Thanksgiving in the Valley of the Shadow of Death
Part One

text & photographs
by Randall Woods

Brown leaves, brown sky, yellow food and an attempt to escape a dreaded holiday.

"I tried to look as inconspicuous as possible..."



I hate Thanksgiving.

Oooh, bad start. O.K., let me back up.

I hate the way Thanksgiving is celebrated. All the trappings, all the rituals, all the work that goes into one meal that is eaten in twenty minutes, leaving you painfully bloated, with a huge mess of dishes in the sink. To top it off, you're then subjected to the Evil Dallas Cowboys winning yet another game at home on national television. A person can only take so much abuse.

It's not that I'm an uncaring, ungrateful or unthankful person. I like saying thanks and it makes me feel warm and fuzzy to give credit where credit is due. In the case of Thanksgiving, all the credit for the ritual of gluttony and endless leftovers that sit, slowly congealing, in the refrigerator until Christmas, should go to the rich fat-cats at Stove-Top and Butterball.

"...its ugly cousins, orange and yellow, can't be too far behind."

First of all, it's the brownest of all the holidays. Christmas gets the jarring red/green combo, Easter gets pretty pastels, Valentine's Day gets a lusty crimson, Arbor Day and Earth Day get a rich forest green, and most other major holidays get a variation of the red, white and blue sale-a-thon sensations at your local Toyota dealer.

But on the fourth Thursday of every November, what do we get? A golden-brown turkey and brown stuffing smothered in brown gravy. On every door, thousands of scotch-taped, brown construction-paper "hand turkeys" look forlornly over yards full of brown leaves that have fallen from bare, brown limbs under a brown sky (well, it's brown in L.A., at least).

And if Brown shows up, you know that its ugly cousins, Orange and Yellow, can't be too far behind. As a child, I never had a problem with turkey and stuffing, but on Thanksgiving day they would inevitably be joined with the dreaded side dishes, yellow squash and orange turnips. Each year, I would do my best to avoid the two orange and yellow lumps of vegetated matter flanking the slices of turkey and the mashed potato volcano, oozing gravy. I always thought it was sad that the only time I ever saw my mom's "good china" -- the gray dishes with the delicate dandelion pattern -- it was splattered with those two unspeakable vegetables. (In some years, the squash and turnip were also joined by the worst of them all -- the beets!)




I could never seem to shake these images of Thanksgiving. These same, hideous yellow-orange-brown combination of turkey-day hues pretty much sum up the color scheme in our family room in the '70s. The inch-and-a-half high shag rug, the plaid couch, the tables and chairs, even a "splash pattern" rug wall hanging -- were ablaze with yellow-orange-brown all year round until the early '80s.

When I went off to college in Boston, Thanksgiving followed me there, too. Perhaps because Boston is near the site of the Original Thanksgiving, they'd have the same meal every Thursday in our dorm: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy. Not willing to part with the hard-earned beer money I earned slaving at Sears all summer, I choked down the ubiquitous overcooked bird. When November rolled around, and I went back home to relax after a hard three months of studying, I nearly broke into tears when I saw my mom sending yet another turkey to its oven-baked doom.

It's not that I dislike my family, either. In fact, it's just the opposite. I don't come from a broken or violent home. At the Woods household, Thanksgiving is not an annual grudge match where all resentments and grievances are aired volubly, like in many other families I've seen. Amazingly, we all get along well together and actually look forward to seeing each other. I guess we're just weird that way. Our Thanksgivings are casual and blessedly religion-free. We don't try to weigh it down with too much importance.

"...nearly peeling off the side of my thumb..."

So what's my problem? I hear you cry.

Perhaps it's the physical aspect that has had the most negative influence on me. Almost every year, at least one of the Woods clan seems to be sick or suffer some kind of misfortune at Thanksgiving. There are at least a half-dozen times I can recall that it was my turn. Colds, flu, stomach problems -- it would always seem to crop up at the last minute. Even if I felt O.K. at the start, by the end of the meal, I would feel nauseated by all the food I had just gorged on out of respect for all the terrific work my mom had done on the dinner. One year, I outdid myself trying to help out by nearly peeling off the side of my thumb in an effort to see how fast I could peel the carrots. Carrots: 1, Me: 0.

The Thanksgiving curse has even crept into my adulthood. Just a few years ago, a stabbing pain in my jaw forced me awake at 3:00 a.m. Thanksgiving morning. Overnight, it seemed, an abscess had formed around one of my wisdom teeth. I quickly found I could neither open my mouth wide nor close it all the way. The only comfortable position was to gently pinch the inside of my cheek with my molars and keep it as motionless as I could. I had only moved to Seattle a few months before and had not yet bothered to choose a dentist. After several hours of calling up total strangers, who also happened to be dentists, and getting only answering machines, I resigned myself to a Thanksgiving dinner of soup, gingerly gnawed toast and Advil. About 96 hours later, when my Advil supply was dangerously low and the rest of the American world went back to work, I finally met my new dentist, who told me the infection had pretty much run its course. Thanks, doc!







After the Great Dental Episode of 1997, I decided to finally do something about this Thanksgiving Curse. I didn't like Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving didn't like me, so the best course of action seemed to be to avoid the holiday altogether. Now that I live 3,000 miles away from my nuclear family unit, I no longer feel the compulsion to return to the East Coast each year -- I've always preferred coming home for Christmas, anyway, so why spend all that airfare for a visit just a month before?

Of course, most of my new friends in the area weren't quite as free. They still had to go to see their families, and would invite me to their homes. That's when I would get The Look -- that awful stricken look that comes across peoples' faces when they realize my poor, lonely soul did not have a place to go for Thanksgiving. "How he must miss it so! I'll take pity on him," their eyes would say to me. I'd always make some lame excuse and try to change the subject. Thanksgiving is bad enough without adding strangers and forced politeness into the mix. At least with my family I'm comfortable and casual. At someone else's place, I'd have to dress up in a suit and be stiff and formal with everyone.

It was then I realized the silver lining to Thanksgiving -- four days off. It's the longest paid holiday in workaholic America, and I was damned if I was going to let another one pass in a yellow-orange-brown haze.

I finally hit on a wonderful solution: Escape to Canada! The border is only a few hours away from Seattle, and the Canadians get all this Thanksgiving silliness out of the way in October. To them, the last weekend in November is just like any other weekend. My lifelong dream! I decided I'd cross Puget Sound on a ferry, drive out to Port Angeles, Wash., and grab another ferry across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to beautiful, rugged Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and the gorgeous provincial capital, Victoria. I could see the wonderful seaside town, then go motoring off into the empty, inviting rainforests along the western coast.

"...a line of cars snaking around the waterfront."

Paradise beckoned, but the Curse answered before I had a chance. Since the Port Angeles ferry did not take reservations, the proprietors simply said to get to the dock at least an hour before the scheduled time of departure. Being the cynic that I am, I didn't believe them, and pushed my schedule ahead so I could get to the dock a full two hours in advance. Imagine my surprise when I arrived to see a line of cars snaking around the waterfront, with many making U-turns and heading back.

When I finally pulled up to the attendant he said, "Well, we're already full right now. You'll have to catch the next boat."

"When's that?" I said apprehensively.

"Seven o'clock tomorrow morning," he said, matter-of-factly. "Be sure you get there early."

So there I was, stuck in this tiny Washington port town, with the blue line of Vancouver Island and Canada mocking me from far across the water. If I had just stayed in Seattle, I could've easily blended in with the urban landscape. But out in Port Angeles, it was blatantly obvious I was Alone and Not From Here on a major holiday. I wanted to head back home, but it was at least a three-hour drive to Seattle. Besides, I still wanted to see Vancouver Island for the next three days. I decided to crash for the night and try to catch the next ferry.




After a bit of a search, I found a vacant hotel room in town. When I picked up my keys, I could smell the unmistakable scent of gravy and stuffing coming from the hotel operator's private quarters. I could hear other family members having their turkey dinner, and I couldn't help but feel like a loser and an interloper. That evening, hunger drove me to cruise up and down the empty streets of Port Angeles, looking for a restaurant that was still open. The town was like a tomb. I finally found a greasy little diner with an exhausted and grumpy waitress who was grousing with her alcoholic regulars about how she had to work on Thanksgiving. I tried to look as inconspicuous as possible and kept my nose in my magazine.

All the while, I kept thinking about what I'd do for next year's Thanksgiving. Since I was going to rainforests in 1998, why not go the other direction in 1999? The desert! I could fly cheaply into Vegas and head out to some uncharted spot and get some real peace and quiet... someplace completely foreign to the ways of the turkey and its hunters... someplace so isolated it would scare off all the tourists... someplace like... Death Valley! The lowest and most forbidding place in North America.


I wound up making the next morning's boat and had a lovely time hiking in the forests and along the coast for the next few days, but I kept kicking myself about that terrible Thanksgiving night.

I would not make the same mistake again.


"Headache check... negative."

My own private Nevada: Thanksgiving, 1999

I got up on Thanksgiving morning well before dawn after a refreshing, long sleep at the bankrupt Stratosphere Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. I did my usual Thanksgiving morning inventory: Headache check... negative; sinuses check... negative; swallow to check for sore throat... negative; stomach ache check... negative; stretch to see if any major bones were dislocated while sleeping... negative; teeth... clack! I was "go" for launch. It looked like it wasn't my turn for sickness this year.

My flight had come in to Vegas the evening before, and I had just enough time to take a spin up and down the Strip. Over the last five years, I had wound up in this city at least once a year, either on business or for the sheer guilty pleasure of the city's utterly unironic tackiness. With each visit, I'm amazed at how much the place grows, but never changes. Lavishly themed, but basically identical, casinos continue their march southward down the Strip, seemingly intent on stretching to Mexico.

This year, I checked out two new ones with very distinct personas -- "Paris" and "The Venetian." The Venetian was basically a "greatest hits" version of the real thing, with scale model replicas of the Palazzo San Marco and real, swimming-pool-clear canals that were plied by gondolas, complete with cam-corder-toting tourists and singing gondoliers. (Yes, they were singing "O, sole, mio!" as were most of the middle-aged tourists when they first came upon the canals. I had to run screaming from the building.) Paris was similarly distilled to its tourist-trap essence -- miniature scale versions of the Arch de Triomphe, Place de la Concorde, Champs Elysee, and a one-third scale replica of the Eiffel Tower, which straddles the whole casino, puncturing it with one metal leg.

Apparently, one can no longer simply build a big lavish casino and lure the suckers, the drunks and the loutish conventioneers with showgirls and free slot machine pulls. Now, one must think of the wives and the kiddies, too. Staying in Vegas is more like a theme-park experience than the "lost weekend." One must go to Atlantic City to find that kind of old-fashioned debauchery these days. Today, a trip to Vegas is like a trip to the Disneyesque TV version of the world, which is about all that most Americans can handle.

Tempting as it was to stay in Vegas and stew in the anonymity of dirtball American culture, I had a mission to accomplish. Wasting little time, I checked out while it was still dark and took off in my rented Plymouth Neon (not exactly a rugged safari vehicle, but it would do in a pinch). Heading northwest on Rte. 95, I was surprised to see the extent of Vegas' sprawl. Last I heard, Vegas -- inexplicably -- was still the fastest-growing city in the U.S., and it showed. A sea of yellow-hued street lights and billboards fanned out ahead of me, ending in total blackness.




After about 15 or 20 minutes, I crossed over the frontier. Like most desert cities, Las Vegas has little subtlety at its fringes. The streets, country clubs and gated communities with their identical red-tiled roofs run chock-a-block for as far as they can, and then... emptiness. At the edge, I entered a world of total darkness, lit only by the cars' head and tail lights on the roads. Miles ahead I could see little horizontal cones of light followed by points of red snaking seemingly in mid-air up the next pass. Once I was over the pass a short time later, Vegas was just a bright glow on the horizon, mingling with the first blue haze of dawn.

The first noteworthy feature I passed was the entrance to the infamous Nevada Test Site, where America first learned to start worrying and build The Bomb. Before I had arrived in Vegas, I had called the facility since I had heard they were considering opening much of the once-top-secret base for tourism. After nearly 1,000 atmospheric and underground detonations and thousands of acres of radioactive soil, who wouldn't want to take a tour? They said, however, that the tours only run about once a month, and Thanksgiving weekend was not about to be the time they had planned for November. Still, that didn't deter me from seeing how far I could go in. I figured that, in the post-Cold War world, they'd probably ask questions first before they riddled my car with automatic gunfire.

At the perimeter fence of the facility, there was no closed gate, but there was some intimidating signage. The words "NO TRESPASSING" in black and white were as big as the words "NEVADA TEST SITE" on the main sign. Undeterred, I continued down the dark road to the yellow-lit town of Mercury, which is where most of the nuclear technicians lived back in the good ol' days of battlin' toe-to-toe with them Russkies. Other, smaller signs warning of power lines, hazardous chemicals and complicated arrays of required security badges dotted the roadside to further scare away the faint of heart. On the left, in pre-dawn gloom, I could make out the deserted and rusted holding pen where they used to lock up the many hippie, anti-nuke protesters who used to frequent the site back in the day.

"I still had trouble linking Paul Revere's name with safety."

A little further down the road, amid the various warning signs, was one simple black and white hand-painted sign, driven into the ground with a single stake. On the front was written:

"Be a Modern"

Huh? What the heck's a "Modern," I thought. Was this some kind of cryptic code? Was it actually some kind of art piece leftover from the protesting days? Or was is just an encouraging, positive, daily affirmation from the boys at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?

A few feet down the road, I saw another, similar sign that said:

"Paul Revere"

Puzzled, I thought maybe these were names of different bomb tests. Then it dawned on me -- it was a riff on the Bromo-Seltzer highway ads from the 1940s. A few feet later:

"Practice Safety"

And later still:

"From Year to Year"

Even though I got their weak attempt at cuteness, I still had trouble linking Paul Revere's name with safety. Instead of a cautionary "We better be careful about those British" kind of guys, I see Revere as more of an "Oh, shit! We're in trouble now!" kind of figure -- someone who's reactive to a bad situation, not proactive, so to speak. Also, is this really the type of message our nation's nuclear brain trust should be getting from highway road signs? Shouldn't that be a more basic lesson to be learned on the first day of rocket scientist school? Something like: "Step 1: Be careful not to blow up the world."

I can picture one of the nuclear engineers driving back from an all-night bender in Vegas with a gin and tonic in one hand and a blonde in the other. He's careening back and forth on the road to Mercury, singing and laughing, while an armed thermonuclear device is rolling around in the trunk. Then he sees the signs and starts to slow down, saying to the blonde, "Whoa, Toots! You'd better put yer damn seat belt on b'fore RuPaul Pervert comesh an' arrests ush... hic!...."


- To be continued... -






Tune in next issue as Randy's misadventures continue in Death Valley.

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