A few years ago, when I turned 50, I had a brilliant bucket list idea.
I would climb the highest peak in every state, in alphabetical order.
I would start with Alabama and 2,405-foot Cheaha Mountain. I would finish at age 100, with fanfare, atop 13,804-foot Gannett Peak in Wyoming.
National celebrity would pour down like a mighty stream. I would be the first centenarian to host Saturday Night Live. I would do Viagra commercials. The good people at AARP would offer me a very short lifetime membership.
Well … sometimes the best-laid plans meet Murphy’s Law.
My 13-mile January 2004 hike to the top of Cheaha in Alabama left me nearly crippled. A drenching rain reminded me that nature is very moist. I walked (fast) through woods that reminded me of the love scene in Deliverance.
After Alabama broke my will, I found a good excuse to skip Alaska’s 20,310-foot Denali the next year. And Arizona’s 12,633-foot Humphreys Peak the next.
This year, I’ll be skipping 13,796-foot Mauna Kea in Hawaii. And I look forward very much to missing Wyoming 39 years from now.
My great 50-year mountain climbing project may have nosedived, but the ever-fevered McNair imagination has now concocted something even more grandiose.
As this column posts on Tuesday, November 24, I’ll be on a Delta non-stop from Bogotá to Atlanta. Sharing rows with me will be four members of my newly beloved Colombian family: Adela Castro, my fiancée. Her mom, Luz Castillo. Our kids, Juan Manuel and Ana Maria.
For Thanksgiving, my Bogotá family will travel to Dothan, my home town, to meet my Alabama family. Colombia will meet the McNairs. Forget the Kardashians. Is a reality TV crew at hand?
I predict entertainment like the following:
My 84-year-old mom will sit in queenly radiance—she’s become much like a pampered, good-natured house cat in the last few years—and she’ll ponder hard and long on topics to discuss with the four Latinos in her living room.
She’ll settle on her old standbys: Little House on the Prairie; The Young and the Restless; The Waltons.
Oh, and Bonanza.
“Do y’all remember that one where Hoss saw all those little green men?” my mama will ask.
Answering her question will require two translations.
I’ll first phonetically interpret for Adela what my mom actually said in her pretty-much indecipherable Alabama accent. After being out and about in the wide world for some years now, I now realize that I have spoken a second language all my life.
I grew up speaking Alabamian. And English.
After I translate, Adela will then repeat, in Spanish, my mother’s wondrously strange question to her family. They will shift on the couch and wonder what on earth is a Bonanza, or a Hoss. They’ll wonder where little green men live in Alabama.
Thanksgiving dinner will be a revelation.
Cornbread dressing does not have any corresponding dish in Colombia … at least not one that I’ve found after 10 months of dining here.
The Colombians will stare gravely into the gravy, and politely ask what giblets are. (Giblets or not, gravy was considered a refreshing beverage in my house when I grew up.) On the table, the Thanksgiving turkey with the toe tag will be huger than any bird in Colombia except a condor.
The bowl with the rutabagas will be mistaken for some kind of fancy papaya dish, until the first weird bite. (I’ll watch to see how creatively bogotanos can sneak food out of their mouths without notice.)
What will they make of pork ‘n beans with strips of bacon laid on top like meat Band-Aids? Green bean casserole sprinkled with a fine rain-forest drizzle of soda cracker crumbs? A pot of collard greens holding two ham hocks like little praying hooves?
Now that’s entertainment!
Next the reality TV cameras can swivel around to the four Colombians and myself clustered on the big sofa in the den.
Juan Manuel, age 10, will bring along a small army of superhero action figures to defend him. He may want Iron Man and Deadpool on either side when my brothers arrive. A Latino may think of the McNair boys (me included) as human guanábanas … spiny, spiky, gnarly-looking creatures on the outside. Inside, sweet and smooth—if prepared the right way.
Luz, Adela’s mom, worked as a judge in Bogota, a perilous job in the nacrotraffic years. She’s seen violence … but is she ready for Alabama vs. Auburn on Iron Bowl weekend?
Little Ana Maria, just turned age 8, has special capabilities, as we say, possessing the rarest genetic disorder you never heard of—Cri du Chat Syndrome. Though she understands Spanish and even a little English, she speaks only two or three words. Thanks to this, she will likely appear to be the smartest person in the room as all the blarney and revisionist history and big fat white lies pass between the Alabamians and Colombians.
Adela and I will perform dual roles. First, we’ll be translators, and do our best to interpret what Spanish or English or Alabama words mean. Second, we’ll try to explain context—those looming icebergs of history and culture and family lore that words and stories float up from the deep.
My sisters are wonderful and welcoming. One will surely reference Scarlett O’Hara at some point. (The Colombians may think she’s talking about some type of small red bunny.) At this, I’ll step in and begin to wrap around my own axle attempting to explain the Civil War. As the Colombians have had an active civil war going on for 50 years now, this will be old news and boring … until my sisters or mama pull out family photo albums.
Then comes the real reality fun:
“Here’s a picture of Charlie nekkid in the bathtub!” (I’m just one year old, folks! Nothing to see here, people, just move along.)
“Here’s Charlie when he was chubby!” (Age 10! Not chubby now! Just some glaucoma and hemorrhoids so big I never need a chair!)
“Here’s Charlie when he wanted to be Dale Evans and wore a green skirt!” (Just a phase! Just a four-year-old boy’s total crush phase! I’m a red-blooded man!)
“Here’s Charlie when he dropped out of college at Alabama and got drunk, stoned, and laid for the first times and hitchhiked to Mexico … all in the same week!” (Just a phase gringos go through, Colombians! Just a phase, honest…)
“Here’s Charlie with his ex!” (Uh … nice weather this Thanksgiving, isn’t it?)
“Here’s a picture of the girlfriend Charlie had when he met you, Adela!” (Hey, is it time we played Twister?)
Got all this, reality TV producers? Lights! Cameras! Action!
In reality, this Thanksgiving meeting should be seriously wonderful.
Together, my two families will visit an old log cabin my daddy restored while he still lived. We’ll walk through the autumn leaves on McNair family land to a magical place where Hurricane Creek and Omussee Creek tumble together in a whitewater dream. We’ll climb pecan trees and shake the limbs and make nuts thunder down all over Alabama. (Please, no comments. Like that Dale Evans thing.)
Happy Thanksgiving, Colombia and Alabama! Felix día del agradecimiento!
Photo: Anthony Quintano, CC-BY
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.