Christmas is a very special time for our family.
In early December, we start dreaming about to travelling to Germany to celebrate the holiday in style. If Christmas has a heart, it beats strongest in Deutschland, which is home to everything from the Christmas tree and the Passion Play to dazzling outdoor festival markets packed with hand-carved Bavarian treasures and sweet seasonal treats such as marzipan and lebkuchen.
Germany is an extraordinary country to visit at Christmas—so special, in fact, legend has it that on Christmas Eve, Germany’s rivers turn to wine, animals speak to each other, tree blossoms bear fruit, mountains open up to reveal precious gems, and church bells can be heard ringing from the bottom of the sea. Of course, only the pure in heart can witness this magic. But while other families spend their Christmas break roaming America’s crowded shopping malls hunting for sales at The Sausage Shack, we find ourselves eagerly anticipating the day when the jet airplane touches down on German soil and we can start our holiday in earnest. Nothing matches the magical feeling of holding hands as we stroll the ancient cobblestone streets of charming German towns like Bamberg, harmoniously singing Oh, Tannenbaum and cheerfully shouting “Froehliche Weihnachten!” to the welcoming locals.
Truly, it’s a wonderful life.
Or would be.
Turns out, we never get to go to Germany at Christmas because our son, Gabe, plays hockey. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining. We love being involved in hockey and wouldn’t trade our lifestyle for anything, not even free cable television, which costs more than a Zamboni these days. But there are always tradeoffs in life. In our case, being a hockey family means we usually have a tournament to attend at Christmas, typically in some miserable little windswept town in the middle of Buttcrack, Nowhere.
You know how people wish for a white Christmas and sleigh rides in the winter wonderland at this time of year? It’s one thing to have all that when you’re spending Christmas in Connecticut with friends and family at a cozy cottage. But it’s another thing entirely when you’re crowded into a cramped motel room with your kids, the best restaurant in town is at the I-80 truck stop, and the warmest place you’ll be during the day is an ice rink.
March of the Humans
One year, the big tournament was in Fargo, N.D. Fargo is a wonderful place, if by wonderful you mean flat, dismally gray, windy and bitterly cold. Fargo is so miserable in winter, legend has it that the Native Americans sold it to early European settlers for a dozen horses. Then they quickly packed up and moved south before the first snows arrived, laughing the whole way about the “idiot white man.” And they don’t want it back, either.
Want to know what makes Fargo exciting? It’s surviving the highly risky trip from your car to your hotel room. The unfortunate souls who lose their footing and fall are often abandoned and left to die by their loved ones. This behavior seems cruel to the uninitiated. But in Fargo’s harsh climate, the survivors must stoically march on or face death themselves. It’s basically a human version of March of the Penguins, and only the fittest live. Usually, the weak and infirm simply freeze in place where they land, remaining stuck in place in snow banks and ice flows like popsicled mannequins until Fargo finally starts thawing out in July.
So many people meet their maker this way, Fargoans have turned identifying the freeze-dried remains of the dead into a children’s game called “Ice Mice.” It’s similar to the popular game Slug Bug, in which children punch each other in the arm when they spot a Volkswagen Beetle. In Ice Mice, however, gamers are entitled to a double tap when they correctly locate a body by seeing only the tip of an appendage—a thumb, nose or foot, for example. An ear or elbow will often stick up out of the melting ice long before the rest of the body becomes visible.
Visiting Bigfoot’s Hideout
Another year, we drove to a tournament in a quaint hamlet called Trail. It’s located in the West Kootenay region of the interior of British Columbia, Canada. When I say “interior,” I mean “remote,” “isolated,” “inaccessible,” “out-of-the-way” and “distant.” It’s so secluded, I believe Trail’s the official hideout for Bigfoot.
It’s hard to describe the beauty that is Trail, British Columbia, Canada.
Amazingly, about 7,500 people also live in Trail. It isn’t clear to me why they live there, but I assume most of them are hiding from the law or have insurmountable mental problems. Many of them are probably obsessed with finding Bigfoot, too. Whatever the reason, it’s also unclear to me what they do there. I do know that on Friday and Saturday nights, many Trailidians gather at Colander’s Italian restaurant for its “world-famous, all-you-can-eat spaghetti and meatballs.” It costs $12 per person, and the food’s not horrible, perhaps because almost 20 percent of Trail’s residents are of Italian descent. (That seems like an odd demographic fact until you realize that Canada, like America, also has a witness relocation program. Is there a better place to hide from the Cosa Nostra than in a dense, snow-packed forest protected by Sasquatch?)
Trailidians can also eat at Dairy Queen, KFC and the Beacon Burger Drive-In & Chop Suey House, which may be one of the world’s most unique diners. But the town’s defining feature is a large cement factory with a giant smokestack that regularly belches choking clouds of smoke. Instead of being angry about the smoke, however, Trailidians are proud of it. It even inspired the name of the local junior hockey team, the Trail Smoke Eaters.
Trailidians are rabid Smoke Eaters’ fans, and a surprising number of the team’s stars make it to the NHL. I think it’s mostly because they’re desperate to get out of Trail. These fine athletes will go anywhere to escape the boredom of living in backwoods country–except maybe the town of Iqaluit in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, which is pretty much the last place on Earth to get a cup of hot coffee before you reach the North Pole.
A Place Too Rural for the Amish
This year, our holiday hockey schedule took us 1,088 miles from our home in Denver, Colo., to the town of Culver, Ind. Actually, Culver’s more of a village, even if it does have two stop signs, a prep school/military academy, and a Subway/convenience store/bait shop. Or perhaps settlement is a better word to describe the town, which basically has four streets. Culver’s so small, I doubt it even qualifies to be a one-horse town, except perhaps when the Amish pass through looking for someplace less rural to live.
Anyway, I know exactly how many miles away Culver is from our house because I’m newly unemployed and we couldn’t afford to fly there. Instead, we drove straight through without a rest. It took us about 18 hours, 16 rest stops, 30 sausage rolls, eight ham sandwiches, three tanks of gas, a dozen large caffeinated drinks and several arguments to complete the trip. But we knew the ordeal was worth it once we saw where we would be staying for the weekend: the Super 8 Motel in nearby Plymouth, Ind.
I don’t know if you’ve ever stayed at a Super 8, but we nearly wept with joy when we pulled into its parking lot and witnessed firsthand what I can only describe as the stark simplicity of its perfectly rectangular architecture. Then again, we also nearly wept when we got out of the car and our faces were hit with the frigid blast of arctic air that continually blows through Indiana in winter. And we nearly wept a third time when we tried to carry our luggage inside, only to realize our joints had locked up because we’d been sitting in a cramped Hyundai Sonata for 18 hours without moving.
Look, I think it’s fair to say we were just feeling weepy after driving across America’s heartland with nothing to think about for 18 hours except endless prairie and the importance of cows to the nation’s economy.
Fortunately, the Super 8’s got rooms with showers, toilets, televisions and beds just like a real hotel, and we were grateful for it. We were also happy to learn that the motel faces a Wal-Mart and Super K-Mart. That made us feel right at home, except without the usual troublesome distractions such as entertainment and civilization. It also allowed us to catch up on our last-minute Christmas shopping.
I have to admit that navigating the aisles of Wal-Mart with a steel shopping cart wasn’t anything like strolling Germany’s Christmas markets, and we heard more cussing than Christmas carols while we were there.
But on the positive side, I’d say being in small towns like Culver at Christmas gives us a lot of free time—physical and mental space, if you will—to hope and dream about our annual holiday trip to Deutschland. And I believe hopes and dreams are what Christmas is all about.