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Great Fall Destinations
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I used to go to Florida every spring and stay at a friend's place, and I was surprised to discover how many familiar faces I encountered every time I was there. Most trips to the grocery, to the restaurant, to the beach included an impromptu conversation with someone I recognized from Fort Wayne. It wasn't until a few years later that I saw that this was hardly coincidence, that there is a veritable army of Fort Waynians who pack up and travel together every April. This still strikes me as bizarre--one of the purposes of a vacation is to get away from it all, after all, yet every year in Fort Myers I'd end up tripping over the very people who prompted me into leaving Fort Wayne in the first place.
Through the same friend I stayed a few summers in Northwest Michigan, in the Leelanau Peninsula, and damned if the same thing didn't happen there as well. By the end of my second day there, I had received three phone calls from Fort Wayne acquaintances, all suggesting meeting somewhere for drinks or dinner. Apparently there was a solid population of Summit City refugees in Michigan every summer as well, and not surprisingly, I found myself trying to dodge the same people up north as I had down south. The migratory patterns of upper-middle class Fort Wayne seemed easy to track — in spring, it's Hilton Head of Fort Myers, then, en masse, they go to Northern Michigan for the summer. Christmas break sends them west, then, for skiing in Utah or Colorado.
I swear, I wasn't trying to be reclusive or standoffish in avoiding my hometown compatriots, but the whole concept of traveling and vacationing with a large group is completely foreign to me. I'm a relatively private person and on vacations I only want to surround myself with people who know me so well that I never have to fake interest or conversations. I do take a trip every fall with friends, but it's with three close friends, three guys I've known forever, three guys I never have to explain myself to. We share a mutual love (or addiction) for horse racing, and every year we attend the Breeder's Cup Championships and spend five days together gambling, drinking, riffing. It's similar to a Vegas weekend, I suppose, but not as frenetic — though the backdrop is gambling, we still have time to enjoy each other's company and to modify the running jokes we've been sharing for decades. Usually it's the only chance I get to see the others, and invariably I start looking forward to the trip months in advance.
This year the Breeder's Cup is in LA, first week of November, and I've got my airplane ticket and the hotel lined up, along with a huge cache of cigars that I'll share with my co-conspirators. I've also been working on some new material, like a stand-up comic — my friends are committed raconteurs and everybody likes to preen a little bit when we see each other, to perform and tell stories and try to break the other guys up. It's one of the great things about friendship, this competitiveness, this game of trying to top each other, a game that never devolves into pettiness or resentment. Even if we lose at the track, I always return with great stories and a stomach that hurts from laughing too much.
2009 will be the eighteenth year for this annual trip, which is somewhat remarkable — even with the job shuffling, marriages, children, divorces, and various other life changes, the fall horse racing trip is a fixed point on all our calendars. It has become a de facto New Year's Eve for me, a chance to look at the preceding year and reflect on all the curveballs that life occasionally throws. In spite of the high-spirited nature of the weekend, there's always time to put the racing forms aside and contemplate the Big Things with like-minded companions.
This year will provide even more opportunities for poignant musings, though, for somebody — God, Fate, Nature — decided it was time to break up the band. Earlier this summer, I got the news that one of the guys died, suddenly, shockingly, impossibly young at 46. After the funeral, I got together with the two survivors — and boy, is that an awful word, "survivors"— and asked, pointedly, if we should continue with our trip. After some discussion we decided that indeed, we should. It is the grim conclusion that grieving people must come to — that life, however unfair, will always keep moving on.
In the haze that followed that terrible news, I couldn't help but notice how awful well-meaning people can be at offering condolences. Too often I encountered people who wanted to summarize, to wrap things up, to put a positive spin on a horrible event. I know there was nothing malicious about their intentions; still, it seemed a sin to reduce the entirety of a man's life into a sound-bite sized, power-of-positive thinking platitude. And I couldn't bear the euphemisms that people used to cushion the blow — "passed," "passed away," "passed on," "went to the Lord," etc. What's wrong with "died?" My friend lived, he died, he's dead, I'm sad. It's pretty simple. Playing with language will never take the sting out of that ineluctable fact. I snapped at a friend who told me that sudden loss makes you reflect on your own mortality. I've known about my mortality for years, I told him, ever since I was twelve and able to mix rational thoughts together. But my friend's death made me focus on his mortality, because he's gone and I miss him.
I talked with my two friends last week, finalizing plans, and discovered that in spite of everything, we're all looking forward to the trip. It may be wrong or perverse, but that's the mind set and nobody's apologizing. We'll have another chance to meet, to laugh, and perhaps say goodbye to all we've lost.