A week before I arrive at my uncle’s house in the Houston area, a cousin posts to my Facebook page: “How do you look in camo?” I don’t know what she’s asking about—hunting? guns?—so ignore the message. Maybe I should have done an Internet search.
My father’s family is German and they drink – and celebrate life – like The People. Oh, and apparently they are like Hobbits when it comes to holiday meals. I arrive the week after Thanksgiving to my Uncle Ken and his wife, Carola, preparing “Second Thanksgiving.” Now, lest I be seen as judging here, let me inform you I am all about this new holiday. I will eat turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy any time of year!
My uncle and cousins live scattershot in the northern suburbs of Houston (although one cousin recently moved to Western Massachusetts, to the chagrin of some of his family). However, they are actually native Californian born and raised, just like my dad, on the beaches of San Diego (though full disclosure, my uncle is . . . [wait for it] . . . a New Yorker!). They have adapted quite well to Texas, which, incidentally, was a country before it joined the United States. This fact explains much about the state and is something, I suspect, many residents might regret. But I digress.
Sara, the cousin who Facebooked me, greets me on the back patio of Ken’s house with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. “Do you wonna ryde?” she asks placing emphasis on the last word.
“Ryde?” I ask back, searching the other cousins’ faces for help. None offered.
“You’re in Texas, boy, do yooo wonna RYDE?!”
I have no idea what she is talking about, but figure this city boy is up for whatever my Texas cousins can dish out. “Hell, yeah!” I say back.
“He wantsta ryde, David” she says to her husband, a tall Wisconsin transplant.
“Well, then, we’ll have to get him some camo,” David says back to his wife. Then to me, “Do you have any camo?”
“Camo?” I’m starting to feel like a parrot.
“Camo, boy, camouflage clothing.”
“Why are you referring to me as ‘boy’?” I wonder to myself. Then as if seeking to impress, I respond, “Why yes, I have a camouflage hat . . . and gloves! Are we going hunting?”
The cousins snicker at my response.
David says, “No, we are not going hunting, but our 10 year-old daughter bagged her first boar just last week. Show him the picture honey.”
A blonde-haired small person walks up and shoves a phone in my face, “Here. See?” she tilts her head to one side and smiles. There on this pre-tween’s cell phone is a picture of her with a dead pig, tongue hanging out to the ground. The little blonde one’s eyes are large and wide, and she grins from ear to ear. Now I’m a little nervous.
Dinner is an opportunity to catch up with this side of the family whom I have not seen for a while. It amazes me that time goes by so quickly and then—pow!—we’re all decades older.
My uncle asks, “What do you want to see in Houston?”
“I plan to attend a service at Lakewood Church tomorrow morning. I hear it’s the largest in the country.” Everyone at the table knows the church . . . and has an opinion about the preacher.
“Oh, that’s Joel Osteen’s church. It’s nyce, but a little too New Agey for my taste,” Carola comments. “I need God in my church.” She and my uncle suggest another church, in their neighborhood, that is like Lakewood.
After dinner, the cousins and I head over to Sara and David’s house a few miles away, cruising in a literal caravan of SUVs. Sara rides with me to ensure I make it. She comments on the way, “I’m glad it rained. It will keep the dust down tonight.” Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a wide smile on her face. “The entire state has been in a drought for most of summer and fall.”
At the house, chaos ensues. Sara sets about finding outfits for the gang, giggling to herself the whole time. David sets the kids up making Rice Crispy Treats, although they would rather “ryde” with the adults. “Kids don’t ryde after dark.” I pet the dogs as I watch the whole process progress.
Once the Treats are setting in the fridge and the kids are set up with a movie, cartoons, guns or something, David pulls out two All Terrain “Vee-hicles,” also known as four wheelers, out of their garage. These are what we will be “rydin’” tonight.
Sara secures enough camouflage clothing for everyone in the party to be dressed head-to-toe in the stuff. With each layer I pull on, she chuckles, points, and then takes a picture. First the pants, “Oh, my gawd, look at our cousin everyone. I have to take a picture.” Snap. Next, the jacket. “Ha ha ha” she laughs. “Now look at him!” Snap snap. “I’m uploading this shit to Face-book.”
Dressed and ready to go, I climb onto one of the ATVs with Sara in front, driving. The whole scene feels like a combination of Deliverance and National Lampoon’s Family Vacation, but all that changes as we hit the trail. The quads are great fun; in no time we are splashing through mud puddles two feet deep and ducking under branches. If we stop suddenly, my helmet slams into the back of Sara’s like a cartoon. We both laugh.
After a time, Sara asks, “Are you ready to DRYVE?”
“Drive? Me? Yes!” I yell back through the dust-covered helmet. She jumps on back and, I swear, crosses herself.
Driving an ATV is an interesting experience. The brake is where you think it would be, by your foot. However, the gas “pedal” is under your thumb on the steering column. It takes some getting used to, and the first ten to fifteen minutes Sara and I crash helmets constantly.
Sara is intent on getting me stuck in the mud. “It’s a right of passage,” she yells in my ear as we dive into a deep puddle, which nearly covers the four wheeler to the mud flaps. I lift my legs to avoid getting my boots wet. She laughs.
At some point, the other ATV with Dave and cousin Kimberly, comes to a complete stop. They are at the edge of what appears to be a vast interior mud puddle. It takes up the entire width of the dirt path and rounds the next two corners. Dave gets off his machine and approaches on foot.
Seeing this, Sara jumps off the back of the ATV I’m driving and into the driver’s seat of the other one. She guns her thumb and the quad rushes headlong into the brown muck. Mud and water fly in all directions. Dave and I watch as Sara and Kimberly bob left, then right. They stop, apparently stuck, then get unstuck. Steam rises from their engine, but they make it to the other side. Sara gets off, removes her helmet and lights a cigarette.
Dave walks back to my quad and climbs on the back. “Ok,” he says. “Follow them exactly.”
“You want me to drive . . . through that?” I yell back.
“Yes, you can make it!” he says. “Gun it!”
I look at Sara who now has a camera in hand and push my thumb as hard as far as it will go. The ATV jerks forward. We leap into the puddle. Dave’s helmet slams into mine. The four wheeler sinks slightly, then gains traction. Water and mud pour off the back wheels as we bob left, then right.
Then, just as Dave yells, “Keep gunning it!” the machine sinks lower and stops moving forward. “Reverse, hard!” Dave yells. I do. No movement. Only mud and goop fly up—straight up—and rain down on us. I notice Sara jumping up and down on the opposite shore while the flash from her camera lightens the dark night.
“Again!” Dave yells. I do with the exact same result – mud everywhere. I feel it seeping into my boots and down my neckline. He climbs off and we use a winch to pull the vehicle out of the mud.
Sara continues to laugh and snap pictures. “I’m Facebooking this shit!” she says dragging on her cigarette.
Once on the other side, I laugh. So does everyone in the quadravan (that’s a four-wheeler caravan). It is one of those I-have-never-had-so-much-fun-in-my-life laughs. You know the kind where you laugh so hard your stomach hurts and you can barely breathe. “Let’s do it again!” Sara screams with her fists in the air.
“I have to go to church in the morning,” I say laughing. We push on into the cold, muddy night.
Back at the house, well after midnight, I strip off my muck-covered gear and wonder if I will make it to Lakewood in the morning. I am exhausted and filthy. Mud has worked its way down the front of my clothes practically to my waistline. Cold and smelly! I strip, shower and head off to sleep in the 10-year-old’s bed (I feel for kids who have to give up their beds for guests). That night I dream of dead pigs and mud.