Christmas 2016 is driving from Santa Cruz, California to Flagstaff, Arizona. The “why” doesn’t matter. It’s just a thing that needs to be done. Seven hundred and ninety miles needs to be driven. I fill my car with snacks purchased days before and a half dozen tap-filled water bottles of various sizes and construction (thin, plastic Ice Mountain-types and durable Nalgenes). I download an audiobook knowing I’ll get bored of the podcasts I normally listen to. Food and water are important but having done this sort of thing before, I know the most dangerous thing really is boredom. You can find water and food or be rescued on the interstate before you get to the point of dying. It is more difficult to pull yourself out of the depths of boredom when you still have 5+ hours of driving to do.

California is easy. Flat ground. Sun shining. I drive through various growing plains and read signs about water conservation. On CA-58, heading east, I see tall mountains – the Tehachapis – with snow on them. This worries me a bit since the whole point of me going east via souther California, Arizona, and New Mexico is to avoid the mountainous snow regions of northern Nevada, Utah, and Western Colorado. Once I take the first curve into the mountains, I realize the road is properly plowed, flat, and dry. But instantly I worry because I see so many cars pulled over to the shoulder. Car troubles? Massive accident? They can’t be putting chains on; all the snow has been plowed. Then I see kids playing in the snowing grass off the side of the road and understand. They must not see snow a lot where they’re from and now they’ve got a white Christmas.

On the road I keep forgetting it’s Christmas. Every once in a while I remember and wonder if I should feel bad that I’m spending Christmas driving alone for 11 hours. Do you ever feel like you should feel a certain way just because it’s the way people expect you to feel? The past two Christmases I’ve worked and been away from my family. And today I know millions of Americans are working at least part of the day. There’s this perception that holidays are a time for rest and families and maybe vacations to warming climates, but someone’s got to make sure the power and water still run, make sure the roads get plowed, the sick get healed. Someone’s got to keep the peace. Someone’s got to serve up your popcorn at the movie theatre. Society/capitalism doesn’t stop on Christmas so why should we pretend it does?

As a heathen, the 25th of December is just another December day, and so I treat it as such. I see a Hobby Lobby truck on the interstate as I’m driving and this just affirms this belief for me.

Christmas dinner 2016 is Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen chicken, biscuits, and rice and beans in a TA travel center truck stop in Kingman, Arizona. The stuck stop Popeye’s can be described as: A) the slowest fast food joint in Arizona, B) populated by a dozen Asian/Asian-American motorists, C) not as delicious as I imagined it would be (it was pretty crappy actually), D) all of the above.

About ten minutes after placing my order, it’s ready. I get it and exit, holding the door open for a man with an oxygen tank and his two companions. Once I’m out the door, the woman with him turned to me, having held back from the forward progress of her two friends, and said: “Merry Christmas to you.” She had on a festive read sweater. I smiled and said: “Thanks! Merry Christmas to you too!” and walked briskly to my car, excited by the too high of expectations I placed on this Popeye’s chicken and shaking with the feeling that I should be going 95 miles-per-hour instead of walking a lowly 3.

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