Two summers ago, as we eked our way across the nothingness that is lower Saskatchewan, returning from yet another 8000km/4000mi+ journey to the Heartland, I knew with frightening certainty that we would not repeat the feat in 2017. Sometimes when in the midst of a trying situation we humans say things like ‘well I’m never doing that again.’ As with childbirth, for example. And then, despite insistence to the contrary, you find yourself doing the thing again.
But this was different, I knew I was so sick of sitting on my butt, trudging along asphalt, staring at open skies, eating countless bags of chips and candy, hoping the car wouldn’t break down (again), that a two-year reprieve would not be sufficient to convince me to embark on another cross country roadtrip. And, in the odd chance that I managed to rally and convince myself to pack up the car because the monetary savings was worth it, I knew the professor, our primary driver on these extreme undertakings, would not.
As skipping our biennial visit to the Heartland was not an option, we turned to our trusted friend, Expedia, just before Christmas – an astounding seven months before we were due to leave – and forked over credit card details for the vague, easily broken, promise of five seats on a Chicago-bound plane. The professor had spent an astounding amount of time (days!) holed up in his basement office trying to find the cheapest flights and when he finally emerged with the words ‘it is finished’ he added the delightful caveat ‘the trip back is going to be rough….three flights…..going to LaGuardia.’
Geography is not a particular strength of mine, but even I know that flying from Indiana to New York to go to Calgary is not exactly efficient or direct. ‘Oh well,’ I shrugged, ‘this year we at least have the advantage of knowing no matter how much that one day of travel sucks, it’s still better than three days in the car.’
Even as I said those words, I knew they would come back to haunt me.
Seven months passed, as they do in our current phase of life, in a blur of cold, school, work, sports, warmth, work, school, sports. As soon as July hit we headed to the airport with five carry-on suitcases, 5 ‘personal items’ and a large black suitcase with a red string attached. To set it apart from the host of other anonymous black suitcases cruising around on the conveyor belt.
Percy and the Hen, technicalities aside, had never really flown on an airplane before. The Gort and I had sporadic, intermittent, experience with the art of flying in the 21st century. As in, I hadn’t flown since November 2015. The professor was the only frequent traveler among us, which turned out not to be one of those ‘blessings in disguise’ of which ‘people’ sometimes speak.
Apparently when one’s solitary ritual is invaded by four neophytes, injecting a touch of chaos into one’s established way of doing things, tensions can run high.
Cranky paterfamilias aside, the travel itself was relatively smooth. Our flight departed more or less on time, we had seats in the same row and when Chicago’s piles of skyscrapers came into view a mere three hours after leaving Calgary, it felt like a modern miracle. Yes, I’d flown before. Yes, I was aware it was considerably faster than driving – but to see Chicago? After only being in a plane for 3 hours?
Our semi-lengthy layover in Chicago passed quickly enough between neverending walks from one concourse to the next, and spending cringe-worthy amounts of money on small amounts of mediocre food. I always keep my eyes open in airports because I’m addicted to people watching but I’ve also had enough bizarre small-world encounters to know it’s entirely possible that I might see someone I know, or at least recognize.
Sure enough, walking along one of the concourses, surveying the food situation with my youngest two, I passed a short, tattooed man with dark, wavy hair. I stared, tactlessly, at him because he was familiar to me even though my middle-aged brain was not offering up a corresponding name. Joseph Boyden, my brain finally cooperated a few seconds after I passed him. The author. He’d been in Calgary just two months before and I’d attended his talk with a friend.
It struck me as unglamorous, this gifted writer hoisting a large duffel bag over his shoulder, traveling from one city to the next at the behest of his publisher/agent in an attempt to sell, defend, himself.
Once we landed in Indianapolis, our day’s final destination, I asked the Hen which he preferred – flying or driving. ‘Driving’ he surprised me, ‘it doesn’t hurt my ears.’
Twenty-nine days later, having seen Indiana, Michigan and New York, slept in six different beds, and worn the same two pairs of shorts and two tank tops too many times to count, we loaded our stuffed-to-the-brim suitcases into my sister’s car and drove to the airport. With a forecast of unassigned seats and two problematic big city airports looming overhead.
Along with his solitary travel peculiarities, the professor has also adopted what I’ve since dubbed ‘his Vicky voice’ when dealing with airline personnel. So named after listening to him talk on the phone with an airline representative named Vicky. The voice is a blend of extreme calm and pleasantness, bordering on personable, utilized with a tacit expectation of reciprocated cooperation.
Apparently the Vicky voice pays off on occasion, because we found ourselves in ‘Comfort Plus’ seats for the first flight from Indianapolis to LaGuardia with a 65+ year old male flight attendant, who was perhaps the nicest man I’d ever met and an almost two year old girl who shrieked at eardrum-shattering decibels. You win some, you lose some.
We arrived at LaGuardia ahead of schedule and ‘everything was coming up Jason’ as the professor likes to say when things are going his way, until it came time to board our flight for Toronto.
Tuesday, August 1st was apparently a banner day at the Toronto airport for thunderstorms. Of course, we were entirely unaware of all of this, as we were standing in line waiting to board when the dreaded announcement came. ‘Thunderstorms…Toronto area…Delay…..No idea when this plane might leave.’ A look at the departure board revealed the next Toronto flight after ours had been entirely cancelled.
Mere minutes after the first dire announcement, came a second: ‘Board. Quickly.’
Part of me envisioned a favorable outcome to the scenario – we were going to board quickly and depart at just the right time to allow us to land in Toronto in between meteorological episodes. The smart part of me realized we were going to board quickly….and sit on a plane. We’ve all seen at least one news headline about a plane full of passengers sitting on a tarmac for hours on end without water to drink, forbidden from using the bathrooms.
This was not like that, exactly.
We boarded an un air-conditioned plane in 90 degree heat with a hundred-some strangers, but at least we were handed dixie cups of water and given permission to use the bathrooms, all while the flight attendant and pilot spouted honest if unapologetic rhetoric about having no idea what’s happening. ‘It is what it is,’ they seemed to say. Actually, that’s exactly what the pilot said.
I’m not sure that I would describe myself as a claustrophobic person, per se, but I definitely have a large personal space bubble and am quickly irritated in hot, overcrowded, public transportation situations. Also I was wearing jeans and a light sweater for the purpose of keeping warm in cold airports and airplanes. Ah, the irony.
At first the sitting on the plane was alright. We’d handed out screens to our boy-children and I’d usurped the Hen’s Sudoku puzzles. But minutes turned into tens of minutes and the plane seemed to be getting hotter. And I was stuck in between the Gort and the professor.
‘Do you want me to get you a t-shirt from the suitcase?’ the professor offered when it became unbearably obvious that I was irritated. ‘No!’ I snapped, because I didn’t want to ‘hold things up’ or ‘inconvenience anyone’ by opening an overhead bin and extricating a t-shirt from a suitcase. I also held on to the foolish hope that our suffering could end at a moment’s notice.
Eventually I capitulated and never was I more grateful for a tiny airplane bathroom or a well-worn black tank top.
We were past the hour mark when the pilot asked for a show of hands to see who would be in favor of getting off the plane. I raised my hand, even though I never raise my hand for anything. I would have abandoned the four members of my party and started a new life in a rat-infested New York City studio if it meant I could get off that plane.
[Rats and the City: coming soon to a television near you, featuring a sad fortysomething grey-haired woman with a large personal space bubble, wearing clothes from the Gap.]
Luckily at least 50% of my fellow passengers agreed with me, because we were allowed to get off the plane. The first thing I saw upon entering the terminal was a waitress carrying a smoothie on a small tray and all I could think about was finding a smoothie for myself. Stat. I forked over more cringe-worthy amounts of money for not enough food, lamented our travel situation to my mother and sister and eventually found myself standing in line for the same flight, again.
Around the ‘three hours later’ mark we finally took off for Toronto with visions of missed flights and getting to Calgary at 2am in my head.
It was my first time ever, landing at YYZ, so perhaps it’s always like this, but the airport seemed overrun with people scurrying and people standing in lines waiting to make alternate travel arrangements and stressed airline employees directing traffic. The escalators were stopped and I found myself hoisting suitcases and backpacks up and down flights of frozen stairs to appease unhappy children who’d been traveling for a month and had hit the proverbial wall of exhaustion.
And then we got to security.
My suitcase was flagged. The same suitcase which wasn’t flagged in Indianapolis. As soon as the security guy said ‘liquids over 100ml’ I remembered about the bottle of mouthwash, and the shaving cream. ‘Right,’ I disclosed in an attempt to hurry the process along, ‘I have a bottle of shaving cream….and a bottle of mouthwash.’ The man didn’t appear to notice that I seemed tired, done, and unable to care about whatever belongings of mine he needed to confiscate. ‘Let me just search the bag and then we can talk through some options,’ he replied smoothly, as though to suggest my patience with the process would be rewarded handsomely. He continued his search of my suitcase and unearthed an additional culprit: a bottle of lens cleaner ‘somewhere between the 100 and 200ml mark.’
‘Well,’ he was finally ready to tell me what I already knew. ‘You could take these items back and check them blah blah blah blah or…..’
‘We could confiscate them.’
I nodded my head, pointed a finger as though to say ‘that’s the solution I’ve been waiting to hear’ and said ‘Yes, that’s fine.’
Nothing in my suitcase was worth retracing my steps from the previous hour for the purpose of checking a bag.
With an almost amusing chorus of apologies, the security guy took possession of my Listerine and Nivea and eyeglass cleaner, then called me back and handed me the spray bottle of lens cleaner: ‘If it’s medicinal, it can be over 118ml.’
Good thing I was wearing my glasses.
It was close to midnight before we were allowed to board the flight back to Calgary, our party of five dispersed throughout the plane. As my head bobbed back and forth between sleep and consciousness, my body wracked from fatigue and illness, I estimated our journey from start to finish had taken 19 hours. Less than 3 days in the car, to be sure, but not by much.