We weren’t sure if we’d make it to Thanksgiving dinner. The morning of, there was talk of snowfall and tire chains, things you generally don’t associate with the holidays in ever-sunny California. But up in Running Springs, where Uncle Wally has an enormous, beautiful, mountaintop cabin nicknamed The Top of the World, snow is something to consider.
I did a load of laundry and watched Mad Men in my pajamas while I waited for my dad to take a drive down and back up the mountain to determine if the route was safe. At 9:30 AM, we got the go ahead. “The sun came out, so the roads are clear. Come on up. We’ve already got pitchers of margaritas going.” I immediately set about boiling water for pasta. Bryan had made pumpkin mushroom sauce the night before, but we were waiting for the all clear to cook the penne.
I bundled up in a turtleneck sweater I’d purchased the day prior at Old Navy as part of a Black Friday sale. I made sure to wear my black knee-high boots of which a rock star would surely approve, not because they’re bad ass (bonus), but because they provide great traction on slippery terrain. As I applied makeup, I started to sweat in our little San Diego apartment, dressed for 30-degree weather when it was a sunny 60-something outside.
At the gas station by our place, we checked the air pressure in Bryan’s tires and bought snacks for the road. Even though a Thanksgiving feast was imminent, a road trip of any length is damn near unbearable for me without white cheddar popcorn and Cherry Coke Zero.
On the way north, we watched the outside temperature dip on the digital readout as we reached higher elevation. I responded to my mom’s sporadic text messages about Christmas wish lists and clothing sizes. We listened to podcasts for entertainment since radio reception can be spotty from city to city.
Two hours later, at the base of the mountain, Bryan and I took a collective breath. I told him to be careful and did a little yoga breathing to quiet my anxiety. The distance uphill was only 13 miles, but it felt much longer as we zoomed and turned and barreled and turned some more. As we got closer to The Top of the World, little tufts of snow appeared on the side of the roads. The tufts grew thicker and thicker until the sporadic patches had morphed into a fine blanket of downy white.
We pulled to the front of a very, very long line of cars just upwind of a steep driveway that puts most sledding hills to shame. “You guys ready for a little exercise?” As we panted up the hill, I peered out into the serene canyons of San Bernardino National Park, which looked like something right out of a Bob Ross painting. Happy little trees and fine winter mist and layers of color everywhere.
Inside The Top of the World, it smelled like butter and sage and baked rolls – in other words, it smelled like home. The women of the Stevenson family bustled about the kitchen, tending to ovens and crockpots and serving dishes. Cousin Terry gave me the warmest of hugs and announced that I looked completely different than the last time I’d seen him. And it’s true. I haven’t been to California for a Thanksgiving in a long time.
“And who the hell is this?” I introduced Bryan, and we were ushered upstairs to join the rest of the family. “We’ve got some Shirley Temples ready for you.”
In the living room, cousins and uncles and aunts piled on a small, cozy sofa in the corner, watching a football game. A wooden bar stretched across one of the walls, promising cocktails of various persuasions and bowl after bowl of bar snacks. Bryan and I made the rounds, hugging, introducing, reintroducing, catching up. I helped myself to a White Russian – the first I’d had in God knows how many years but it felt festive somehow – and my dad gave Bryan and me a tour of the house.
There are great accommodations at The Top of the World. Each of the six bedrooms boasts its own bathroom, spirit animal at the door (my folks stayed in the moose room), whimsical, fun artwork, and beautiful views. There was a full-sized Dracula-like figure in the study and an outdoor hot tub off the master bedroom. Newly fashioned snowmen adorned the sweeping outdoor patio.
Back in the living room, Wally taught Bryan and me how to play shuffleboard, and a half hour of friendly, family competition ensued. Afterward, we snacked on queso at the bar and talked with cousins about jazz and brushes with customs during the infamous U.S. Ebola scare. Every once in a while, shouts would erupt from the corner where many were watching the game.
Rumors trickled out of the kitchen. Apparently, the microwave was out of commission, the breakers overloaded. And perhaps the turkey hadn’t been cooking the whole time it had been in the oven. I heard later that one of the crockpots was moved temporarily to an unused bathroom to take advantage of the available power source there.
Of course, the Stevensons wouldn’t allow a little thing like downed power interfere with Thanksgiving dinner. Not long after Bryan and I played a few games of Pac-Man and Burger Time and Galaga on Wally’s old school arcade game, dinner was ready.
And now I understood why I hadn’t seen some of the Stevenson women since our arrival. There were three different kinds of sweet potatoes. A roast turkey and a glazed ham. Two different kinds of gravy. My step mom’s infamous mashed potatoes, the spuds for which were skinned with knives because they couldn’t find a potato peeler. Deviled eggs, creamed corn, green bean casserole. Our pumpkin pasta.
Everyone grabbed plates and ate together. The couch in front of the TV remained vacant while the family shared a meal, fitting into every nook and cranny of The Top of the World. We all commented on the dishes we loved and went back for seconds, maybe thirds. Stories of past Thanksgiving grocery store run snafus were shared.
Then, it was time for a picture. All twenty-something of us tried to cram into the stairwell to commemorate this Thanksgiving on film. There was much speculation and strategizing as we assembled. Would we fit? Should we spread out across two flights of stairs? Was everyone accounted for? In the end, a neighbor managed to snap a picture on three cameras, and then an iPad was passed down through the throng of family for one final shot.
Bryan and I were the first to approach the dessert table (surprise, surprise). All the traditional treats were there – pumpkin loaf, pumpkin pie, a few berry pies, brownies for the chocolate lovers – along with two full pineapple upside down cakes and a rum cake that was light on the cake and heavy on the rum. With extra rum sauce on the side, of course.
Not long after finishing dessert, it was time to head down the mountain and back to San Diego. The sun had melted a lot of snow throughout the day, and as the sun set, that snow would turn to ice. Bryan’s car tires aren’t exactly made for cold weather. And our dogs would be impatiently waiting for their own dinner when we got home.
“I’m so sorry this felt like hello, goodbye, but thanks for having us.” Wally said now that Bryan and I understood the rules, we could play more shuffleboard when we came back for another Thanksgiving. We made our rounds, said our goodbyes, and held tight to the railing on the way back down that rollercoaster-steep driveway.
We survived the trip down the mountain. Though it seemed faster descending than ascending, I don’t think I let out my breath till we got to the bottom. Then, Bryan and I sang along to Disney Pandora all the way home.
Our trip was much too short. It took two hours to get there, we only stayed about two-and-a-half hours when all was said and done, and it took us another two-and-a-half hours to get home.
But the trip was completely worth it.
Because while Thanksgiving is seemingly all about the meal that we spend hours upon hours making, there is no celebration, no gratitude, no point to it if you don’t have your loved ones seated at the table beside you. After years away, I’m so grateful to have been welcomed – with Bryan by my side – to Thanksgiving dinner at The Top of the World.