Christmas In Kentucky, Chapter IX: Be It Ever So Humble

Wherein miles are traveled, Santa is impersonated, and home is reached

Dawn broke bright and early and clear on Saturday. I was up and at ’em and on the road by eight-ish. Good roads, windy conditions. Nine to ten hours’ driving, mostly uninterrupted.

Soundtrack from today’s journey: multiple phone calls to and from various family members. I got to play Santa and deliver Kentucky gifts to nieces, nephews, and great niece (as well as other kinfolk). Made it back to Mora at just after six.

Every day can’t be a holiday, because then holidays would lose significance. We need holidays, but we need the non-holidays too. Home now as I write this. “Back to life, back to reality.” It feels like 100 years since I began this trip. It’s cold outside. I’m tired and a bit melancholy.  I miss being near Mom.

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Monday is the last day of 2012, to which I will happily bid farewell. But I got a mulligan for an early Christmas gift. So something is in store.

Every mountain has its faces that’d make you want to stop
On this so-unwelcome journey from the bottom to the top

Move along
I believe there’s something beautiful to see
Move along
I believe there’s something beautiful
Just waiting for you and me
– Great Big Sea

Christmas In Kentucky, Chapter VIII: The Return Trip Home

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Wherein my niece shows exceptional taste in film, an Illinois landmark is revisited, an early night is called, and a fantastic meal enjoyed

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I believe I read once in The Good Uncle Handbook™ that it is my responsibility to introduce my nieces and nephews to the classics. I take this responsibility seriously (e.g., Mad Magazine, The Three Stooges.) So during this holiday break I have been introducing adorable niece Nolia to the best in animation. Her favorites so far: “One Froggy Evening” by Chuck Jones, and “Bad Luck Blackie” by Tex Avery.

So Friday morning I said goodbye to Mom and Nolia and Lady, and set out for home. Yeah, it was hard.

I was glad I waited the extra day. The interstate in Indiana was passable – the plows had been hard at work – but it was clear they had just finished earlier that morning.

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Illinois has, without a doubt, the best highway rest areas in the country. When we made trips south with Dad, we’d pack a cooler and stop at these instead of fast-food joints. My favorite: the Skeeter Mountain Rest Area, on I-64 just outside of Grayville.

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I made pretty good time through most of Illinois. I genuinely thought I would make it home to Minnesota by 11 pm or so. But at dusk the temperatures dropped, the highway began to glaze, and the radio forecasted heavy snow ahead of me in Wisconsin. Maybe I’m skittish, but I decided to call it a night. Pulled off the interstate in Rochelle, just 25 miles or so south of the Wisconsin border.

Took a room at the Super 8. At the recommendation of the young woman behind the counter, I drove a few blocks over to the Butterfly Restaurant for dinner. This proved to be one of the best decisions I’d made all day. Incredible food, huge portions, unbelievably low prices. If you’re ever down that way, don’t hesitate to stop there.

Off to sleep at about 11-ish, with plans to return home on Saturday.

Christmas In Kentucky, Chapter VII: Preparing To Embark

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Wherein weather conditions are not trifled with, adorable niece is introduced to The Infinite Game, and plans are in motion for a Great Meeting Of Clan McKinney at Christmas 2013

The snow has stopped, but Indiana still has glare ice on the roads and strong winds. I’m not willing to chance it. So another day here. Will set out for home tomorrow (Friday).

A quiet day with Mom, followed by pizza with Pete and Nolia. I’m stunned at the ruthlessness that the game “Monopoly” reveals in my family. “Aggravation” is like “Candy Land” in comparison.

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To make up for it, I taught  Nolia the finer points of the game of backgammon. Seems safe, right? Nobody ever gets nasty in that game.

It will be hard to say goodbye and return home. I’m glad that Mom has Mary and Pete and Nolia so close by. And good dog Lady is ever watchful.

Plans are in the works for a big traditional Christmas in Minnesota next year with the entire family. This is something that we haven’t been able to pull off for more than a decade, for a number of arcane reasons. We shall see what we shall see; we won’t know till we find out.

Once again: shower the people you love with love this holiday season.

Christmas In Kentucky, Chapter VI: Held Over For One More Day

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Wherein I stay put

I came here to get away from this.

I ain’t driving home in this.

That is all.

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Christmas In Kentucky, Chapter V: It Wants To Snow

Wherein a present-opening frenzy is revisited, a holiday feast is consumed, a game of financial acquisition is barely survived, and travel delays are anticipated

Woke up to Christmas morning, bright and clear and dry. Two days ago temps were in the 60s, but today there was a familiar bite in the air. It wanted to snow, I could tell.

Cinnamon rolls and coffee for breakfast, followed by the frenzy of presents being unwrapped. We’ve tried, believe me, but gift opening with my family has never been orderly.

It was a Southern Christmas dinner, definitely. Pork with barbecue sauce, crab cakes, butternut squash dressing, green bean casserole, shrimp wrapped in bacon and pepperjack cheese, hard rolls, vegetables, cranberry-maple-citrus sauce, pumpkin cornbread, and pecan pie for dessert. Whatta feast.

The clan gathered at Mom’s place for a table game. Adorable niece Nolia had never played Monopoly, so we gave it a try. Monopoly games traditionally go for quite a long time; my mom and aunts and uncles would joke that they were “only going to play till Tuesday.” It went a long time. And much like family games of Aggravation, it became bloodthirsty.

Sometime during the late afternoon we began to see and hear TV reports of bad weather on its way. Later in the evening the reports were confirmed: a blizzard advisory for northern Kentucky and the portions of Indiana and Illinois I’m about to drive through. White-out conditions predicted till noon tomorrow.

My original plan was to get on the road by 4 am and to make it home by 6 pm. But I don’t want to end up in the ditch again. So it looks like another day of family love and togetherness. As my dad would say, we won’t know till we find out.

Christmas In Kentucky, Chapter IV: Halls decked

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Wherein I settle the hash of an Internet provider, prepare items for Christmas dinner, have a moment of inspiration at church, and whomp my relatives in a table game

Two relaxing days in a row. I don’t know if my system can stand it.

Spent most of the morning in intense negotiations with Mom’s Internet service provider. When the dust settled, I had her online with a nifty mobile broadband unit from Verizon. This is the clear deal. Once the contract runs out with my ISP, I’m going this route.

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Shopping, gift-wrapping, cooking, baking. Quality time with Mom. My sister took this pic of the cottage.

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Evening took us to Settle Memorial United Methodist Church for a candlelight service. I don’t care what anyone thinks about this: it always moves me when “Silent Night” is sung, lit with nothing but candles.

And from that moment of moving inspiration the family returned to open a few presents (the rest in the morning), followed by more bloodthirsty games of Aggravation. Yeah, Christmas Eve with Clan McKinney. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

Christmas In Kentucky, Chapter III: Chillaxin’

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Wherein I forego another six hours’ car travel, poke fun at a classic movie I watched 42 years ago, get my butt waxed in a board game (by my adorable niece!), and rediscover a great part of the holidays

On my arrival last night I was invited to my bro-in-law Pete’s family Christmas in Louisville today, three hours away. With great appreciation, I declined. I couldn’t see myself sitting in a car for another six hours round-trip.

Spent the day with Mom and Lady: shopping, wrapping presents, cooking, enjoying the day.  Watched TV for awhile in the evening. Flipped between the Seahawks-Niners game and  a showing of the movie “Oliver!” which Mom and I went to see 42 years ago. It held up okay, but somehow I kept thinking about what great Monty Python sketches it would all make.

Pete and adorable niece Nolia stopped by later in the evening to play a few games of Aggravation, a long-time family tradition. Except playing against my family is like how I imagine it would be playing against the Sopranos. All-out, full-on, take no prisoners.  Nolia seems to have acquired the family blood-lust that accompanies this game. That’s a good thing, I believe.

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Owensboro is the fourth largest city in Kentucky. It is located 32 miles southeast of Indiana, and has a population of 57,265.  Famous Owensboro-ians (?) include Johnny Depp, Florence Henderson (the mom on “The Brady Bunch’), and movie actor Tom Ewell (“The Seven-Year Itch”).

Bro-in-law Pete grew up in Owensboro. He and Mary and Nolia moved back here from Georgia in 2005. Dad and Mom made many visits here, and in 2008 bought a small house (dubbed “The Cottage”) three doors down from Pete and Mary’s place. They spent the winters here in ’08, ’09, and ’10. Last winter they remained in Minnesota due to Dad’s illness. This is our first Christmas without Dad, and Mom’s first time in Kentucky without him.

Christmas gets hectic and commercialized and somewhat obnoxious at times. But there’s one thing it’s always very good for. When you spend time with your loved ones this Christmas, let them know that you love them. It doesn’t need to be overt or gushy: quiet and unspoken is fine. But make sure to let them know. You’ll be glad later.

Christmas In Kentucky, Chapter II: The Arrival

Wherein I reinforce avoiding a particular vocational path, performed my own interpretation of “Shit My Dad Says,” pay tribute to two idols at once, perspire like our 37th President, and conjecture on Iowans’ driving abilities

The day dawned bright and crisp and fine in Clear Lake, Iowa. Sadly, I didn’t greet it as I was still asleep.

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Got back on the road at about 8:30 am. I had chosen to travel through Iowa instead of my normal Wisconsin route as I had heard there was significant snowfall and poor travel between Madison and Rockford, IL. Well, if that were actually true I can’t imagine it was worse than traveling through east central Iowa. It was like a war zone. Travel on interstate highways was down to one lane for several hours: if there was a second lane, it was generally coated with ice.  I lost count at 100 cars, trucks, and semis in the ditches. Some of them had rolled over, and I can sympathize. Right around Cedar Rapids the temperatures climbed above freezing, and the improvement in road condition was dramatic.

My dad had a relatively mild (for him) epithet for pokey, oblivious drivers. He termed them “goddamn duds.” Well, he would have had more of his share of goddamn duds on the road this day. Not just on the snow-narrowed roads, but even on the dry and clear straightaways. I’ve devised a working theory about why Iowans drive like they do. At first, I suspected that it was difficult to steer with their elbows because they had both thumbs jammed up their asses. I determined that it’s more basic than thatI don’t want to commit to anything, but it’s diagnostic that they own motor vehicles and DON’T use them to LEAVE IOWA. Draw your own conclusions.

Soundtrack for the day’s trip: The Spongetones, R.E.M., Marshall Crenshaw, Eytan Mirsky, Graham Parker, The Lamont Cranston Band. Radio sucks in the heartland.

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Crossing over from Iowa into Missouri I was able to give a tribute to two geniuses at the same time. I was driving on US Highway 61 which of course called for as many lyrics as I could remember of Mr. Zimmerman’s “Highway 61 Revisited”:

Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run.”
Well, Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says. “Out on Highway 61.”

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And 61 leads right through Hannibal, past a huge roadside statue of my favorite author Mr. Clemens, so I gave him his propers as well.

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Fourteen hours’ driving. Should have taken nine or ten. Long drive. Long, long drive. Too many goddamn hours behind the wheel. I know right now that I can never be an over-the-road hauler.

A white-knuckle trip through downtown Saint Louis. As Rachael Ray would say, I was “sweating like Nixon.” Still a little shell-shocked from recent driving experiences. I did get to see the Arch lit up at night, though, which was spectacular. If you ever get a chance to ride to the top in it, I highly recommend it.

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More driving: Illinois, Indiana, finally crossing the bridge into Kentucky at about 10 pm. Found my way to Mom’s house. Mom, sister Mary, bro-in-law Pete, lovable niece Nolia, and good dog Lady had all stayed up to welcome me. A pint of cider and an hour or so of stories and jokes, and the day caught up with me. All was calm, all was bright.

A hellacious day’s trip, yes. Would I do it again? Oh, hell yes.

Christmas In Kentucky, Chapter I: The Departure

My (rental) ride

My (rental) ride

Wherein I relive the joys of Saint Paul rush hour, dine at a McDonalds whilst it was still being built, brave the fierce elements, and rediscover a dormant but prodigious talent

Off to Kentucky for Christmas with Mom, sister Mary, bro-in-law Pete, and adorable niece Nolia. I am still carless after the collision, so have rented a sweet little 2013 Ford Focus. This is a live ride. I may not give it back.

The office closed at noon. And after a stop at the radio station holiday potluck, I eventually got on the road by 3 with every intention of reaching Missouri by dusk. I-35E traffic in Saint Paul during Friday afternoon rush hour had different plans, though. I was nearly to Faribault before the interstate stopped resembling a parking lot. Road rage was surprisingly absent, though, which is remarkable.

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In Medford my windows began to frost over, I was hungry, and I needed to pee. So I pulled off the interstate, onto a goddamn roundabout (which I despise), and into a (seemingly) friendly and welcoming McDonalds. Bad choice. Apparently the lighted sign did not indicate a restaurant ready for diners. Although the McStaff was serving food to a crowded line of customers, the McConstruction Workers were still building the place: hanging drywall, installing ceiling lights, prepping the floor for tile. There was one bathroom and the line was understandably immense. Cold weather caused most of the diners to eat in, and we all sat at church-basement folding tables and chairs. I understand their desire to serve holiday travelers, but this was a McMistake.

Continuing on down the interstate, my windows continued to frost over. As I approached Albert Lea (home town to Al Franken and nearly into Iowa), the roads became more slippery. As I crossed the border, they became glazed. I pushed on another forty miles to Clear Lake (best known as the place where Buddy Holly et al died in a 1959 plane crash), drove gingerly onto the exit ramp, and took my rest at the AmericInn.

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I’m disappointed that I didn’t make it into Missouri. But my dad was famous for saying, “Just find out how many miles the road will give you.” Good advice, Dad.

On the plus side: for road trip music I busted out some mix CDs I burned four or five years ago. God damn, but I make some fine mix CDs.

So. Sitting back, chillaxin’, quaffing a Schell’s (coincidentally named) Snowstorm. Their winter seasonal is different each year, and this time around they’ve created a Biére de Garde. Very very nice.

Yes, the holidays have begun. With luck and an early start, Kentucky tomorrow afternoon.