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Airport Life

After valiantly trying to keep up with some sort of interesting blog about the things I think about when I should be doing something productive, I now hope to showcase some of my non-fiction writing.  Comments are welcome and appreciated.  Following is a snapshot of a morning at work back in the good old days before baggage fees and when I still smoked.

5:46 A.M.

 

“Hi, how are you doing today?” he says for the fortieth time this morning.  He’s at the airline check-in counter behind a computer that stands a few inches higher than the rest, but then he stands at least a few inches higher than most.  His dark blond hair is short and uncombed, still sticking up in the back from where he spent five hours pressed against a pillow the night before.  Hell, the night before?  It is still dark outside, the rain is threatening to become snow as the air grows colder while waiting for the sun to rise, still a few hours away.

He smiles, trying for the genuine smile, not just the repeatable painted-on customer service smile, but it’s hard this early in the morning.  With only time for a cup of coffee and two cigarettes on the drive through quiet streets out to the terminal, his eyes struggle to stay focused.  The bags under his eyes push his eyelids closed if he doesn’t pay attention.  Pay attention!  There’s a man still in fatigues with a ridiculous amount of luggage and, of course, a rifle case.  Another out-of-stater come to Montana because there is no such thing as wildlife anymore where he comes from, unless you count birds and squirrels and rats.  Go home and shoot some rats.  “And how many bags will you be checking today sir?”

A pen is whipped out from the pocket of his striped work shirt, and it is his pen.  He fills out the date, and initials the “Firearms Declaration Tag” then purposefully slides the pen back into his pocket, digs through a tray of old junk pens, then hands one to the passenger along with the tag.  “Please sign here stating that the firearm is unloaded and secured in a hard-sided locked case.”  The computer spits out some tags, and boarding passes emerge from a monster of a printer—the size of an old full-tower PC—and it promptly spits them on the floor.  He sighs as he descends and scoops them up, checking the piece of cardboard he had taped to the mouth of the printer to keep it from spitting on the floor.  Needs more tape probably.

The hunter is set on his way with boarding pass and luggage in tow to go talk with the friendly TSA officers about his firearm and whether he has any film in his other bags, and could you please unlock them so they can be searched, and you have a good chance of seeing your bags again once they pass through the machine, back into the sorting room, onto a luggage cart, off the cart onto a plane, flown six hundred miles, then onto another cart, another plane, eight hundred miles more, then onto the last cart, and finally through a system of conveyor belts and scanners to land in a silver carousel to turn with the three hundred other black roller bags, until you grab it and take it home, but please check the tag first.

He steps back from his computer for a moment and rolls his neck around stretching out a kink and moving his shoulders back and forth to get some blood moving around.  He straightens up and, back at his computer, punches in the magic code to show how many people are left to check in.  Fourteen.  And how many minutes left before check-in closes.  Ten.  Not bad, people are actually moving a bit today, but better step it up, less than a minute per person left, then a minute or two to grab paperwork, a radio, go check with the flight crew, get signed into the computer upstairs at the gate, then about fifteen minutes to get fifty people on the airplane and seated.  Seven minutes for the pilots to do their paperwork, ten minutes for closing the flight and filing paperwork while the pilots fire up the engines and head for the runway, then a cup of coffee and a cigarette.  How do planes fly?  It isn’t Bernoulli’s principle or Newton’s second law, it’s paperwork.

“I can help the next person here,” he calls to a sleepy family, his voice louder than it should be this early, but you’ve got to get people’s attention.  When they walk through those sliding glass doors at the front of the terminal, something happens.  The ability to think, plan, and read signs disappears for most people when they enter an airport.

This family doesn’t seem as bad as most.  The dad is calm, the kids are sleepy but excited rather than cranky, and the mom has everything ready, “We have three bags and a car seat to check please, to San Diego.”  He pokes his fingers into the right spots on the keyboard to get the bag tags and boarding passes.  He lines the tags in a row along the edge of the bag scale, arranges the boarding passes in the ticket jacket, staples the bag claim stickers to the back, and hands it to the organized mom as he checks her and her husband’s ID.  Attaching the tags while giving the usual line of instructions and questions, he’s finished in forty-five seconds.  The family shuffles off, and He checks the computer.  Eight people left and five minutes.  There’s no one in line, so he signs out of his computer and gives some quick reminders to his co-worker, “We’re waiting on eight, but they only have five minutes to check in with bags, call me at the gate if anyone shows up after that, I’m heading up there now.”

He checks his pocket to make sure his pen is where it should be.  He heads back into the operations room, lets his supervisor know he’s heading upstairs.  “Need any help?” his supervisor asks.

“No, so long as there isn’t anything strange.  We don’t have any unaccompanied minors or wheelchairs, so it should go smoothly.  I’ll call if I need it.”  He remembers to grab his coat before ducking out back to the ramp—no snow outside yet, but it’s close.  He jokes with the bag loaders for a minute and lets them know there might be some more bags heading back.  He stuffs some paperwork into his pocket, and heads across the ramp for the jet whose lights are slowly coming on as it powers up.  He checks his watch, thirty-three minutes to departure, forty-three to a coffee and a cigarette.

Winding Down Maybe

So I had all these aspirations of posting from my long list of goals and experiences I wanted to accomplish, but as is often the case, I couldn’t quite keep to my weekly post goal, or my monthly post goal.  I do apologize to anyone who has been checking to actually see if I have updated anything.  I have been thinking of giving up on the blogging experience altogether, but I think I may have a few posts in me yet.

So flying… something I have wanted to do since watching Maverick and Goose blast through the sky looking for commies.  I had debated for a long time whether to fly for fun or try doing it as a career and decided to try the career route as I was skeptical I could ever afford to fly as a hobby.  I enrolled in the commercial pilot program at Big Bend Community College and showed up in Moses Lake a week before classes started with my new wife, $300, and nowhere to live.

We settled in and I promptly started flying.  I don’t know what I had expected, but Big Bend was a bit of a disappointment.  As I often do, I had devoured every book on flying that I could find.  I was ready to join the cadre of pilots, that community of men and women who loved to fly.  What I found were brand new flight instructors unsure of themselves, seeming to struggle through the lessons as much as their students, the faculty flight instructors had the experience and know-how, but didn’t seem to care enough to take the time to help the students succeed.  Maybe it was the structure of the program that was at fault.  Instructors had back to back lessons every hour and a half, and there just wasn’t enough time to talk with the students about their lessons.

After a year and a half of waiting for things to get better, I was done.  I was tired of feeling like no one cared if I succeeded or not.  I had finished enough of my training that I was a pilot.  I could fly for myself, though not for money.  Following is the story of the day I quit:

“The Day I Quit”

I watched the runway disappear beneath me as the man in the tower told me, “Early left turnout approved.”

“Roger, thanks, good day,” I radioed back as I banked the plane left and climbed out over the sagebrush-choked desert and patches of farmland beneath me. I pointed the nose of the plane up and over toward the practice area where I could see the faint specks of two other school airplanes practicing their maneuvers. One climbed and yanked the nose high into a stall and seemed to lose all motion before dipping and sliding down the air regaining its wings, while the other circled in ever tighter gut-wrenchingly steep turns high above a farmer’s hayfield.

I climbed and flew north to give us all some breathing room, mentally reviewing the lessons I was supposed to cover today. I drifted under the high overcast thinking back to laying in bed an hour earlier hoping the clouds would be too low for me to fly, dialing the airport weather report, then grunting and dragging myself to the coffee machine with the report of “sky overcast at 10,000 feet.” Plenty of room to fly. Damn.

Chandelles and lazy 8s again. Fancy names for climbs, turns and descents. Time to run through the cruise checklist: wings and nose level, throttle back to 2,000 RPM, lean out the engine because at 6,000 feet the air was too thin to mix well with the gas, so I pulled the red handle back decreasing the gas and evening things up. Trim to stay level, and I was cruising along at a nice clip of 120 mph or so.

There wasn’t any time for me to enjoy the view or the steady, smooth flight. I had a full lesson to run through and I had to be back in less than an hour. I set up for the chandelle, a hard climbing turn with the engine at full power. A maneuver for an imagined emergency sometime in the future I supposed—most of learning to fly was like that. It only took a couple of lessons to learn how to takeoff, climb, cruise, descend, and land, the other years of training was all in handling emergencies.

I checked my orientation with the criss-crossing roads far beneath me—thoughts of emergencies still somewhere back in bed behind me—scanned for other aircraft, pulled the yoke, and pushed the throttle forward.

* * * * *

I often thought back to the first day of flight school. We were important enough to have shown up to school a week before the rest of the college kids. For that week the campus was dedicated to us. The first morning, sweat from the triple digit desert heat dried in the blast of air-conditioned air as we sat in the classroom. No one knew anyone else. Some of us had been recruited, some were continuing a family legacy, and many of us had just ended up there because flying wasn’t an option, it was more of a need.

We were welcomed, told how lucky we were, and promptly told, “Look to the person on your left. Now look to the person on your right. After two years, only one of you will still be here.” We felt challenged and important, and from that first day, competitive as hell.

As we filed into the hangar for the first glimpse of our airplanes, we all made awkward comments and small talk with each other. Hey, I thought I would have it bad how are you supposed to fit all six and a half feet of you in one of those tiny things? We met up with our assigned instructors and learned that we’d be flying for the first time that very day.

The manila folder that would dictate my progress, my finances, and my grades in its record of every flight hour and lesson I was to accomplish was issued to me that morning. I filled in the first 0.8 hrs taking off, flying to a neighboring airport for a quick touch-and-go, and landing back at the school. My instructor rode the controls like a neurotic driver’s-ed teacher the whole time, and I felt I had done little more than wiggle the yoke, but the grin wouldn’t fade from my face for at least a few more months.

* * * * *

As the airplane’s forward momentum carried the nose up and the rest of the plane followed for a hundred feet or so, the engine sputtered and hiccupped. My hand, still on the throttle, pushed the handle against the stops just to make sure I had it wide open, while my other hand automatically leveled the climb so as to avoid a stall, for the airplane was quickly losing power.

I sat in my seat, the pilot’s seat for Christ’s sake, and shuddered along with the shakes and shimmies of the engine. I watched the altitude level out and then gradually drift lower, my vertical speed showing a 200 foot per minute drop. I couldn’t maintain my altitude. The throttle was jammed as far forward as it would go, but the engine sputtered and coughed and barely pulled me through the air.

I looked over my shoulder for the airport, trying to get some idea of distance through the misty air behind me. There was the thin leg of the lake just before the end of the runway, and yes, there were the numbers painted on the black asphalt, looking very far away. First thing to do, get turned around and keep as much altitude while I still had some power, the engine was sounding like it couldn’t breathe and I needed as much room for error as I could get before it completely gave up the ghost.

I banked as gently as possible. To turn an airplane you convert some of the lift into a sideways motion, so in any turn, without an increase in power, there will be a loss of altitude. But I needed to see that nose pointed at the airfield. What’s my glide ratio? What’s the distance to the airport? What’s my altitude? Oh god, I’ve lost six-hundred feet already, has it been three minutes? No, I’m losing 400 feet per minute now. Okay deep breath, level-out, bring the nose up, there, back to only 200. I should call the tower, no fly the plane first: aviate, navigate, communicate.

I couldn’t climb or even keep the plane level, but at least things weren’t getting any worse, and the little shuddering the engine was doing was pulling me closer and closer to the safety of the black surfaced runway. Five miles away now, could I make it? Time to call the tower at least.

“Grant County tower, this is Big Bend 6,” I keyed my microphone.

“Big Bend 6, go ahead”

“Um, yeah I am heading back in for a full-stop landing. My engine is running a bit rough, request runway 4.”

“Cleared to land any runway, do you need the emergency equipment?”

Do I need the emergency equipment? I’m just a kid, this is just college! Fire trucks and an ambulance chasing along the side of my plane? Was I declaring an emergency?

* * * * *

I remembered Mr. Lewis. I still saw him occasionally. Just the other summer he and I stood sweating and leaning over his airplane as he gave it its annual check-up. We talked about the last couple of years. His retirement. My never-ending school career. He was Joe then, when he was a mechanic and not a pilot he was Joe. But when he was a pilot, and my teacher he was Mr. Lewis.

Formerly Lt. Commander Lewis of the 118th Naval Air Squadron. Teaching kids like me how to land F-18s on the decks of aircraft carriers. His short fuse and legendary temper made up for his diminutive stature and kept hidden the easy-going carefree man beneath the wispy thin hair and eyes wrinkled from the sun blasting him at 40,000 feet. On the day I was to prove that I could be trusted on my own with an airplane, it was Mr. Lewis who would decide.

The summer after my first year, it came time to test for my private pilot’s license. I had flown the required number of hours, both with an instructor and on my own. I had flown a trip of over 300 miles with two stops, getting only briefly lost somewhere near Steptoe Butte. I had flown my few required night flights squinting through the darkness for a horizon, and floating to the surface of a runway with no lights. I had proven that I could land on grass, on a short runway, and without my engine running. It was time to prove it all to my examiner, Mr. Lewis.

He sent me out to preflight the airplane without a word. I checked the fuel, oil, and general condition of the plane. It looked good and ready. My stomach was already floating and flying, making its way to my throat. And my hands were shaking like I had been free-basing espresso, but I finished checking the plane, sat in the pilot’s seat, and sweated in the afternoon sun.

Just about the time I was thinking that I was supposed to go get Mr. Lewis when I was ready, he opened the other door and crawled in looking like he would rather be in an air-conditioned room with a cold beer. In fact he looked like he would rather be anywhere but here. He held his hand out for my paperwork—my records and a list of things I was required to show him I could do—glanced over them, then stashed them away next to the door. Crossing his arms across his chest and leaning back into his seat, he said, “Go through everything on the list.”

I looked hopefully toward the list. It was hiding beyond his leg and I couldn’t read a single item on it. “In order?” I asked.

He turned his head slightly, looked at me sidelong for just a moment, then resumed looking straight ahead, silent, unmoving.

For two hours I struggled through remembered maneuvers. Occasionally asking for some guidance and receiving only a shrug. The sun beat onto us both, reflecting off the aluminum skin of the plane and raising the temperature well above the outside high of 102°. The heat rising off the fields below tossed the plane like a raft floating river rapids. I watched the needle of the altimeter bouncing with each thermal and downdraft waiting for it to pass the 200ft threshold that would mean I had failed, but Mr. Lewis remained quiet and I kept flying on.

The silence was broken only once. I had barely managed to land on a remote and rural airstrip. The landing jarred us both, and I applied full power just in time to climb above the fence standing at the end of the runway. I swear it passed only a foot beneath us. “I want to see you do that again.” Mr. Lewis startled me from the other seat.

I circled around, made my required radio calls, and landed again. Not much better, but maybe it was good enough. As I climbed out, Mr. Lewis signaled the end of the flight, telling me to take us back to the airport. I knew the flight was over, but was it because I had failed or because I had passed?

After landing and parking the airplane, Mr. Lewis handed me my paperwork and retreated to the air-conditioned sanctuary of his office without a word. I figured if I had failed he would have said something, but I had figured that if I had passed he would have said something as well.

Later that day after school had finished, I stood with the mechanic students out in front of the maintenance hangar. Only then, when Mr. Lewis became Joe again, did he tell me “nice job.”

* * * * *

“Grant County tower, negative on the emergency equipment. I still have engine power, it is just a bit rough.” I’d make it. I hoped.

I maneuvered so that I would be heading straight for runway four, it wasn’t the prettiest approach, and maybe not the wisest move. I seemed to be wasting a lot of altitude getting lined up on the center of the runway, still at least three miles away.

“Tom, what were you doing when the engine started running rough?” someone asked me over the school radio. It sounded like Mr. Gowen, another of the flight instructors.

I started running through my before-landing checklist, flipping on landing lights and checking my altitude before I radioed back, “I was just going into a chandelle when the engine started running rough and losing power. I have some power, but not enough to maintain altitude.”

“Have you checked your mags?” this time it was Mr. Lewis who called over the radio. I thought back to the two airplanes I had seen just ten minutes earlier practicing maneuvers, now likely flying straight and level while students listened as their instructors tried to coach me through a potential emergency.

“Mags check okay,” I say back my voice cracking.

“Relax Tom, you’re doing fine, you have plenty of altitude. I can see you from here and even if your engine quits, you’ll be fine. You’ve got the airport made.”

I had been trying to do the geometry in my head: three miles away travelling at 100 mph, 5400 feet of altitude losing 200 feet per minute. I was glad someone else could do the math. And I knew that two men who had been doing this stuff their entire lives knew that I could make it. I was close to landing now, throttle to idle, fuel to full rich mixture and… what was that?

The engine roared to life, the nose lifted and I leveled out. I had power, I wasn’t losing any altitude, and I was stupid. I had been starving the engine of fuel. I was giving it too much air and not enough fuel and it was entirely my doing. Before going into my chandelle I neglected my checklist and missed the step: mixture to full rich. My abused engine roared back to life when I started treating it properly. I continued flying toward the airport checking fuel levels, oil temperature, oil pressure, voltage, and RPM. Everything checked out. “Grant County tower, Big Bend 6 returning to the practice area. I figured out the problem.”

“Big Bend 6, you sure?”

“I sure am sir, thanks for your help this afternoon.”

“Anytime, good day.”

Mr. Lewis came back on the radio, “Tom, you sure you’re alright?”

“Yeah, I had the mixture set wrong, it’s fine now.”

“Sounds good. Hey, come see me when you’re done.”

“Will do, thanks Mr. Lewis.”

* * * * *

A few months after my incident with engine trouble, I wiped my sweaty palms against my jeans, took three deep breaths, holding each for a full one-second count, and growled at the worms to quit squirming around in my stomach. I walked to the dispatch office and pulled my manila folder out from the slot marked Thomas Tylee. The last time I would do it. I held the print-out of my flight account balance in one hand, the folder in the other, and I stepped around the corner, handing them both to Eileen, the school dispatcher and surrogate mother to the throng of young men learning to fly far from home.

“Hey Eileen? I need to close my flight account. I’m withdrawing from the program,” I said without my voice cracking.

Eileen stopped her constant flurry of activity. I wasn’t sure what she had been doing, maybe talking on the radio, filing student records, and joking with the secretary. All I knew was that she was suddenly still and focused on only me, the first time I had ever seen her focus on only one thing. “Can I ask why?”

“Well, I am going to train next store at Columbia Pacific Aviation. I’m working there now, so I get quite a discount.” I did get a discount, but I doubted it would ever be used, I was done with flying for a while.

“We’ve had a lot of people withdraw this year. Do you see anything wrong with how we are doing things here?”

I hemmed and hawed a moment, the worms squirmed a bit and I said, “If I had to say it was one thing, well, there isn’t a lot of one-on-one instruction. We show up, fly, and leave without much instruction from or discussion with our flight instructors. I think there are too many students scheduled too closely together. It is a competitive and fast-paced atmosphere.” I took a breath. “Not really the best atmosphere for learning I guess.”

Eileen nodded, and the spell broke. She picked up my file, looked at my receipt and cut me a check for $4,500. “Hey Terri,” she said to the other secretary, “Tom here’s gonna take us out to lunch, he just got $4,500.” She gave me a smile with the check. “You come say hi to me from time to time okay?” I had her full attention again.

“You bet, Eileen.”

A few days later I was in front of the maintenance hangar talking with my friends. Mr. Lewis was over at the entrance and I decided I couldn’t avoid him any longer. He was slated to be my full-time instructor starting this week and I upped and quit out of the blue.

“I just needed a change,” I told him, “It’s nothing personal.” It came out sounding like the wrong thing to say. If I had to say it was nothing personal, doesn’t that mean it was a possibility we were both thinking about? Why had I quit?

Despite scaring the hell out of myself a few months earlier, I wasn’t terrified of flying. But I was tired of it. I had been spending every morning before a flight for the past few months hoping for bad weather so I could stay on the ground and do my other homework. An odd thing had happened to me. While I was pursuing my dream of flying, I was working as an English tutor showing other college kids how to develop theses, write transitions, and where to put that damn comma. I realized that every day when I was reluctant to go fly, I was excited about going to work. Something had had to change.

“Well, good luck Tom,” Mr. Lewis… Joe said.

“Thanks Joe.”


I have never gotten too excited about concerts. I’ve always preferred the intimacy of listening to an album on my own or with a few friends rather than the loud, churning masses at a concert. Perhaps I was scarred by my earliest concert going experiences of seeing Debbie Gibson, or Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet tour, but who wasn’t traumatized by the 80s?

I have had a few great experiences that stand out though. Staking out a spot at the blues stage at Bumbershoot every year with myDad stands foremost among my best experiences. Also a wild ride from Idaho to Portland in a Geo Metro to see Tool was an experience I will never forget, at least the parts I remember. But there are chances that passed me by.

Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd have long stood as my favorite two bands. I never did see Page & Plant as they toured together in 1994-1995 for the Unledded Tour. At 15 years old I just didn’t know what I was missing. And Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and David Gilmour have often toured (though never together to my knowledge), often performing full Pink Floyd albums along with their own material. In 2007, Roger Waters toured performing Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to see Jimmy Page and Robert Plant perform together. I hope I do, and my dad will be dragged along for that one for he was the one who bestowed upon me my impeccable musical taste (he might disagree with Pink Floyd as good taste though). As for Pink Floyd, I doubt if Roger Waters and David Gilmour will ever reconcile and tour together again, but Roger Waters is doing a full production of The Wall live this year, and it is rumored to be his final tour. I have to get out and see what I can before all of the greats quit touring.

I plan on seeing The Wall this year. Here are some others I’d like to see, so if anyone hears of upcoming shows or wants to go along for the ride, let me know…

  • Jimmy Page (rumored to have new material for a 2010 tour)
  • Tool (touring this summer? I had tickets for a show in Missoula in 2007, but they canceled)
  • Mike Patton (new album, maybe a new tour? Always a surprise from this man)
  • David Gilmour (one mystery show in England last year, no news for 2010)
  • Paul McCartney (according to my Dad, the best concert he has ever seen, and this from a man who spent a lot of time at the Fillmore in the 60s)

Barging in France

In France, and in fact in many other parts of Europe, canals were used for shipping goods throughout the country, but over the years these narrow waterways were made obsolete by trucking and trains. From a surplus of barges and an increase in tourism came the idea of converting the boats into floating hotels.

Today this network of canals and barges offers a unique opportunity to experience a side of the country away from mobs of tourists and big city sights. The narrow canals meander past country homes, vineyards, and villages offering a glimpse into gardens and backyards. There are usually bikes available for the passengers to ride and get lost in the countryside before meeting up with the barge later in the day.

Three meals a day are provided, and the chefs often make use of the trip as a tour of the region’s cuisine visiting the markets at each stop for whatever is freshest and in season. There is usually an open bar as well as a selection of regional wines. Also depending on the barge, there is often a minibus available to meet the barge and provide day excursions, and wine tastings.

The typical barge can accommodate 4-15 people with the price being more affordable with the larger barges. Most of the hotel barges do tend more towards the luxury end of the tourism trade, and as such are quite expensive. A one week charter with a chef, butler, driver, and tour guide runs about $3,000 – 5,000 per person with all meals, bikes, and tours provided. I may have to wait until my affluent retirement for that one.

There is a more adventurous option available for the budget minded (me). Many boats are available to rent for a week. You get a furnished boat with full tanks, a quick lesson in driving, a map of the canals, and are sent on your merry way to navigate the canals on your own. While not as glamorous as an all-inclusive boat ride with your every need catered to, the freedom and adventure has a certain appeal. Also if you split the cost between four people and go in the off season (September through April), the boat rental comes to about $250 per person. Even adding in the cost of food, bike rentals, and gas, it is extremely affordable. Where can you find even a hotel room in France for $250 a week?

The boat I want to rent. Two bedrooms, five people, 900 EUR.

So I am putting a trip together. It is really just a dream right now, but it might actually come together. I have one couple from work ready to go, I am hoping to get my friend in France to come along with his wife and kid, and anyone else who wants to go. There are boats that can accommodate up to 12 people so come along!

Plitvice Lakes

Rick Steves gets me in trouble every time. When I get back from some excruciatingly long trip trying to keep everybody fed, happy, and rested as we hop from airplane to airplane, I swear that I am done with it for a while. As I suffer from jet lag and credit card debt, the only thing that excites me is the first night Bear sleeps all the way through the night again. We catch up on mail and bills, water the plants and the garden, and start to settle back into our home routine.

It then starts so innocently. I re-read the Rick Steves guidebook on wherever we just went; just to reminisce a bit. Then I start reading his Postcards From Europe, enjoying the stories of his own travels. Then I start watching his shows on PBS and Hulu, and it is all over from there. 80 shows of some of the greatest places in Europe and the near East, and I always see something I have to go visit, and I start planning our next trip somehow forgetting about the long hours on an airplane.

It was a slow afternoon at work the other day, and we were watching the PBS pledge drive as we waited for passengers to check in for our last flight. We put up with the half-hour sales pitch because they were having a Rick Steve’s marathon. As we chatted, waited for passengers, and watched enchanting scenes from the Dalmatian coast, I was only half paying attention. Until I saw people walking on board walks through watery grottoes over azure lagoons. And there was a river boat that looked like it was from some Amazon exploration from the 1920s. I was looking at Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park.

From the official website they describe it as harboring “a grand collection of waterfalls, gallery of lakes, forest and diversity of animal life. The lakes are renowned for their distinctive colors, ranging from azure to green, gray or blue. The colors change constantly depending on the quantity of minerals or organisms in the water and the angle of sunlight. The sixteen lakes which are formed by natural dams of travertine are separated into upper and lower lakes. About eight km of pathways and wooden walking trails around lakes are accessible to visitors.”

It looks like a place that exists only in stories about dragons, wizards, and distressed damsels. Somewhere that you would be as likely to find a water sprite playing tricks on a faerie as you would a gaggle of Japanese tourists, eyes glued to their view finders.

Speaking of tourists, there seems to be a distinct lack of them in Croatia. I have only been to Europe in the off season, and mainly to places with few American tourists at any time of year, but from pictures and stories, I dread the overheated and overcrowded masses of August in Europe. But the Baltics have yet to be overwhelmed with British bachelor parties, plump German sunbathers, or American couples constantly telling everyone how much better things are done at home.

I hope to visit soon, at least before Rick Steves gets me hooked on some other place.

To see the Rick Steve’s episode, go to: http://www.hulu.com/watch/99628/rick-steves-europe-slovenia-and-croatia


Note: If you have any must-see places, have been to Plitvice Lakes, or have flown in first class, please let me know! I’d love to hear your stories.

A Start, I Suppose

Here we go...

With my wife growing frustrated with my weekly existential crises, I have opted to share them with a wider audience (so as to hopefully dilute the annoyance factor). No, truly, I am interested in exploring the myriad possibilities of this world. In trying to formulate our plans for the future, made possibly more complicated by the relatively recent addition of a wonderful baby boy, and the unfortunate loss of my best friend a year ago, I have felt a bit adrift. What seems to stand out is a renewed wanderlust and thirst for experience, for which I have to largely thank my mother for following her Sound of Music influenced dreams of a life in Austria, and my son for finally giving me the inspiration to make the 24+ hour trip to visit her. What a wonderful place of beer, food, beauty, and friends Austria has turned out to be.

What follows I hope will be a list of places I would like to see, and how I might actually see them, as well as things I would like to do. In waiting to hear news concerning a new job, I have realized that I can not completely leave the airline industry and the benefits such a job offers for travel, but if I do leave it, I hope it will be for a job equally conducive to travel, perhaps with a bit fewer angry and/or crying people to deal with.

As an aside, I do ask forgiveness or at least a bit of tolerance for this self-indulgent enterprise. I confess that this idea has sprung from my regret at misplacing an article about an enchanting place in China. I haven’t had much interest in visiting the Far East, and with so much natural beauty to explore in Montana, I have seen little to justify excruciatingly long trips and large expenses to see natural places. But a single picture in this article took my breath away, and sadly I have no idea where this place is. I have since vowed never to forget somewhere or something that intrigues me, and I will visit at least some of them. And so they follow…

First Class Anyone?

Sure it is snooty, snobby, pretentious, and whatever other superlative you feel like throwing at it, but at least once, I would like to fly in first class on an international flight. As an airline employee, I can standby for flights for free or for a drastically reduced rate, but with a one-year-old in tow, our family is relegated to coach on international flights.

Even in the beginning of air travel, luxury was key.  The influence of Pullman-style train travel could be seen in the parlor-like outfitting of early passenger aircraft cabins, and style and comfort were touted even as technology lagged behind and passengers were subject to slow, cold, and noisy flights.  Even as the industry grew in the second half of the twentieth century, and speed started to become emphasized over comfort, flying remained out of reach of the masses, and the service and surely the cost reflected it.

A co-worker of mine described his early days in the airline industry as “before damned de-regulation ruined everything. You wore a suit and tie, not just because you were an employee, but everybody dressed up. And if someone was in first class, it was because they were somebody. Now everyone with a frequent flier card gets a free upgrade.” Though it would have been nice to get on any flight you wanted (full flights were almost unheard of in 1978), and to always get first class, it was still before the days of personal mini-suites with lie-flat seats. And it was before meals were planned by world-renowned gourmet chefs and prepared with magical machinery. Nearly every person I know that has flown in first has sworn the food was better than any they had ever had, and these weren’t strangers to fine dining. How does the highest caliber of gourmet food come from the sterile and unimaginative galleys of aircraft?

Forgetting the food, the supposed prestige, the entertainment choices, the free booze, and the doting attention of the flight attendants, I really just want to be able to sleep. 6’2” in coach? Twenty years of yoga and a course in contortionism wouldn’t help me sleep in an airplane seat. But a lie flat seat? Heaven.