A Simple Life

Blowing snow, voodoo gumbo and a chilly weekend to remember.

There is that sense of Siberia when football season ends, a cold and barren stretch of time signaling the absolute end of the holidays.

It’s as if Earth freezes over, and there is a ban on most forms of fun. Chore lists await, and there are tax forms to collect. That desk where I stuff all the receipts needs to be unstuffed. And the closets. Christ, the closets…

I’ll confess that I’ve been spending far too much time pushing for the vaccination of our most important public servants: barkeeps and cocktail waitresses. For the love of God, let’s get this country flowing again.

Meanwhile, props to the football players and staffers – college and pro — for giving us a season amid the risks and challenges. Life would’ve been far worse without our surrogate warriors.

Already Smartacus and I are finding other ways to fill a weekend. Drove to Victorville the other day just to get out, and it started snowing in the Cajon Pass on the way back.

Built specifically for drunks returning from Vegas, the Cajon Pass is treacherous enough on a sunny day, then you add blowing snow. Oh joy, a Slip ’n Slide!

I kept waiting for the Highway Patrol to intervene, for when it snows in Southern California, everyone overreacts. I figured that at any moment the CHP would deem the pass unsafe — though it’s always unsafe – and that they would order us back toward Victorville, which has a fine prison and not much else. Maybe we could stay there overnight? The penitentiary looked forlorn in the gloom, yet kinda cozy, as prisons go. And generally, I would prefer it to the local lodging.

Smartacus and I marveled at how the storm stirred the winter sky…the topo of the clouds, the sheer power of a rare winter storm. It brought cold to the Inland Empire, the kind of chill that penetrates your dungarees. No matter how many times you stomp your feet, you can’t get warm.

So, what we had was a scene from Kerouac — flurries in the headlights, adventure  over the next hill. It was nice because it was different, know what I mean?

Of all the activities COVID has robbed from us, travel is among the most precious, the holy water of new sights, new tastes, different twangs at the diner.

Even a tiny day trip like this proved nourishing. Besides, it’s good to be humbled by the snow once in a while, to be slapped in the face by a bracing wind, to turn into a gust, feel it rip you of your breath. Then to turn away, climb into the car, full-blast the heater, feel your fingers again.

Perhaps that’s the Irish in me, this appreciation of a cold gust. I have Viking skin and all my organs burn a little. A cold gust refreshes them. I open my mouth and it’s like a wind tunnel.

Do you think lost souls look out for us? Do they hover over us and affect the stormy fates?

Truth is, there’s nothing like a warm car on a cold day to remind us how lucky we are. Think of the pioneers caught in windy passes like this not so long ago, in their covered wagons, surrounded by sniffling children, uncertain whether they’ll be able to get a fire going to save the coughing baby.

There must be infants buried all along these rugged California passes. It’s a disturbing thought, as my son sits warm and comfortable, fooling with his phone.

Hey, sis, here’s a vid of the snow. Cool, huh?

How far we’ve come. For a while, my own grandpa ran a gold mine in the 20-foot snows north of Reno, up in Quincy, where they’d strap snow shoes to the horses to take supplies to the workers wintering at the mine.

Ever put snow shoes on a stallion? Fun!

I’d like to think I have a bit of my grandfather’s cowboy courage. Probably not. I’ve spent my life in the finer suburbs, where the men can’t even change flat tires anymore – it’s been evolutioned out of them.

I think it’s valuable to change a tire once in a while, or install a sump pump, or tune a car. Instead, we go to therapy. Guess that’s progress. At least we go, right? Our dads sure didn’t. Maybe that’s where the progress is.

Dark and stormy days like this stir some Halloween notions. On the way to Victorville, we drove past a junkyard of old cars, and I imagined the spirits of the crash victims hovering above this scrap-metal cemetery.

Obviously, I’ve read too much Stephen King. In King’s version of that junkyard, the spirits would all reside together, arguing and debating, being inappropriate with each other, lamenting their lousy luck. Then one day they’d come together to save two lost souls on a rural highway somewhere, to spare them the too-short lives they suffered themselves.

Do you think lost souls look out for us? Do they hover over us and affect the stormy fates? I guess I could buy into that theory, that the cumulative losses in our lives – parents, spouses, children, pals — look out for us after they go, our surrogate warriors.

I have no evidence, of course. Just a hunch.

Back home, I muffed the gumbo, though Smartacus said he preferred this miserable milky gumbo over the usual briny and smoky stuff, muddy as the Mississippi.

“I rushed the roux,” I explained. “And I don’t think I added enough voodoo…”

“Yum, Dad.”

Gotta say, it’s nice to have an understanding sidekick like Smartacus, who doesn’t know gumbo from grapenuts, so that when I muff it, he makes contented alligator sounds while shoveling it into his saucer-sized mouth.

“You nailed it, Dad….ooooooo…ooooooo.”

You know, I’m starting to think that life’s pretty simple: You can either appreciate all you have, or lament what you lack. Easy choice. Like picking out a pair of boots.

Again, I have no evidence. Just a hunch.

Then, as rain knock-knocked the roof, Smartacus heated the oven and undercooked some cookies – no one undercooks cookies quite the way he does — capping off a particularly fine and simple Saturday.

Just think of all we have, right? Amid the voodoo. Amid the hurt.

Speaking of gumbo, it’ll be the main course at our Super Bowl Bash. We’ll announce the date and time on Saturday, then send a Zoom link to the first 100 households to respond. We’ll also post the recipe for a dark gumbo like this one, muddy as the Mississippi. Also, how about a Valentine’s hike? Stay tuned for details on that as well. Meanwhile, please support us, enjoy past columns, sign up for stuff, at: chriserskinela.com   

8 thoughts on “A Simple Life

  1. I like your hunch. I do believe all our loved ones who have passed still watch over us as they wait for us. Maybe that’s what guardian angels really are. But what the heck do “contented alligator sounds” sound like and where did you first hear them? That is my new favorite phrase this week! Only you, Chris. Only you.

  2. Warmed my heart like my seat heater warms my butt, another modern marvel you couldn’t get in a Conestoga Wagon. And I will never be able to look at you again without thinking of Viking skin and burning organs.

    1. Forrest’s reply reminded me of one more winter memory that you, as a fellow Midwesterner, share. A great way to show a high school girlfriend that your declarations of love were sincere was to leave the basketball game/party/school dance ahead of her so you could warm up the car before she got in. I’ll never forget the sound the ice scraper made on the windshield as I fought off frostbite and fantasized about hot grappling in the front seat.

  3. You were driving past the turnoff to Wrightwood. In the sixties I got up at 4AM to dive up there and work the parking lot until 10 in return for a pass for skiing the rest of the day. The trip down the slope was less than three minutes, so this meant many runs with a fine expansive vaulted view of the desert far below, then a sweet drive back down to the basin and a swiveling up to the base of the mountains and Sierra Madre Canyon, where I then lived. The pass can seem winter voodoo or a benign orange conduit to the sunset and the warm valley below. When snow compounded the measure of the return, we skiers simply slowed to the rock and roll of Sunday evening traffic, the main hazard being the frantic or uninformed among us, sliding hither and yon. But you were an Illinois boy, so I know you know about snow on the road, and thus could exhult in the uncertainty of limited visibility, which most California natives simply cannot do; or would never think to do. And you are right about the beauty of the feeling of coming in from the cold to the warming silence, then hum, of a car. Compound that with the exillaration of motion, and you have one of peak experiences technology has afforded us: winter in a car, both in yet out of Winter’s grand theater–Both an actor and observer in the stirring drama of the season. There is much joy experiencing this ambivalence, and you have recreated some of this for us. I’m assuming your sled dog went along for the ride. That mating of flesh and snow must have been lovely to watch…

  4. You feed my soul yet still make me laugh out loud. Bill & I treasure you & Smarticus…every single day.

  5. Scratching my head wondering why anyone wold go to Victorville? Claremont, Lake Arrowhead, Palm Springs if your gonna drive East.
    Also, I’m sure a lot of us Boomer’s can’t measure up to our Grandfathers. I know I never could. Mine built beautiful teak Runabout Boats in the 30’s and 40’s…Seriously?

Leave a Reply to Caroll Schwartz Cancel reply