Monday, December 27, 2004


Bouncing across the country in a covered wagon could not have been much more uncomfortable than airline travel today, especially during a holiday. I began the trip cheerfully enough and decided to take Jedi with me. So, we were on our way, old lady and her dog, heading westward.

Our trip began in the gray hours of dawn, with city lights still twinkling and no sign of daylight. It was snowing, and I drove carefully to the Park2Fly, not to be confused with Park&Go, Park&Ride, Quik Park, or many others. After locating a parking lot, I climbed onto the shuttle, where Jedi enjoyed a social moment with the fellow passengers. Then we were deposited at the airport door.

We stood in line for our tickets, which we picked up at the counter, and checked the luggage, then went through Security. If you felt tidy and well-groomed before going through Security, you will soon feel and look as though you just climbed out of bed. You have to take off many of the clothes you have just put on, including your shoes. You place your belongings in the bins provided, step through the metal detector, then wait for someone to wave a wand over your body and feel around in various spots to make sure you are not smuggling some sinister substance in these peculiar places.

This done, you gather up your belongings, halt to don your shoes, and take off for the mile long hike to whatever terminal awaits you. All airports are the same. There are so many people and so little personal contact. Everyone is going somewhere or coming back from somewhere and they walk at a brisk pace to get there.

Once through Security and in the terminal area, you are trapped. You will not see the sky again until you have reached your destination. You can only select a chair from the rows of seats and sit there as the time passes. If you have ever waited for a plane, you understand that time does not pass. It comes to a near halt. You read the paper, study the surge of humanity, work a crossword, call someone..anyone. Call your insurance agent, ask for an quote. Call a Dating Service, call Vanessa's Mystic Palmistry. Or stare into space.

There is a little board you frequently check out. It will give your destination and your flight number. It very seldom says "On time". There is no time in the airport. You have entered a twilight world, a world where everyone is hurrying to get somewhere, but the planes are usually delayed. Not late, mind you, but delayed. No explanation is given. The pilot may have paused for an extra cup of coffee and another doughnut, but they will never tell you this. Occasionally, a rumor is spread around. The plane is delayed because of weather. Weather is the bane of the traveler, but it isn't the only culprit. One time I was "delayed" because the Vice President was landing in D.C. He must have crawled off the plane, for the delay was interminable.

Another time, I was "delayed" because the plane's front windshield had cracked and they were waiting for another plane, which was evidently located in Nigeria and had to fly across the ocean to reach our airport. That was a five hour delay which most of the passengers spent in the bar and were so sloshed that they didn't care if the plane ever got there.

Another time, a passenger had a heart attack and the plane halted at the nearest airport to transfer him to an ambulance. The ambulance was waiting when we landed, but it took the better part of two hours for the pilots to complete the necessary paperwork and get back into the skies.

Since I had had no breakfast besides coffee, I decided to splurge on a second cup, along with a cinnamon bun. It would have been cheaper to hire a chef and have the meal delivered from a four-star restaurant. But I paid, and shelled out 75 cents for a 50 cent newspaper and settled down for a long wait, while Jedi flirted with some children in the next aisle.

Finally, my plane arrived and I hurried to my seat. I was given a bulkhead seat, so I would have room for Jedi. Because a dog is a natural attraction for children, the stewardess asked me if I would mind having a seating companion who was only seven years old and traveling alone.

So I met Destiny. Destiny had two teeth missing in front and a killer smile. She did not know where she had been, but she knew she was going to Montana. She had two older brothers, whom she disliked intensely. Her brothers teased her and yanked her hair. We drank cokes and nibbled on tiny packets of crackers and shared experiences. Destiny and Jedi formed an instant attachment and, in a matter of hours, we were in Salt Lake City.

More waiting. More expensive airline food...well, there's nothing to do but eat. I didn't bring my ironing, for God's sake, and a person has to do something! I read another newspaper, a strictly Republican publication, which described how wonderful things are going in Iraq, and how grateful we should all be for George Bush. I worked a crossword puzzle, which I couldn't finish, because I didn't know a Partying Mollusk was an Oyster Bar, cursed the jokester who thought up those cute phrases, and continued to stare into space.

Again, the plane was "delayed", because of the Christmas rush. I wondered at that word "rush", because nothing connected to traveling at Christmas could be described as a rush. But why quibble? I read another paper, even browsing through the want ads. I saw what seemed to be an inviting condo in Salt Lake City, if anyone is interested.

Then, the plane miraculously appeared and we were off again. Somehow, I became separated from Destiny and never saw her again, even though our destinations were the same. This plane was small and my shoulders touched the shoulders of the man next to me who, thankfully, seemed to like dogs. He was a huge man, a football player, with enough girth for two seats squeezed into one. Jedi was sick of the floor and wanted to sit on my lap. And the stewardess brought me a book on how to survive on land or water if the plane developed an emergency. I promptly fell asleep and didn't wake up until we reached my destination. Jedi slept, too, cradled in my arms, while the giant next to us wedged himself firmly into his seat.

Montana. A strange, empty, bleak land, rimmed by magnificent peaks that rise into the air in jagged formation, snow-covered and distant. There are miles and miles of grassland, dotted with grazing cattle, and a wind that could blow you into the next state if you did not brace yourself. One can imagine the old cowhands bringing their herds across the planes. And one can imagine the Lewis and Clark expedition, walking across these riverless acres, pulling their boat along, using a sail to harness that wind. What they must have thought, this historic pair, as they hiked mile after endless mile! What a relief to reach the Missouri! What a joy to see the canyons, the falls, the wildlife!

My mind drifts back to a time when I stood in a lonely little graveyard along the Natchez Trace where Merriwether Lewis is supposedly buried. I say "supposedly", because it is not positive this grave holds his remains. And there is a pitiful monument, nothing fitting a hero of his proportions, noting his demise. Suicide, they say? I can't believe it, and will never believe it. Yet the National Park Service has turned down all efforts to exhume his body in order to ascertain just how this American hero died! What a shame to ignore the importance of our history! And how pitifully inadequate that monument!

The return flight was more of the same, this time peopled with the hurried, frantic crowds of people yearning to go back home after a holiday. But it ran fairly smoothly and there were few delays. However, after arriving at Metro Airport in Detroit, I had to wait for the shuttle to return to my car at Park2Fly. For forty-five minutes, I stood in the seven above temperature, Jedi's leash clutched in my hand, cursing my parents for not settling in warmer climes. Then the shuttle arrived and I clambered aboard as the driver hefted my bulging luggage onto the rack. He delivered me to my car, unloaded the suitcases for me, then drove away. I was left with a car so cold it was like a tomb, iced windshields, and the misty cold of a winter night.

Aren't car heaters wonderful? Whatever did people do in horse and buggies without heat? No wonder they rarely traveled more than a few miles from home. There is nothing more cozy than a heated car on a frosty night. Jedi curled up to grab a few more winks and I made my way down the freeway toward home.

It's no picnic getting home, either. After arriving, you have to lug in the suitcases, turn up the thermostat, look over the messages left on the telephone, and realize that life has returned to its usual mundane routine. You feel strangely empty, as though the excitement that has been a part of your travels has left you hollow and purposeless. Now, all you can do is unpack. You're exhausted, but exhilarated. The journey is complete. You have traveled from one end of the country to another, like Woody Guthrie, and you have seen wonderful, stirring scenes, just as he did on those trains. The difference is, you don't sing about it or write classic tunes. You just collect your mail, return your calls, and go on with your life.