There and back again

We left Alaska for the holidays on Dec 20. After seeing almost everyone on both sides of the family…(not quite everyone, and the ones we missed were sorely missed!)…and spending some additional time with parents, we’re back. Home for two nights before the work cycle takes hold. But at least the upcoming travel is only a 15 mile trip.

Rob and I came home separately. I spent the last week with my mom, and he spent the week giving his sister some help. Flying cross-country by myself is not my favorite thing to do. I can do it, obviously, but there’s really no fun in it. But I needed to be back to see off the couple who was staying in the house while we were away. They’re retiring, moving out-of-state, and I wanted to say goodbye and do a handoff with the house.

This was my return saga.

Aahh, right there, you know it didn’t go as planned. The very word, “saga” is defined as a long and complicated story with many details, often about past heroes from Norway and Iceland. Well,  there were no Norse heroes in my story. But it was long and complicated.

First, you should know that you can hardly get here from there, or there from here. To reach my mom’s home in Mississippi requires at least three flights, and that’s on a good day. You can add more if you’re creative, or unlucky with timing. It is hard to do in one day, going west to east. You have a better shot at one day travel going east to west. The time zones work against you either direction. There’s a three-hour difference between Alaska time and Central time, and after a long day of travel, you feel every minute.

I’ve long believed that the reason travel is so tiring, even air travel, where you’re largely waiting and sitting, sitting and waiting, is that somehow, you body logs every mile. Never mind that you’re flying hundreds of miles per hour. Your body knows, and registers the appropriate fatigue. So that’s always a factor.

My plan was to leave on Monday. I chose an early afternoon flight to accommodate the drive time to Jackson from my home town, about 90 minutes away. Of course we were up late my last night, and I was up early, so the afternoon flight didn’t translate to a leisurely morning of sleeping in. But it was smooth with no delays.

The funny thing about flight routes: they’re not always logical. I try to fly with Alaska Airlines and partners as much as possible to build air miles. Delta is the partner airline flying out of Jackson, so to pick up an Alaska Airlines flight, I had to go east to Atlanta, setting myself back one more time zone and several hundred miles. I had a three-hour layover at the Atlanta airport. Unbelievably, Atlanta doesn’t offer free wi-fi for airport guests…I’m really paying attention to that these days. It makes a difference when you’re stuck and traveling alone.

From Atlanta, I flew five hours west to Seattle. By the time we arrived it was 9:00, and I was beginning the internal debate about my sleepover arrangements. If I had gotten there earlier, it would have been tempting to go out to Stephanie. She lives about 45 minutes north. But at that time of night it seemed a waste to drive that far when my connecting flight the next morning left at 7:00. Too early to have to be up and back at the airport to make it worth while.

I called her anyway to say hello. She knew I was passing through. We talked a few minutes and then she asked about my bags. I had them checked through to Ketchikan, so I didn’t have anything but my carry-ons. She had driven in to surprise me and was waiting at baggage claim. We went to a nearby diner and had a late night snack, and a little mother/daughter time. It was fun, and sweet, and all the more special because I had resigned myself to missing out this time. I missed the little guys, and Matt, who was home with them, but I’ll admit, it was nice to have a little visit, just we two.

She dropped me off about 11:30, and I went back to find a place to hang out for the next few hours. I’d already decided that it wasn’t worth the effort to get a hotel for four hours, and judging by the number of people spending the night in the airport, I was in good company. It’s not my preferred way to do it, but I just couldn’t justify a hotel room for such a short stay.

As luck would have it, Tuesday morning, I got an upgrade to first class, one of the benefits of frequent travel. Although it’s a short hour and a half flight up to Ketchikan, it’s a good nap opportunity when your seat is a little more spacious and you can settle in without feeling squished.

The flight was uneventful until we approached Ketchikan. Sometimes when the weather is iffy, the friendly gate agents will alert you as you board that you might not be landing. I assume this is to give you the option…do you really want to risk finding yourself in Anchorage instead of Ketchikan, or some other destination along the “milk run” of South East Alaska communities?

This time there was no warning, but we didn’t land. Just as we should have been making a final descent, we suddenly pointed up, and the pilot came on to announce that the weather had worsened and we were now going on to Wrangell, the next stop on the standard route. Well, that’s SE Alaska for you. It’s never happened to me, but I know it’s a somewhat normal occurrence this time of year.

Same story with Wrangell. Instead of going down, we nosed up again. This time the pilot announced we were going on to Juneau. He didn’t even attempt the small community of Petersburg. I guess he had the view and the weather info to know that wasn’t happening either.

We landed in Juneau a little later and were told that there was a flight passing through on the way back to Ketchikan that we could rebook on. I was one of the lucky few who actually made it on the flight. There was a long line behind me that had to wait for the later afternoon flight, which was eventually canceled.

So the few of us that were fortunate to be early in line to rebook got on the southbound plane and settled in, hoping for a better outcome. We had to go first to Sitka, then on to Ketchikan. The Sitka landing was rough, but not too bad. For these short stops you’re encouraged to stay on the plane unless it’s your stop. That allows the oncoming passengers to board more quickly and to do the whole stop within a half hour, which we did.

The second leg was more interesting. A lot more interesting. The wind had picked up, as well as the rain. The waves were rough and choppy. All the airports in the Southeast are right on the water, so you can see what type of weather you’re facing. Not good at all. I was watching the waves when we were on the ground in Sitka, feeling thankful I wasn’t on a boat. Rough seas, so much so that I heard the big ferry wasn’t running.

The flying time between Sitka and Ketchikan was a short 33 minutes, and we were asked to stay seated and buckled up for the trip, and pre-warned the ride would be bumpy.

I used to get sweaty palms when I flew, but I’ve done so much of it, now I rarely feel anxious. But this time, I had some of my old anxiety back as we lurched through the air. I often wonder what level of turbulence would signal real danger. I don’t really want to know the answer, but in the moment, it could be comforting if I could say confidently, “Meh…this is nothing!” The best I’ve come up with is to assure myself that the pilots don’t want to go down anymore than I do, and if they don’t think it’s safe, they won’t attempt to fly. That’s the way it always works, right?

Anyway, we were getting closer to Ketchikan, coming down through cotton ball clouds. I had a window seat and kept wondering if we would see the runway or just feel the thump of the wheels touching down. We finally broke through the clouds and could see water and land below, but we were swaying and jostling so much it wasn’t really comforting to have a better visual.

Everyone got quiet, and in my head I was saying, “Just pull up, pull up. Really, I’m ok to go back to Seattle.” I wasn’t quite to the point of saying the words out loud, and of course the pilots couldn’t hear me anyway. But I was silently urging them on, hoping they were receiving my suggestions via telepathy.

Finally, the wheels connected with a hard thump, and we were down. Still swaying and lurching, and feeling like we were going waaayy too fast. I don’t know how some landings can seem so controlled, and others make you think you’re going to slam into something to bring the plane to a stop. There was a spontaneous outbreak of applause, so I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling just a wee bit nervous. Good to know I wasn’t alone.

As I exited the plane, my thank you to the crew was a little more heart-felt than usual. I didn’t quite kneel down and kiss the ground, but I was just short of that.

Needless to say, my bags didn’t keep up with my plane switch. But oh well, what’s a couple of bags when you’ve landed safe in a small hurricane? And they’ll be along. At least they’re only a couple of stops up the “milk run.”

I’ve heard from more than a few people that the Alaska Airlines pilots are the best in the business. Whether that’s true or not, they have my vote of confidence for routinely flying in the weather here. I’m sure it just keeps it interesting for them. Challenges their skills. But for those along for the ride, it’s a bit of an adrenaline rush. I might need to re-color my hair this week. And at least I made it home on the day I was planning to be back. Often, people get stuck for a day or two or more, just waiting to get a seat on a flight. And of course, if the delay is weather related, hotel and food costs are up to the passengers. The airlines don’t cover “act of God” delays.

I think I’ve decided: after living on an island for the past five years, I want to live somewhere that you can drive in and out of. I don’t mind to fly, most of the time. But I want options again.

Good to be home, in one piece, and finding my routine again. Good to survive the miracle of modern travel, and the sound and fury of Mother Nature!

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6 thoughts on “There and back again

    • Yes, I’m usually quick to bounce back, but I was actually flattened for a couple of days..just exhausted I guess. Glad to be home and feeling normal again! ~ Sheila

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