Sunday, December 25, 2011

Finding the way

For many people, Christmas is a time to make the long journey across the land, to join loved ones in celebrating the holidays. As I packed my car with the last of the luggage and presents, the wind starts to pick up, the sky overcast and gray. But it's kind of nice, too. It's a little chilly as I pull on the hood of my hoodie. Looking across the neighborhood, I can't help but notice that I'm the only one out. It's quiet. The whole place is deserted. Seems as if everyone was either still out shopping for last minute gifts or they've all ready left to make their own long journeys home. The sound of the wind blowing is my sole accompaniment under the bleary skies. And in my lone state, I began to reflect. I think of the very first time that I drove alone on those many long miles for Christmas.

It was many years ago, after I had moved to Texas. That there was a long journey in itself--taking me two days to drive that hot, humid summer from the East Coast to the Lone Star State. Everything I owned was packed in that car--my first car. It was an old clunker that I had bought with a whole year's worth of savings; one of the back windows had to be pushed up to close all the way; the radio had a mind of its own, turning on and off whenever it wanted; the A/C didn't work. But the tape deck worked. So I had tapes of classic rock and top 40 music purchased from gas stations to enjoy as I drove with the windows down to keep cool from the heat along Interstate 10. And most importantly for later on, the heater still worked in that old clunker. That heater would keep me comfortable and warm for many long miles when I decided to drive up north for Christmas.

I didn't have any family in Texas. My closest relatives were on the West Coast. And while I started to make new friends in the area, my closest friends were all out of state. And during the years prior to my moving out here by myself, my friends and I had spent the past few Christmases together. The truth was, these people were my family.

We were an odd collection of people who struck out on their own, to find their own way. And somehow found ourselves working for the same company, making our own home so far away from the places we came from. And when the holidays rolled around, we found ourselves unable or reluctant to return to the places we came from. It was either too expensive, too far, or truthfully, too painful and too hard to return to the places we had left. So instead, we celebrated the holidays together, and it was a most joyous and wonderful time with friends. It was there that I learned one of the most important lessons of life: Friends are the family that you get to choose. And my new family was wonderful and amazing.

Those were some of the best years of my young life. I was fresh out of high school, just 18 and on my own. I count myself lucky to have fallen into such a wonderful group of adventurous, caring, and fun people. It was an exciting time in my young life. And I was lucky to have shared it with great friends who made every day an adventure and tedious, long workdays bearable and fun. We spent a couple of years together, sharing our lives and celebrating the holidays, having much laughter and joy and good times.

But life has a tendency to change things. And after a few years together, we started to grow up and began to go our different ways, to keep following the dreams and hopes that brought us together in the first place. I was the last to leave the company. Everyone else had left to go elsewhere the year before. It was a new chapter in my life, and I was excited to get started on the next adventure.

But as fun as it was to start a new life in a new place, I sure did miss my friends. So when Christmas came around, at the last minute, I accepted an invitation to spend the holidays with some of my closest friends who had moved far north to Chicago, the Windy City. I had visited them before when they first moved to Chicago. Back then, I didn't have a car. Instead, I purchased a bus ticket and rode the Greyhound bus across mountains and plains, through various cities and landscapes that made this vast country.

I arrived during the end of spring, and I was amazed by the sights and sounds of the Windy City. The architecture was stunning, the food was delicious, and I was excited to see and sample the variety of activities and offerings the city provided. The tall skyscrapers, the zoo, the museums, the lake, the people--it all made for such a great experience, and I knew I was going to visit this city more often in the future.

I remember taking out my winter clothes that I had packed away when I moved to Texas. No need for a winter coat and gloves in my part of Texas. A jacket or hoodie would do nicely most of the time. But for Chicago, I would need the winter gear and a map. My first visit to Chicago, I took the bus, and my friends picked me up at the bus station. This time, I was driving alone, and my friends had moved to a different part of the city.

I had written down the directions and left them on the coffee table next to my keys as I started packing for the long drive north. I didn't know how long it would take, and I reckon it would probably be just as long as my journey from the East Coast to Texas that summer--two days worth of driving. After grabbing my keys and making sure the place was locked up, I jumped in the car and started the long drive north.

I was excited because it was an adventure. I hated driving in the city. All that stop and go traffic and traffic jams are annoying. But I do love driving long distances--it's such a wonderful thing to see and feel the landscape change and roll by as the journey continues. I was fired up from all the excitement and Mountain Dew--I don't drink coffee, it's kind of bitter for me and I need lots of sugar and milk to drink it. So I got my caffeine fix from Mountain Dew instead--sweet, cold, and refreshing! Of course, this also meant that every couple of hours I stopped to fill up on gas, I had to take a leak before driving on.

It takes forever trying to drive out of the wide open spaces of Texas; and with the sun setting, I was still just a few hours away from leaving the state all together. I made a few stops along the way--to stretch my legs or just pick up a refill or snack. I saw some of the most beautiful terrain along the road, and I wished I had brought a camera to capture the spectacular scenery.

It wasn't until I got close to Texarkana--the city straddling the Texas and Arkansas border--that I made a horrible discovery. In my rush and excitement to hit the road and start the journey, I had left the directions to my friends' new place on the coffee table! Worse, I had also left my address book with their phone number on the desk and forgotten to pack it. Ah, hell! I had a big problem! I cursed myself for my idiocy and contemplated my next move. I could get to Chicago with no problem--I had a road atlas to get me there. It was finding my friends' new place that would be troublesome. I remembered the street name and the first two numbers of the address. It was the last two that I was unsure of. I now had to face the choice of either turning around and driving back home for those directions or keep going forward.

I had driven 9 hours straight to get to this point, and the thought of turning back was just ridiculous! There was no way I was going to drive back home 9 hours just to turn around and drive another 9 hours to get back here at this point! So after eating a fast food meal, I jumped back in the car and resumed my journey north. I was young and stupid and foolhardy. But mostly stupid. I was also very determined to make it to Chicago one way or another! I crossed over into Arkansas and made my way north. It was long after midnight when I passed the city of Little Rock. And a few hours more, I stopped at a rural gas station to fill up.

The skies were clear and the stars and moon were out. The air was cool, not chilly, and a few local teens were hanging out in front of the gas station--laughing, drinking sodas, eating candy, and talking. I wondered if this was the local hangout--probably the only place still open after midnight this far out in the country. I couldn't help but smile at their exuberance--there's an innocence and joy that comes with youth, the discovery of one's own self, the growing awareness of the bigger world out there, and a desire to experience it. I hoped that if they decided to venture out there, they would find that the world could be a wondrous and amazing place. And I hoped that they would find friends to share the experience, just like I had all those years ago.

When I left that gas station, I entered the woods and mountains of the Ozark region. I was alone on the road in the quiet darkness of the small hours of the night. The road curved gently along the slopes of the mountains and valleys. Nothing but woods on either side in the moonlit night. My headlights would occasionally catch the entrance to some dirt roads deep in the woods. But for the most part, I was the only car on the winding, empty road. A while later, I came upon a stunning sight. Snow! There was snow on the sides of the road. It had dusted the woods and clung to the trees and blanketed the ground, but the road was clear. It was a surprising sight to see all that snow. It had been years since I had last seen snow! And it brought a smile to my face and renewed my excitement at my destination.

When dawn broke out in orange and pink hues across the skies, I had crossed over into Missouri and was out of the woods. I started to see more cars on the highway as the sun started climbing. I turned into a rest stop and parked. I was finally tired and sleepy from a long day and night of driving. I cracked the window slightly, leaned back in the chair, covered myself with a parka and fell asleep. It was the best nap I had in a long while. And when I woke up about two hours later, I went into the rest stop to refresh myself, drove to a nearby cafe to eat, then I found a gas station to fill up, and hit the road just before noon.

As I continued the journey north, it started to snow. The landscape was covered with it. It had occurred to me that this would be my first time driving in snowy conditions. And heeding the wisdom and sage of advice of my friends from snowy regions, I slowed down and kept a respectable distance from the other drivers. I also followed the 18 wheelers, just far enough to brake safely and yet close enough to drive in their tracks. By the time I stopped for dinner, I was all ready in Illinois. By now, the winds had picked up and it was quite cold. The snow was starting to come down hard. I had to put on my gloves and a beanie to venture out of the car.

After eating and taking a short break, I bought a Chicago city map and plotted my course to my friends' street. Once I worked out my path, I headed back outside to fill up the gas tank in the blistering cold. I looked around and noticed how busy the truck stop was. Several 18 wheelers were parked on the side, a few filling up, some coming from and others going towards the interstate. While I was filling up, I was approached by a fellow about my age or so; he was a hitchhiker. He was asking me where I was headed. I told him I was heading north towards Chicago. He was heading south. He moved on to the other trucks in his search for a ride, while I finished filling up and got back in my car.

I was excited to be close to my destination. But an hour outside of the city, I couldn't help but start to feel drowsy. I pulled off the nearest exit and found myself at a large chain store parking lot. I parked the car and took a 20 minute power nap. And when I got back on the road, I was fully energized and ready to tackle the most challenging part of the journey: figuring out the exact address of my friends' new place! When I finally crossed into Chicago city limits, I let out a whoop of joy at finally making it this far! Now I only had to maneuver my way through busy city traffic and across the streets till I found the right place where my friends lived.

Of course, being unfamiliar with the city, I didn't know which streets were safe and which parts where sketchy. But I soon got a pretty good idea that I was in a rough part of the city. The graffiti walls and burnt out buildings were big clues. That and the fact that when I stopped at a red light, some skinny lady with missing teeth and skanky clothes ran up to my car and started tapping on the window, trying to get me to roll the window down. I couldn't understand what she was saying at first. Then I was stunned to hear her say, "Ten dollars for a blowjob. I'll make you feel real good!"

Oh. My. Gawd! It was a crack whore! The very first one that I've ever come across! I was definitely in the big city now! Now I really wish that I had a camera to capture this moment. Here was a holiday memory that I would definitely never forget. This city definitely puts the "Ho" in holidays! As soon as the light turned green, I took off and left the crack whore behind, eager to get the hell out of those parts.

Eventually, I made it to the nicer parts of the city. When I found the street my friends lived on, I parked the car and got out and looked up and down the houses that lined the street. I figured that I could start knocking on a few doors and see if anyone knew which house my friends lived in. Failing that, I could always find a phone book to look up their names, or as a last resort, find the nearest cop station and hope that they would find me an address based on driving records.

So there I was, snow falling gently down on me, going from house to house, knocking on the door and hoping someone would have an answer for me. Some people weren't home. And those that answered were pretty friendly, but unfortunately, didn't know my friends. After spending half an hour going down the street without any success, I was starting to feel cold and figured it was time to find a phone book or the nearest police station. But right before I got in the car, I decided to take a chance and head for the last house at the other end of the street, just a few houses back from where I parked. And when I knocked on the door, who would answer but my friends! I had found the right house!

After exchanging hugs and retrieving the stuff from my car, my friends asked me how my drive was. So I began to tell my tale of the adventure. And boy, did they laugh at my stupidity for forgetting the directions and my encounter with the crack whore. Apparently, I had driven in the sketchy part of the city. Had I followed their directions, I'd've been on the better side of town and would've have found their place much easier. But still, they cheered at my determination and we celebrated the miracle of my survival and finding the right place. It had taken me 27 hours on the road and through the snow to finally get here. But I did it! I survived! And I had a blast that Christmas and New Year's. Chicago is a fantastic place to celebrate the holidays.

And for many years, that has been one of my most cherished memories. Because I decided to take a chance and make the long journey on my own, with only a hard head and faith that I'd somehow make it. I also cherish it because I enjoyed spending that holiday (and the many that followed) with my friends. I had found my way to Christmas. And it was a great journey.

But over the past few years, I could not help but think about someone else I met on that journey. I wondered what happened to the hitchhiker who was headed south. I wondered if he made it to where he wanted to go. I hope he did. I wonder if he was running from something or maybe he was running towards something better. And I can't help but contemplate if I could've done something more to help him out. I was a hitchhiker once, too. But he seemed determined to go the other way. And I hope he reached his destination, and I hope he found his way. Just like I did so many years ago.

Related Links