And Just Like That

The Dallas/Ft. Worth airport

I recently spent the night in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. This was a first for me, and one first I could have done without. I’d just returned from a cruise, a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Alaska, a place I didn’t really understand how much I’d love before I went there. I got off the Alaskan cruise ship on a Sunday, hoping that as I decompressed from travel, I’d have time to think about the marvels I saw, as well as sifting through my feelings about cruising in general. Instead there I was, mired in the most ridiculous situation, a classic jumble of the quagmire of flying and the absurdity of corporate rules, so stupid that they might as well decide to just throw their money away. Ah, but in truth, they always find a way to make it back, don’t they, usually on the backs of their passengers. But I digress… After a Sunday night layover in Seattle, on Monday morning I boarded a Dallas-bound plane to catch a connecting flight which would take me home to Illinois. I was really happy to be avoiding the madness of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, a factor in my travel plan. But as is so often the case these days, my first flight to Dallas was late. There wasn’t much layover time to between flights begin with, and as the minutes ticked by, I feared that I would miss the next plane. However, after a mad sprint which included multiple escalators and a train ride between terminals, the four people including me, all trying to catch the same plane, showed up at the gate before departure. Alas. Even though there were still passengers for our flight still lined up in the terminal, we were informed that boarding was closed. The ticket attendant stated that we needed to have been in line fifteen minutes before departure in order to be allowed to board, and further, that we could read that rule on our boarding passes. Except that only those with paper passes have that information – for the people like me who had electronic passes, there was no such information. I’m an infrequent flyer so there was that too. So there we were, re-directed to customer service to re-book our tickets while watching our plane just sitting there, out of reach, just outside the windows. I think there’s a metaphor in there somewhere…

Hubbard Glacier, Alaska.

And just like that, I went from my big thoughts about wild beauty and the power of nature to furiously stating my rage to a young customer service representative who after awhile, was kind enough to hand my sister and me food vouchers for the evening, a hotel voucher and tickets for an early flight for the following morning. All that eased some of my frustration until I called our assigned hotel to find out about their airport shuttle service. I found out that they couldn’t get us back to the airport early enough to ensure we would get through security to make that new plane. Not daring to risk another missing-the-boarding-time debacle, we opted to tough out a night in the eerie airport.

Morning clouds through the airport window.

I couldn’t sleep. Morning came, time for our 6:15 a.m. flight. We were huddled in chairs by our assigned gate. As I looked around, I thought the area looked surprisingly empty so close to departure time. Suddenly I felt suspicious. I pulled out the boarding passes handed to me the night before. There in an unobtrusive corner next to the flight time was a little letter “p.” This was no morning flight. We’d been booked on the same evening flight we’d missed the day before. We were facing another 12 hours in the airport. In the next two hours I dashed around the airport looking for help. Eventually a sympathetic and more experienced customer service person checked out the errors in our documents, shook her head and squeezed us onto a flight to O’Hare with a connection for home. After tearing around the airport again we made that plane. We arrived home almost a full day late.

At least I could brush my teeth at the airport.

Admittedly I should have scrutinized those first adjusted tickets more carefully. But I’d gone from angry to exhausted to resigned in about 30 minutes, and naively believed what that young service rep had told me. I still can’t figure out how she saw what wasn’t really there. What I did think later was something I knew already. In a moment, life can go from one extreme to another. When they were growing up I used to tell my kids over and over, “the people who have the best lives are the people who’ve developed the best coping skills because life is about constant coping.”My own skills were certainly tested after returning from my incredible trip to the annoying mundane issues part of daily life. In a matter of days, I went from that absurd airport story to hassling with my internet provider wanting to raise my monthly fee by 50%, to breaking a beloved necklace, to a toothache in one that’s already been root-canaled and crowned. Daily life for those of us not currently contending with life or death matters. In that way, I know that at this moment, I’m lucky.

Crosswise Islands, Alaska

Despite the messy interruption, I’m still reflecting on my feelings about going to Alaska. I had mixed feelings about taking a cruise. I think I’ll always associate cruises with my in-laws, who cruised frequently and loved being in the fanciest cabins, bringing formal clothes for dinners and getting invited to sit at the captain’s table. Of course they were the same on land as they were at sea. Michael and I spent years arguing with them about why they thought food tasted better when they were dressed up than not. You don’t have to participate in that aspect of a cruise any more, where style and affectations are important symbols. Except for one restaurant meal that was included in the fare, we never ate in the dining room. Food is readily available cafeteria-style or through room service 24 hours a day. Drinking, socializing and entertainment on the ship are big draws for some people. But there are also quiet places for reading, decks for uninterrupted walking and uncrowded railings with unobstructed views for admiring the sea.

View from the aft deck 9.

The truth is that although I believe I deserve special trips after a lifetime of work, I never feel wholly comfortable in an an environment which excludes people without economic privilege. I admit I spent some time trying to figure out how to make cruises available to people who can’t afford them. I feel the same way about getting people access to the fabulous national parks in this country with their incredible vistas and open spaces. In the midst of my own pleasure I can’t help but think about life’s inequities. Michael used to say that the problem with living with me was that as long as I knew someone, somewhere was having a tough time, I’d be sad. I guess not much has changed. Anyway, I wouldn’t say that a cruise is my favorite form of travel. I’m a big fan of road trips which are less regimented in terms of schedule. At my age though and on my own, the potential risks of that travel weigh on my mind. And there’s a lot to be said for being transported to incredible places, fed and having no responsibilities for cleaning. You can even have laundry done on the ship.

Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska

Those thoughts aside, I can still hardly believe what I saw on this journey. Magical moments with forty to fifty feet long humpback whales, feeding at will in a bay, their spouts shooting up from the water as they swam along. Otters floating in a group on their backs, some slipping off for a playful swim before heading back to the others. Bald eagles as omnipresent as sparrows. Salmon making their run upstream in their river of origin to spawn. Glaciers with their impossibly turquoise ice. Orcas swimming in a group in the Pacific, free and wild.

Humpback whale.
Salmon in the Mendenhall River.

I really didn’t know that the Tongass National Forest is the largest in the U.S. at about 16.7 million acres, nor that it is a temperate rain forest with astonishing biodiversity. The portions I saw were wild, breathtaking and awe-inspiring. At this time of so many climate disasters, just seeing it felt restorative and even more, inspires the commitment to keep anything from intruding on its still-pristine condition – read “drilling.” I saw parks which honor the native peoples, their treasured totems and clan houses a cultural reminder of life before intrusion. The nature guides on my off-ship excursions were natives who knew so much history and who exhibited reverence for the marvels around us.

Tongass National Forest
The forest.
Totems in Ketchikan

I found Alaska awe-inspiring, the kind of place which reminded me that indeed, perspective is everything. The scenery is a reminder that there are natural treasures to cherish, that our human dilemmas diminish in the face of such overwhelming majesty. I’ve seen beautiful places before but I think the scale of Alaska just feels so much bigger. If I had the means, I’d go back to experience more than the small slice I saw in one short week. But I’m grateful for what I was lucky enough to see once in my lifetime.

One thought on “And Just Like That”

  1. So glad that you and Cheryl got to experience that beauty! So sorry about the travel fiasco at the end of the trip!

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