Home for the Holidays: Why?

I ask myself that every year. And make the same tortuous trek.

By Steve Burgess 27 Dec 2004 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Twenty-two turtledoves; 30 French hens; 32 swans a-swimming and an astounding 40 gold rings altogether. Just some of the cumulative gifts piled up by the anonymous  recipient in the popular carol 12 Days of Christmas. And just one of the desperate attempts at mental busy work resorted to by a man standing in line for a solid hour at the Winnipeg Greyhound station, at the tail end of a 16- hour holiday death march.

Is it all worth it? That has become the question. Holiday preparations entail different levels of stress for many of us, and frequently we pause to question the whole deal. I've been pausing a lot on this trip. If I have to pause in this bus station much longer my will to live will be gone. As a Manitoba midnight closes in I am standing alongside my fellow travelers in the Greyhound line in hopes of snagging a window seat, or at least a chance to pick out a seatmate who spent double digits on their cologne. My only comfort comes from the holiday tradition of sharing—in this case, sharing stories of people even more unfortunate than myself. The nice young couple in front of me are humping bags and guitars down the line for what will be a 36-hour bus ride to Burnaby, close to my starting point so long ago this morning. I am comforted by their coming discomfort.

I take solace too from imagining the distress of suddenly dealing with 32 swans and an equal number of geese a-laying, or finding living room space for 12 pear trees with a crapping partridge in each. Considering that the carol describes each set of gifts being repeated each day you are looking at 30 leaping lords to be explained to the folks in the apartment downstairs. What are my troubles compared to that?

We are not amused

Those troubles began early—halfway to YVR when I realized my wallet was at home on the bookshelf. I decided to tough it out, borrowing money from my kind sister who was even now driving me to the airport, and once in Manitoba relying on my parents who love me and thus would give me food. I stepped up to the airport check-in counter, ready to amuse the nice lady with my funny wallet story. Unamused, she was. No ID, no plane ride, I was told. Alas for those happy times when John Q. Airline did not care who you were as long as you had a ticket. Frantic cell calls to Sis and to my building manager, a long wait out front, a pissed-off Sis delivering the wallet in the nick of time. Off to Winnipeg I go.

First however, there would be a three-hour delay changing planes in Calgary, said delay ruining my plan to catch an early evening bus from Winnipeg to Brandon and leaving me stuck hanging around to wait for the Witching Hour 'Hound. But that was OK—it gave me time to inquire at Winnipeg Airport about where my bags had gone. The consensus: somewhere other than Winnipeg.

They always tell you to pack a pair of underwear and socks in your carry-on baggage just in case. But I had never had a lost bag before. And everyone knows that if you forget your wallet on your way to the airport you've already had your comical adventure for the day and are not allowed any further shenanigans. So I didn't carry any emergency underwear. But that seemed OK, too—you don't want to overdress for a date at the Winnipeg Greyhound station.

There are more depressing spots than the Winnipeg Greyhound station. But you never see them unless your ass is peeking out from a hospital gown. It is white tile and plastic seats; it is the apotheosis of fluorescent lighting. Surely fluorescent lighting will succeed trans-fats as the next major public health concern. Meanwhile most of the other recent public health concerns are probably available at the Salisbury House restaurant, located right there in the bus station. The Sals is a place for people who find Denny's intimidating. It's a Manitoba institution and offers the kind of food you might expect from an institution, particularly if the judge didn't like your looks. The late- night abitués of the Sals are too grim even for a Hopper painting—he would have to call it Nighthawks at the Diner of Dr. Moreau.

Hell's bells

But happily I cannot contemplate a desperate visit to the Sals. I must line up. The man said I'd want to be in line by 11:15 PM to get a good seat, as the bus is scheduled to go at 11:45. Plenty of people got there first and there are plenty more behind. The bus will be jammed. I survey the crowd. Few of the choices in this involuntary dating game are likely to be sweet-smelling dispensers of sparkling wit. But then, with my underwear approaching the critical laundry redline I am no prize either.

Why do we do it? Why do we freely plunge into chaos, trekking our way to far- off gatherings in frigid places where even the tourist bureau closes for the winter?

Actually, I have no doubts on that score. I do it because Christmas does not live at my apartment. There is no holiday flame there, and I do not try to spark one up with tree or 'nog. Christmas lives at my parents' home in Brandon, where I grew up. It waits for me there every year.

One year—the worst until this—I didn't make it. I ensured my place in the Chucklehead Hall 'o Fame by trying to take a city bus to the airport with about 90 minutes to spare. The #3 Main bus stopped at every—each and every— stop, dragged to the curb once per block by the holiday bells of Hell. I reached the counter with my charter flight still on the tarmac but with some wiser stand-by passenger in my seat. I did not get home in time for the traditional Christmas Eve celebration. And I secretly rejoiced when that plucky little airline later went out of business. Yes, the fault was entirely mine that day. But grudges are not about fairness.

Since the Bus Debacle I need never ask myself why. The alternative is seared into my brain. I have no idea how many Christmases remain for my folks and I. But I want them all.

11:45 has come and gone, and midnight too, and still we stand. After over an hour on my feet and 13 hours from the starting point I am lost in contemplation. Partridges in pear trees, despite having pride of place in the carol, actually turn out to be 12 rare birds compared to the 32 less- celebrated swans, not to mention the 40 maids a-milking and God knows how much frankincense… and at last the line is moving. I get row four, aisle seat. The middle-aged woman beside me places her face in her hands and turns to the
window in despair as soon as I sit down. I sympathize. Row five is occupied by two teenagers who fail to shut up for over 200 kilometres, and yet miraculously avoid uttering an interesting word. My head is too far above the headrest to possibly sleep. But Brandon is approaching.

We pull in at 3AM. I jackrabbit off the bus almost before the driver can open the door. Other tortoises are waiting for their bags to be pulled from under the bus, but not me. Having cleverly arranged for the airline to lose my luggage I am already through the station and into the first taxi, five minutes from home. Near the back of the bus, my drowsy traveling companions are still 34 hours from Burnaby.

Happy trails.

Steve Burgess reports that the long slog home is all a blur after a happy Christmas with family. He remains in denial about the trip back to Vancouver.  [Tyee]

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