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Shitty Holiday Travel Is the Best Part of Thanksgiving

Screaming babies on a seven-hour flight? Give it to me! A couple fighting in the backseat all the way across the Midwest? Put me in that car!

Our Thanksgiving op-eds have been coated in butter and dunked in a barrel of boiling oil. Now our house is on fire. But nothing, nothing will convince us otherwise. So pass the alcoholic gravy — here are our deep-fried holiday takes.

In L.A., there’s a beloved holiday tradition of Angelenos posting vids from the local news chopper to show how extraordinarily bad the holiday traffic is “this year.” Which is every year. 

When you see it viewed from high above in a helicopter, all the headlights and taillights blend into a miasma of illumination. The freeways are choked with impossibly long lines of cars that twist and snarl in both directions like strings of angry Christmas lights stretched across the L.A. basin. 

It is, in a word, beautiful. 

You cannot convince me otherwise. In fact, I’m here for any kind of shitty holiday travel — the worse, the better! Screaming babies on a seven-hour flight? Give it to me! A couple fighting in the backseat all the way across the Midwest? Put me in that car! A fight with your brother in an airport parking lot? Not even gonna break a sweat.

Shitty holiday travel is a badge of honor. When you’re lucky enough to have a travel partner, it can inspire a remarkable collection of inside jokes, not to mention all sorts of strange and weird stories that can function as a secret language of sorts. Meanwhile, if you’re alone, such sideways trips offer a series of self-revealing moments, or authentic little shared moments with strangers. 

I know this better than anyone. One holiday travel season, I almost died on the floor of an Amtrak bathroom. I spent 48 hours lying there in a puddle of my own humanity, wishing death upon myself for my stupidity and arrogance. It was food poisoning that did me in. My face rested on the rim of the toilet because I was too weak to hold myself up after the first few hours of vomiting. By the time I had nothing but bile left, I no longer cared that my face was plastered on the business end of a public latrine. 

After some pain-in-the-neck bystander snitched on me to the conductor, he came down to where I’d been slowly dying and he pounded on the bathroom door. I weakly pushed it open and looked up at him from where I was pooled on the stained carpeted floor. I think he assumed I was a heroin addict. I could forgive him his assumption; I certainly looked like I’d been circling the drain. But he went further and told me if I didn’t return to my seat he’d have to throw me off the train in the middle of the snowy night in God-knows-where, Wyoming. We were headed to Chicago and still had plenty of country to cross. 

I pleaded that I couldn’t return to my seat because I’d just rush right back downstairs to vomit again. The conductor told me that, if that was the case, I should be ready to get off at the next stop. I laughed. He did not. Luckily, behind him was a friendly face, an older Black man who I recognized as the guy who ran the cafe in the observation car. He told the conductor he’d take care of me. The conductor was gruff but allowed it. 

The man spent the next thousand or so miles tending to me, bringing me instant soup and ginger ale (both of which I promptly threw back up) as we made our way across the Heartland. When we arrived in Chicago, I went to find him to thank him, but I was told he’d gotten off a couple stops earlier. All I could do then was tell my family about him, and how I’d almost died trying to get home for Thanksgiving. They laughed their asses off at me, mostly for eating tunafish I’d left out on a train heater. But they were also deeply moved by the kind stranger who took care of their baby boy. 

That’s the thing. The bad times are the good times. 

For those of you who do plan on traveling for the holidays — and this year, I certainly wish you wouldn’t — just know that no matter how bad it gets, it’s the shittiness that will one day make this time feel special. It reminds us of what we’re willing to overcome to see the ones we love, which, in turn, reminds us of how much they matter in the first place and how much you care about them. 

All of which is to say, in a non-pandemic year, shitty holiday travel makes our time together that much more valuable. We know what it cost us.