After an almost month-long slide into the darkest days of the year, mercifully punctuated by early snows which, like it or not, tend to reflect what meager light there is, we arrive at the foreboding start to the holiday season. That our most festive and to many, sacred and religious time of the year officially begins with what we call “Black Friday,” says it all. Our own ceremony of choice has become essentially hopping a freight out of town on Halloween and staying gone until December, avoiding … well, not necessarily avoiding anything, more like bartering.
American Thanksgiving has gradually transitioned from a Norman Rockwell vision of nuclear families gathered around a steaming, pre-Martha Stewart turkey, generic grandpa, wizened yet reeking of wisdom, expertly wielding the carving knife, into a kind of lead-in to our seasonal, shopaholic feeding frenzy. The kids are home from college — perhaps for the first time — shocked at how stupid their parents have become; Uncle Eddie, an ardent libertarian, is newly off the wagon and headed your way; and the turkey came with a warning label so long it might as well be a carton of cigarettes.
Somehow, perhaps it’s the deepening darkness, dropping temperatures and insane level of expectation everyone feels, the table is set for family altercations to the point that a cottage industry has emerged with self-help books, magazine articles and television specials about how we can avoid fistfights with those we love while celebrating our good fortune.
We’ve totally abdicated these last few years, choosing instead the theoretical simplicity of being somewhere else, which always comes with its own set of circumstances, sometimes every bit as stressful and frequently even more bizarre. As we cackle like Loony Toon characters fleeing a crime scene, our glee is quickly tempered by the stark reality that nothing whips simplicity into complicated faster than an airport. The more exotic the location, the longer it takes to get there — Vietnam, for instance, is nearly 30 hours from Boston, 20 of those in the air.
After eating food that looks like a Swanson TV Dinner and tastes like the box it came in; breathing air that 200 strangers just exhaled; and being confined to a space illegal for a zoo animal, we arrive exhausted enough to consider sleeping the entire first week we’re traveling. Instead, we float, kayak, explore, trek and walk to assorted points of interest, each of which feels 50 miles away based roughly on the temperature, relative humidity and our respective ages converging in alarming proximity to each other.
Ho Chi Minh City — formerly Saigon — has eight million people, all of whom are out on the street at all times, either eating pho — the traditional noodle soup — or suicidally transporting everything imaginable, including their extended families, on motorbikes. Since I haven’t eaten meat in 35 years and much of the National Dish was served in either a pork or beef broth, I enviously observed people uninhibitedly slurping, exactly as advocated by the late Anthony Bourdain.
As far as I’m concerned, motorized, two-wheeled transportation is also off limits. One of my more coherent decisions prior to becoming a teetotaler in the early-'80s, was figuring that if I fell asleep at the wheel of a car, there was always the outside chance I’d coast to a stop — very unlikely on a motorcycle. But even absent my personal drama, any thought of renting one of the zillion available two-wheelers fills me with the kind of dread usually reserved for high places without guardrails or people convinced that God speaks to them.
Eventually we find ourselves in Pho Quoc, an island as far south and west as you can travel and still be in Vietnam. We’re in the Gulf of Thailand on a beach where the only discernible sound is the ripple of small waves, gently lapping at the shore. Tiny emerald-sided baitfish by the hundreds are leaping, probably pursued by something larger. After a couple of big, hot, noisy, pollution-choked cities, hanging mindlessly suspended in the deliciously salty water, eyes fixated on the distant horizon, feels damned near perfect.
We’ll celebrate Thursday with a pretty casual and non-traditional dinner, maybe grilled fish of some sort, there’s certainly a big enough variety. We’ve also heard of an Indian place in town that’s supposed to be pretty good. But whatever dinner turns out to be, we’ll reflect on how grateful we are to be able to be where we are and do what we’re doing. But also how lucky we are to have our Vermont dirt road waiting for us back home.
Our little ritual of getting out of town this time of year has brought us to a number of other towns, in a variety of places, most of which we liked just fine, but hanging around for a couple of days is generally enough, no matter how cool they are. As the month winds down, we usually begin to feel a bit road weary, coincidentally, right around Thanksgiving. As this plays out, with Vermont in mind, I reliably land on an old Graham Parsons lyric from Return of the Grievous Angel: “Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down and they all led me straight back home to you.”
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.