It is Christmastime and, once again, I am driving from South Dakota to Texas. I am not moving in a straight line. I am wondering, as I have done almost every Christmas for the last forty years. By December, most of the autumn work is done on the ranch, the ponds are frozen in South Dakota, and I have the chance to follow the ducks south. The ducks are fleeing the cold weather and I am fleeing the craziness of Christmas. This year’s falcon, Elsa, rides comfortably in the back of the Toyota 4 Runner. She stands, hooded, on the top of a dog kennel that holds, Shiner and Fargo. We drive hard, but we can’t escape Christmas.
Back in Rapid City, the malls are packed with shoppers; the traffic - even in my little town of 70,000 people - is out of control. Everyone has lost their minds in a struggle to buy more stuff that they really don’t need. My friends and family have always said that the reason I am such a Scrooge is that there have never been any children in my house. The closest I ever came to having a child of my own was when my now wife Jill and her daughter, Jilian, came to live with me. Jilian is now twenty-seven years old and has a child of her own. His name is Lincoln and he’s nineteen months old. Along with Lincoln’s dad, Colton, they live in a house at the other end of our ranch. I’m not much on babies but, in the last few months, Lincoln and I have started hanging out at least one afternoon a week. When I pick up a book he streaks for my lap with a smile bright enough that I could read by it.
Jilian was ten years old when I became her stand-in dad and for a few years, before her friends became all-important, then off to college, marriage, and motherhood, my Christmas migration to Texas was reduced to six or seven days of driving too fast. I always drive too fast. (This years I got a ticket before I was out of South Dakota.) Those years I spent a couple nights in rundown, Bangladeshi-owned motels on the way down, a few nights on the Texas line, and a couple days making my way back home. But for most of the last forty years I’ve spend a month or more in Texas, hiding from Christmas.
The little cowboy towns along my route do their best to impersonate busy cities. Their sidewalks are dressed in holiday style. When the NPR stations begin to fade in Nebraska and the Christian stations of Kansas and Oklahoma become the only option, the Christmas carols begin in earnest. Sometimes I hear The Little Drummer Boy five times in a single day. By the time I get to the sad feedlot and slaughter plant towns of central Kansas I am ready to kill Burl Ives and Bing Crosby. Feliz Navidad is painted on half the store windows. The waitresses in the taco shops and barbeque joints wear Santa Clause hats. I switch off the radio and get to the edge of town where I can watch the Great Plains stretching in front of me to infinity. I watch for wildlife and forget about Christmas for a few hours. But around Amarillo, Texas, I get bored and try the radio again. The country singers are butchering Silent Night, Jiggle Bells, and We Three Kings.
In Dalhart, Texas, I watch a guy in oily coveralls and a hard hat creeping along the main street with a goofy smile on his face. He’s got a tricycle under one arm and a huge doll in the other. He’s trying to keep the presents out of sight - acting like a happy Grinch in the act of stealing Christmas. When he comes to the cross-street, then jogs to the rear of a battered pickup truck. He struggles with a blue plastic tarp in the truck bed and looks back over his shoulder toward a woman just emerging from a store. She is accompanied by a young girl of four or five and she holds the hand of a little boy who toddles along beside her. She distracts the kids and secretly waives for the oil-field worker to hurry-up and he doubles his efforts. By the time the kids look up, the tricycle and the dolly are safe under the blue tarp. I’m moving too fast but when I look back I notice that the little boy looks a little like Lincoln. Sandy-blond hair and holding his mother’s hand with his tiny one as he toddles along. Snoopy’s Christmas comes on the radio just as they disappear in the rear view mirror. Snoopy is being chased by the Red Baron. He’s being “forced to land behind the enemy lines.”
Most years I tried to stay in Texas until Christmas was safely past. There was seldom anything happening on December 25th to bring me home. I stay in a remote cabin owned by friends who ranch right on the Texas/New Mexico line. A couple miles off the dirt road, through a solitary field of yucca, the cabin waits for me – running water but no indoor toilet, telephone, internet connection, or the bedlam of Christmas. It always takes a couple days to evict the pack rats, but it’s really all I have ever needed. But this year, when I made the turn at the rusty gate jammed with tumble weeds, I wonder what Lincoln is doing. I wonder if he is playing with his cat, Ralph. I wonder if he might be visiting Erney, our resident Santa Clause look-alike, whose eyes really do twinkle in the presence of Lincoln. It is a black night with a sky shot-gunned with brilliant white stars. The radio is playing Snoopy’s Christmas again. By the time the cabin comes into sight I’m thinking that, this year, a few days might be enough. The radio signal is beginning to fade but I can still hear the Red Baron speaking in his cheesy German accent. “Merry Christmas, my friends!”