When I was a kid I couldn't imagine being away from home at Christmas. After all, how could Santa Claus find you to deliver your presents if you weren't at home. Actually I did think about it, but, no, it would never do to be away. Then when I became an adult it no longer mattered like it used to.
My first Christmas spent away from home was in 1974. I went to Big Bend National Park with a couple of friends. That is quite a story that perhaps I can tell next December. I've since had a few odd Christmases in otherly places, but over the past several years I've not been home in the place where I actually live for Christmas. This past Christmas was no exception, and perhaps more otherly than most of the others have been.
As I related prior to this most recent Christmas of 2009, my wife and I flew back east to my daughter's wedding on December 19--the day of the epic snowstorm in New Jersey and other Eastern U.S. places. As I also said back then I'd rather be driving than flying. I did get my driving opportunity when I started out from New Jersey on Christmas Eve to spend that night in Richmond, VA and then continue on to East Tennessee Christmas Day.
These are interesting times of the year to be out traveling. When we left on that first day the weather was beautifully sunny, but crisp and cold -- nice driving weather. The roads were all cleared by that time, but snow covered the land with a bright, white blanket. We left Jersey in the afternoon so that as we were leaving Baltimore darkness was setting in. As we approached Washington, DC the oncoming traffic was so heavy that it reminded me of one of those disaster films where the city was being evacuated. The southbound traffic was steady, but comfortable. Our Christmas Eve dinner was at a Waffle House somewhere before Richmond, where my wife had chili and I had waffles.
We arrived at our hotel in the Richmond suburb of Glen Allen, where we had reservations at a Springhill Suites Hotel. The room was worn and smallish, but we were only to be there for a few hours and at least the lobby had a business center where I was able to get onto my blog and publish my comments. They also had a free breakfast buffet in the morning which always helps with the budget, and is especially helpful on Christmas morning when open restaurants might have been difficult to find. There were a number of other Christmas travelers having breakfast at 6 AM. It didn't feel much like Christmas as we ate our breakfast and listened to the television weather forecast of snow turning to rain for Christmas Day.
We were out of the room and in the car by 7:30, ready to embark on our day's journey to Maryville, TN, some 450 or so miles away. Howerver, our first stop was Powhatan State Correctional Facility in State Farm, VA, which is about 35 miles east of Richmond. We make it a point to visit my son each year. He lives there at the facility. He once had aspirations of being a rap / metal gangsta and found out what that lifestyle can lead to.
I had never been to the prison on Christmas Day. It was cold, gray, and spitting snow. We arrived just as the visitors center was opening. Several other groups of visitors were arriving at the same time. Going to visit in the prison is kind of like going through airport screening except more intense. And the only things you can take inside with you is ten dollars worth of quarters for the vending machines inside the visiting room. You also bring your driver's license, which they keep for you at the guards station. We were scanned, frisked, and looked over and then eventually admitted to the visitor's area.
The large room of maybe 60 or 70 small tables contained about 20 groups of visitors. Gradually inmates wearing jeans and light blue denim shirts began trickling in to join those who were visiting. Spirits were positive. Most of those present probably came on a regular basis. It was a mix of blacks and whites, regular decent looking folks visiting men of varying ages who looked they were just taking a break from work. Some groups played games like Scrabble or cards, some prayed, while others just talked. Nearly all of the inmates ate food that their visitors had gotten from the vending machines.
Then I saw my son enter the room. I was glad as I watched him approach, but inside I felt so sad. A couple hours out of a year to see my only son. He looked healthy and in good spirits. Like most of the other inmates he had his rough tattoos on his arms and hands. I wish he hadn't done that, but I try to ignore it-- we'd already talked about it in previous years and there wasn't much else to say about it. Waiting for him I had a packaged cheeseburger for him to put in the microwave, a bag of hot potato chips, a Milky Way candy bar, and a Coke. Since my wife and I are each allowed $10 and neither of us need to eat, we let him buy as much as he can eat while we visit. I get him a chicken sandwich, a package of Twinkies, and another drink. He savors the food as we talk and he tells us that it is the best food he's had in a while.
We talk about what he's been up to, which becomes a rather limited conversation. We tell him about his half-sister's recent wedding and our visits with our other daughters. I tell him about my blog, which he says he'll never see because he isn't allowed access to computers. I feel awkward about telling him about too many of the good things we do because I'm afraid it will make him feel bad. Then it's time for us to leave. We give him hugs and tell him to call us. We can't call him. He calls us collect about once a month.
Back in the car, my wife and I talk briefly about the visit. What else can we say? It's sad, but now it's a fact of life. The old brick prison with it's walls and barbed wire topped fences fades behind us as we pass through the beautiful snow covered country side of central Virginia. As we pass through the town of Goochland I make a joke to my wife and remind her how this is where we stopped at the post office last year.
Soon we are on Interstate 64 passing by Charlottesville and heading across the fog shrouded mountains. The weather stays cloudy the entire day and eventually as we near Roanoke a drizzle begins and then turns to rain. We have been hungry for a while and start looking for a Waffle House. It's the only place I would expect to be open. There are no Waffle Houses. We get off the Intertate 81 in Salem to look for a place to eat.
The sidetrip takes us much further out of the way than I had anticipated. We do not see any place to eat. There are still no Waffle Houses. McDonald's and all the other fast food places are closed for Christmas. Now we are getting very hungry. We see a Chinese restaurant that is open, but do not want Chinese food. I am reminded of the movie, A CHRISTMAS STORY. We pass a Denny's that is open, but also very crowded and decide to get back on the Interstate and continue on the road.
In Christianburg, we find the Waffle House we have been hoping for. There is some rollicking 80s hair band music playing inside and a mix of Christmas travelers that I ignore. My wife and I just want to eat and get back on the road. We both get the chili and it's pretty good. Waffle House has chunks of smoked ham in their chili. It sounds weird, but it's pretty good--especially when you haven't eaten since 6 AM and it's now about 2:30. Our meal is quick and we are back on the road in a very short time.
As we near Bristol, the snow that has covered the land the entire day is now gone. Then as we enter Tennessee the rain also goes away. The skies clear and the sun goes down leaving us Christmas travelers in darkness as my wife and I wend our way to our destination. We get to my mother's house at about 7:30 that night just as I had planned.
The entire trip was smooth and comfortable. The scenery was lovely and the traffic was moderate. I was able to listen to the music I like without headphones. I was sitting next to person I like without having to deal with anyone else. I was able to stop when I liked and eat what I liked. What a grand way to travel. You couldn't do that on a plane.
But I tell you. It sure felt good to get home. I don't live there anymore, but it still feels like home. My wife didn't grow up there like I did, but she felt like she was at home too. The familiarity of the surroundings that wait for us each year at Christmas embraced us and said rest--sleep well Christmas travellers and enjoy your week at home.