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The Thanksgiving I Broke Loose


Thanksgiving 1987

I am too old to be ashamed of my true feelings. I am 27. Shoot, many of the greatest rock stars died at my age! While I don’t live their lifestyle, it could just as easily happen to me; I’d been threatened by criminals more times than I cared to consider.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Not due to childhood memories, but because of favorite books I read about harvest celebrations around that time – many of which I had to read in secret, because as an African American, I was supposed to enjoy, or at least make peace with, being a modern day urbanite, rather than idolize white pioneers. Shoot, I wasn’t supposed to love books, period! Anyway, that was nearly a decade ago. I’ve been independent long enough to call my own shots. It was my idea to move to Palo Alto, 2½ years ago. I supplemented my income from the brutal job market by being a street musician and found ways to invest what little savings I could muster. Finally, I was starting to pull ahead; I had entered this year with $200 in savings, and was slated to exit with $2000. I was going to celebrate Thanksgiving the way I wanted to!

I called my folks the preceding Sunday. “Sorry, I won’t be able to make it,” I told them simply. They accepted, asking no questions. Whew - that was easy!

Alum Rock Park in San Jose, CA

Alum Rock Park in San Jose, CA

On Thanksgiving morning I packed a picnic breakfast and set out for Alum Rock Park in San Jose. The day was sunny and cold, with frost covering the ground; it was my favorite type of weather. In the late 19th century, Alum Rock Park was the site of a bath house, because it contains natural hot springs. These were closed in 1908, because the environment was too fragile to support it. However, the hot springs remain, and there is a self-guided tour of them. One of the springs you can even drink from, and it’s naturally carbonated!

I sat near this spring, and filled my bottle with the sparkling water, flavoring it with a packet of Kool-Aid. Then I enjoyed my breakfast which consisted of an English meat turnover and a slice of pumpkin pie I’d covered with pieces of a nutty chocolate bar. Afterwards, I walked the trail and read about the mineral content of the various hot springs. It is believed they can cure all sorts of skin and joint ailments; even if that’s not true, a hot soak outdoors in a beautiful nature setting is definitely one of the great pleasures of life.

Sand Hill Road in Woodside, CA

Sand Hill Road in Woodside, CA

Then I drove back home to Palo Alto and rode my bicycle on hilly Portola Loop, which is about 20 miles long. The cold sunny weather was perfect for this; the frost lasted nearly until noon. I had just begun to put on weight, so I was keeping this in check by exercising before piling on the calories of a huge dinner after eating a larger-than-normal breakfast. Being out of shape, it took me nearly 3 hours, but it was loads of fun. I reveled in the sylvan scenery of Portola Valley and Woodside, and the fragrance of wood-burning fires.

Postcard of the late great Sanborn Park Hostel, which closed in 2006

Postcard of the late great Sanborn Park Hostel, which closed in 2006

Close-up of the front entrance.

Close-up of the front entrance.

Sylvia Carroll, Hostel Keeper

Sylvia Carroll, Hostel Keeper

Art (left), Sylvia's husband

Art (left), Sylvia's husband

When I returned, I packed an overnight bag and drove to Sanborn Park Hostel in Saratoga for the Thanksgiving Feast. A log cabin – actually, more like a log palace – nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains, this is one of my favorite places to hang out. It had once been the mayor’s summer residence, then was abandoned and almost destroyed until Sylvia Carroll, the hostel keeper, fell in love with it and came to its rescue in the late 1970s. It needed nearly half a million dollars’ worth of repairs, but she managed to get a lot of donations and free labor, and saved it for a fraction of the cost. The hostel officially opened in 1982, and has since received guests from all over the world. I had discovered it 3 years ago, when I was making plans to move to Silicon Valley, and spent New Year’s Eve here in anticipatory celebration.

Sylvia hosts Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for anyone who happens to be staying there, as well as locals who need a place to go during that time. They are a bargain at only $5.00. The hostel opened earlier today, at 4pm, because dinner was served at five. Quite a few travelers were there, most of them Australian, where there is no Thanksgiving holiday. I hung out and talked with them while we ate. I met a few Canadians, who told me they celebrate their Thanksgiving the second Monday of October, so they got to do it twice!

I spent the night in my favorite room in the hostel, which is a loft-type attic. Hostels are divided into men’s and women’s dorms, and often the men get that one, so I lucked out that the women got it this time.

I had to leave early the next morning. Stanford Outing Club was hosting their annual “Walk the Turkey Off” hike, and we were to meet on the campus at 9am. I said my good-byes to Sylvia, her husband Art, and everyone staying at the hostel, and drove beautiful Skyline Road to Stanford, arriving just in time at the International Center. This was to be my first time doing this hike. Club leader, Michael Bitsko, explained that we would be covering 8 miles through the Santa Cruz Mountains, crossing a creek twice, then attending a contra dance that evening at Felton Town Hall. I didn’t know what a contra dance was, but since it sounded like “country”, I brought along a calico dress – only to accidentally leave it behind in my car, because I wound up riding to the trail head with someone else.

We drove twisty Highway 9 to Felton, then began our hike. It was moderately strenuous, and the creek we crossed was icy cold; fortunately, it only came up to our knees. Midway through the hike, we stopped for lunch at a lookout tower, and rested there awhile.

The hike ended at the Felton Narrow Gauge Railroad Station, which is also a park. A community of people were camped out in tepees, and a stage was erected on which someone was playing Jimmy Buffet songs. It turned out to be the annual Mountain Man festival, which lasts over Thanksgiving weekend. We explored the area, talking with a few people.

A guy came out of his tepee, stared at me, and exclaimed, “Whoa!” I didn’t know what to make of it. “Where are you from?” he managed to stammer.

“I’m with the Stanford Outing Club,” I told him. “We just finished an 8 mile hike.

He told me his name was Chris Halvorsen, and he lived on a farm in Lodi. He seemed totally enamored with me. I was so unused to this, especially since I was grubby from the hike, I was at a total loss. We exchanged information, then he gave me a hug when we left for town.

(This part is painful for me to write. We remained in touch for a few months, then he disappeared. I called him several times, but he had no answering machine. I’ve never been able to find out what became of him.)

We arrived at Felton Town Hall 7pm, when the contra dance started. It turned out to include a potluck, where people could bring anything except turkey. We didn’t have any, but Michael told us they provided so much food there, it didn’t matter. We paid the $4 entry fee, then went in to see some couples doing an interesting version of a waltz. I asked Michael to dance; he declined, saying this was special and he didn’t know the steps. So I asked a Danish guy who had come with us, and he agreed to try. We got out on the floor and imitated the dancers to the best of our ability. Michael gave us a strange look, but since I was used to entering nightclubs for free, I wasn’t going to tolerate paying money just to stand around.

(Later, when I was heavy into the contra dance scene, I discovered this was the Hambo, a Swedish waltz, in which the men and women do separate fancy footwork. Many people are too intimidated to learn it, which is why Michael gave us a funny look.)

The bouncy waltz tune ended, and people clapped. A man stood by the band and said, “Let’s make long ways sets for a contra dance,” and people formed lines in which the men and women faced each other. I stayed where I was, and so did my partner. The man who announced the dance did a “walk-through”, in which he told us the steps, and we practiced. It turned out to be the same moves square dancers do. I’d had lessons in college, so this was easy for me. My partner didn’t know it, but I was able to guide him.

The music started, which turned out again to be the same tunes for square dance. Contra is actually easier, because you do the same sequence over and over, working your way up and down the line. At the end, you cross over with your partner, then go back. I regretted leaving my dress behind, especially since the clothes I was wearing were quite grungy from the hike, and dancing in hiking boots was rather awkward. But I had a great time.

Not understanding the protocol, whenever a dance ended, I would stay where I was until the next one. Actually, you’re supposed to go to the edge of the hall until someone asks you for the next dance. Yet, in spite of that, I always had a partner. At the dance before break, I found myself with a guy who looked almost exactly like John Denver, and I told him so. “Yeah, people say that all the time,” he answered, with a heavy German accent. “When I was in Colorado, they were asking me for autographs.” His name was Manfred, and he was an exchange student at UC Santa Cruz. Three months later, he invited me to my second contra dance, which was the area’s annual Dawn Dance.

At break, we had a non-turkey feast, though some people had brought dressing. It was wonderful. Afterwards, we danced until 10pm. I did the last waltz with Manfred, and we exchanged addresses and phone numbers. I was really scoring today!

Then came the long trip back to Palo Alto. Gazing out at the pitch-black forest, I reflected that this was the best Thanksgiving I’d ever had. Even the ones in the stories I’d read weren’t as good. I was going to celebrate it every year this way – and that’s what I did, the whole time I lived in Silicon Valley, until I regretfully left there in 1994.

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