvation in that motel room...a room filled with perpetual wet dog smell, food wrappers and cranky people. By the time we left, $3500 poorer but Tetris champions all, we were a little crazy. Except for my dog, who, as a pack animal, had loved having her pack sleeping and eating in one room. I believe she may have whimpered a little when we loaded her back into the devil's car, as I now regarded it.
When we got home late that night, eager to drop into our own beds in separate (!) rooms, I realized that in our haste to get on the road to Christmas, we had forgotten to do a few things...ok, a lot of things. Like close drawers or clean up or make beds or do dishes or empty the fridge or leave the outside back spigot turned on a little so that water could move. The pipe had exploded sending a geyser of water over the Christmas tree, the deck and the dog house, where it had then frozen so that whole area was a giant ice sculpture with the very top of the tree poking up like a flag.
Time has given me a little perspective on the trip. Things that seemed awful at the time became things to be laughed at, retold and even cherished. But I never touched a Nintendo Game Boy again. And I will never, ever drive anywhere for any reason over Christmas break.