I once took the bus from Manhattan to Albuquerque.
With the money I saved, I bought a pair of purple cowgirl boots that I foolishly took to Goodwill–and frequently mourn.
The journey out was zen-like; we crossed into New Mexico as Aquarius played in my headphones, and the first perfect snowflakes tumbled from the sky.
On the way home, however, there were two arrests at the state border. A woman became suddenly and violently deranged, and we waited again for police. When the bus caught fire, I huddled on the side of the freeway, pledging to fly next time.
Recently I spent 25 hours trying to get somewhere–and it wasn’t to Bora Bora, either. Flying from San Francisco to South Dakota shouldn’t be hard.
But it was.
On what I hoped would be the last leg of my ridiculously interminable journey, I found myself thinking about the saying:
“Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s ALL small stuff.”
While I understand the spirit of this aphorism, let’s be real. Some stuff is big.
The previous two times I had made this journey were for my father’s death and funeral. Both times I got hopelessly stuck in Denver, succumbing to anxiety attacks that were likely suffered by airline employees and passengers in a four-gate radius. Apologies all around. I wasn’t aware it was possible to feel grief-stricken and humiliated and helpless, all while standing in line, praying that someone could help me see my father one last time.
A couple of weeks ago, I was headed to a memorial event on the near anniversary of his death. I was excited to go, to see my mother and brother, and especially to revel in my dad’s memory and legacy at the college where he had worked for decades. But I grew increasingly anxious as the date of departure approached. Though no urns or gaping holes awaited me on the other end this time, the path was already loaded. And I carried a little hole with me.
How strange it would be to see my mom standing there to greet me, without the stooped kindness of my shrinking father at her side. Despite nearly 365 days without him, it can still feel so fresh, so foreign, in the midst of the most mundane of tasks. In an email, say, where the invisible “and Dad” looms next to my “Dear Mom” like a phantom limb.
So I was a soggy mess from the trip’s inception.
I now officially despise United Airlines for the constant delays, itinerary changes, and last minute flight cancelations, which made all three of these trips unbearable. And a thousand demerits to the Denver airport for making every single passenger and crew member—domestic and international–crawl through one clogged security portal. Upon arriving at 5:52 am on a Saturday morning, there were nearly 800 people ahead of me, with only three agents to review passports and boarding passes. No wonder the folks in Colorado have legalized marijuana. Anxiety attacks must be a dime a dozen there.
Lest you are wondering, “Why can’t this woman book herself a direct flight?” let me assure you: none exist.
But. There were a thousand tiny kindnesses along the way. And it was the very lovely, very small stuff that made it possible to weather a combination of emotional free fall crossed with an airline’s egregious ineptitude.
Thank you to the stranger in first class who stowed his bag in the flight crew closet so my suitcase could come on the plane. Because of your gracious offer, I had pajamas and a toothbrush for my surprise deportation that night. You’d be surprised what a difference that made.
Thanks to the perky mother of eleven who sat next to me on one of many (wrong! stupid! delayed!) flights to Denver. We sat hopelessly upright in the last row, cheek to cheek with the lavatories. Too anxious to read or sleep, I was grateful for her easy flow of conversation. We swapped travel horror stories, discussed the drought, my dad, her son’s recent car accident, and her tiny grandmother, four rows up.
She revealed a few of her management secrets for the eight kids still left at home. She showed me photos of her twenty-year-old son, cautiously slurping cheerios from a bowl balanced on a cardboard box because of the halo he now wore for his broken neck. This woman could somehow see the humor in this, while honoring the fact that he was lucky to be alive. I was in awe.
She also reminded me that the 6’7″ man in the window seat needed my aisle seat more than I did. Since I am claustrophobic and poorly engineered—my thirst and metabolism unmatched by the puny size of my bladder–I don’t easily surrender the aisle seat. But watching the graceful, generous way she looked out for everyone in her wake, she made me want to do the same.
Thanks to the customer service agent who got me the last hotel voucher of the day.
Thanks to the Delta agent, who made a conspiratorial disparaging comment about United, and proceeded to clean up a lot of the mess they had put me in.
Thanks to my spouse back home, for calling the overbooked DoubleTree Hotel, arguing my case, and securing a room for the six hours I had between airport stints.
Three hours after being bumped unceremoniously from my itinerary yet again, I limped through the hotel lobby toward the face behind the counter. When I said, “I think my husband might have spoken to you…” she leaned across the counter and smiled. “Your husband spoke to ‘The-Bomb-dot-com.'” Then she handed me a room key and two warm cookies.
After a good cry, I laid on the bed listening to the slurp and sizzle of the coffee maker brewing a bag of chamomile tea. It was the best sound ever. Even though there were only four hours to sleep, and lots more flights and assholes and anxiety to follow the next day, I suddenly knew I was going to make it.
It’s not that I think my travel woes are worse than everyone else’s. I know people who’ve been stuck in Denver for four days, and I know people who didn’t make it home to say their last goodbyes. In some ways I’ve been lucky. It was just a hard day, and a lot of little things made it better. I’m grateful.
With the exception of my husband, I don’t know the names of any of the people who made sure I ended up in the right city eventually, and chances are, our paths will not cross again. What I hope to do is look out for distressed travelers along my way, and return a few favors to the karmic universe.
For future reference, though, I should probably arm myself with Ativan before entering the middle of the country. And maybe a paper bag, just in case.
Before having kids, I enjoyed scary movies. Not gory ones, just suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat thrillers.
Now the small people in my house terrify me for real on a regular basis. Kids must be genetically wired to reenact every scene from the worst-case scenario handbook. Every action is a dare, a question, like hey, what happens if I–
dodge into traffic without looking?
do a flip on the concrete?
run downhill with my hands in my pockets?
lean over the gas flame with my long hair?
stick my arm through the glass window?
Despite the fact that the majority of those questions have been resolved without a trip to ER, I no longer crave any sort of contrived thrill. If I have a moment to unwind, I just want a glass of wine and a mindless comedy.
But…once upon a time, I was fired up to see the Blair Witch Project.
My venti latte-drinking friends needed to sit close to the aisle, so I plowed ahead into a crowded row of seats, leaning over to say to the unknown guy next to me, “I should apologize in advance; I’m kind of a screamer.” He stared at me and said–rather tersely, I thought– “Whatever you do, don’t grab me.” I shrugged and settled in to watch 81 minutes filled with twenty-year-olds freaking out, lost in the woods.
I didn’t scream at all. Frankly, I was disappointed after all of the hype. Blair Witch was unsettling maybe, but it certainly wasn’t TERRIFYING.
Now…around the same time, I was frequently traveling to New Mexico for work. I spent my days in lunchrooms and libraries, teaching elementary school teachers about best practices and school-wide reform. In an effort to spice up endless stints at rural Best Westerns, I tried to squeeze a little sightseeing and Southwestern adventure into my downtime. So one night, in between two all-day presentations, I decided to sleep in a cave. Wouldn’t that be cool?
I read all about it in my guidebook. This cave was luxe. It had a generator. A hot tub. A comfy bed. A VCR. A space heater. And–with the door open–a view from the cliffs of northern New Mexico into the Four Corners, a glorious panorama. But…it was a cave.
Also, I was alone. This should have given me pause.
The proprietor lady was ridiculously overbearing and motherly on the phone. “It’s complicated to follow directions to the place. Just meet me in town for the keys and I’ll escort you there.” I rolled my eyes while agreeing politely. Why wouldn’t she just give me written directions–you know, with street names and such? I figured it was because I was young and female and flying solo.
“I recommend bringing your dinner along, too, so you don’t have to go out after dark,” she advised. This was ridiculous. I pretended to agree. Whatever.
Thankfully, she was less patronizing in person; perhaps my posture and suit had inspired a little confidence. I lied and said I had food in my car, and she smiled and handed me the key and a walkie-talkie. Not the toy type–the awesome hard-core grown up kind. “I want to describe the terrain so you can find your way to and from the place,” she said. I saw her glancing at my rental car, sizing it up.
Wait. What? For the first time, a fleeting doubt crossed my mind.
I followed her giant yellow Jeep forever, which is well past city limits. I didn’t see anything around but a bunch of trees. Where was this place anyway?
We turned off the road.
There was no road.
The walkie talkie suddenly crackled to life, making me swerve a little. “Do you see that tree?” the proprietor asked, as I resumed breathing once again. “The one with two branches that sort of lean to the right?” Sure, sure. “That’s how you know where to make the first turn,” she informed me.
No problem, I thought. I can still see the road from here.
We continued into the thick of it, though, past a multitude of her “landmarks:” a stump, a slim tree that pointed up, three trees sort of clumped together. Each time, we took a little turn this way or that, once or twice veering sharply. The road was long gone.
Still, I was excited to see the place, and I focused on that.
When she finally stopped, I noticed that the trees appeared to end abruptly, and once through them, I could see for miles.
I could also see straight down.
We set out on foot down the side of the cliff until we arrived at some kind of door-ish thing with a padlock. My palms got a little sweaty as I wrestled with the key and the Proprietor coached me through the funky maneuver necessary to open the thing.
I had known it was going to be a cave, obviously; that’s what attracted me to the place. But I hadn’t reckoned it would be so cave-like. I ducked my head and let my eyes adjust as I headed inside.
Mrs. Proprietor never stopped chatting amiably; she pointed out the generator, and a long list of other things that I could no longer absorb in the midst of my growing unease. I realized I needed her to shut up so I could make a mad dash back to town and get some food. I would never find my way back to this place after dark.
It wasn’t hard to negotiate out of the woods for dinner, but service at the pub was painfully slow. I checked my watch about a hundred times, nursing my beer and gazing toward the kitchen. And though I shoveled my dinner at an alarming rate, twilight had descended by the time I was heading back to my hole in the ground.
Leadfooting it to the highway, I tried to distract myself by roaming fruitlessly through the radio dial.
I turned off the road, relieved to see the tree with two branches pointing left. No problem. But where was the stump? The clump of three? Do I turn left or right at the tree pointing up? Don’t all trees point up? Where the hell was my cave?
The woods swallowed my rental car whole. Maybe I should wend my way back to the road, and start again. Where was that tree? All the trees looked the same.
I no longer knew if I was headed toward the road. Was that break in the trees the highway? Or was that the edge of the cliff? Would they find me in a day or two, miles below, squashed and bloody amongst binders of overhead slides and informational pamphlets? Am I alone out here? I wondered–which was scary enough–or, much worse, do I have company?
Though it was a cold, clear February night, I was sweating, sweating, sweating, and realizing that I didn’t have much gas left. Maybe I should just stop and try to sleep in the car. No way in hell was I going to hop out and wander around on foot. If I lost the cave AND the car, I would really be screwed.
The whole, horrid debacle probably only last half an hour, but it was the longest 30 minutes I had ever endured. If that sounds improbably, remember that it occurred before I’d given birth.
When I finally found the small dirt patch to park the car, I cursed myself for neglecting to carry in my belongings earlier. I couldn’t very well drag my behemoth of a suitcase down the cliff in the dark, so I stuck it in the car and used the dome light to find my toothbrush, underwear, pajamas, and a fresh outfit for the morning.
Now a nice dip in a jacuzzi might soothe one’s nerves under ordinary circumstances, but I hadn’t turned on the heat earlier, and it was going to take about two hours for the water to heat. I would have to be up and showered by 6 am in order to pick up a few things for breakfast and lunch, drive 50 miles to the next school, and set up for the 8:30 am workshop.
Horribly shaken, I was also exhausted, so I crumpled into bed and willed myself to sleep. Surprisingly, I dozed off, only to wake and FREAK OUT that I was in a cave. The space heater buzzed and glowered red at me, and flickering ominously on the ceiling. Being a cave, that was only a few feet from my face. Claustrophobic and scared out of my mind, I wondered what had possessed me to do this. Didn’t Farmington have a Howard Johnson’s or something? What had I been thinking?
As a special bonus winter surprise, it was still dark when I had to leave the next day. Remember my trip in the previous night? It was just as hard to get out in the morning. I stopped and let my head drop onto the steering wheel, gasping and sweating through my crisp white shirt and well into my suit jacket. What to do? How to get out? Very little gas. No cell service. No map of the terrain. No food. No idea how to get out.
I did get out, though, and made it to the school two minutes before I was supposed to begin. Folks were already seated in the library, and the Principal raised an eyebrow. “We were concerned. We’ve been here since seven so you could bring in your materials and get set up.”
I couldn’t even begin to explain.
“I’m so sorry,” I squeaked at last, eyes welling.
I have no idea what came out of my mouth that day, no idea what questions were asked, or whether I covered the appropriate material in a coherent sequence. All I remember is a constant awareness of my continued, feverish sweating, and a single moment during the lunch break.
I sat at a long, sticky table in the lunchroom, staring mutely at gelatinous mound of mac n’ cheese with little chunks of hot dog. School lunch couldn’t scare me. I was the sort of person who slept in a cave.
At last we wrest ourselves from gravity’s firm grip
And hurtle upward in our magic flying chairs.
The world expands.
Ant-sized creatures turn tiny switches,
Illuminating the place we just left like fireflies.
Bladders press against belts buckled low and tight.
Strangers brush limbs and stretch backwards into each other’s laps
without embarrassment or apology.
Reasonable standards plummet
to new depths–People magazine and snack packs and Bridezilla–
Because, now jaded,
Teetering in a tin can six miles off the face of our planet seems unremarkable.
The hours must be whiled
by any means necessary.
**Many thanks to Louis C.K. and last night’s flight for inspiring whatever that was.