The Reason For the Season 

It's not what you get; it's who you know.

After all these years, I don't even remember what Emine and Mustafa look like. They probably wouldn't recognize me, either. We only spent two or three meals together back at the end of 1989. I know that Mustafa is still running the restaurant and Emine lived in the U.S. for a while, and if I ever get back to Selcuk I know where to go eat.

I met Neal on a Greyhound in eastern Tennessee. He was on a trek to visit the birthplace of blues music -- seems all English people have a particular fascination with the blues. But it was November, and I told him if he really wanted some American culture he should go with me to a football game in Knoxville. Explaining the blocked punt for a safety was a little rough, but long before the Vols had thrashed Ole Miss, he noted accurately, "The Orange side are clearly superior." He's still a librarian in West Croydon, wherever that is, and tries to go on a big trip every year.

The Hannahs were my hosts in Cairo more than a decade ago. Their son worked with my dad at the time, so when I came through, Lotfy met me at the airport. I'll never forget the way he greeted me: "Hello! Welcome to Egypt! Now we're going to the duty-free store!" There we joined a long line of "couples," as it were: Egyptians with money and foreigners with passports. Egypt, you see, is dry, so only foreigners can buy booze and only at duty-free stores. When we arrived at a party that night with a bottle of Johnny Walker, we were stars.

"Liz the Whiz," I like to call her, is settling into life as a mom in England. When I met her in college, she was a nutty girl from Martinsville, Virginia, "Sweatshirt Capital of the World." We had all the stupid fun college friends are supposed to have, including an evening in New Orleans that still makes us laugh at the mere thought of it. Not that I've seen her in the last eight or 10 years. She went to New York to pursue her theater dream, met and married an Irishman I've never seen, and is now an artistic consultant for the London Underground.

The Wayfaring Man. That's what Jerry used to call himself on the Appalachian Trail. I knew him before I ever saw him, having read his long, eloquent passages and biblical quotations in shelter registers all along the trail. When I saw a small, bearded man walking along the road in Wesser, North Carolina, I said to him, "You must be the Wayfaring Man." We stayed up all night talking, then the next day I hiked north. Ever since then he's sent me letters with quotes from the King James Version all over the envelope. He still spends as much time as he can in the wilderness, just him and his Bible and his God.

On the day I stuffed my Christmas cards this year, the forecast for Fairbanks was snow, a low of minus 17, sunrise at 10:47 a.m., sunset at 2:43 p.m. Joann once told me that down around 20 or 30 below it starts to feel pretty cold; otherwise, she says, it's the darkness that'll get to you. I met her through mutual friends on a backpacking trip up there -- in the summer. We were out for 12 days, saw several bears, got stuck in our tents for two days because of a storm, and were each carrying about 50 or 60 pounds on our backs. Joann was in her late 50s at that point. She's a little beyond that now, says she had to give up winter mountaineering but still likes to do a long kayak trip every summer.

I'll never quite believe my friend Ann got married. Or rather, that she didn't marry some world-renowned mountaineer or Nepalese river guide. I hear she married a quiet, homebody kind of guy. But this is a woman who works for an international travel company. Among her duties has been to scout new places to lead trips, so she has several "first Westerner to cross this particular border" credits to her name. She also plays elephant polo in Nepal every year. Since the Grateful Dead broke up, I don't get to San Francisco as much as I used to, but whenever I do there must be dinner and tale-swapping with Ann -- oh, and her new husband.

Then there's John, the guy I went to Turkey with. I guess we met in about the second grade. In our mid-teens we were each blessed with a trip to the Rocky Mountains, and neither of us ever recovered. Our time in Turkey was part of mutual around-the-world trips -- in opposite directions. We spent New Year's Eve together in Turkey. Not coincidentally, neither of us lives in Memphis anymore. I saw him a few years back; he and his wife had just bought a condo, and both had good jobs and were taking occasional trips out of the country.

My point, I hope you realize, is certainly not to brag about all the cool people I know or places I've been. Rather, it's to give public thanks for the real blessings and gifts I get this time of year: the people I still swap at least Christmas cards with. I'll send about 100 this year, and if that seems like a lot, here's the way I think of it: Meeting a person is like planting a seed, and for whatever reason the soil seems a little more fertile when you're traveling. I've had 10-year friendships with people I spent one day with. Sending a Christmas card -- or e-mail or letter or phone call -- is like watering that seed. And what you reap is ongoing friendship. That has to be worth licking a bunch of envelopes.

Happy Holidays, everybody!

You can e-mail Paul Gerald at letters@memphisflyer.com. You can also check out his new book, 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland (Oregon), published by Menasha Ridge Press.

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