“And so this is Christmas,” sang John Lennon. This Christmas season was different for everyone. Events we have come to expect, those traditions we count on to make Christmas Christmas were not a part of Christmas 2020. With all our downtown events canceled, churches, restaurants and other venues closed or limited, we were left to make the best of a bad situation. And so this was Christmas 2020.

I decided to celebrate Christmas in New Mexico with my sister. My brother-in-law Rex Gray passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack in August. Spending the holiday with my closest remaining relative was the right thing to do. We talk on the phone every morning, but it had been over a year since we had seen each other. I was unable to make Rex’s memorial service in October and felt bad about that.

I told Gwen I was thinking about coming to New Mexico for the holiday but the unfortunate situation we have faced this year added doubt that I could go at all. Then I went back to work and that added more doubt. As it worked out, BTL Industries shuts down for the holidays.

The next obstacle was the predicted cold wave, snow and ice forecasted to swoop down from Canada. I watched the maps and thought I could beat the cold weather across Arkansas. We were working 12-hour days through Dec. 23. I really wanted to be in New Mexico on Christmas Eve. I was getting up at 2 a.m. and at work in time for the 3:45 shift start.

On Wednesday I was tired and looking at a long day in which I planned to go home and sleep a couple hours before taking off. That dreaded 18-hour drive was not something that I have ever looked forward to. I have made this trip many times but always in warm weather.

In the past, I have planned stops along the way to visit friends, tour historic sites, cemeteries, checked in with Elvis at Graceland, battlefields, followed the Trail of Tears and Route 66. I have spent time exploring the Cherokee Nation several times while going to New Mexico. These leg stretchers along the way seem to shorten the trip and take away some of the dread. Those Route 66 museums are a lot of fun, too.

The nice folks at BTL let us go at 11 a.m., and I was on the road by 12:45. The drive was nice until I was about a hundred miles out of Memphis when I hit the predicted weather front. It was dark and the rain was coming down hard. I crossed into Arkansas and the rain only got harder. The wind was bad, with lightning that lit up the entire sky. I had to make one of my six gas stops during this, and it was a miserable, cold time out of the car.

If I had not gotten enough Christmas music, I made up for it on this trip. It did reenforce the season in my mind a bit with some rock and country in between as stations faded in and out. Somewhere in Arkansas I got sleepy and stopped in at a rest area to nap. I am not sure if I slept a half hour, an hour, but I woke up really cold. I wanted to find something to cover up with and go back to sleep but aroused myself enough to get back on the road.

I passed through Conway, Arkansas, named for the Conways that moved west from Greene County and produced a senator and two governors. Along the way in Conway was Toad Suck Harley Davidson, a place I first stopped in because of curiosity about the name. Finally Fort Smith which Caroline, George Blanks, and I explored a few years back. In fact, we were all over Arkansas as we returned from a historical event we participated in in New Mexico.

Finally, Oklahoma, and I passed casino after casino. It seems to always be 200 miles from somewhere. I have stopped in Oklahoma City a few times, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum is a fun stop there. I dropped in at Jacksons Western Store once. Only JR Ewing could buy western wear there. It is a nice drive through, especially in the middle of the night. I have about got ran over a few times in the daytime traffic.

Amarillo, Texas, is 260 miles and to be in Texas is getting closer. My uncle Charles Southerland lived in Amarillo for a good 40 years or more. I think everyone in the family except me visited him there. I have made up for it and know my way around a bit. My favorite stop in the early trips was The Big Texan where I dined but never tried the 72-once steak. Shepler’s and Cavender’s Western Stores have been favorites, the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum has been a fun visit as well.

I arrived in Amarillo at 6:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve. Gwen had told me a few days earlier that she had been craving Chick-fil-A but wasn’t driving 147 miles just to get it. I dropped off I-40 onto Georgia Street and down to Chick-Fil-A to get our breakfast and me some more coffee. Gwen was not aware of when, or if I had left home, so this was going to be a surprise.

As I headed on toward the New Mexico line the sun started to rise behind me, making the landscape come to life. I was enjoying a herd of buffalo lounging in a field along the road until the light revealed it was a field of tumbleweeds, not bison.

Another of my longtime stops has been Russell’s Truck and Travel Center which has a tremendous car museum. I kept driving, thinking that I would catch them on the way home. Normally, I do my stopping going out and my straight through driving returning home.

In the distance I could see the Tucumcari Mountain and, as always, it seems to loom forever before actually getting there. This area is known as the Mesalands, and I have found the mesas to be a source of interest since I made my first visit here. Mesa comes from a Spanish word meaning table. They are small mountains with a flat top. It amazes me that these mesas were islands when the landscape was covered with water. They rise out of the desert and have trees and even water on top. Some of these are hundreds of acres, many inaccessible, and teeming with wildlife.

After arriving in Tucumcari, it was still 16 more miles to the south before arriving at my destination. I turned on the road to Gwen’s house as my 18-hour drive was coming to an end. I noticed it was close to the time I normally call her each morning, so I dialed her up. She wanted to know where I was and I told her “coming up your driveway.” It was nice to finally arrive, sit down and visit over those chicken biscuits before unloading the car. Best of all, I made it in time to spend Christmas eve with her.

Gwen asked if I wanted to sleep and I told her that I had had enough coffee to keep me awake for a couple days the night before. She had told me things she needed help with over the last couple months and one was her weather station. I suggested we get busy starting with the weather station. I got a ladder, climbed up on the pergola, unscrewed it and moved it to a fence post in the corner of the yard. The batteries had died and she could not climb up to replace them so the new location was perfect for her.

We had to take a little time with getting the control panel to recognize it and start recording all the climate events. We changed light bulbs, AC filters, and charged up a power drill so I could fill an outbuilding full of screws. We got a lot done on Christmas eve.

Christmas Day arrived and I was stressing because Greene County had snow and I was out in the desert where it was 60 degrees. However, I would not trade that time with my sister for anything. Gwen and Rex always went to the Powwow Restaurant and Lizard Lounge for Christmas dinner, and this year we would do the same. The Powwow is a holdover from the Route 66 glory days and the food has always been incredible any time I have eaten there. This year it was carry out only with turkey, brisket, ham, or pork as the meat choices. I went with all the meats except the pork and added dressing, gravy, fried okra, mashed potatoes, and sweet potatoes. They included rolls, a salad, and apple pie. We ended up getting three meals out of that one carryout.

The Blanks girls sent presents and stockings, so we had an enjoyable time opening presents following the meal. Melodie Daniels and her crew sent treats to eat and Gwen a present. So we had Christmas.

This trip I didn’t have my agenda of people and places I wanted to see. I just wanted to spend time with my sister, except I asked Gwen to see if Jim Keith had time for me to come visit with him. Jim is an internationally known artist, blacksmith, farrier, a cowboy’s cowboy, a man’s man, and an all-around great guy. I first met Jim in 2014. He has just written a book, “I Never Called Myself a Cowboy” and I wanted a copy. Jim and his lovely wife Carole had Gwen and I as guests in their home on Christmas Day. I am going to write about Jim later.

The next day we made a run to town and I made the comment that I had never eaten at La Cita, a Mexican restaurant. Gwen remarked that everyone says they have the best tacos anywhere. She asked if I wanted some and sure enough, we dropped in and took a dozen home. I agree, they are the best, so good in fact we stopped and got more the next day.

That next evening Tom and Mimi at the J-X Ranch invited us and a couple other neighboring ranchers for dinner. I had never visited the J-X with its 6-mile driveway which was rough as a cob. Gwen took the truck, so she bounced us in there in good fashion. It was fun listening to the ranchers talking about cattle, the economy, and talking about “lions coming down attacking cattle.” Those mountain lions I mention occasionally.

Saturday-Sunday-Monday we mostly hung out and I continued to help with the little jobs. I thought about leaving Monday, but we had generated so much stuff to haul to the dump cleaning out buildings, I decided to stay another day and help Gwen haul it off.

I have always enjoyed the sunsets with the windmills and mesas as backdrops. I spend some time every evening catching the beauty of the sunsets. It is amazing just how fast it changes. While we were at Jim Keith’s I got a nice shot of the Tucumcari lights from his front yard overlooking the city.

Tuesday morning came. Gwen is always up by 4:30 with the coffee brewing. Her dog Turbo would come into my room and lick my hand to let me know it was time to get up. After another morning enjoying coffee with my sister, it was time to head back to East Tennessee. We knew a front was coming and Texas and Oklahoma were expecting freezing rain. I hoped to beat it as I headed east.

I was on the road at 5:30 a.m. and hit rain in Texas. It was worse in Oklahoma and I thought I was having trouble with my left front tire until I stopped for gas and found the wind to be blowing hard. As I drove across Oklahoma the skies cleared, the wind stopped, and it was pleasant driving. I had outrun it. I tuned into a good classic country station and sang my way across Oklahoma and Arkansas.

I made Memphis by 10 p.m. and happened upon a station still playing Christmas music. I thought I was past Christmas but enjoyed the music until the Jackson area. Then I found a classic rock station playing Christmas every third song. There was something that just wasn’t right with “Away in a Manger” sandwiched between Olivia Newton John and The Beatles.

I arrived in Greeneville at 4 a.m. the next morning with no stops to nap. I went straight to bed, slept five hours, and Caroline came over and we were off antiquing, and I needed to grocery shop. She made a fantastic Shepherd’s Pie and we watched a couple movies, yes Christmas movies. And so this was my Christmas, not what I have come to expect, but a totally different one. I did miss the snow, but there will be more. Spending time with my sister at Christmas for the first time for longer than I can remember is a priceless memory. Knowing she didn’t have to spend a Christmas alone was even more special. And so this was Christmas.

Greene County historian Tim Massey is an award-winning writer for Civil War News with more than 40 photos featured on various magazine covers. He has served on various boards and held positions in several historic organizations. He can be reached at horses319@comcast.net.

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