Friday morning, 7am. Sitting outside on a peaceful patio with my morning coffee and a good book in the most perfect temperature imaginable — 72 degrees Fahrenheit — under a cloudy sky pregnant with rain that never seems to fall. The only sounds are of birds chirping, gardeners chatting, the occasional rumble of thunder in the distance, and my cat’s collar bell chiming as he runs after foolhardy lizards. Lucy the monkey hears us stirring and bounces down from her bamboo perch to squeak new year’s greetings after my month-long absence. She doesn’t often vocalize but when she does, I’ve decided it sounds a lot like Chewbacca.
It’s the first time I’ve seen her since we returned home Tuesday evening, where, except for a local grocery run with the ladies on Wednesday morning, I’ve been staying inside doing very little besides cooking, reading, and recovering from a stubborn cold, my usual winter travel souvenir. This one shadowed me from Chicago to Toronto to Ottawa, made a brief recovery in Phoenix, and then reappeared with a vengeance somewhere between Denver and Washington DC. I know scientists say cold weather has nothing to do with catching a cold, but dammit if it doesn’t happen to me every time. I can even pinpoint the moment when, while walking through the wind tunnels of downtown Chicago wearing completely insufficient headgear in freezing temperatures, I thought, “uh oh.” Sure enough, I woke up the next morning with a scratchy throat that soon turned into a full-blown cough that has kept both of us awake most nights ever since.
Chicago’s bad luck struck not once but twice on this trip. I normally know better than to book a flight with a connection through O’Hare in the winter, but somehow we ended up with one anyway on our way to visit family in Phoenix after visiting family in Québec. Winter storms had just come through, cancelling 2000 flights at O’Hare on Monday, but when we looked online two days later everything appeared to be back on track. Trusting the airlines instead of our common sense, we checked in. To absolutely no one’s surprise our flight left Ottawa late, cutting our initially reasonable connection in Chicago dangerously short.
During the flight we looked up our arrival and departure gates and studied the airport layout, mapping a strategy for crossing two terminals in the shortest time possible. We were nearly the first ones off that plane and hit the ground running. Neither one of us are any good at running, like AT ALL, but every now and then adrenalin kicks in. I don’t think I’ve ever run so hard before, not for freshman track, nor for escaping wild biting geese. First we ran to the shuttle between terminals 1 and 2. They unhurriedly announced the bus would be leaving in 15 minutes, so we moved on to Plan B: More Running. We reached the Phoenix gate just minutes after they had closed the door. We stood there, incredulous and hunched over for quite awhile, unable to do much besides panting.
Every single North American flight we had taken so far — and those to come, as well — had been delayed. Twice we boarded and sat there just to turn around and change planes, once for mechanical reasons, another time because the pilot didn’t show up. But no, the one time we needed just a few extra minutes, we’d be flat out of luck.
Once the panting phase was over, we moved on to coughing. Both of us, uncontrollably, and for the next couple of hours. Our lungs had never experienced such an extreme burst of aerobic exercise before, especially while nursing a cold. Like two tuberculosis patients, we loudly and fitfully made our way to the United customer service desk, joining hundreds of others already waiting in line.
“I can’t get you to Phoenix until Saturday,” the customer service agent eventually told us in between coughs. It was Wednesday. How about anywhere within driving distance of Phoenix… Vegas, maybe? Southern California? How about a flight to Tucson? He stabbed at his keyboard for what seemed like forever before announcing, “There’s nothing.” And then he lowered his voice, as if sharing a secret with us. “You see, the problem is, I can’t get you out of Chicago.” He looked us over carefully, wondering how we were going to handle the gravity of the situation. I saw a notepad on his desk of hotel names, many of them crossed out. But there was nothing we could do except laugh. And cough.
Privately, I was thinking why oh why did they allow us to fly into this black hole, then? A Seinfeld-esque routine was running through my head, like the one where they made a rental car reservation but showed up to find there was no car. “Oh we’ve got your reservation,” the clerk had told them, “we just don’t have the car.” In our case: They know how to get you here, but they don’t know how to get you out.
We were about to resign ourselves to a few more days in Chicago — which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, I mean, we did purposely come here the week before to explore the city with some friends, which we very much enjoyed — when customer service guy suddenly announces, out of nowhere, that he’s got one seat this evening to LA, another seat on a redeye, and after that two seats to Phoenix in the morning. Family — and the glorious sun — was waiting on the other end. We’ll take it, we said. He then kindly printed us some food vouchers which we happily spent on Chicago-style hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches. All told we must have stood at that counter with him for probably 20 minutes after jumping to the front using the Star Alliance Priority line. People waiting a hundred deep in the regular line must have still been standing there in the morning. There has got to be a better way.
I took the earlier flight which reached LA just before midnight, grabbed a snack before everything closed, and then attempted to sleep in the arrival gate area of Seb’s redeye which was — you guessed it — delayed. He arrived at 3:30 in the morning instead of 1:30. But he was fine, having taken a nice hot shower in the United lounge back in Chicago, and slept on the flight after being upgraded to business class. Meanwhile I was huddled up like a homeless person with my winter coat spread over my legs, a newspaper spread over my middle, and my hands wrapped up in a scarf, shielding my head from the overhead lights. The carpets at LAX were so disgusting I preferred an uncomfortable bench instead, underneath a cold vent (air conditioning! in the winter!) and a scratchy, staticky speaker blasting elevator jazz throughout the night.
That restless night in LAX when we were supposed to be sleeping soundly in our (prepaid) Phoenix suite was just the latest in a string of restless nights. It’s no wonder we both suffered from various illnesses during the trip. Our North American Tour was overly ambitious, perhaps. We wanted to fit in as many places and as many people as possible, which meant that most of our stops were one or two nights each. We were constantly on the move. And we had a great time, despite the travel headaches. Still, there were plenty of friends and family we couldn’t get to see, and many we couldn’t see as long as we wanted.
What is the point of my blog post today? I’m not really sure. Mostly I wanted to say hello again after a long absence. I wanted to let you know we made it home safely, though maybe not soundly. I wanted to say thank you to everyone who welcomed us and spent time with us over the holidays, and also send apologies to those we missed. I wanted to put in a plug for some of North America’s greatest cities — made all the more fun by great friends! — like Washington D.C., Kansas City, Chicago, Toronto, Ottawa. All are incredibly worthwhile to visit. (Wichita, Topeka, Rossville, Silver Lake, and Chelsea too when you know great people there!) Phoenix of course is sunny and beautiful and it amazes me each time I return how much awesomer the food scene gets. I would also like to put in a plug for Amtrak, though a tempered one. The check-in process is ridiculous, the clientele is not America’s finest… but the scenery is romantic, the train stations are amazing, and you get to avoid O’Hare. WORTH IT.
I also wanted to follow up on my recent post about the adventure of booking this trip with Ethiopian Airlines, and happily report that the trip — with them, at least — turned out to be seamless. Yay, Africa!
You may have noticed I said I wrote this on Friday, yet today is Tuesday. The reason for the delay? We wanted to visit our on-site doctor first to make sure we did not, in fact, have tuberculosis. (We don’t.) Because in that case my tuberculosis jokes wouldn’t have been so funny.
Happy New Year everyone!