Christmas in Sacramento

The drive from Las Vegas to Sacramento consists of 570 miles and takes over 8 hours to complete. A strenuous drive, to say the least. As we pack the car, Riley offers to drive. A pleasant surprise, as this allows me to write and maybe even catch some shut-eye. One hour later, the wheels of the car grind against gravel. I look up just as the vehicle comes to a complete stop.

“What happened?” I ask Riley.

“I’m tired,” Riley says, her eyes three-quarters closed.

And thus, I spend the next 8 hours behind the wheel.

After a 2 hour nap, Riley turns on the highly recommended Serial Podcast. We obsessively listen to it for the duration of our drive. An hour from our destination a thick fog sets in. Drivers slow down to 15 miles per hour below the speed limit as their visibility is limited to a few feet.

At exactly 9:30p.m. we park our vehicle beside a suburban house. We’ve arrived at Riley’s Aunt and Uncle’s house. We’re greeted Hubert Riley, Riley’s mom’s brother. A thin, fit man, with soft eyes and a genuine smile, Hubert welcomes us with open arms into his beautiful home, reminiscent of Spanish design. Christmas decorations hang from every nook and cranny. We take a seat in the kitchen as Hubert finishes up cooking pasta for his newly arrived guests. One by one the cousins flood the kitchen. The first is Anna, a sophomore at Georgetown University. Her dark brown hair, straight as an arrow, flows midway down her back. Her thin legs excitedly sprint over to her cousin and best friend. Then comes Caroline, the 2nd oldest – a junior in high school. With an eerily similar physique as Anna, it is no surprise these 2 are sisters. Having smelled the waft of the tomato sauce, Anna and Caroline’s little brother, Will, enters the kitchen. A thin boy, enjoying the joys and agonies of being a high school freshman, Will carries a sweet comb-over and a timid, yet pleasant smile, not unlike his father’s. The last of the 4 children, Stella, stumbles into the kitchen in her one-piece pajamas. She boasts golden blonde hair and the puppy-dog facial expression all children between the ages of 2 and 5 have mastered. Thumb in mouth, this 4 year old looks shyly at the big, tall man eating her family’s pasta.

“Hi,” I say to the cutest little girl I’ve seen in ages.

Stella takes a scared step backwards.

This may take a couple of days, I determine, succumbing to a simple wave to the toddler.

While still trying to memorize all the cousin’s names, the front door opens and Lisa Riley walks in. Tall, athletic and possessing straight, dark-brown hair, Lisa’s appearance makes it clear where the two oldest daughters obtained their physical features from. The now-packed kitchen transitions to the dining table, where Riley and I detail our travels to the 6 active listeners (one of whom is awake way past her bedtime). The Riley’s take turns asking questions and expressing their jealousy and support for our venture.

After consuming dinner and gulping down a cup of tea I can no longer keep my eyes open. I bid everyone a good night and I head to my room in the guest house, located opposite the pool.

I wake up to a murky Christmas Eve morning. Much of the morning and afternoon is spent helping the Riley’s set up for the Christmas Party taking place later that night. At 3pm, I attend my first Christmas Eve Service. Children and adults unite as one, through song and prayer. Many close their eyes as they feel their lord in every inch of their bodies. Feeling holier, we return to the house shortly before 5pm. Less than 2 hours later we hear the first knock on the door.

The guests start flocking in. They bring wine, hors d’oeuvres and entrees. We chip away at the various cheeses, jellies and crackers until the main course is prepared. The kids (of which Riley and I are included) form a buffet line. I fill my plate with fried onion mashed potatoes, vegetables, croutons and fresh crab. When I say fresh crab, I mean REALLY fresh crab. This succulent crustacean was brought by a friend of the Riley’s who proudly owns a renowned fresh food store. Just when I think that dinner can’t get any more delicious, I’m reminded that there is freshly cooked prime rib awaiting my consumption. I walk over to the kitchen counter and introduce a quarter pound slab of meat to my plate. Minutes later, my stomach is as happy as can be.

With digestion having begun, Lisa suggests a dance party in the living room. We move aside a few chairs and tables and gather in a circle, forming a serviceable dance floor. One of the kids whips out a small, wireless speaker, connects his iPhone to it using Bluetooth technology, and starts pumping the music. For the next 2 hours we dance, sing and laugh. There are 35 people attending this party and every single one lets loose at least a few dance moves. Two gymnastics-splits, multiple perfectly choreographed songs, and 35 pairs of sore calves later physical exhaustion kicks in and the music ceases. By 11p.m. the guests are gone and clean-up time has begun. Despite a seemingly endless supply of dirty dishes and trash, we clean the entire house in record time; even remembering to prep the living room for Santa’s looming arrival.

And lo and behold, Santa does arrive. I wake up Thursday morning to a surplus of gifts. However, my pile pales in comparison to Stella’s. She must have been particularly good this year. With wrapping paper and cardboard boxes comprising the majority of the living room floor and my stomach full from breakfast, it’s the perfect time to get some fresh air.

I arrive at the Shady Oaks disc golf course to a perfectly warm afternoon. Disc golf is a sport merging golf and Frisbee. Specially designed plastic discs are thrown from a concrete tee-pad, about the size of a door, towards a chain-linked metal basket, positioned anywhere from 100 to over 1,000 feet away. The purpose of the game is to make your disc into the basket in as few shots as possible. Two discs in hand, I start my round. At hole 4 I run into Rich and Freddie, two local disc golf enthusiasts. We agree to play the rest of the round together. Seemingly having an endless supply of marijuana, these two Cali natives light up a celebratory bowl after every successful hole. Two-thirds complete through this 18-hole course, we run into Jesse, an old friend of Freddie’s. Fire-orange bangs droop over Jesse’s pale blue eyes, as he joyously hugs his old friend, who he hadn’t seen in years. Delighted by the cloud of smoke forming around my two new acquaintances, Jesse decides to play the final 6 holes with us. To little surprise, Jesse also has a plentiful supply of weed, of which he makes use of liberally. My 3 friends walk in a blissful haze as we complete this enjoyable course full of gorgeous trees and calming nature. Officially being able to check California off my list of states I’ve played a round of disc golf in, I leave the park feeling accomplished.

The morning of Friday, December 26 is dedicated to exploring Sacramento. Riley and I do this in our favorite way – a jog throughout the city. Led by our tour guide, Hubert, we run 7 miles through suburban communities, public-living communities, railroad tracks, West Sacramento, Old Sacramento, malls and a massive hole in the ground, which will soon host the new Sacramento Kings arena.

At 5pm, the household increases by 2 as Riley returns from the airport with her little brothers, Pierce and Hugh. This being one of the few times I’m in the same room with all 3 siblings, I stare at each of the Smith’s debating who resembles whom more. Riley and Hugh’s golden brown hair and blue-green eyes seem to merge, while Pierce and Riley seem to have their noses and facial expressions chiseled by the same artist. With it already being past 8pm on the East Coast, we decide it’s a suitable time to pop open a few beers. An hour into catching up with the newly arrived guests, Riley and I light up the stove and oven in preparation for dinner. An Indian Pale Ale in hand, I begin cooking chicken, couscous and vegetables while Riley prepares the fresh kale. An hour later we’ve crafted one of our finest meals to date – a vintage Moroccan style feast.

Our moods elevated, Hubert, Pierce, Hugh, Riley and I decide to spend the night out on the town. We head downtown, where we hop from one watering hole to a second and then a 3rd. Targeting solely the local and craft brews, I have a delicious night. While Riley and Hubert grab a taxi around midnight, Pierce Hugh and I stay out till 2am, before getting dropped off at the house by a friend of Pierce’s, who he met in Croatia earlier in the year.

While Riley’s brothers wake up early to drive down to San Francisco, I spend Saturday catching up on sleep and reading. Just before sunset Hubert, Lisa, Anna, Stella and I head to a local nature park where we are surrounded by curious deer and spawning salmon. I learn much about Anna during this short hike, including her fear of deer. By the end of our walk, we’ve come within feet of so many does and bucks that Anna has no choice but to successfully face her fear. This meeting with the fresh outdoors mitigates my headache and livens me up for the Sacramento Kings basketball game taking place later that night.

While Riley stays home with the rest of the gals, Hubert, Will, Will’s friend (Jack), and I head to the 7:30p.m. tip-off between the New York Knicks and the Sacramento Kings. The game is a thriller, ending in a fantastic overtime victory by the home team. I watch 17,000 ecstatic fans yell, high-five and hug as their Saturday night is temporarily improved by the performance of their Kings. As with any competition, there is a losing team – and tonight (as is the case on most nights) it’s the Knicks. Will proudly tells Hubert and me about the verbal scuffle he and Jack had with the rowdy Knicks fan yelling obscenities from the seats above them.

I wake up Sunday morning with an extra spring in my step. I pack a single suitcase, eager to get on the road and see my best friend, Steven (who inspired me to go on this adventure), his girlfriend, Jesse, and my 2 friends, Jared and Jen, in Lake Tahoe later that evening. Riley and I sit in the living room, awaiting Riley’s brothers. Fashionably late [as Riley predicted], Pierce and Hugh arrive nearly 2 hours later than promised. The 4 of us jam-pack Riley’s vehicle and head north to the world-famous lake in Tahoe.

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