First Christmas away can be the loneliest

Editor’s note: This is another of TGI staff sharing stories of favorite Christmas memories. If you would like to share a story of a favorite Christmas memory to be published in TGI, please email it to thasslinger@thegardenisland.com

I had one Christmas in Wyoming that was incredibly lonely.

I mean that in positive way, looking back, because growing up my family had pulled out all the traditional stops for Christmas. We had a huge, decorated tree where gifts would slowly pile up for me and my two sisters in the days leading up, until finally, on Christmas morning, it would look like a mountain when we’d fall down the stairs in our pajamas.

I was incredibly lucky.

I remember getting a Bryan Cox football jersey one year, a Starter parka of the Atlanta Falcons, Charles Barkley’s shoes, boxes of baseball cards.

We’d go to midnight Mass Christmas Eve, and afterward, Dad and Mom would let us drink Coke and grenadine with a cherry floating in the cubes of ice — a big treat around our house.

I remember one year stopping at Safeway after church and picking up the soda.

“People work on Christmas Eve?” I asked.

“Yes,” Dad said practically. “And you will, too, one day.”

So my first Christmas away from my family I was working in Wyoming and had limited time off, so I stuck around. It’s a grand, rugged state and a place you could run out of gas if you weren’t careful, so far spread were the towns and the gas stations, and that could be perilous the way the wind and snow blasted across the plains between the mountain passes.

“Now listen,” Dad told me, my first year out there in the working world. “Christmas can be incredibly lonely when you’re by yourself.”

His gift to me that year was a hotel room in Jackson Hole over the holiday, with a reservation for dinner Christmas night. Jackson is an upscale skiing town, what Princeville would be here, say, except instead of a burst of tropical rain, you’d hear the sudden clump of snow falling from the pine trees.

His theory was comfort helps with lonely. Parts of him remind me of Al Pacino’s character in “Scent of a Woman.” Small parts, but parts nonetheless.

I loaded my dog in my small car after work and drove from Laramie as far west as I could make it before the wind blew the snow in drifts that looked like tornadoes. The highway patrol was waiting at Lander, or maybe it was Thermopolis, to pull cars off the road as they shut down the highway. I stayed the night in a motel on the side of the road. Hotels take dogs when the roads close because they know there’s no other option.

Wyoming is a majestic, terrifying state and I always had the feeling a sense of death hung in the air. Not decaying death, but death like a consequence, an understanding you have to obey everything about the wild land.

I ate food from a gas station. The hotel carpet had coffee stains. The next day was Christmas Eve.

We headed out first thing in the morning, cutting north up the state as the wall of snow on the side of the road grew higher. Near Jackson, the road looked like a tunnel.

But the sky turned blue as I pulled into town and you could see all of the mountains at the town’s doorstep. I unloaded my stuff in the grand, empty hotel and we headed to the cross country skiing loop.

“No dogs,” the caretaker told us.

“He’s well-behaved,” I lied.

But it’s a battle I’ve had everywhere, not just there. Paws ruin the groomed trail, after all, so we drove back into town and found a park by the side of a roaring, violent-looking river and plowed our own trail along its side.

I was nervous watching my pup prance. One wrong move. That was how it always was. You had to be a little guarded. We cut inland and at times my skies stuck in grass underneath the snow or would scrape concrete if there was a path.

It got the job done, and we went back into town and looked for a place to eat. The town is laid out in a square. We saw it all after one loop. The sun was still out so I could tie my pup outside with a blanket and I sat in a seat that was actually a horse saddle inside the Silver Dollar Bar.

Nobody was in there except me and the bartender.

I had a beer in the empty, wooden place and told myself it was just as well skiing by the river but I knew, too, that here it was, just like Dad said.

“Well, Dad,” I said to nobody (I just probably thought it, really). “It’s lonely, all right.”

I had another beer in the saddle but kept an eye on the sun because when it goes down or gets blocked by the trees you have to change plans. When it did, I grabbed my pup and we went back to the hotel and now, looking back, I wonder if Eddy and I — that’s his name Ed, Eddy or Edward — were the only ones in the whole place.

Christmas Day was like that, too. We walked the town loop twice, three times, but the sun went down in the early afternoon and everything turned gray. I ate well. I sat in the saddle again.

I remember when Eddy and I were walking the loop in the morning a boy tried to hug Eddy but Eddy, always thick like a fullback, never stopped and walked right over the skinny little twig, and I was tremendously proud of him because the boy had been picking on his sister moments before.

I missed my sisters, I missed my family. It would get easier, I knew, and it has. But it was rewarding, too, going through a small rite of passage I had no idea about when we were buying soda years before, happy that every single Christmas was everything we always wanted.

•••

Tom Hasslinger is The Garden Island’s managing editor.

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