F9 – And They Lived Their Lives – Three Thousand Miles of Thanksgiving

And They Lived Their Lives

Three Thousand Miles of Thanksgiving

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All years are the same length, 365.25 days long, with almost 24 hours in each day.  Yet, some years stand out, with the makings of a Hallmark Movie.  2012 was one such for us.  I retired at the end of January.  Marian and I bike toured Washington State and the Oregon Coast.  Then, the adventure turned to drama.  My father made a life changing transition to an assisted living facility.  That Christmas our family gathered together for our first Christmas in many years   The time was special.  In the movies, the main character does a voice over as the camera zooms out, the end credits start to roll, and the final music comes up.
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Except, that is never the end of the story.  All of us went on with our lives.  I had intended to return to Wyoming to help sell the house, but we put that plan on hold when one of my siblings wanted to wait.  And, our mountain biking trip to Moab, with a swing through Wyoming never happened.  Elizabeth, our daughter, at our urging, marched in her graduation ceremony, and moved back home to prepare for the next phase of her education. We celebrated an unexpected summer visit by Paul, our nephew.  Our last natural opportunity to return to Wyoming faded away when David, our son, drove solo, to Wyoming, for the start of his second year at the University of Wyoming.
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So, the end of 2013 neared, and we had yet to return to Wyoming. The big opportunities were Thanksgiving and Christmas.  The year before, we had spent Christmas in Wyoming, before bringing David back to California for a week or so before he returned to school.  He told us he wanted to spend as much of his Christmas in California as possible. That meant we would spend Thanksgiving with our families, in Wyoming.  Our timing was perfect.  As it turned out, Marian and I were the only out-of-staters to celebrate Thanksgiving with our parents.
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To be fair, Marian’s oldest brother, Jim, had obligations in Colorado.  And her sisters, Cathy and Susan, had come from the UK and Oregon to spend much time with her mother during the summer.  And, while my sister, Joyce, battled the flu in Jackson, my brother, Steve, went about his pastoral duties in Michigan.  Joyce’s daughter, Andrea, was just starting a new job in Washington, DC.  And, our own daughter, Elizabeth, could not risk leaving work.  We missed them all, but understood their absence.
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Monday – 25 November
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We set out on that old, familiar route, traversed so many times during our 30 years in California.  We did not join I-80, until we reached Sacramento, instead taking I-580 and US-99.  We climbed Donner Pass, almost devoid of snow.  That was good news for travelers, but ominous for California, faced with a possible third year of drought.  We crossed the endless miles of barren Nevada, even more desolate in winter than summer, if that were possible.  We spent the night in Wendover, that dreary little outpost of gambling on the Utah border.  Even the false cheeriness of the bright lights could mask the lurking emptiness.
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Tuesday – 26 November
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Climbing out of bed, robbed of an hour by the time zone change, we ventured onto the famed Bonneville Salt Flats.  We quickly adapted to the 80 MPH speed limit, congratulating the victory of common sense on that long, flat, straight, stretch of road.  We passed through Salt Lake City and began the long climb to Evanston.  We remembered the trials of our October 2012 trip, with heavy snow, ice, and blizzard conditions.  Happily, the steep slopes were dry, lit by the sun, and little traffic stood in our way.
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East of Park City, near Coal Canyon, we came to the final rest area before Wyoming.  In Echo Canyon, the north side of I-80 features a stunning canyon face.  The observer must earn the view, for it is not entitled.  Otherwise, the stunning photo would be as common as baby pictures.  A steep little path led me up to the observation bench.  I was happy to not wrestle 100 pounds of Surly and panniers up that mean little slope.  My heart rate soared into Zone 4, maybe Zone 5.  Marian, smarter than I, stayed below, reading the bulletin boards.
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We finished the drive to Evanston, another outpost on the edge of Utah.  Other trips came to mind.  Once, I overfilled our mini-van with oil, and we had to return to a garage there.  Expecting a monstrous bill, I happily paid $35 for an oil change.  On another trip, we drove too late, and found no rooms in either Park City or Evanston.  We spent several chilly hours at the Rest Area, before driving on to Cheyenne.
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Now in Wyoming we drove up and down huge ground swells, perhaps remnants of the geological turbulence that created the Wasatch Mountains on the east side of Salt Lake City.  Then we were on the High Plains, and the Continental Divide Basin.  The transcontinental railroad builders picked the High Plains for their route because the grade is relatively constant, with few rivers or mountains, all the way from the Missouri River at the eastern edge of Nebraska, until reaching Utah.
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We stopped at Little America, a huge truck stop, standing in majestic isolation, on the prairie.  When our children were young, we often stopped.  Our little ones always spotted the billboards promising ice cream cones.  Once, they cost a nickel.  Now, they cost fifty cents.  They would gaze, in wonder, at the crystal chess set, wondering if they could ever afford it for my birthday.  And we must have walked by that dinosaur a hundred times.
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Last year, our son, David, enrolled at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie.  He decided on Geology.  Wyoming has a good Geology program, comparing favorably to UC Davis.  The tuition, room and board costs shocked us.  Wyoming was actually less expensive than UC Davis.  It was, in part, because of the California heavily subsidizing lower-income families, including illegal immigrants, at the expense of middle class taxpayers.  The suffering taxpayers wind up paying, not only for their own children, but many others as well.  We happily added 130 miles and several hours to our trip to pick him up in Laramie.
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The campus exuded that special, empty feeling, of once bustling walkways and lobbies deserted, people walking quietly, talking in hushed voices.  A single, bored woman staffed the front desk.  She hardly gave us a glance.  As we drove past landmarks, familiar to us from 33 years ago, we caught up with his life.  David’s semester was almost done, with but one more week of classes before finals.  He was ready for the long semester to end.  We joked that, should Marian and I get caught in a snow storm that lasted very long, we could drive back to California with him.  David was not amused.
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We arrived in Casper, well after dark.  We went to my father’s house, and settled in for the night.  The daughters of my brother, Steve, are also staying at the house.  My mother and father always prided themselves on hospitality, and that gift continues to this day.
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Wednesday – 27 November
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The next morning I woke up and looked out the south windows. Seeing the Mountain, again, was like laying eyes on an old friend.  Relieved that endless hours of driving, we relaxed.  The skies were blue, a gentle breeze rustled the branches, and the temperature rose into the 50’s.  The weather was beautiful.  Amazingly, there was almost no wind.  Nor was there any wind on Thanksgiving Day.  But it would make up for it, with a vengeance as the week ended.
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Our plan was simple.  If the weather held, we would eat dinner with Marian’s family on Wednesday and Friday.  We would eat Thanksgiving dinner with my family, my first Wyoming Thanksgiving in 34 years.  We would also spend Saturday evening with my family, unless the weather fell apart.  In which case, we would leave for California as late as we dared.
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We went to see my father.  He was in great spirits, happy to see us.  I remembered those stressful, frantic days in October, when we moved him in.  It would have been natural and understandable for him to resent what happened. Instead, ever the forward thinking, positive person that he is, he has made a new home for himself.  Unlike his final years on Jonquil, he has many friends, a social life, and is happy with his comfortable lot.  We are so happy for him.
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He will be moving to a new apartment in the complex.  His wing, the oldest in the facility, will be given over to the needs of the memory unit, and Alzheimer’s victims.  We visited the wing he will be moving to.  The apartments are larger, with a true bedroom.  In addition, he will have room for a small kitchen table and more sofa’s in his setting room.  Lou Ann, my sister, will try to secure a south-facing room so he can see the mountain in the distance, and nearby life, rather than the top of a shingled roof.  He might move before the end of the year.
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We went to see Marian’s mother.  Beth sported a new hair cut, very similar to one her mother wore.  We thought it looked great on her.  Eric, and his wife, Dawn made delicious home-made pizza.  Dawn was the wizard of the kitchen.  After the fantastic meal we spent time looking at pictures in Beth’s Photo Frame Beth.  We laughed at some, talked about others, and mastered the controls so we could zoom in on some, pause, and go back.  Later, we tried to FaceTime Marian’s sister, Susan, in Oregon, but she did not pick up.  Undeterred, we got hold of Marian’s oldest brother, Jim, in Colorado.
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Thursday – 28 November
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Thanksgiving Day dawned clear and mild. It was more than we could have hoped for. The clan planned to gather at my father’s house. The prospect of my first Wyoming Thanksgiving in many years thrilled me.  My last one, in my Senior Year , was an impromptu affair.  A snow storm closed all the highways out of Laramie, except for the Medicine Bow Cutoff. I invited my room-mate, Mike, from Buffalo, New York. Snow blocked my then girlfriend, Marian, from crossing the 50 miles to Cheyenne.  She came, too.
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We expected the first arrivals about 2 PM.  Ben, my father’s cousin, arrived at noon.  He and my father have known each other for many years.  Ben is the perfect example of retiring to something, rather than retiring from something.  After living and working for many years in Oregon, he moved to Casper.  He had helped found several wagon train clubs in Oregon.  In Casper, he continued that practice.  Eventually, he heard about an epic Wagon Train being organized.  He promptly retired. 
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He organized and led many other wagon trains. Among others, he led treks along the Mormon Trail, the Bozeman Trail, and the California.  His swan song is a three year trek from North Carolina to either the Oregon Coast, or the California Coast.  He is lining up sponsors, since the trains include motorized support vehicles, and infrastructure.  Funds pay for countless things, small and large.  A large amount of his preparatory work is to secure permissions to cross private lands, and camp overnight at various localities.  Ben recounted that he was not always successful in getting permissions.  On the Bozeman Trail, Ted Turner, that famous millionaire, not of Wyoming, refused permission to pass over some of his land.  But, generally, people understand the significance of the wagon trains, and are eager to play a part in the wagon trains.
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The kitchen was a popular gathering spot, which would have pleased my mother to no end.  We always gathered in the kitchen, whether in Sidney, or cramped Country Club, or this spacious kitchen.  The stove and the oven were always the center of our home.  Several times, through the day, I remembered how much I missed her, wishing she could be with us.  To talk to her, one more time, would be an indescribable gift.  Still, looking at her daughter, her grand children, and her great grand children, she was with us.
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When it came time, my siblings and I had children.  The cousins fell into two groups.  My sisters had their children first, and the ages meshed almost perfectly.  Being that they lived in Wyoming, the cousins knew each other well.  My brother and I, living far from Wyoming, had our children later.  They came to know each other through summer visits to Wyoming.  Still, there is an undeniable blood bond.
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A family gathering is a perfect reminder that time never stops.  As I sat there, remembering holidays long past, I realized I had become my parents and my grandparents.  In those far away days, I would see the graying oldsters sitting at tables, talking about things I hardly knew.  Knowing these people were important to me, I would listen for as long as I could.  And then I would drift away, to be with those I knew well.
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Of course, holidays are for more than distant relatives meeting each other.  The holidays also allow parents to relink with their families.  Two-day drives and dining room tables afford a special opportunity with our loved ones.  Gone for a time are the trials and tensions of the outside world.  It was heartening to see parents holding children, and talking.
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The smaller children did what they do best.  They played.  They giggled.  They cried.  We rejoiced in their endless energy and exuberance. I feel sad for those single child families, with perhaps one or two other cousins. I would not trade large family gatherings for all the money and career success in the world.
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Thanksgiving spilled over into Friday.  My two Aunts, Virginia and Beth, came up from Torrington.  Lou Ann picked up my father, and we had lunch with them.  I plunged into the unconditional love of these two exceptional women. They treated us to stories of my mother.  They told me how fine a man was my father. For a time, my grand mother and grand father were sitting nearby, listening and nodding in loving approval. We had a special time, and I felt particular sadness at this goodbye.
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Friday – 29 November
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With hardly a chance to catch our breaths, we were back to the original plan, stopping by a supermarket before going on to see Marian’s Mother. David had volunteered to make beef broccoli for Marian’s family. He set up shop, preparing the meal. He began his cooking journey, years before, with deserts. On Friday night, his creation was delicious, and well received. One person took the words of the first President Bush to heart and refused to eat their broccoli. That left more for the rest of us.
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Eric asked us to bring our photo scanner.  He is contemplating electronically capturing his Grand Mother’s diaries.  He wanted to draw on our photo scanning experiences.  The diaries were kept in a variety of journals.  Some were simple spiral notebooks, while others were carefully bound, tiny books.  We decided it was entirely possible.  Scanning is the first step for archiving.  The second, and most time-consuming step, to post processing to improve the image, or to make the text more readable.  Eric might make e-copies and leave readability improvements to others.  Creating a relational database from the entries would be a life-time effort.
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Saturday – 30 November
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Saturday was a bonus day.  Weather permitting, we would stay in Casper.  Otherwise, we would take David back to Laramie and race any pursuing storm out of the state.  A weather system was moving in Monday evening or Tuesday, so we were happy to stay for a final get together with my family, hoping to see those we had missed on Thanksgiving.
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My father was too tired to come for a third day, having already done Thanksgiving Dinner and lunch with my Aunts.  Luke and his two sons, as well as Rachael and her two daughters.  We wished Joyce, Dan, and Shaun could have come.  So, too, we missed Steve, Dawn, and Reis.  We also missed Jason and Amanda because of work and illness.
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We mixed yet another set of cousins together.  The result was predictable.  Within a short time, a whirling mass of children, worthy of a Warner Brothers Looney Tunes swirl of cats and dogs and rabbits and ducks and skunks and prospectors and coyotes and road runners.  Soon, our son David tumbled into the melee. The little ones mobbed.  He had no chance.  He growled menacingly, but they were not fooled.  They swarmed him.  The end came suddenly, too horrible to watch.
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Mere inches from the edge of the vortex, adults carried on normal conversations.  In spite of being in Wyoming for four days, Lou Ann and I found little time to talk.  So, while the noise grew, we talked in a normal tone of shout.  The noise that slightly distracted us would have shattered non-parents.
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Sunday – 1 December
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Early the next morning, before the sun was up, we loaded the car. With the sun just peeking out, we headed to the Medicine Bow Cutoff, and Laramie. While Marian and David slept, I watched an ominous cloud bank forming to the south. Up on Shirley Rim, the wind howled, and low flying clouds zipped past, almost in arms reach.  We dropped David off at his dorm.  The quiet and solitude of the dorms, before 10 AM, probably seemed like a relief, an oasis of calm and order, after the chaos of Thanksgiving.
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Marian and I sallied forth, into the winds of Wyoming.  An I-80 message board announced high winds and blowing snow ahead.  We raced around Elk Mountain.  We never saw snow, but the winds howled.  We crept around huge semis as they rolled and wallowed in a wind-swept waltz.  One soft sided semi listed heavily, perhaps already damaged, with the worst of the winds yet to come.  We hope he made it to a safe haven.  Driving on, we passed underpowered cars. Those cars, with 35 MPG on the flat, probably burned gas at twice that rate.  The old Taurus simply plowed on, with power to spare.
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We used three hours to take David to Laramie.  We hoped to spend the night somewhere in Nevada.  Still, we might not even leave Wyoming.  We reached Evanston, and descended to Salt Lake City in the late afternoon.  We threaded our way through the city, escaping rush hour.  On the north shore of the Great Salt Lake, we took advantage of the 80 MPH limit.
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Afternoon drifted into evening.  The first day of December had run its course.  The skies darkened to the north.  We watched rare pastels that water-color painters work so hard to match.  They usually fail, in part because the view is almost unbelievably beautiful in its simplicity.  Into the growing night, ahead of us, another beautiful panorama unfolded, one we would have missed, had we crossed earlier, or later.
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Taking advantage of the time change, we drove on into the inky blackness.  We reached Winnemucca.  Weary, we pulled in for the night
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Monday – 2 December
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Early the next morning, we woke up sooner than we expected.  Instead of being tired and sleeping until noon, we were ready to finish our journey.  We knew we had about six hours of driving.  We listened to the weather casters bemoaning expected single digit temperatures on Tuesday. Outside, it was a balmy 55 degrees, with only a little wind.
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The railroad was to our right for much of our journey.  We crossed the last of Nevada, and reached Reno, that faint echo of Las Vegas.  The arid hills and rocky flats fell away as we climbed Donner Pass.  Our eyes rejoiced as we passed into a land of sharp colors.  Gone were the subtle tones of desert rocks and sun blasted sand, replaced by vibrant greens and tall trees. As we cleared the local traffic, we pondered how Sunday might have been, with bumper-to-bumper traffic.  For most of the 7,000 foot descent, we drove at whatever speed we wished, unencumbered by large trucks or frantically swerving cars.
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We pulled into our driveway before 3 PM, safe and sound.  Elizabeth was at work.  Our pets mobbed us.  Sierra, our Samoyed, greeted us with her ear-piercing bark, awakening a range of hearing I thought I had long-lost.  The cats milled around, insisting they had not been fed in weeks.
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We had only been gone a week and a day, but we had stepped into another reality.  Now we were back.  This trip was happier, more calm than the year before.  We enjoyed the people we wanted to visit, and avoided being bogged down by things like scanning photos, celebrating a 90th birthday, or preparing for Christmas.  The pace was frantic, but we found many reasons to be thankful.  Especially, we celebrated Thanksgiving with our families, my first in 34 years.  And most of all, I am thankful for my wife, Marian, who cooked and washed far more dishes than were her share.
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