I haven’t had a “proper” Thanksgiving dinner since 2002, somehow managing to be anywhere but watching football and eating an oven-cooked turkey. When people say “Thanksgiving,” I think of being somewhere in the desert with two of my closest friends, Nick and Jayson. Three out of the last four years, the three of us have camped in Canyonlands’ Needles District, often at the exact same campsite, with a rotating cast of other friends.
The Needles District is deserted the week of Thanksgiving, maybe because of the cold, maybe because it’s a little far from any major airport, and about six hours from Denver or SLC. We have had the place to ourselves most years, building big fires after dinner, loving the clear skies because of the stars but not so much the cold nights that get a little below freezing. We stand around in puffy jackets in the morning, nursing coffee and waiting for the sun to pop over a rock formation that blocks the horizon, and when it does, it rapidly warms to t-shirt weather. We wrap up breakfast and go for a walk, sometimes six miles, sometimes 11, around the red-and-white spires and sandstone fins straight out of the Road Runner cartoons. Usually one of us is contemplating a career change, or starting a new relationship, or some other big life move.
Thanksgiving in the desert is almost the only time I just car camp and go on day hikes. No climbing, no fear, no managing a bunch of gear, no worrying about rain or snow (for the most part). By the end of November, I’ve been going-going-going for 11 1/2 months with life and work, and finally I get to a place where I don’t have cell phone service, and I have no choice but to calm down, tell jokes, sit close to the fire with my hood up and nod off as everyone tells funny stories.
Since I met them, I think we’ve collectively had about 10 relationships, 20-some apartments, 20-some different jobs, and a thousand talks over coffee cups, burritos, bike handlebars, campfires, rocky paths and climbing ropes, among everything from the clank of dishes and din of a hundred voices in a restaurant dining room to the dead quiet of a winter mountainside or desert trail. The only constant, besides the fact that none of us understand women or know what we want to do next with our lives, is the annual trip to the desert. Except last year we missed, with travel or family plans. And this year, Jayson is halfway around the world, finishing up a job teaching Bikram yoga in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Nick and I, and six or seven other friends, will meet up in the San Rafael Swell, and I will inevitably tell at least three or four Jayson stories in his absence — about the dumb shit we used to do when we drank together in college, about his colorful and surreal career in politics (which include stories I would personally title The Dog Fight, The Hammer Fight, Not Really Sure Why the Candidate’s Wife Thought It Was Appropriate To Tell Me That, and more), or about his visionary negotiating skills (How to Get a $36,000 Raise in 5 Seconds, Get the Rental Car Upgrade For Free 100% Of The Time, et cetera).
I met these two guys when we worked as waiters in a restaurant 13 years ago, and since then, we’ve all done a million different things kids from small-town Iowa could never have imagined. We all moved around, stayed in touch, lived in Denver together, moved away, came back, and took off again. Christmas is always Family Time, when we all travel to be with our parents and brothers and sisters and grandparents, but Thanksgiving is always Family Time too. We’ve always shown up to help move each others’ couches, and usually one of us spends part of the year sleeping on one of the others’ couches, too.
I guess at Thanksgiving you’re supposed to think about what you’re grateful for, and I’m no more grateful on that day than any other for my two friends, but usually I spend the day busting their balls over a campground dinner, and Jayson won’t be around this time. Maybe this year I just miss my friend.
The last time I saw Jayson was in June in front of the Frontier check-in at the Denver airport after I gave him this hand-scrawled-in-ballpoint-pen card with a crappy drawing of the world on the front, on the inside something about how he always had someone rooting for him wherever I was. Then I went to Norway, and New York, and the Tetons and Devils Tower, and Italy, and Switzerland, and Jayson took off for Jakarta and Bali and Singapore and Who Knows Where Next. And it felt like we were so far from the two 20-year-old dipshits we were when we met, sitting at the corner of the bar at The Other Place and buying shots for ourselves and the bartender and those two cute girls over there. We talked about that a lot right before he left, how magical it was not having anything figured out in life in your early 30s. And at the airport, we tried to hug around our big backpacks and nobody really knew what to say because who knows when or where we’ll see each other again, so we just threw up our hands and said “What a life!” and started laughing as we walked away.
[Photo by Southern gentleman, world traveler and hopeful somebody Brian Williams]