Over the River and Out of our Minds

December 1993

It was the first Christmas when the three kings traversed field and fountain, moor and mountain, wisely under camel power. They did not hit the interstate as my wife and I do each year at Christmas, in a subcompact jammed with gifts, 40 percent of our worldly belongings, and two boys, ages four and six. Unlike those sensible kings who followed yonder star, we follow I-57 out of Chicago, heading down a stretch of pure Midwestern highway unmarred by the ugliness of urban blight or suburban sprawl.

The trouble is, instead of lovely mountains and moors, all you get on this pure highway is more and more highway. A trip that starts as a welcome relief from the aggravations of the city becomes an invitation to the Dysfunctional Family of the Year contest. When we arrive, Granma and Grandpa’s house—a remote Tennessee ranch adrift in a haze of wood smoke, pine, holly, and home cooking—is the ultimate American Christmas dream. But it’s a long ten hours getting there.

So I’ve taken steps to make this next trip a character builder and head off the continuous sneak attack that life usually seems to be. From my extensive reading of the book jackets of self-help best-sellers, I have learned that the only way to deal with any situation is to compile a list of its recurring stages. So here goes:

Stage 1: Elation
This is the illusory stage that sets us up for the inevitable fall. Every year my wife and I start out as Tracy and Hepburn. Nick and Nora. Waving our “unspillable” coffee mugs into the windshield, we sing Christmas carols, regale the boys with jokes and educational information on the passing scenes, and engage in repartee about the state of the world. When the caffeine wears off, however, reality sets in.

Stage 2: Disillusion
I don’t know. Maybe it’s the second spilled juice gluing the Corn Pops to the upholstery. Maybe it’s the hundredth passing semi rocking our little car like Godzilla in a careless moment. Or maybe it’s my impression of Sylvester the Cat, funny in a lowered-expectations sort of way an hour ago, but now grating on everybody’s nerves: “Thufferin’ thuccotash! We’ll get to Grandmath Houth pretty thoon!” It begins to dawn on all of us that mental-time-wise, we won’t be there any time this century and that there is little in our future but state rest-area bathrooms, distant identical silos, and about 4,0000 more semis.

Stage 3: Denial
This is where my wife and I shift normal parental self-delusion into hyperdrive. “This isn’t happening,” we tell ourselves. “We’ll just stop at McDonald’s to recharge our batteries,” which is a little like saying we’ll pitch a tent on airport runway to get a good night’s sleep.

But no batteries are recharged here. Instead we all leave the restaurant feeling leaden and irritable, especially after getting a fresh look at the state of the car’s interior upon re-entry. Somehow pillows, hand-held video games, books, tapes, Batman and his accessories (sold separately), candy wrappers, plastic soda bottles, crushed boxes of cookies, sweaters, gloves, newspapers, and other vital junk have avalanched into the spaces where our bodies had been propping them up.

Shifting some of this into the scary jack-in-the-box we call a trunk is unthinkable, so we fold ourselves back into the car and move on.

Stage 4: Hallucination
Late in the trip, a fascinating phenomenon occurs that should be of interest to automotive psychologists. It’s a reverse déjà vu, a strange feeling that nothing has really happened yet, an hour-by-hour, eon-by-eon kind of certainty that you are not really moving. As in a nightmare, the more you press the gas pedal, the slower you seem to go. Everything—from the picnic tables in the rest areas and red Toyota that forever cruises smugly in front of you, to the exit ramps, the white farmhouses, and the very M&Ms you’ve popped into your mouth—seems to be the product of a tragic meltdown in the brain.

After awhile, ever-chattering Mom and Dad slip into silence while the boys resort to boredom-snapping blows to the shoulder. It’s a madcap, zany period, this particular stage or our holiday marathon. As my wife—Hepburn and Nora—always says at this point, “I wish I could pull my head off and bowl with it.”

Stage 5: Adjustment
Then, when we’ve completely given up hope, we turn off the interstate and onto the narrow winding country road that leads to the ranch. We suddenly find ourselves in Currier and Ives’s Christmas land. You know: young deer loping across fields of untouched snow, warmly-lighted farmhouses nestled among dark fir trees and frozen ponds—that kind of thing. The trouble is, this new world makes junk-food-wasted, addled interstate veterans feel out of place, kind of like a punk-rock group touring the Smithsonian.

But we feel better. We know, even looking as we do—sticky-fingered, cracker-encrusted, crazy-eyed—that we will soon be with Grandma and Grandpa, two brave people who are about to receive the Purple Heart for hospitality.

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