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The Creche by the Side of the Road

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

–Eliot, Journey of the Magi

Small moments in long journeys, like small lights in a large darkness, often linger in the memory. They come unbidden, occur when you are not ready for them, and are gone before you understand them. You “had the experience, but missed the meaning.” All you can do is hold them and hope that understanding will, in time, come to you.

To drive from Laguna Beach, California to Sacramento, California the only feasible route takes you through Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. If you go after dark in this season of the year, you speed through an unbroken crescendo of computer-driven holiday lights accentuated by even more holiday lights. In the American spirit of “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing,” the decking of the landscape with lights has finally gotten utterly out of hand.

Airports, malls, oil refineries, the towers along Wilshire and the vast suburbs of the Valley put up extra displays to celebrate what has come to be known as “The Season.” All the lights flung up by the metroplex hive of more than 10 million souls shine on brightly and bravely, but the exact nature of “The Season” seems more difficult for us to define with every passing year.

For hours the lights of the Los Angeles metroplex surround you as if they have no end. But they do end. In time, the valley narrows and you come to the edge of the lights, the place where the houses stop. Then you drive into a dark section of highway known as the Grapevine.

The Grapevine snakes up over the mountains that ring the Los Angeles Basin to swirl down the far side into the endless flatland of the Great Central Valley. From entrance to exit is about 50 miles.

So steep is the ascent to the top of the Grapevine that the summit makes its own weather. Comfortable valley nights can turn into snow flurries, sudden fog banks and high winds that shake the car. Every transit of the Grapevine promises (and nearly always delivers) at least one accident seen along the roadside if you are lucky, or directly in front of you if you are not. If you are very unlucky, the accident is yours.

Virtually all traffic to and from Los Angeles endures the Grapevine. It is a dangerous and demanding road, made more intimidating by the swarms of trucks that haul freight up the spine of California. Even in broad daylight, the Grapevine seems dark. It is an unloved and unlovely stretch of highway.

It was long past sunset when the Christmas pilgrimage to our families around Sacramento sent us climbing up the Grapevine. My wife of that year was driving because my eyes don’t adjust quickly to oncoming headlights and because she is, by far, the better driver. My stepson was wedged within a small mountain of bags and presents in the back seat, his cherubic face illuminated by the gray-blue glow of his Gameboy.

I gazed out the window at the churning wall of trucks and the slate black slopes. Heavy cloud cover made everything more obscure. Only the streams of headlights coming on and the endless red flares of brake lights in front of us broke the darkness. It was the nadir of the year, two days before Christmas, climbing between dark mountains with millions of others, most aiming at some destination filled with the rituals of the season; rituals that seemed, as they often do, only a blunt repetition of some sharper but now dim vision.

It came up fast and passed faster as things often do up on the Grapevine. It was vague at first. A dim smudge of light in the middle of a looming dark hillside. Then it resolved itself as we sped up on it at around 70 miles per hour. We came abreast and I saw it clearly for only a few brief seconds. It was that rarest of all this seasons sights, a roadside Nativity scene.

Wrapped in a ring of floodlights near the crest was the classic creche. Nothing fancy but all the elements. The manger was indicated by a backdrop of shingles, scrap lumber, and palm fronds. The life-size colored figures of the Magi, Joseph and Mary, a few amazed shepherds, three camels, an assortment of barn animals, an angel perched a bit precariously on the roofbeam, a Bethlehem star nailed to a pole, and a bunch of hay bales thrown in for atmosphere. Miles from any sign of human habitation, there to be seen only from the road and at a high speed, some anonymous person had placed this endangered sign of an endangered season.

Why had it been done? As a reminder to motorists of why they were going where they were going? As a defiant gesture towards the ACLU and all those who have now not only taken the Christ out of Christmas but the Christmas out of Christmas as well? As an assertion that God still loved an America that has increasingly chosen to ignore Him? As an expression, a pure expression, of faith?

Perhaps all of these things and perhaps none. Perhaps for that most American of all reasons — simply because it could be done.

I pointed it out to my Gameboy-entranced stepson who looked up and back only to see a faint trace of it. His entirely sensible question was, “How did they light it all the way up there?” I answered that I didn’t know but they might have used a very long extension cord. He shrugged and went back to the more compelling challenges of Super Mario 3.

In a moment it was past. In 20 seconds we’d rounded a curve and the light from it was gone. There was no going back. We rushed down the slope and out of the Grapevine onto Highway 5 where a bitter storm wind drove clouds of tumbleweed into our headlights.

In a few hours, we stopped for the night. For us, there was room at the inn — reserved at the Harris Ranch inn; an oasis sporting an Olympic sized swimming pool and overpriced steaks in the midst of the valley’s orchards and deserts. As distant in comfort from the creche in the mountains as, perhaps, 2000 years.

The next day we reached Sacramento and the first of our sets of in-laws. Then The Holidays (Since this is how America has decided to name this time of the year.) began with a vengeance.

Absurd objects were exchanged. Eternal assurances of love and affection were delivered. Children received, as usual, far too many things to appreciate any one thing. Many loved faces were seen and small pageants were performed.

The eating began and went on with no quarter; lavish meals that left one yearning for the simplicity of a salad bar.

In the background, bowl games with no purpose were played. People went to three-hour movies celebrating pagan fantasies and paid drive-by holiday greetings in the last busy days. Photographs and videotapes were made to be looked at … when?

It was a time of busy moments blurring together. Strangely, of all the moments, I was most moved by the small ritual of grace before meals performed at my in-laws. In these rare moments, the central meaning of these days was acknowledged in the phrase, “We thank you, Lord, for your gift, your Son.” And then, like all good Americans, we got on with the getting of our gifts.

Before we could be anyplace at all we found ourselves going back, going south over the Grapevine heading home. I didn’t see the creche on the return trip. Perhaps you couldn’t see it from the southbound lanes, perhaps I slept. I’m really not sure.

Some days after returning, the three of us took in the annual Christmas Pageant performed at the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County. This pageant always receives rave reviews, due to its incorporation of live camels, lavish costumes, a serious pipe organ, and a bevy of angels flung about the vaulted interior of the church on wires. It’s a blend of high kitsch and sincere belief; the sort of spectacle you should see at least once if you live in the area.

The show promised the apotheosis of the real meaning of Christmas in a secure setting; a kind of armed hamlet redoubt of contemporary Christianity besieged by the secular. The show delivered. It had lights, camels, action. It told the old tale in the old way using all the new tricks of the Las Vegas strip. It was spectacle incarnate.

At the climactic moment, angels sang while swooping overhead on their wires, Magi with jeweled headdresses the size of small ottomans adored Him from beside kneeling camels, shepherds abided, the organ groaned, six heralds sounded their trumpets, Mary and Joseph framed by a backlit scrim of stars gazed with awe down into a straw rimmed basin under the worlds largest Bethlehem star ornament, and an airport landing light blasted up out of the cradle, through the glass ceiling and out into the indifferent night.

Houselights. Magi bow. Romans bow. Mary and Joseph bow. Exit camels stage left.

And I thought, “Now, that’s entertainment.”

But I also thought of the other nativity scene. Halfway over the Grapevine, up along the slope of the dark mountains, an island of light in the midst of a vast and expanding darkness. A little light arranged by the small hands of faith to mirror a larger light moved by the inconceivable hand of God. I’ll look for it next year when we drive north. It’s so far out of the way, it should still be there. But then, you never know. Do you?

[Republished from December, 2003 ]

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bob sykes December 22, 2017, 4:26 AM

    Thank you for the reprise. I had forgotten it.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours!

  • Sam L. December 22, 2017, 7:55 AM

    Thanks for republishing; I do remember this.

  • BillH December 22, 2017, 9:09 AM

    Approaching LAX from the east at night in a DC6 or CV440, the bright white glare of LA lit up the cockpit as soon as you got through Banning Pass, except at this time of year the glare was a more subdued greenish-orange from all the Christmas lights.

  • Eskyman December 22, 2017, 11:10 AM

    Thank you for that gift, Gerard. It has touched my heart.

    Merry Christmas to all!

  • Campesino December 22, 2017, 11:49 AM

    We lived in Tehachapi for seven years in the 90s and I have driven the Grapevine many times. I never saw your roadside creche alas.

    I had previously lived in Colorado for many years and was an experienced snow and ice driver. It always amused me how the CHP would close the Grapevine if three snowflakes fell on it.

    Thank you for this beautiful piece and Merry Christmas.

  • Jim in Alaska December 22, 2017, 11:53 AM

    Merry Christmas and best wishes throughout the New Year, from the top of the world, Gerard.

  • Howard Nelson December 22, 2017, 6:17 PM

    Perchance think of it as a miraculous creche landing, urging us in Spanish, ‘Christ mas.’

  • GoneWithTheWind December 23, 2017, 10:27 AM

    Many years ago I lived in Southern California and took the grapevine North many times. Lots of memories. Snow storms in the winter, bad traffic, accidents, even an out of control truck. My most memorable though is after a visit to Disneyland and an effort to get out of Dodge before the traffic became intolerable I had to stop at the rest stop at the top of the grapevine to deal with Montezuma’s revenge. I knew what it was because it wasn’t too long after I ate it that I could sense it wanted to get out. It was a tasty beef and cheese hot poor boy sub from one of Disneyland’s many restaurants. After half an hour hanging out near the restroom my stomach finally made that irreversible decision and rejected my lunch. Sorry! Perhaps not the best memory of the grapevine to share.

  • Bill Jones December 23, 2017, 3:31 PM

    Loved this snippet:
    “My wife of that year”

    They probably should be annual rather than perennial.

  • Vanderleun December 23, 2017, 5:40 PM

    Well, like they say in the nursery business, “A perennial is an annual that survives the winter.”

  • Sam L. December 21, 2018, 9:08 AM

    I knew I’d seen this before, but didn’t recall “the rest of the story”. It’s a prose poem.
    This should be an annual reposting.

  • ΛΕΟΝΙΔΑΣ December 21, 2018, 9:37 AM

    I first drove the grapevine at age 12 in 1948. My father and I had flown from new home in Long Beach to Bakersfield in a DC3 to retrieve his 1936 Ford pickup. He had too much to drink and assigned me to drive. At that time the old Grapevine part of the Ridge Route shown in the graphic above had been replaced by highway 99. Thank you, Gerard for awakening the fond memories of a California native who grew up in the oil fields.

  • captflee December 21, 2018, 9:53 AM

    Merry Christmas, Gerard!

    Very glad to once more have the opportunity to enjoy your wonderful creche story, particularly as I was just about to search it out, only to have it appear unbidden before me. Fifteen years on, such is the power and simplicity of the tale that I have yet to finish it without eyes brimming with tears. Thank you, indeed.

    Please extend to your dear mother my family’s best wishes for a speedy recovery. And you, my not-so-young-anymore friend, take especially good care of yourself in these times of tumult…your mom needs you.

    It would be negligent in the extreme were I not to comment upon your blogging output since the day of the fire, which has been simply extraordinary. Your posts have provided us with insight and understanding available nowhere else, imbued with a grace and clarity but rarely seen in this age, and for which your readers will remain forever in your debt.

    And, to those readers of this most worthy blog, I wish you all a joyous Christmastide!

  • BJM December 21, 2018, 10:44 AM

    Merry Christmas!


  • Howard Nelson December 22, 2018, 1:31 PM

    We too are ETs lost on a labyrinth of roads forgetting where and why we are going and from where we came and when. And when we run out of fuel and come to a rolling stop, we’ll look around and bless the ground and know at last we’re home.

  • Deborah December 21, 2019, 9:49 PM

    They followed a star to the stable, which, for Wise Men,
    is not particularly smart when you stop and think about it,
    because a star is in the sky
    and the sense of direction you get from it is pretty general,
    and which stable the star is standing over depends a lot
    on where you are standing –
    so they were navigating by faith.
    They made a long trip based on less hard information
    than a person might like to have
    but they came through to that first and perfect Christmas.
    And so may we.
    It’s an adventure, maybe more for us than for them
    because we have so many distractions
    and there is so much artificial light, and reflected light,
    that it’s hard to see stars in the sky.
    But certainly it is possible to find the way to Christmas.

    –Garrison Keillor

  • Boat Guy December 21, 2020, 2:44 AM

    Thanks, Deborah! I hope the ensuing year treated you well.
    A good reminder that even Mr. Keillor could appreciate the reason.
    Christ mas, indeed

  • George_Banner December 21, 2020, 3:12 AM

    Strange world this has become.
    White people are the new Jews in this lefto-nazi cancerous times.
    Men, that dreamed of civilization and built it and kept it going and died for it are now also the new Jews, thanks to feminazism, misandry and gynofascism.
    The safest and most comfortable civilization ever for a woman is derided by many if not most as a “rape culture”
    Christians who built America from scratch and made it a shining jewel admired by all who loved freedom, Christians or not, are now persecuted in their own country.
    America, the sanest, healthiest, most decent, most rational, most glorious land of freedom ever in known history is now evil in the stupid eyes of a considerable number of the population.
    Something around 75% of the Jews who found refuge in America have become America haters and Jew-haters themselves and are willing to vote and praise and ally with those who make part of their leftist religion to hate them as much as german nazis did in the 1930s and who would welcome a 2nd Holocaust.
    In the sacred halls where rationality and knowledge and science once made their home we now hear about how “Eurocentric masculinist knowledge” should be fought with “Afrocentric Feminist Epistemology”
    Strange times.
    I could go on but what’s the use?
    My only explanation is the triumph of evil

    Merry Christmas Mr. Van der Leun and all the good people.

  • Domenic Verechia December 21, 2020, 4:38 AM

    You, my friend, are a literary artist! That was up there with the great ones. That is Christmas. Thanks, Mr. Vanderleun.

  • Snakepit Kansas December 21, 2020, 4:52 AM

    Somewhere around 1995 I was in San Jose for a two week long manufacturer’s equipment school. A friend got me aligned with one of his friends who was a pilot and had a small Cessna bug beater. One evening we flew from Reid Hillview to the Harris Ranch Airport. We hoofed it over to the restaurant and ate one of those enormous overpriced steaks.

  • Sam L. December 21, 2020, 8:47 AM

    Eateth thou unto submission! (Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurp.)

  • Susan December 21, 2020, 10:53 AM

    Amazing. I was just thinking about this piece yesterday. I searched for it on the site but had no luck. Glad to see it posted today! Look forward to reading this wonderful, evocative, non-fiction Christmas story again.

  • ghostsniper December 21, 2020, 12:27 PM

    This ain’t the one.

  • EX-Californian Pete December 22, 2020, 11:09 AM

    Ahh, the Grapevine…

    I drove it many, many times, going from Paradise to L.A. and to San Diego.
    The #3 and #4 lanes always full of craters from the big rigs, and the left lanes full of speeding, frantic, moronic drivers who refuse to use turn signals.
    The smell of burning brakes and clutches, and overheating radiators!

    Twice I rode the Grapevine on my ’72 Harley FLH, and on the second time I was attacked by a vicious herd of hundreds of blowing tumbleweeds- which could have proven fatal, but I’m sure brought great hilarity to the motorists around me- watching me ricochet around like a pinball on 2 wheels.
    Great times.

  • double XX December 22, 2020, 12:55 PM

    Mr. Van der Leun, All the best to you and yours ,Merry CHRISTMAS and a most joyous and prosperous New Year.

  • Skeej December 21, 2021, 5:27 AM

    Thanks for these repeat grace notes of your best stuff, G
    Holiday traditions.
    Merry Christmas!

  • jd December 21, 2021, 6:38 AM

    A beautiful telling, Gerard. Thank you.

  • Paul M December 21, 2021, 7:00 AM

    Beautiful…many thanks.

  • PGT Beauregard December 21, 2021, 7:01 AM

    The last time I was through that part of the world I was heading back to Vegas after a pig hunt in Coalinga. I was driving the tehachapi pass at night in a driving rainstorm, and, with my wipers on full, I coudlnt see but five feet in front of the car.

    I slowed to 10 mph in the right lane and had cars passing me going 60+ in the middle ad left lanes. If you know that road, you know the twists and turns and cliffs. Sure enough, a day later I heard that some poor soul had lost control that night, and skidded off one of the embankments, busting through the guard rail, only to tumble 100 feet to his/her death.

  • OneGuy December 21, 2021, 7:20 AM

    Many years ago I lived in Las Vegas but had family in Oregon. So I would sometimes leave work early on a Friday and put the family in the car and drive to Oregon getting there in mid morning on Saturday. The interesting thing is back then you could drive that highway after dark for hundreds of miles without seeing another car. The desert nights are dark and filled with stars. But as you approached one of those few tiny towns you could see a little light in the big darkness. Each little hill gave you a closer view until you drove through the little town and back into the big darkness. I actually loved that long drive even though it was a little gruelling.

  • ghostsniper December 21, 2021, 7:42 AM

    Again, this ain’t the one.

  • SteveS December 21, 2021, 12:18 PM

    Thanks G, right up there with your best. I’ve made many dozens of trips over that stretch. Sadly no crèche. I do remember in the early 90’s the artist Christo setting 1,760 20’ yellow umbrellas along that dark and dreary Grapevine with a sister project in Japan of 1,340 blue ones. Very spacey, but starkly fascinating.

  • Dirk December 21, 2021, 1:58 PM

    My only recollection is of me driving my sister in law, back to her home In LA, her husband had been ambushed in the parking lot at a LA basketball game, shot in the head, left for dead, he wasn’t.

    LAPD contacted me warning the hit was on the entire family. Which is why I went south. Understand for me, there were no rules. I remember a sawed off 870 with a duckbill on the dashboard, and a colt commando right next to me. Our other niece and nephew stayed in Oregon at our home. My agency place security around my crib for a few weeks.

    He lived, they divorced, my newest niece was born days after the contract murder attempt. Valentine’s Day, 1989.LA forum parking lot. When I searched his car, I discover just over 100.000 cash under a rear floor mat. Larry’s never told me why the Crips were trying to kill him.

    At the time his brother was playing for the LA Dodgers, soon after he was globed onto by DEA. No idea what the nexus was. Larrys nephew was playing for the Dodgers, went to the Atlanta, was present for this past World Series, hit a couple home runs. Names , Jock Peterson.


    So not a grand memory.

  • PA Cat December 21, 2021, 5:13 PM

    Gerard, please include this one in your forthcoming collection of Van der Leun’s Greatest Hits. And a blessed Christmas to you and Olive.

  • stvitalkid December 23, 2021, 12:38 PM

    Is this the “Grapevine” hill referenced in the lyrics to “Hot Rod Lincoln?”