I don’t hate Thanksgiving.  I just don’t celebrate it.

During my grad school years I worked three jobs and ninety hours a week.  I bartended to pay for school and taught and tutored to gain experience–never enjoying more than eighteen hours respite.  Destined for burnout, I strung a few days’ vacation together and hit the road for the Thanksgiving holiday.  By myself.

My mother was aghast: “Spending it by yourself?  Come home.  Spend it with your family.”  The problem is, family are people, and I’d had my fill of them–from my annoying bar customers to know-it-all college kids.  I needed a few days.  Alone.  Or at least around strangers who didn’t want another beer or a higher grade.

An ex-boyfriend had told me about this place in northwestern New Mexico.  He likened it to Mesa Verde on steroids or something, about ten hours from Denver.  This remote canyon held the remains of Anasazi/Puebloan city with a perfectly straight centuries-old road system that made the Appian Way look like a backroad.  His voice message from there was simple but poignant: “I’m in Chaco.  This place is beautiful.”  Then he hung up.

Six months later, I wended my way through colorful canyons and small towns (pop. 75) on my quest for solitude among Anasazi ruins.  I stopped at a Subway for Thanksgiving lunch–a cold cut combo.  I can still see the mayonnaise glopping onto my lap as I spoke to my mother, whose depressed tone was in stark contrast to my cheery embrace of freedom from the grind.  Nearer to Chaco, the landscape becomes a high desert plain and vegetation becomes more scarce.

Deserts are places of extreme:  Still air acquiesces to blustering winds with no foliage or landscape to lessen its intensity; parched ground erodes under flash floods; and day scorchers blithely turn into freezing nights.  Chaco greeted me with wind, drought, and cold.  I don’t know what shook more that night–my tent or my teeth.

The next day, an overcast ominous one, I explored.  I had brought my mountain bike but Chaco lends itself more to hiking and frolicking among the ruins.  The ancient city was eerily quiet but inviting.  I scampered around the great buildings of Penasco Blanco, Pueblo Bonito, and Una Vida, marveling at the expanse and architecture.  I gaped at the petroglyphs etched into the canyon’s walls and was puzzled by the Weatherill cemetary.

I inhaled deeply and looked far along the road system and up the canyon.  Remote. Alone.  The only people I spoke to on this trip were cashiers.

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Thanksgiving in New England means pathetic Pilgrim-Indian re-enactments.  New Englanders are proud of their history–that they were the first settlers outside of Jamestown and Roanoke (well, except for Santa Fe, but no one talks about that), and that they traded with the Indians.  When the Pilgrims landed they came in contact with the Wampanoag tribe, headed up by Massassoit and later Metacom.  All that remains of this tribe are names of streets, malls, and colleges.

I don’t doubt that the pilgrims sat down to dinner with the Wampanoags towards the end of some November.  I also have no doubt that both sides were grateful to have food.  But that random Thursday back in the seventeenth century has morphed into a ritual of two deadly sins: gluttony and sloth.  Some people even have Thanksgiving Day pants with elastic waistbands so they can eat like they’re at a Roman orgy.  Then, they sit down to eat some pie and watch the Lions lose.  The last few times I deigned to celebrate this holiday, my dinner guests scoffed at my suggestion that we share with everyone else what, exactly, it was we were grateful for.

So I ditched it.  I just said no to Thanksgiving.  Experiencing an ancient culture that has not been glassed over or roped off was too much for me.  I sobbed with emotion as I drove away from the Pueblo ruin, weeping for a lost civilization.

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