04 March 2007

Trains, Planes and Automobiles

I’m back. from Monday through Friday I was in beautiful southern California, Montecito to be exact, which is a near town to Santa Barbara. I’ll talk about that another time, the place that is. Something tells me I already did a year ago. Instead, I’ll regale you with the marvels of modern air travel.

After a week of relatively warm weather here in West Michigan another storm blew up for the weekend. Just two weeks before, we had our blizzard and this was not quite that severe but by early Sunday the stuff was coming down for fair.

Even so, American Airlines was still go for my flight from Grand Rapids to Chicago, with a connection from there on to LA. All my preparations were complete, including not having to preach that morning so I could make a quick escape.

(A guest was scheduled to be there the next Sunday, but she had to cancel so I somehow wrestled a tolerable sermon into shape the week before and thus could leave without that task hanging over my head.)

Checking the websites almost every ten minutes - Ok every five - I found my flight was among the two that were leaving at all, and so I headed down to Gerald R Ford Airport muttering whatever pagan prayers I could conjure to keep the gods of travel on my side.

At the airport I left my car in the lot for the week, as my return was near midnight and I wanted not to have to call a cab.

Do you sense some foreshadowing? You’d better.

My flight was still scheduled for leaving on time when I arrived. With new replacement passport in hand I made my way up to the gate and there began my adventure. Far from being on time, the incoming flight was about a half hour late. It was made later by the ground crew which somehow did not realize it was there for about fifteen minutes after it pulled up, delaying the arrival further. Mind you AA has only one gate there, so your guess is as good as mine.

And they showed no particular eagerness despite the lateness, so that by the time everyone got out and everyone got on, and we got thoroughly de-iced, we were about 35 minutes late. I controlled my anxiety by remembering the padded flight time (one hour for a 35 minute flight) and that my connection might be delayed as well.

It was, which I learned from my cell phone when we landed at O’Hare. Then the blow was struck. We had no gate. All the delays were due to de-icing which they did at the gate there. After 20 minutes we finally pulled up and I arrived at my connection to see it standing there, but the jetway was pulled back, getting de-iced.

Now, I horde my miles to get upgrades. The long trip to LA is much better in biz class. When I approached the gate agent for a rebook she tried to plop me in a middle seat in the rear of the next plane. I almost controlled my anger, almost, and she intrepidly found a first class seat on that same place for which I thanked her. It was leaving in less than an hour.

Or was supposed to. But the gate was in use for a flight to Mexico City, which of course needed a de-icing so our plane did not get to the gate until our rescheduled departure of 530. We loaded as quickly as we could, and then got our own two coats of chemicals so that ultimately we lifted off closer to seven.

That means I arrived at 930 p.m. (1230 body time) and by the time I got my bag from the carousel and waited for the rental van and waited in line at the rental counter and drove up the 405 to Santa Monica Blvd and found my hotel it was after 11.

The good news is that my conference started the next day, in the afternoon, and I had come a day earlier. That arrival was more harried and extended – my original itinerary had me leaving at 230 and arriving at 530 (830 ET) and here it was four hours later than that. Annoyed and tired and jet lagged I flopped into my bed (in a really very nice inexpensive place as I hoped based on extensive research some weeks ago) to watch endless reports about the Oscars, the parties not the event. Unable to sleep easily, I tossed down an ambien (left over from my last long jet voyage) and was asleep around 1230.

The actual experience for the next few days was fine, and the next morning I managed a tour of the old Paramount pictures studios which is the only one left in Hollywood proper. Its buildings remain a marvelous monument to the 1920/30 Hollywood aesthetic even though current productions still film there. The sun, almost warm, the presence of lots of green instead of white, took the edge off my frazzled day before.

While I indulged my retreat, though, another storm was kicking up so that by Friday, when I was departing, I had the good sense of call and see if all was in working order.

It wasn’t. If getting out of GR is hard, getting in is harder. Both my ORD and GRR flights cancelled. I dicker with the agent about which to take. The computers have already booked me for the 1030 p.m. flight, arriving at 430 a.m. Not my idea of a good trip. And then I would be at O’Hare until 5 p.m. waiting for the connection. I persuade her to let me fly Saturday morning and make the same connection. Whew, and I still have my comfy classy seat. I’ll be a day later, but at least it won’t be midnight.

Wrong again. But I get ahead of myself. I go to the airport late Friday because I had to book a hotel for the extra night and after dropping off my rental car the only way to get there was to take the shuttle bus from the car place back to the airport and then take the hotel shuttle from the airport to the hotel. As long as I had to do alll that, I think, why not print my boarding passes while at the airport and save step the next day.

Well, when I tried the machine balked. It seemed my flight from ORD to GRR was… cancelled. At the desk they tried again to shove me onto a red eye and have me wait for a Sunday flight. Now remember that I had a guest scheduled but that she had to cancel, so I have to get back by Saturday. After a bit of a haggle, I get my boarding pass for the first leg, and tell her I’ll find my way from there.

Back at my hotel, not the same one as the first and now with additional work to do I am again rattled and frazzled as I try to finagle a way from ORD to home. If flying is dicey, rent a car. But believe it or not, there are none available for one way rentals. The agent, whose English is still under construction tool twenty minutes to figure that out.

I check Amtrak. The Pere Marquette leaves at 520. My flight arrives at 230. Done. I make the reservation. If all goes well I’ll be at the station downtown at 1020. Foreshadowing again...

My flight goes well enough. It’s a through flight to Brussels, so it’s real first class with a football field between seats. Good for me. On my way to the loo later, the galley crew is fondling a real Oscar. A winner is on board, Jennifer Hudson, sitting just a few seats away. She is showing it off and everyone is all giggly, taking pictures with their cell phones. Cute.

The flight arrives just on time, and as I have three hours and it is snowing a bit, I take the CTA, the elevated trains, into town.

Bad move. Halfway in the train stops and says there is track work ahead and we’ll be delayed up to forty minutes. After twenty and no sign of movement I get off (we’re in a station at least) and hunt up a cab on the near northwest side. I am lucky to get one quickly and I arrive at Union Station with plenty of time.

Ticket in hand I gulp down a walking dinner and by the time I am in the waiting room the line for our train is forming up. But…

The equipment is delayed. Instead of leaving at 520 (CT) we do not pull out until 600. And because we are now off schedule, other trains have priority as we go. We lurch along, pausing seveal times for freieght trains. Finally, we pull into snowy GR at 1145 p.m. Only an hour and 25 minutes late. My trip ends as it began with a flurry of waiting and hurrying and a rattled nervousness that ill suits one to sleep. This time however it takes only a few unmedicated minutes to slip into sleep. The next thing I knew, it was 545 nd the alarm was going off.

Both my journeys were to take about nine hours, door to door. They each took thirteen. In the light of eternity nothing to care about. But at the time, really annoying. And my trip home, in case you did not count, used no less than six forms of transport – bus, plane, elevated train, taxi cab, railroad and automobile. As far as I can tell, unless you count horses, rickshaws, howdas and sedan chairs, I used every land form of transit in one day.

My sons told me how bored they were when they traveled. They're right. And easy travel is even more boring. So at least my bit of bad luck makes a good story. I'll remember it more, that's for sure. And that's worth something.

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