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Untraditional holidays (but do we really need to hike in the ice-covered woods after dark?)

December 10, 2010 - LLee Janssen
It gets more and more difficult for family holidays to come together as the young ones grow up and move out and on with their lives, as well they should. But it does not mean that the holidays can't be special and memorable for everyone.

One thing that has come up in recent years is the travel factor, particularly for the son whose professional life has him living on the road sometimes for weeks on end. His request is that we have Christmas where he lives on occasion, which seemed fair enough when home was New York City. Now Dana lives in Portland, Ore., where his band has resettled, while his brother Christopher remains in the National Guard, full-time, in State College.

This year we have taken a different approach to the holidays -- Thanksgiving through Christmas -- and I'm finding it to be perhaps one of the best holiday seasons ever, complete with memories and stories to tell to carry into the New Year. First, Chris and I arranged to travel to Portland for a week-long holiday. Then the three of us decided to forego material gift giving in favor of giving a shared experience of the giver's choice, which has the double benefit of eliminating the more commercial aspects of the holidays that have become such a drag.

The first day was Dana's, who chose a gift to appeal to his mother's sense of adventure -- a trip to a hot spring. Wonderful, I thought, as I have always wanted to experience the wonders of soaking in a natural mineral bath where nature keeps the water heated to 130 degrees. Some would call this the ultimate spa experience.

Others would call what we did just plain crazy.

So four of us, including Dana's girlfriend Autumn, pile into a car and head out to Mount Hood National Forest. It was a lovely drive, with winding roads and lots of spectacular scenery. And then we got into the higher elevations where there was snow. Lots of it, particularly by the time we found the trailhead. And by then, it was already well into the afternoon.

But I bite my tongue and say, "Yeah, sure, let's do this." Even though the trail is covered in ice, the product of many feet having traveled over the snow to the prize awaiting 1.5 miles away at the other end.

Did I mention that it was also spitting rain at this point?

Now I've been known to take some pretty spectacular hikes in my day -- many in northcentral Pennsylvania, but also more rugged terrain in Utah, Nevada, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. This trail was not so difficult in terms of steepness, but there was enough up and down over the icy path that made this one of the more difficult hikes I've ever done. Treacherous, really. Many places it was difficult to get a foothold, and this just added stress to the upper back while giving the legs a thorough workout.

By the time we made it to the destination, I was sapped. It took every ounce of strength I had left as we went around the multiple bathhouses looking for one that wasn't closed for renovations or otherwise occupied.

Being sapped and already wet from the drizzling rain (it's always raining out here it seems), I wasn't really sure I wanted to strip down to my bathing suit and jump in. But I'd come this far and, besides, it will be really relaxing. In the back of my mind, I knew I was going to have to hike back out when we were all done, which would mean putting on those already damp clothes again, along with shoes and socks. The mother in me wanted to just say "No."

But you only live once, and we were already there, so what the hell.

The water turned out to be unbearably hot, and it took three large buckets of cold water to get this hollowed out log tub full of spring water cool enough to sink down into and experience the full effects. I stuffed my ponytail up under my knit cap and eventually laid back enough to relax and enjoy the experience. Until that constantly running hot water made it too hot for my toes to handle and I decided to just bail.

Which meant getting out into the cold and having to change into drier, but very damp, clothes and shoes and socks and coat and gloves.

During the process of trying to pull these items back onto my body, I realized that now not only was I sapped from the hike over treacherous terrain, but also so relaxed that I feared I would not be able to physically make it back to the car. I was grateful for the fruit and water we had brought along, though I could barely get my body to accept the nibbles that should have been nourishing and restorative.

It was time to dig deep, to find the innermost will to survive this adventure, to start the return hike, but now in the dark of night. In the deep forests atop a volcanic mountain where grizzly bears roam. They are in hibernation, aren't they? But then we just covered bear hunting season a few weeks ago in Pennsylvania, so I wasn't really sure. Are they nocturnal? And what are those shadows I keep seeing in the woods, courtesy of the lantern we carried to light our way back home?

As though I could stand the distractions of shadows and the fear of creatures in the forest, when what I really needed was a way to find my footing and get up the hilly parts of the path ... I found what I am truly thankful for (remember, we're celebrating Thanksgiving here too) as my children held my hands and helped me find stability and transfer their young exuberant energy into my fiftysomething body.

How odd -- these are the same souls whose little tiny hands I would hold to cross the street when they were young, and now here they were, holding my hands to get me safely out of the woods!

Ultimately we made it back to the car, and we made it back to Portland in one wet mess. I had no energy and no appetite for the Spanish restaurant where Dana had planned dinner for us that night. They enjoyed it after getting cleaned up; I enjoyed the warmth of my jammies and my bed.

Next day was Christopher's turn at giving us all a memory, and while I'm not a sports fan, I truly enjoyed going to the Portland Rose Garden to watch the Trailblazers beat the Orlando Magic. That, in itself, was an exciting experience, with multitudes of people, lots to look at and watch, and a nice warm dry seat on which to just relax. Give me basketball any day of the week over hiking through the woods in December in the drizzling rain at night at some point way above the snow line!

Today it's my turn. We're off to Harry Potter and then I'm cooking the holiday meal, with four courses and wines to match each dish along the way. Call it an adventure in gastronomy!

And before I sign off, let me say I wouln't change thing. I'm happy to have had the experience, happier to have survived it, and will be the happiest yet when I'm back in Billtown celebrating the rest of the holidays with everyone at home.

I wish you, my readers, the happiest of holidays, blessings for the new year, good health and great memory-making times with your families. Merry Christmas!

 
 

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