The Christmas Bus (in June)

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It took me a long time to publish this post, and I hope to catch up before the Bus adventures begin again this summer.

December 25, 2018

I have always loved Christmas. I don’t think it is the holiday itself, but the holiday season, the cold and the cooking and the crafting and the gifting, and oh, yes, the tree. However, I know many people do not feel this way. One of my favorite Christmas quotes is from Douglas Coupland, and as a Gen X kid, it resonates: “Christmas makes everything twice as sad.” The thing is, I totally know what he means, and if you have ever had a sad Christmas, I suspect you do, too. There is so much expectation of joy, a pressure to be happy, and sometimes life doesn’t work out that way. So, yes, I understand, and this post won’t be filled with Christmas cheer, but before I dive into the story of “My Christmas with the Bus,” I thought I would share why I like the holiday at all.

When I was a little girl, I loved the Little House on the Prairie books. I read them over and over, always carefully skipping the part when Jack the dog died. Full disclosure: I avoided the entire book where Jack dies. But I loved their Christmas stories, the idea of everyone secretly making things for everyone else, giving what little they had to others. I loved the idea of being excited about getting an orange. Later when I read Little Women, I experienced much the same thing. This was what Christmas was about for me: making things and giving them away. This Christmas was no different: we got our tree (In the Bus), set it up, and in the afternoons of my vacation I would smell it and be happy. I was busy making and wrapping and cooking—so many things to do—but I also had the trip in the Bus to plan. I had a list with millions of things on it, and I had no idea how I would ever get them all done. It seemed like simply too much, but then, that’s the thing about Christmas. There’s a hard deadline.

We planned a trip to the Central Valley, Fresno, for my aunt Martha’s memorial service, and I was excited and a little scared about traveling on Christmas. I knew we would be traversing strange and new roads, and we planned to camp. I knew the weather was supposed to hold, but what of the elevations, ice and snow, the dreaded Tule fog? I knew we would get everything done in time, but I also knew that some things would remain undone. What I didn’t know was what the trip would bring me.

I originally planned to blog on the trip, but in reality, there was too much to do. We had to camp, and then there was family once we arrived, and it seemed like it would be weird to excuse myself to write about it all. Also, I was tired. It was a hard semester at school, and losing Jim was a blow. I wanted to relax and try to enjoy myself, but then I’m so socially awkward that was a challenge in itself. We were there to celebrate my Aunt Martha’s life, but oddly enough, I had never met her children. I knew my aunt Martha, though, and her husband, “Killer” Hicks. True story: he wasn’t really a killer. He was, however, in a “gang” in Fresno back in the long ago day. I asked Martha what they did in the gang once, and she gave me a sidelong glance. “Drank beer. Kissed girls. Maybe tipped a cow or two.” In the arch of her eyebrow I saw the truth: Martha was one of those girls, a good girl, perhaps, but not all the way good. She always had a bit of a devil in her.

But in the run up to the trip, I wasn’t actually thinking about Martha much. After all, she died in the summer, and I was thinking about Christmas and logistics. What highways would we take? How fast would we have to go? Would there be wind, rain, snow? Would I get everything done? That’s where my mind was, and also on the season itself, wondering why I persist in doing all these things, the chocolate bark and the cards for the neighbors and the stockings and gifts for the kids and the sock monsters I was making for my “Beast” friend’s girls…but then Robert told me why: “This is just what you do. It’s part of why I love you.” Robert doesn’t love Christmas, but he loves that I love Christmas, and that is why I am a very happily married woman. I should remind him of that when it is late and I am using the glue gun and asking him to hold something for just another few minutes.

But that’s not to mention the Santa hat. Somewhere along the way I decided that the Bus needed a Santa hat. I tried to buy one, but Google “Large Santa hat” and you will find that the idea of large on the Internet and what will fit a 1966 VW bus are very different. I guess I could have gone with the readily available antlers, but that’s not my style, so in the middle of wrapping and making food and packing and setting up the best dog sitter on earth and basically in Christmas frenzy, I found myself making a large Santa hat…big enough for a 1966 VW bus.

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We had a nice Christmas Eve with Robert’s parents and my mom, but we were all a-flutter with preparations. Battery operated Christmas lights for the campground? Check. Santa Hat? Check. Gifts packed? Check. Did you remember the camera/charger/laptop/flashlights/long johns/snacks/map/shampoo? Check. Christmas morning we opened our stockings, bid farewell to the dogs (“Why aren’t we going? We are sad. We give you guilt. Sad, sad, sad”), and then we set off to see Robert’s brother and head to Ojai to camp.

The wind was already starting when we left. For those who don’t live in LA, wind is a thing, here. We have Santa Ana’s, the devil wind, and we have wind events, and even something called a “Great Basin Windstorm” that can come our way and make those palm trees wave. I once got blown out of Red Rock campground near Mojave in a windstorm that moved my Volvo wagon and threatened to overturn a dumpster. So, wind was forecast, and we were nervous about it. In the Idiot’s guide to VW’s, wind and bus=NO. You are like a sail, and the high profile of the vehicle makes you more likely to, well, sail. Jim once told me about driving a bus over the Golden Gate in high wind: “I was changing lanes, but not because I meant to,” he said. So, yeah, wind. By the time we were on Interstate 5 in Burbank, I was already a little worried, but so far, so good…until we hit a curve and the passenger side door opened on the freeway. If you haven’t been in a situation like this, and I suspect that you haven’t, as most cars stay closed on freeways, let me tell you about it. You know those movies where a hole opens in an airplane and everything is sucked out? Yeah. Like that. But I survived—gotta get that door fixed—and soon enough we were heading to the Newhall Pass. With traffic. And wind. I had to put my head down and just look at the floorboards. I tried to concentrate on just being there, being OK, but I also told Robert to get off at the first exit. And we did, and we did, and soon we were on the Old Road, and the wind was buffeting us, but going 45 instead of 60, it was much better.

We stopped at a gas station in Castaic so I could buy some dreadful coffee and we could put the Santa hat on, so Robert’s niece and nephew would know the Bus was in the Christmas spirit. The wind was crazy, alive, a living thing hitting us, and we struggled to get the hat on. The pom-pom was whacked against the roof as we drove up to the house, but the hat stayed on. And then we were there, and it was time for family and children, who didn’t seem to care about the Bus in a Santa hat, but I did enjoy examining the Barbie Dream house. Now Barbie’s toilet flushes! Who knew? I was nervous and awkward as I always am with family, and I knew I was in for a whole bunch of that with my family, but it was nice to see Robert’s brother and his wife, and the kids. However, we had an appointment to keep at the campsite, so we were soon on the road.

The road from Castaic to Ojai is lovely. First you pass through farmland, and then you wind into the hills. It was Christmas, so there was very little traffic. The Bus was going through his paces, shifting and laboring on the small hills, but we were in high spirits. We stopped for gas in Ojai, everything closed, and I reminded myself to spend some more time there—I haven’t had a chance to explore the lovely little town. And then we were there, the campsite, Wheeler Gorge, site 18. We were so excited that the burning prohibition had been lifted that we bought two bundles of wood, and as we set up camp, I hoped the winds would die down. They were howling through the canyon, lifting leaves into airborne confetti, and we could hear the trees creaking. Then we heard a tremendous crash, and I realized trees were breaking. After the second tree fell, I understood that two bundles of wood was likely ambitious—we simply couldn’t have a fire in such high winds. For those who don’t know California, it is a beautiful state with so many environments, from rolling farmlands to high mountains to seascapes to deserts, but the thing is, you have to respect nature here. Wheeler Gorge was singed in the Thomas fire of 2017, so if you camp there, you will see some burn, but to light a fire in a windstorm? Well, you’d have to be an idiot. (More full disclosure: we saw some idiots).

So, what I pictured as us settling down by a fire, all the Christmas lights on and the Santa hat (Yes, I put it on once we arrived), looking at the rustic cheer turned into…something else. Yes, we had the Christmas lights, and the Santa hat being pelted by falling branches and leaves, but when I tried to set up the stove to make some soup, a stray gust tore the propane can away. So, where were we? We were in Wheeler Gorge, sitting in the cab of the bus, on Christmas 2018, eating nuts and cheese, telling stories, singing songs, and ready to go to bed. Thankfully, like a turtle with his shell, the bus is a home wherever you are, and so it was for us.

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When we got up on December 26th, the wind had stopped, but it was cold. It was exciting to be on an adventure and heading out on a new trip. I had no idea where the road would take us, and I looked forward to discovering it, but I was also nervous about the highways and the road. It turns out I was right to worry. The road from Ojai to Maricopa, Highway 33, is a road that goes nowhere, but it turns out that nowhere is beautiful. I could write many, many words about the trip, but the notes I jotted in my journal will suffice:

33 drive, snow high in the hills, moonrise,

Strange country, wild

Coming into flats, eagles,

Weird almost towns

Why are people growing alfalfa here?

99 rolling 99

Out with the truckers (and the kickers, and the cowboys)

Buck Owens and Merle Haggard streets

The Boys of Bakersfield

Good Ol’ Bus

 

And then we were there, another anonymous hotel (motel?) like the one we stayed at in Salinas, but with family. We set up in our nice room—as someone who has more often than not stayed in dives, I’m always a little amazed by the sanitary and anonymous niceness of the corporate suites—and we met family and ate the “dinner” provided with our room. But it was great to see folks. My cousin Ross, a man I had never met, was instantly recognizable to me: he looked like family in that indefinable way that family simply is (in our case, wide jaws, distinguished features). He mentioned later that he could see my resemblance to his sister, someone else I had never met, but then she was the one who brought us all there to celebrate her mother, my aunt, so I was excited to meet her. Ross’s lovely and charming wife Elena joined us, and his daughter Nicole, and of course my father and Paula, people whose faces and forms are so dear and familiar to me. I felt thankful to be together.

The next day was one of those “we are getting ready for a big family thing but today you can do what you want days,” if that is even a way to describe a day, and so for us it was. We met up with Cousin Henry, Allison’s son, and headed out to do errands. There was some confusion about our new bus insurance, so we needed to hit Triple A, and we needed long johns from Target and whiskey and a lapboard so I could do laps, but along the way we stopped at a great bookstore my oldest and best friend had mentioned to me. There aren’t many memorable places in Clovis, CA as far as my recent trip could show me, but the Book Barn is a real destination: https://www.clovisbookbarn.com/. I had a wonderful hour wandering the shelves, and as book store connoisseur, I can say this place can compete with many of the best (Yes. I’ve been to Portland, I know all about Powell’s. I have a Powell’s coffee cup. Really.) I was super excited to find a relatively rare copy of Carey McWilliams’s volume on Japanese internment camps, which I snatched up with the joy that only book hunters know: finding the thing you weren’t looking for but which was exactly the right thing. It seemed appropriate to the setting, too, and whenever I see its’ elegant red spine in my collection, I will know just what book it is, and where I got it, Clovis, so near where so many of the interned were taken from.

People think of the California Central Valley as being a Republican and thus likely white stronghold, but as an adult, I’ve always thought my father’s experience growing up there in the valley bears examining. My dad has always wanted to know “Where are you from? Who are your people?” and in some odd sense this is about his constant desire to connect to family, to find out if you are a Ford or a Hicks or somewhere in between, but it also comes from his multicultural upbringing in the Central Valley. He simply loves to meet people from other parts of the world. Look, you can’t get whiter than Hicks farming the Valley, and that is definitely my Dad’s heritage. The Fords were coal miners from the Cumberland Gap, so we have that, too. I mean, seriously, Hicks means just what you think it means. My grandfather was so proud that he never moved more than ten miles from where he was born, and he used to say terrible things about people of other races.

That said, my father grew up in a multicultural stew. I know that’s not how we think of the Central Valley, but we should. As white as my white father is, he has held a lifelong fascination with Japanese culture due to the children he grew up with, and he considers William Saroyan a literary friend, giving him a connection to Armenian culture. He once told me that his first words were “Beso mi culo,” which I take as an apocryphal story, but I’ve never known my father to be racist. I know what a flashpoint “What are you?” is for many, and my father, as a White man and older, must certainly provoke this when he asks, but in his case it is real curiosity—he loves to know people from other parts of the world or even this country. In writing this the first time, I hesitated to include this section, given what a flashpoint race is, and my own discomfort talking about it as a white woman. I asked Robert tonight if I should cut all of this, and he said, “Are you telling the truth?” I remembered that I had promised last year to tell the truth but tell it slant, but then I thought about it. Was what I was saying—that my father’s upbringing in a multicultural part of the world had made him eager to engage with other cultures, not racist, although the way he approaches the topic may seems racist to some—and I realized that it was just basically true, no slant. And then I realized that even the fact that I am thinking about this and worrying about it shows just how far we have to go. I told Robert that we are all racists, something I learned studying Anthropology, and he corrected me: “We’re all ethnocentric. It’s not the same thing.” Ah, yes, I remember making this point myself. And we can learn to overcome our ethnocentrism through education and experience.

I do hope to get there, someday. I want to know more about this place my father comes from, and California and even the United States. I had even planned this trip to include a trip to Allensworth, the African American Utopian community in the heart of the valley, but we had too much family to see, too many difficult roads to traverse, and not enough time. We will get there, though, and I hope then to think more about what this idea of an America that was once White (and never was White), will be like then.

Author’s note: this is the draft I completed right after the trip. However, life intervened, and I was unable to return to this until now in June. If you are interested in reading more of how life intervened, those posts are coming, and then new adventures in the Bus. With a puppy. Really.

After the day of errands we headed to my cousin’s house for a family gathering, but once again life stepped in. There was a terrible car accident out on the country roads that bisect that part of the world, and we were caught in the traffic jam. It was especially fraught and terrible because my father lost his mother in a car accident, so while my cousin was lovely and it was great to see everyone, I was once again in my familiar state of anxiety and fear. I felt like I was living in a bad country song, as my diary notes: “…like, is this all some big weird cosmic country song, or what?” My cousin told us about how to her summer always meant my father and the Bus—she’d see it parked at their house and know Uncle Bill was there and summer had arrived—and she told me all I ever did was swim and she thought I was totally spoiled. I felt bad when she said that because my memory of myself as a child is socially awkward and shy, and very little has changed, and all I do now when I can is swim, so perhaps things don’t change as much as we think they do.

The day of the memorial dawned in that gray Tule fog so endemic to the Valley, but it burned off before the service. The memorial itself was held at the Sanger Cemetery (East on Gettysburg, Right on Temperance, Left on East Ashlan, Right on North Academy, Left on East California, Left on Rainbow). We drove the bus out the farm roads, booming along the byways, the winter fields fallow and dried and brown with bright green weeds in the ditches. It is so flat in that country that you can see for miles in every direction, but what do you see? Houses, ranches, farmhouses, fields…I was thinking about my grandfather, how he loved that country, how to him these anonymous roads would hold the meaning of place. He would have known what all the orchards grew and what all the agriculture meant. The cemetery was cold and brilliant in the sun, and the service was lovely. I tried to overcome being shy, felt awkward, as if I was forever fixed in the amber of my childhood and teen-hood, but I was also thinking about Aunt Martha and the Martha stories.

After the service we met for lunch at an Italian restaurant, just the kind I remember from my childhood visits to the valley, and everything was very nice. I did get to hear some political discourse of the kind I rarely encounter in my liberal Los Angeles bubble (aside from what I see on Twitter), and after lunch I got to visit my “Beast” friend and her lovely girls in Kingsburg. We even stopped to put the Santa hat on the bus, and while I know her children already know I am odd, arriving in a red VW microbus with a Santa hat did little to change that perception.

After everything I was so tired, and I tried to nap, but I found my brain was buzzing. I finally relaxed by swimming laps in the mostly heated pool while my second cousins did all the work of preparing dinner. We took over the barbeque and the dining room and had a feast—carne asada, guacamole, beans, tortillas, and wine. The dinner was especially lovely because we took turns telling stories about Martha. I told the story about Killer, but everyone there knew that one. After all, they knew Martha much better than I did. I thought about how I landed at Martha’s house in Houston on a cross country trip with my crazy friends from San Francisco and how my years of being a vegetarian went out the window when she served me ham. And I thought about how we all finally relaxed together, my weirdo friends and Francis and Martha, staying up late to drink and play pool on a tiny pool table in one of the bedrooms. I wished then that I had done more or said more or stayed in touch more with Martha, but I loved hearing her children and grandchildren remember her. I think that my life will be well lived if there are people to tell stories about me when I am gone, and while I do not have children to assume that role, perhaps my dogs will learn to speak English “And she fed us every night! Kibble! Remember how she used to yell at us when we peed in the house? Oh, those were good times.”

Then it was morning and time to leave, saying goodbye, wanting to get on the road early to avoid the ice in the mountains. Here’s what I recorded:

Running down the old 99

“What was that?” The hubcap came off.

The mystery of the metallic ping we’d heard in Clovis? The muffler came apart in a wide, flat, deserted valley and we farted all the way home.

Across the lonely mountains again, trying to imagine living there. Site 18, fire, Christmas lights, fixing the bed, 11 hours of sleep, then the cold morning packing up, and farting our way back home.

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That’s the muffler clamp, fixed, now (Thanks, Robert!)

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