Wednesday, February 28, 2018

This Week: Boca Raton, FL

The Calm after the Storm

The tattered remains of Hurricanes Irma and Maria hung in the air around me in the form of low grey clouds and howling wind. In front of me the Atlantic Ocean was a weird shade of cornflower blue, like the least used Crayon from the box you had when you were a kid. The shore was mesmerizing and menacing at the same time with thick white foam coming over the top and pounding the sand. The noise of wind and sea were deafening. My hair whipped around my face. These would be the conditions under which I would attempt yoga on the soft sand beach.

Standing on the weathered wooden steps at the Boca Raton Beach Resort, I was wondered if there would even be a class today. The resort offered morning yoga classes on the beach for free to guests. Always looking for unique outdoor spaces to practice yoga, I arrived on the beach at 8:30 AM, a half hour early.

Standing above the sand on the grey weathered wooden steps that led from the resort pool to the beach, I watched the waves churn in an eerie slow motion. In the distance I could see people walking on the beach heading north away from me.

“Hi! Are you here for the yoga class?” a woman shouted behind me.

“Yes,” I shouted back.

Susan, the yoga teacher, retired to Florida six years ago from Chicago because she couldn’t stand winter anymore. She was petite and tan and had bobbed blonde/grey hair. With her pink tank top and black yoga pants she looked like, well, a yoga teacher. 

“See those red triangle ribbons on the sand?” she asked. I had noticed them, several dotted the beach going up the coast. I thought the yellow and orange cones and caution tape marked vegetation conservation areas because they were near the beach grass line.

“Those are turtle nesting sites. The city puts those up to keep people and dogs away.” She also said the turtles’ eggs hatch at night and then the babies crawl to the ocean. The next day all anyone sees are the fledglings’ flipper tracks across the sand disappearing into the water.

As we chatted she glanced at her watch. Susan said we would wait two more minutes to see if anyone else comes. I’d rather spend the morning standing on this beautiful pier chatting with this new interesting person in the strange weather, but we were here to do yoga so it was time to move.
Susan had an armful of towels that she set on some stacked beach chairs. She handed me three of them and said to lay two towels side by side and put the third one perpendicular across the top.
We began class in Prayer Mudra, hand pressed together next to the heart, breathing and listening to the waves. We twisted to the left and to the right and raised our arms above our heads. From there it was time to stand up.

As we moved through sun salutations she often got up from her towels to make adjustments and applying gentle pressure on my limbs and back to help me get just a bit more out of each stretch. I normally don’t like strangers touching me, but her adjustments were so helpful. As I did a seated twist, Ardha Matsyendrasana, Susan casually walked over, tapped the bottom of my straight leg foot and said to“engage” my toes. Growing up as a dancer, I was taught from a very young age to always point my toes. Yoga is the opposite. Often when I take a yoga class, the instructor will ask “where my dancers at?” meaning she’s looking for the people pointing their toes. I wasn’t technically pointing my straight leg toes but had allowed the foot to go limp. Upon her request I pointed my toes up to the sky. The change in my muscles was immediate. All these years I had just let my foot fall to the floor. I realize now that was cheating. Just the simple move of pointing my toes up to the sky engages all the muscles in my body, not just the ones doing the twist. It was awakening. I have continued to “engage” my toes to this day.

Done with salutations, Susan asked if I want to do some balancing poses in this wind. “Sure, why not,” I shout as the wind blows sand in my face. The sun had finally risen above the storm clouds and focused bright heat onto us. We start with tree pose, however, the wind pushes both of us to the point we had to lean forward toward the ocean just to stay straight. Challenging, but not impossible. We then leaned forward into Warrior III, Virabhadrasana III. From there we moved to the earth and worked on our core on top of the towels. Grains of sand were sticking to my sweaty arms and legs.
Finally Susan said to lay back in Shivasana. My favorite, the part where I forget where I am and what I’m doing.  Susan said she had some scented oil and asked if I would like some. I accepted and she opened a crinkly plastic bag. Soon the soothing scent of apples and cinnamon floated into my nose. 
After Shivansana we breathed Ohm three times to the ocean. You are supposed to Ohm with your eyes closed, but the view was too spectacular to ignore.

With class officially over I helped Susan carry the towels back to the hotel pool. She told me the oil she uses is only available online and that it is so concentrated she has to dilute with water to tone it down. Considering we were outside with the wind blowing and I could smell it from three feet away gives you a sense of its power.

Heading back to the Boca Raton Resort I was sandy, salty and slightly sweaty. My hair was so windblown it was a matted mess. I put on a hat before going inside. What’s that saying? “Sandy hair, don’t care.” I enjoyed a breakfast sandwich and a latte at the hotel café shortly after. I felt like I’d really accomplished something, not quite sure what, and it wasn’t even noon yet. It was great feeling to have and I need to take more yoga classes so I can feel this way more often. The calm after the storm is best feeling one can have. Namaste. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

This Week: St. John, USVI

Hurricanes and Rum Punches
All Photos by Carrie Dow. No reuse without permission.

This hurts.

I keep watching the news and searching the internet for video footage of the hurricane damage on St. John, US Virgin Islands. AKA my happy place. We have visited this Caribbean island seven times in the last 12 years and each visit is better than the last. We have reservations scheduled for March 2018, but with each passing day the chances of that happening look slim.

While many people might misconstrue this post as me complaining about missing a relaxing rum-fueled vacation while my fellow citizens have lost everything, there is so much more to my hurt than that. We’ve been visiting the island for so long, we know people. We have friends there. We have met other friends, like Sandal and Barry of Ohio, while visiting there.

Elaine's art studio was open to the bay in the front of her house.
My first magazine story for pay was about a local artist, Elaine Estern of Coconut Coast Studios who has lived on St. John for decades. We visit her gallery, and her dogs, every time we go there. Elaine and I have both written children’s books and we traded our books on a visit several years ago. Mine is about a cat while hers is about a duck. It’s on my bookshelf in my office.
The only place you can get these beers is on St. John.

My husband and I have watched businesses grow, like the first Virgin Islands brewery, St. John Brewers, which was run out of a shipping container in the back parking lot. The owners had just reopened after a fire damaged their tap room and they had just expanded into a larger space for events before the hurricane struck.
Chickens roamed the tables at Skinny Legs.
And we’ve watched businesses become legend. Skinny Legs was already a St. John institution, but had gone through some changes since we had our first burger there in 2005. Originally opened by two buddies from New England in the late 1980s/early 1990s, it was the kind of place that both locals and travelers could visit and be comfortable. The restaurant’s slogan was “Same Day Service” and they delivered along with the best burgers and sandwiches on the island. It wasn’t the fanciest place to dine, which is why we loved it so much. On one visit I overheard a diner say to a tablemate, “You know, the sloppier they dress the richer they are.” Everyone was equal at Skinny Legs. You didn’t know if the guy next to you at the bar was a hedge fund manager or a bus driver and it didn’t matter. Sometimes you’d see a young girl with her hair tucked up in a baseball cap, torn hoodie and no makeup and think she must work on one of the island’s sail boat crews. Then when she left the server would tell you she was a Sports Illustrated supermodel. One of the owners succumbed to a sudden illness in 2006 and in 2012 the other owner decided it was time to retire, but not before grooming two of his employees, the restaurant’s manager and his wife, to take over. When we met him in 2014, the new owner and his wife had just had a baby.

The Smoothie Stand.
We’ve met entrepreneurs on this island. Thomas ran the smoothie shack near the ferry dock, as well as a car rental agency and owns an apartment building on the island. I’m sure all three are gone now. In 2012 his youngest son, a Navyman about to embark on his first deployment, was killed by a drunk driver in California. We cried and hugged when we saw each other for the first time that week. He still hasn’t gotten over it.

Angel's Rest is gone.
Another enterprising gentleman was Captain Pete. With his own two hands he built a 40-ft. floating paradise of a pontoon boat called Angel’s Rest to live in. He also motors it around East End bays inviting people to visit because the boat is also the island’s only floating bar. People swim out to his boat and drink his rum punches and pain killers or sip cold Presidentes and Caribs. After a few drinks people jump off the front of the boat to cool off or climb the ladder to the sun deck to chill. Pete was born in Chicago and went to college in Colorado before “bumming,” his words, around Hawaii in the 1970s. He partied in LA in the 80s, but he also helped a friend build houses and was so good at it he opened his own construction company and eventually made his way to Puerto Rico were his business boomed. He sold the business and bought a sail boat to sail around the Caribbean. He happened to be moored in St. John when the money ran out. He started building houses again and instead of building his own house on land, he built a houseboat. He had no plans drawn up, just did what was in his head. According to Facebook, the boat is gone and he was on the mainland during the storm, but there’s a You Caring fund set up by his many fans to help rebuild it. At first he wasn’t going to rebuild, but the many kind comments and words of encouragement on Facebook have persuaded him to try. 

I’ve run the annual 8 Tuff Miles road race twice, the first time in 2008 and again in 2013. It’s a rite of passage for anyone who lives on the island or has spent a lot of time there. Runners from all over the world travel to St. John just say they’ve conquered it. Running an eight mile asphalt road race from sea level over a mountain that rises to almost 1000 feet and back down to sea level again is one of my proudest accomplishments.

Volunteers chatting after a dog walk at the Animal Care Center.
The Animal Care Center of St. John is one of my favorite organizations on the island. It’s a tiny animal shelter and the locals that work and volunteer there have some of the biggest hearts I have ever seen. According to the ACC Facebook page, the building survived and the animals that were housed there were evacuated to safer locals’ homes before the hurricane struck. The shelter's latest Facebook post is encouraging and say the International Fund for Animal Welfare is assisting in getting all the shelter animals off the island and on the mainland. However, ACC will still have a lot of work ahead because I'm sure people's pets were lost during the storm and the island has many stray cats and wildlife that had no shelter. There is a also a population of free roaming donkeys on the island and I have yet to hear how they fared during the storm.

We’ve run into the Ghost from Jost on several visits and each one is more mysterious than the last. Ghost is the island’s poet laureate whose given name is Courtney Chinnery. He floats in, says a few profound rhymes of sublime importance, and then disappears. Unless you buy him a beer, then he’ll sit with you and tell dirty jokes. Each time we see him, he has fewer teeth. Our visits to St. John are not complete if we don’t run into him.

My favorite photo of St. John. Shelter dog Brutus overlooking
Cruz Bay after we took him on a trail hike.
I’ve written about St. John numerous times both for pay and for free; it’s a source of inspiration. My next blog post, which I’ve been working these last few weeks, will be my sixth (ninth if I include the BVIs) about the island. This may sound a bit morbid, but my husband and I have agreed that whoever dies first, the surviving spouse will spread the other’s ashes around the island - mostly as an excuse for the survivor to have one last visit.

One of the reasons I love this island so much is because it’s not an easy place to get to. It’s too small and too mountainous to have an airport and there are only two shipping ports and a small marina. There are only two main roads and even under the best of conditions, driving them is not easy. While these things make the island more secluded, more all-to-myself, these things also make it difficult to get help to folks after a disaster like this.

There have been many natural disasters in the last few weeks and many people and animals are suffering. I know many of you have donated money, maybe supplies or even time to help those affected by these tragedies and for that I thank you. We all have our happy places, some near, some far, around the world. This post is not a plea to donate because you hopefully already have, to whichever cause touches your heart. Mine is a plea to not forget. The Virgin Islands, both British and US, are tiny islands, small populations and small economies, but they still deserve our love and support.

I hope my happy place recovers enough for us to make our visit next March. Not because I want to relax on a beach, but so I can give all my island friends a hug.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

This Week: Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

I'm on a boat!

This is not a post about my day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida. The Dry Tortugas, a group of remote islands and islets 70 miles south of Key West, Florida, is one of the most remote national parks in the US. However, this blog is not about the towering fort the army built on this isolated spot and once held some 400 people. It is not about the history of its most famous prisoner, Dr. Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. It is not about the pristine waters and marine life that the park protects. No, this blog is about the two and half hour one-way ferry ride that gets visitors to and from this amazing national park.

Yankee Freedom III is, according to the Dry Tortugas’ website, “a high speed, state-of-the-art, all aluminum catamaran recognized worldwide for safety, performance and passenger comfort.” It was built in New England in 2012 and entered into service in Key West that fall. Also according to the website, it “is powered by twin Caterpillar engines that give her a speed of over 30 miles per hour.” There is an enclosed main cabin with a small deck out front and a topside sundeck for those who want to ride al fresco. The boat is 110 feet long and holds 250 persons, however, the park limits visitors to only 175 persons so the boat is never actually full. It keeps the small island from being overrun with people providing a more pleasant experience. The inside cabin is air conditioned with cushioned seating and dinette tables.

Even though the Dry Tortugas is a US National Park, the ferry is a private enterprise and is the only public transportation to the island. If you have the budget you could charter a private boat or even a seaplane, but not everyone has that kind of money. It is recommended that your reserve your seats on the ferry in advance online. Waiting to book at the ferry terminal means risking the trip is sold out the day you want to go.

The cost of the day trip is $175 per person for adults ($125 per child; military, student and senior discounts available). This price includes the $10 entrance fee to the national park, however, if you have a current National Park membership pass, you can present it upon check in for a refund of that amount. Initially this seems like a lot of money, but there are extra amenities on the ferry. They include both breakfast and lunch, complimentary snorkeling equipment, a 45-minute guided tour of the fort (optional), and, most importantly, use of the on-board restrooms anytime. (More about this item later.)

What is evident on our arrival at the ferry terminal and marina at 7 AM in the morning is that the Yankee Freedom III staff are a well-oiled machine. Without asking for my conformation number or proof of purchase, I simply gave my last name to the ticket agent and he easily found all my information. He then handed me two tickets and said we had to have them to get on the boat because the trip was sold out today. The line moved quickly. We took some seats in the large terminal and watched other families try to keep their kids together and other travelers tap on their phones. Over the din of the hushed voices a male voice rose above.

“Hey everyone, if you could give me your attention, we’ll get started. My name is Hollywood and I’ll be your EmCee for the day,” announced the very tan bleach blonde older gentleman wearing khaki shorts, beige work shirt with the Yankee Freedom logo and wrap-around sunglasses pushed on top of his head. He looked like he should be on a California beach instead of a Florida ferry boat.

Without the aid of a microphone, the skinny-legged Hollywood made the pre-boarding announcements. We would begin boarding at 7:15 and the boat would leave by 7:30. The complimentary continental breakfast was already waiting for us and we could dig in as soon as we boarded. Hollywood also passed out some brochures that included a map, the history of the island and things to do once we got there. When he finished, he said to follow him to Gate 1 for boarding.

As we handed our tickets to Hollywood at the boat ramp, I noticed the name tag on his work shirt really did say “Hollywood.”  We boarded with our beach bags and found a place to sit first. We chose the inside cabin and we came across a family of three who had a booth with a table at the far end. Christian asked if we could sit with them and they obliged. After setting our bags down, we got in line for breakfast. We both had a bagel with cream cheese and fresh fruit. I had a boiled egg and orange juice and Christian had a slice of ham and a soda. There were also single-serving cups of cereal and milk for the kids and cups of yogurt. There were also kettles of regular and decaf coffee and hot water for tea.

While we ate and the rest of the passengers settled down to breakfast, Hollywood returned, this time with a microphone that led to speakers throughout the ship. He announced that we were shoving off from the dock and that we would now begin our two and half hour journey. That’s a long time and I wondered how I would fill it. No wifi on the boat and I didn’t bring any magazines. Even if I had, I doubted I would be able to read on a rocking boat traveling over open water. Little did I know that Hollywood had our morning planned.

The First Half Hour:

Hollywood played tour guide and pointed out the various individual islands that fan out from Key West as we motored by, most notably the Marquesas Keys. He also pointed out the Key West Lighthouse above the trees behind us as we motored away. He then went into more important details.

First he said Breakfast would end at 8:30, so if we wanted seconds, now was the time to get it. That was because, he said, the crew was fast at breaking down breakfast and when it was gone it was gone. Hollywood then announced that the seven people who were camping on the island were to meet with him in the back of the boat to go over some paperwork and the rules and regulations of island camping.

During this break we got to know out table mates. We met John and his wife, and his adult daughter Erin. John grew up in Kansas, but they raised Erin in North Carolina. When we said we were from Colorado, Erin said she had spent a semester at Northern Colorado University on an exchange program. Her parents now live on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, not far from Dustin, Florida. They raved about the beaches in both North Carolina and the Florida panhandle. They were very unimpressed with the beaches of Key West. They also didn’t like Duval Street. They had only been in Key West for three days and were driving back tomorrow. We also learned Erin was a body builder and taught fitness courses at a small college. She was also a vegan and brought her own food. She snacked from a plastic cup of almonds while we spoke.

The Second Half Hour

Hollywood reappeared at the front of the inside cabin with the microphone. At this time he wanted to get everyone interested in snorkeling organized. Those that wanted to snorkel needed to fill out a release form and then get sized for their fins and mask. Erin stood up to grab a form. We thought about it, but prefer snorkeling with our own equipment, which we left at home because of our short stay. Erin borrowed my pen to fill out her form. Hollywood walked around the cabin picking up the forms and answering questions from other guests as he went. He was fast, efficient and most importantly, friendly. He probably made these announcements every other day and I was impressed at how he could be upbeat while answering the same questions over and over and over again. He then said that a video of proper snorkeling etiquette would be shown on the ferry’s various TV screens. We watched it even though we weren't doing that activity because the video showed plenty of marine life and was a half hour long. We were now over one hour into our journey.

The Third Half Hour:

After the video Hollywood returned to tell us what was probably the most important information of the entire trip:  How to use the boat’s bathrooms. There were two standard toilets and one accessible toilet, but anyone could use it. Called ‘heads’ on a boat, Hollywood said there were only two things that were supposed to go into the toilets. One was whatever we eliminated from our bodies. The other item was toilet paper. No napkins, no tissues, no paper towels and no diapers were to go into the toilets. Those things would clog the heads and that was something no one should ever experience, he said. He also said that the locks on the toilets had to be turned “all the way to the left” to lock. He said even if you feel or hear a click, keep turning the locks to the left until they turn no more. If we didn’t, the locks weren’t actually locked and if the boat hit a wave, the door would fly open while you were doing your business. He said that people on previous trips who did not heed that advice paid for that mistake with their pride.
Other information he relayed to us was what to expect when we arrived. The restrooms on the boat were the only restrooms we were supposed to use while docked because there are no restrooms facilities on the island. (We noticed later there were two port-o-potties at the tiny campground.) We were to take all our belongings with us off the boat. This was so the crew could do a quick cleaning as well as set up lunch. Hollywood himself would give a guided tour of the fort. There would be an abbreviated talk at 10:45 AM just inside the entrance for those who wanted to know the history, but didn’t want to take the full tour. Then the guided tour would start at 11:30. For those snorkeling, it would take a half hour to get the gear offloaded so those people were encouraged to use the dock’s changing rooms or walk around the fort a bit first before grabbing their gear.

The Fourth Half Hour:

After all of Hollywood’s talks, videos and paperwork, there was just under an hour left on the boat. The seas on this day were relatively calm and the boat ride wasn’t bumpy, but there was a swaying from side to side. Christian decided to head to the open deck up front to look for turtles and dolphins. He saw two turtles. Erin, who announced she felt seasick, followed him hoping that being outside would make her feel better. It didn’t work and within five minutes she was back and curled up into a little ball against the window. I then went outside and as the warm sun hit my face realized that the air conditioned cabin was freezing. After several minutes of not seeing any turtles, I went back inside and grabbed a hot cup of coffee to both warm me up and get a hit of caffeine. We had woken up at 5:30 AM for this activity so I was already sleepy and the steady rocking of the boat was lulling me like a baby in a cradle. As I sipped my hot liquid, Hollywood reappeared.

The Last Half Hour:

Hollywood announced that the islands of Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson were now visible on the horizon. I grabbed my camera and headed back outside. Hollywood also pointed out a bird sanctuary island that wasn’t much more than a sand bar and barely visible to us on the boat. A lighthouse towered over Loggerhead Key also nearby. The boat then rounded the western side of Fort Jefferson. The red brick fort rose above the water and from our current location hardly any ground was visible. I wondered how this thing could even exist here.  

We could see the shallow moat that encircled the fort. Build between 1846 and 1875 to protect US shipping lanes, the country’s only all masonry fort is made of thousands and thousands of bricks. The years and weather have not been kind. The fort was crumbling. Scaffolding three stories tall covered a large section of this side of the fort. As the boat came around the island to the dock on the south side, the ground the fort sits on came into view. As we circled the island we passed the tiny swim beach. There was a dock next to a sliver of green land that led to the entrance of the fort.

As the crew tied up the boat, Hollywood let us know that lunch, which would be on board, was at noon and that we all needed to return for the trip back starting at 1:30 PM. Finally, we were set loose on the island.


At 1:30 PM we did as we were told and returned to the boat. Hollywood had a ledger and as we boarded, he crossed our names off the list. At 1:50 Hollywood got back on his microphone and began calling the names of people he hadn’t crossed off his list yet. Three of those names were John, his wife and Erin. After everyone was accounted for, the boat engines roared us away. Once at sea Hollywood announced that the bar was officially open! Beer, wine, rum punch and margaritas were for sale. I purchased a can of Landshark Lager and shared it with Christian. 

Hollywood then did a raffle on the boat. We bought six tickets for five dollars in hopes of getting a cool National Park prize. We were one number off from winning a beach towel. After that a documentary that showed the restoration of the fort giant canons played on the TV screens. We fell asleep scrunched up in the booth while other groups around us played cards or chatted. Teens with ear buds bobbed their heads to unheard music. It wasn't long before we woke up to Hollywood’s voice announcing we were again passing the Marquesas Keys and Key West came into view on the horizon.

I’m not going to tell you what we did on the island. I’m not going to tell you its fascinating history. I’m not going to tell you about the bird sanctuary, the soft sand beach, being able to walk on the roof high above the sea or stand in Dr. Mudd’s dark prison cell. I'm not going to tell you how I lost my wedding ring on the swim beach. Some things you need to experience for yourself. What I do want you to know is that the long journey to and from this unique place is in the hands of a capable crew that will make the journey easy peasy island breezy.

Friday, April 7, 2017

This Week: Redondo Beach, CA

It’s not just the places you go, It’s the people you meet

The hotel’s website said it provided shuttle service Monday through Friday from 7 AM to 11 AM and from 4 PM to 9 PM. The site also said the shuttle had a three mile radius around the hotel. Checking Google Maps, I realized that was not going to work. I was traveling to Redondo Beach, CA, for a press trip and my hotel was the Hilton Garden Inn Redondo Beach, right off the infamous 405. It was three miles east of California’s South Bay, however, Hermosa Beach was in the way.
Redondo Beach is a quirk of geography. The boundaries on a map look like a puzzle piece. There is an eastern half that is three miles inland, sitting behind Hermosa Beach. Then like a diagonal move on a checker board, there is another square section to the south and west that is on the beach. The entire municipality is only five square miles. The Hilton Garden Inn at Marine Avenue put me at the far northeast corner while the actual beach was almost 5 miles away at the southwest corner. I would need that shuttle, but it wouldn’t get me to Redondo Beach. It would only get me to Hermosa and then it was a two mile walk. I would need a good pair of walking shoes.

My schedule for day one at Redondo Beach was paddle boarding in the morning, then lunch somewhere on the boardwalk and then dinner and beers at King Harbor Brewing Company. I asked the hotel front desk for the shuttle. The desk clerk made a phone call and said John would arrive in a few minutes.

As I waited in the lobby an older gentleman wearing khakis and denim shirt approached the front desk. The gal at the desk pointed to me.

“How far can you take me” I asked after he introduced himself. Asking exactly where I needed to go, I explained I wanted to be at King Harbor, but my understanding was the shuttle didn’t go that far. Even though I was talking to John, the desk clerk answered. I could be dropped off at Hermosa Beach and from there walk to King Harbor. John motioned for me to follow him out front. He opened the side door to the shuttle van for me to climb in. After he got in the driver’s seat, he turned around and asked me where I wanted to go. I said as close to King Harbor as he could get me.

“Where exactly do you need to be?”

“Specifically, Tarsan Paddle Rentals on North Harbor Drive.”

“Ok, I’ll just take you there,” he replied.

“You sure?”

“Yeah, it’s fine.”

Studying John in the rearview mirror I noticed he wore a tan beret and wire-rimmed glasses. Short salt and pepper hair could be seen below his cap and he had a grey mustache. I guessed he was in his late sixties. Since I like to try and figure people out, I imagined he was retired from a long career of something and driving this van was his part time gig. What I didn’t know was if he drove the van because he needed a paycheck or simply because he wanted something to do.

As he drove he plied me with questions. Where are you from? When I said Colorado he responded how beautiful he thought Colorado was. He said he had spent a vacation visiting a friend in Colorado. The friend took him to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. I mentioned that the first snow of the season had just fallen in the national park a few days ago and it was still September. John laughed. He then said that LA was going to have a mini-heat wave over the next few days. Today’s expected high was 100 degrees.

He asked what I was doing today and I told him my schedule. He then asked why I was here. I said I was a travel writer and in town as a guest of the tourist board. He chuckled saying that was some job I had. I also told him that I was a beer blogger and had a 4 PM appointment at King Harbor Brewing Company. I half joked about how I would need a ride from him that night because I would be drinking beer all afternoon. While John wouldn’t be able to drive me to the brewery because he wouldn’t be back on duty until 4 PM, he was more than happy to pick me up.

We were only into the drive a few minutes when we passed by the Redondo Beach/King Harbor city sign. A few traffic lights after that he turned onto Harbor Drive and pulled the van over into a parallel parking spot. We were at the entrance to King Harbor. Tarsan was actually a block behind me. John then handed me his business card and said his cell phone number was on it so I could call him when I was ready to return.

I now had six hours to fill. I filled them with two hours of paddle boarding, a huge lunch at Captain Kidd’s Seafood Market and then a walk to Redondo Pier. John was right; the temperature did get up to 100. I stopped inside an ice cream shop to get some chilled relief in the form of a vanilla mocha ice cream cone. Then I took Uber to the brewery.

My interview at the brewery lasted almost two hours, during which I sampled a variety of the brewery’s beers. And because it was Monday Night Football, the brewery had a food truck out front, Bartz BBQ. After ordering some brisket to go I called John. He needed to drop off another passenger first before getting me. I plunked down on the curb as the evening finally began to cool. Because I had eaten so much for lunch and then drank beer, I only ordered a sandwich, no sides, but as I sat on the curb waiting, the food truck proprietor approached and asked if I wanted to take some sides with me.

“I’ll have too much leftover to take home. How about some mac and cheese on the house?” An offer I couldn’t refuse. The server gave me a heaping spoonful of mac and cheese with the little crunchies on top. I love crunchies. A few minutes later, John arrived in the big white van.

“Sorry it took me so long,” he apologized as I entered the middle seat. “Ran into rush hour traffic.” I told him because of his delay I scored some free mac and cheese. He laughed and asked how my day went. I told him I came within a few feet of a sea lion on the paddle board, which was awesome. I also said the beer at the brewery was delicious. He stated Heineken was his beer of choice.

“I drink them at the Mermaid Inn with my friends. I live over in Hermosa, lived there for many years. Will you be visiting the Mermaid Inn?” Since I was a guest of Redondo Beach tourism board, I informed him I wouldn’t be visiting Mermaid, which is in Hermosa. I set up my ride for the next day and wished him good evening.  

The next morning, I awoke early, had free breakfast from the hotel and then prepped my travel bag for a day at the beach. Tuesday’s schedule was to rent a bicycle and hit the beach, then late lunch and restaurant tour of Redondo Pier. The bike shop didn’t open until 10 AM so I had plenty of time. I was in the lobby when John arrived shortly after 9:30.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said.

“You’re not late,” I said. Once again he opened the van door for me. He then asked where I was going today.

I said Marina Bike Rental on the corner of Beryl and Harbor Drive, only a few blocks south of Tarsan. Shortly after pulling out of the hotel parking lot, John’s cell phone rang. He answered the phone and put it on speaker, which meant I could hear every word. A woman on the phone asked him about a prescription. Since it wasn’t really my business, I looked out the window, trying not to hear. John talked to the woman about visiting the doctor and getting “her” a prescription. Then toward the end of the conversation, they both spoke Spanish. He finished the phone call at a stop light.  John said he was sorry about the interruption, but I said no worries. He said that it was his mother’s Medicare case worker. His mother, who he said was 93 years old, was in the care of both him and his sister and that he needed to get permission before they would approve of things like prescriptions. The case worker was verifying that his mother had seen a doctor before getting new drugs. I marveled that his mother was 93.

We were heading down Herondo Street and South Bay was at the bottom. On my right was Hermosa and on my left was Redondo. John pointed to the hill on the right where the condo buildings overlooked the bay.

“My apartment is over there.”

“That’s close to the beach.” I said impressed. John laughed his easy laugh again.

“Yeah, my sister and I went to high school here and we still have friends from those days. We all get together at either Mermaid’s or Hennessey for a few beers. That’s what I do on my days off.”

At the rental shack he pulled next to the bike lane and I exited the vehicle. I told him I would call him that evening for my ride back. He said to enjoy my day and left. It was still a few minutes early and the rental shack wasn’t open yet. I sat on the deck stairs and opened my bag to take out my camera. That is when I made a startling realization. I forgot all my restaurant coupons back at the hotel. All of them…in a little envelope…on the hotel room desk. The coupons were to pay for the restaurants on the Pier.
I considered forgoing the coupons and just paying for my meals, but then decided against it. I barely get paid for the articles I write, let alone make enough money to fully fund this trip. I needed all the freebies I could get just break even. John’s shuttle duty would end at 11 AM. I called him.

“You’re not going to believe this, but I forgot something at the hotel. Can you come back and get me?” John said he was driving another passenger and he could return when he was done.

While waiting for John to return, a large rotund gentleman pulled up to the bike shack in a red scooter with an adorable tan and white Corgi in a basket on the back. He parked the scooter under an umbrella next to the shack’s front deck and moved the Corgi from the basket to the ground. The Corgi walked over to sniff me. After the man unlocked the shack door he asked me if I was renting a bike. I said yes, but that I had to return to my hotel and would be back in about 45 minutes. He shrugged and continued his opening routine. He walked to a large metal trailer next to the shack, undid a padlock and opened a door. Then he pulled out several cruiser bikes one by one. While setting up the fifth bike, a young couple walked up to the deck. Speaking in thick Scandinavian accents, they requested some bikes. They filled out some paper work and he took their driving license and credit card info. Then he put a wire basket on the woman’s bike and off they went. 

Although it only took ten minutes, it seemed like a half hour of standing in the hot California sun. I saw the white van turn down the block and leisurely pulled up alongside the curb to me. I opened the door myself and hopped in.

“Thank you so much. I can’t believe I did that!” He chuckled. He drove as fast the speed limit would allow and in less than 10 minutes we were back at the hotel. He took the opportunity to use the hotel “facilities” while I sprinted back to my room for the envelope. It was right where I left it. I sprinted back down to the lobby and outside.

“That was fast!” he said as I hopped into the van. We were off on the same route we took about an hour and half earlier. It was after 10:30 AM and soon John would be off the clock. He returned me to Marina Bike Rentals and as he opened the door for me, I handed him a five dollar bill and he tried to hand it back.

“You just saved my butt. Thank you!”

I spent the afternoon riding the Marvin Braude Bike Trail on my rented cruiser up to Manhanttan Beach and then I rode it back past the rental shop to the far southern end of Redondo Beach. I think I covered some 10 miles of the 22-mile trail. It was a beautiful Southern California day as I sat on the sand admiring the waves and the sand pipers and the few families who were away from work and school to play at the shore. After returning the bike I enjoyed a Redondo Pier bar crawl during happy hour and ended my day watching the spectacular sun set over the Pacific Ocean. I ended my evening with a dinner of crab cakes and a beer at a fancy seafood restaurant. About 8 o’clock I called John. He asked if I knew where the roundabout was on the south side of the pier. Since I had passed it on the bike, I did know where it was. He said he would pick me up there. This was way outside the boundaries of the shuttle.

I did have to wait several minutes, but there was no mistaking the big white van in the street lights when it came around the corner. I climbed in and said hello. John asked how my day was, but I turned the tables on him and said, “You know I’ve been sent to see all these places, but where do you like to go?”

He said he likes Hermosa, where he lives, and likes to hang out at Hennessey with his friends next door to Mermaid Inn. I had ridden the bike by both earlier that day. He said he and his sister went to high school in Hermosa and when he retired he wanted to return here because he loves it. He then said he was in the service and spent 35 years in Alaska before returning to Hermosa. Then the floodgate opened.

He asked if I noticed him speaking Spanish on the phone yesterday. When I said yes, he said that was because he was originally from Cuba. He was sent to Florida on a boat as a boy in 1962. He was cared for by a foster family for five years until his parents made it to Florida. From there he went to a Presbyterian school in Shenandoah, IA, for several years. He even detassled corn in the summer, something I said we had in common. From there the family moved to Hermosa and after high school he joined the service and spent some time in Virginia and then the 35 years in Alaska. He actually enjoyed his time in Alaska, but when he retired, he knew he wanted to return to sunny California.

While sitting at a stop light he told me his father had a trucking company in Cuba and it did very well until Castro and the Communists came to power in 1961. He said after his grandfather passed away his dad took some money out of the grandfather’s bank account to pay for the funeral. However, the government didn’t believe him and put him in jail for a year. His mother spent that year fighting bureaucratic red tape and had to submit and resubmit receipts to show where the money went. The communists would say the paperwork wasn’t filled out properly or that they just didn’t believe what the money was used for, even though his mother had receipts. After his father was released from jail they decided to leave.

John said he was trying to get a visa so he can return to Cuba, but since he arrived in the States before 1970, there are special regulations he needs to meet making it harder. His sister had already returned. He says his boyhood home is still there and he would like to see it. I asked him if he was scared when he came over on the boat and he said no. He said he wasn’t scared because he was so young he didn’t know any better.

When we arrived at the lobby of the hotel, he got out of the driver seat and for the last time walked over to the passenger door to let me out. He wished me a safe return to Colorado.

“Next time you do one of these trips, come to Hermosa and I’ll show you around,” he said as he waved.

“That sounds like a great idea!” I said as entered the hotel.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

This Week: LAX

*** Part III

Los Angeles International Airport was not empty at 2:30 AM. Airport workers were everywhere. I walked in front of the Southwest ticket counter area looking for an outlet to charge my phone. There were small pockets of seats and chairs between the entrance doors and each one was already filled with groups of young people who had already commandeered those outlets. Even though I didn’t have to go, I headed to the restroom thinking it was a good idea. Upon walking around the entrance wall, I spotted one lonely outlet above the sinks. I plugged my phone in and then hopped up on the counter and used my carry-on as a footrest.

Even in the quiet airport, women still came in the restroom. I made it a point to smile and say hi as various women entered so they wouldn’t think I was going to rob them or something. One woman who came in, who I thought was a bit chubby, spent a good five minutes throwing up in the stall. It wasn’t until she came back out to wash up that I realized she was actually pregnant. Another woman who came in worked for Southwest and as she washed her hands started chatting with me. She told me she had just finished setting up the ribbons that mark the lines to the ticket counters and she hoped the construction crews wouldn’t mess them up. I asked her about the construction and she said while it was a pain in the ass now, the place would be “spectacular” when it was finished. Southwest and the airport were splitting the cost of the upgrade and she said that as the airport finished its many projects that celebrities would be coming out for ribbon cutting ceremonies. She went on to say that some celebs were helping to fund the upgrade in exchange for getting terminals named after them.

“Yeah, it’s gonna be nice when it’s done,” she said as she left the restroom. Things got quiet at that. Out of boredom I would pick up my phone and look at Facebook posts. I also began texting my brother, who worked the night shift at NOAA in Las Vegas, but he responded that he was too busy to text. I went back to Facebook, but not wanting to waste too much battery put the phone back down. Then five minutes later picked it up again. This went on for an hour.

My rescheduled flight was for 6:30 AM so I figured I would exit the restroom around 4:30 so I could be first in line at the ticket counter. Shortly after 4 AM I noticed more and more women were using the restroom and they weren’t airport workers. I decided I better move. Good thing I did because the ribbons of rows the Southwest gal set up earlier were already full. I lined up behind a group of older women, one of whom was in a wheelchair, and waited. While standing there one of the women in front of me asked if I saw any airline employees around. I said no after doing a brief scan. She then said that she and her friends “found” the woman in the wheelchair sitting in a corner of the terminal facing the wall. She had asked for help as they walked by. The wheelchair woman told them she had arrived at the airport at 2 AM and an airport worker got her from the cab to the inside and then just walked away and left her there.

“That’s awful,” I said. “Yes, it is,” was the reply. The women friends were on their way to Vegas and the woman in the wheelchair was on her way to Dallas or Detroit or DC, some city with a D. The Vegas women were going to help the elderly woman get checked in and then hoped an airline worker would take over from there. They were worried because they knew their flight was already full and since they were meeting other people in Vegas, didn’t want to get bumped.

Pretty much everyone in line including me expected the ticket agents to begin at 4:30 AM. They didn’t. A few walked out from a door behind the counter and began looking around at the computers and other things on the counters, turning things on, unlocking locks and opening and closing drawers with keys that they wore like jewelry on their necks and wrists. Then some went back behind the door and disappeared. It was another 10 minutes before ONE agent opened up for customers. A few minutes later the rest came back and opened up. Slowly the line began to move.

When it was my turn at the counter a smiling woman named Neesi took my ID and I told her I was rebooked on the 6:30 AM flight after missing my flight last night. Since my flight was through Phoenix I asked her if there was any way I could get on the 7:30 direct flight to Denver. She started to say no, but then tilted her head to one side and pointed at her computer screen with a long painted fingernail.

“Goodness, so you’re on the flight to Phoenix, but the flight on to Denver has been canceled.”

“Are you kidding me?” I said as the blood drained from my face.

She tapped her long nails on the keyboard. “Let’s see what we can do here…So I can put you on standby on the 7:30, but there are 10 people already on the list. I can’t guarantee you’ll get on.”

“That’s OK. I’ll take it!” She printed out a new boarding pass for me and I thanked her profusely and hustled to the security line only to wait another 10 minutes because security wasn’t open yet either. 
As I walked by the Las Vegas women, I heard the ticket agent say they would get someone to help the woman in the wheelchair so they followed me to the security line.

Because of the construction, the security line actually started at the base of some escalators and stairs. Once up the stairs, the line snaked through a very tight space, but at least it moved. After security I headed to my gate and passed a few food carts. I was starving, but they all had long lines and I didn’t think I could take the time.

Once at the gate the crowd of people was overwhelming. I went up to the counter even though no one was there yet. My plan was to “check in” and let them know I was flying standby. My hope was to not annoy the gate agent while letting them know I really wanted on that plane. When a woman did show up it took her many minutes to get organized. There was a flight leaving the gate before mine so she had to deal with that first. When she was ready for me I politely told her I was on Standby for the next flight and asked what needed to do to get on the plane. She said the best thing for me to do was to stay close because if you’re not there when they call you, they move on to the next person. I thanked her and looked at the café line again. Still quite long, I instead went behind the gate and sat on the floor because every seat was already taken.

I pulled out my phone and realized it was still in airplane mode. After changing it back I began receiving notification emails announcing my flight from Phoenix to Denver was canceled.
Just for the heck of it I got on Twitter and tweeted to @Southwest “Please get me home, almost there.” Within a minute SW followed me and then sent a DM asking my situation and ticket number. I told them I was on standby thanks to Neesi. I received a response that read there wasn’t much they could do, but wished me luck. I told them how great Joey and Neesi had been in helping with a problem that was created by another airline.

As soon as the first plane left I stood up and shook my stiff arms and legs. The moment of truth had arrived. The Denver flight was posted on the gate board. The gate agents began calling first class and frequent flyer members. Then they called Group A. As people moved around the airline agent began calling standby passengers. Every few seconds the agent said a name. None of them mine. I counted the names and when she got to number 10, my heart sank. As she announced names, various people would arrive at the counter and move on. Then she announced that the overhead bins were full so those in Groups B and C would have to check their carry-ons. I was about to give up and go stand in the café line when she said my name. I asked her if she needed to check my carry-on. She looked at my ticket and said, “No. You’re in Group A.”

Not only did I make standby, but I didn’t have to check my bag on a full flight! Thanks Southwest!
I took my Group A ticket and walked by all the Group B people still standing in line. On the plane I saw a middle seat in the second row. I put my small carry-on above and took the middle seat. I have short legs so I don’t mind sitting middle. I sat next to an elderly black lady who asked me if I was getting off in Denver. When I said yes, she said she was flying to Ohio. I asked why she was going to Ohio and she said it was her brother’s birthday.

“That’s nice you’re able to be there for that,” I said.

“Well, since it’s my twin brother, it’s my birthday too.”

“Oh. Happy birthday,” I told her.

I arrived in Denver at 10 AM, 11.5 hours later than I should have been. I called my awesome co-worker and she said she had the store covered and told me to go home and get some sleep. But first I had to pick up my dog at the dog sitter. So I had to pay for an extra day of airport parking and I had to pay for an extra day of dog sitting. What did I get from Alaska Air? A $200 airline voucher for a future flight. So let’s see. Denver is not really a hub for them so my options for direct flights are few and $100 is what I paid in extras. I appealed to the airline for a cash refund and even asked for the lower amount because all I wanted was to cover my fees. The airline, “after much consideration,” said no. So, where should I go next?

Thursday, May 5, 2016

This Week: Mammoth Lakes to Los Angeles

No Sleep 'til LAX 
Part II

Most everyone else went back into the annex even though the snack bar had closed. I stayed outside. I propped my bag against a light pole and sat down on the sidewalk leaning my back against it. As I sat, a dark green SUV pulled up to the curb and a blonde woman got out. From inside the annex, the woman who had offered a ride came out with her new entourage and the two women hugged.

“Thank you for doing this. You are a life saver.”

“Aw, anything for you sweetie.” The group began to put their bags in the back, but it was haphazard. They had to take the bags out and start over, twice. Third time was the charm and they all piled into the SUV and left. A guy on his cell phone came out of the annex and set his bag on the sidewalk.

“Are you on the van?” he asked me. Yes. “Can you watch my bags? I have to make a phone call and don’t want the van to leave without me.” I nodded, but wondered how many calls this guy had to make? He’d been on the phone since I first noticed him in the ticket line. I could hear his conversation despite the wind. He was calling Avis Rental Car trying to find out if he could pick up his rental after midnight. To me this sounded like a simple question, but to whomever he was talking to it wasn’t because he had to repeat the question more than once. He also had to explain why he wouldn’t be there at his scheduled time. He turned away from me and I couldn’t hear anymore. The scent of smoke from the wildfires was starting to infiltrate the air.

At 8:30 PM a large white van towing a small black trailer pulled up to the curb. I stood up and grabbed my bag. Cell phone guy also grabbed his bags, but was still on the phone. The rest of the group poured out of the snack annex. The van driver, a young guy with a goatee wearing a white long-sleeve t-shirt, got out. He held a piece of paper in his hand. He had us gather around the trailer and read our names. With every name somebody said yes. There were two Asian names he had trouble pronouncing, an older married couple that pronounce their names for him. After reading all the names the grey-haired lady who complained about not being offered a ride earlier said she didn’t hear her name. The driver ended up having to go inside the terminal to figure out what was going on. The woman, who said her name was Lorraine, followed him. The rest of us were left waiting on the sidewalk.

Minutes later both returned and the driver said something about confusion over another woman who had decided to stay in Mammoth, but still had her name on the list. The Driver loaded our bags in the trailer.

Cell phone guy took the front passenger seat; didn’t ask, just took. Lorraine said something about needing a lot of leg room because she had a bum knee. Four people, all guys, filled the back seat, the Japanese couple and I sat in the middle row and a grey-haired man, a young woman and Lorraine took the front row. The Driver then got in, but before turning on the van he told all of us that the van had a DVD player and he held up a black bag filled with DVDs. Lorraine said, “Can’t we just try to relax on this ride. Why do we have to watch a movie?” The Driver then handed the guy in the front row the DVD bag, started the van and pulled away from the curb.

The van turned onto Highway 395, a four-lane divided road. The mountains in this part of California were still green (the only ones not on fire that summer) and smoky clouds glowed gold in the twilight, the haze of the wildfires intensifying the colors. The man with the DVD bag pulled a movie out and asked if anyone wanted to see Silence of the Lambs. Seriously?!? No one said anything. Then the young woman sitting next to him said sure, why not? And I thought this couldn’t get any worse.
I put my earbuds in and listened to music I had stored on my phone so I couldn’t hear the movie. I closed my eyes, but the light from the TV screen seemed to seep in through my eyelids making it impossible to sleep. I also put my phone in airplane mode to conserve my battery for the six hour ride.

I must have fallen asleep at some point because I was startled when the van stopped. I looked out the window to see we were in a Carl’s Jr. parking lot. The Driver said this was a good place to stretch, take a bathroom break and get some food before we hit the interstate. We all unfolded out of the van and walked like zombies into the restaurant. I had no intention of eating or drinking anything. I made that plan back at the airport. Not knowing what the restroom situation was going to be over the next six hours, I wasn’t taking any chances. Once inside the restaurant I began scouting for an outlet to charge my phone. It didn’t need it, but I wanted to anyway. Couldn’t find one. Our little group had already formed a line for the restrooms so I got behind. The young woman who sat in front of me bumped me with her elbow and said, “Oh my god, I can’t stand bugs.” I glanced in the direction she was looking. The glass doors, floors and ceiling of a corner the restaurant were crawling with black box elder bugs. I grew up with box elder bugs and know they’re harmless so I ignored her, but have to admit it was odd seeing a pile of them in the corner by the door. I asked the woman if she knew where we were, but she didn’t. Then she said, “Bugs are gross!” and actually tried to lean on me for support.

A worker was cleaning the women’s restroom so we all had to take turns using the men’s. It was one of the most disgusting restrooms I’ve ever seen. When I came out some in our group were ordering food. It was a little after 11 PM when I turned my cell’s airplane mode off so I could look up the location. My phone said Big Pine, California. I posted a quick tweet. “Stopped in Big Pine, CA. Still have four hours to go. #nosleeptilLAX.”

Switching my phone back to airplane mode, I went outside and stood with some others next to the van. That’s when I noticed the bug situation approached horror movie level. The bugs were everywhere including flying around in the air. I looked up at a street light and it was dimmed because of the number of bugs covering it. The parking lot was covered with what looked like black dipping dots. The white van had spots on it. Then the Driver walked by me to the passenger door and his white T-shirt was also covered with black dots. I made it a point to keep my mouth closed.

The Driver did a head count before opening the door to let us back in. As soon as I returned to my seat I could feel bugs crawling on my shin. Then there was another one on the back of my neck. As the van rolled out of the parking lot I pulled one off the top of my head. I also saw two bugs crawling on the inside of the van door and another on the ceiling. Unfortunately the movie wasn’t over yet so I had to put my earbuds back in and keep my eyes closed to avoid the bright TV light. Every few minutes I had to shake a bug off of my ankles. I wondered how many bugs crawled around in my hoodie.

I wasn’t really asleep, but I wasn’t quite awake either as I listened to almost every song I had on the phone. The movie had finally ended and we were now on the interstate; “The 5” as Californians would say. What looked like a combination of truck stops and suburbia flew by the windows. My phone said 1:30 AM. I wondered how the driver was doing. Would he fall asleep and roll the van? I could see one side of his face in the rear view mirror. He was drinking a giant can of Monster or Kickstart or something like that, which he kept on the van's dashboard. Most everyone else in the van appeared to be asleep; I could hear someone snoring softly behind me.

I looked out the windshield and some familiar names began to appear on the overhead highway signs, LA street names that have been mentioned in countless songs, movies and TV shows. First was the exit for Sunset Boulevard, then Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica Boulevard and finally Ventura Boulevard. I could see palm trees lining the highway. We had made it to Los Angeles.
Shortly after passing the Boulevard exits, the Driver took an exit that had the airport symbol on its sign. We were now on the 405. After many hours of quiet, the Driver spoke up asking us what airlines we were flying on so he could figure out where to drop us. Most everyone in the van was on United and the Japanese couple actually needed to be dropped off at their airport hotel. The wife said they were flying out in the morning. The Driver would take them last. I was on Southwest and lucky me that was the first airline we drove by.

The Driver stopped to let me out. He opened up the trailer and pulled out my bag. I thanked him and handed him a tip. As he took it, he slapped the side of his neck with his other hand.

“Damn bugs!” he said, half laughing. “I’m still finding them.” I laughed a bit as I walked into the airport. My phone said it was 2:30 AM. The third part of my ordeal was about to begin.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

This Week: Mammoth Lakes, CA

No Sleep ‘Til LAX

An Ordeal in 3 Parts - Part I

My eyes are closed, but I’m not asleep. I knew going in that there would be no sleep tonight. I’m trying to focus on the music streaming through my ear buds while enduring the thumps and bumps of my vehicle seat.  It’s not working. That’s because I’m in a gigantic white van lumbering down a dark highway with 12 total strangers in it. This ordeal began hours ago, but the part that’s keeping me awake is that when we finally reach our destination, I still don’t know if I’ll be able to get home.


I had just spent a fantastic four days in Mammoth Lakes, CA, a wonderful Sierra Nevada mountain town and the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park. For four days I was a professional travel journalist on a press trip learning what makes this town of only 8,000 year-around residents one of the West’s best tourism spots. I was wined and dined and met many amazing people who make the town the charming place it is. I went on guided hikes and was chauffeured to the area’s most beautiful spots. I took notes and photos and recorded interviews. I stayed in a fabulous studio suite at the Westin Monache Resort.

I was still savoring these newly made memories when I arrived at the tiny Mammoth/Yosemite Airport. My ordeal had already begun, but I didn’t know it yet because I pre-printed my boarding pass from Alaska Airlines at the hotel, so when I arrived by hotel shuttle the appropriate two hours before departure, I got straight into the security line with a group of six other people. A long line of travelers were standing on the other side of the room waiting for a ticket agent to print their passes and check bags. Those of us in the security line were chatting when a woman wearing a drab green shirt and pants with a bright orange vest approached us. She told us our flight – the only flight– was late due to a mechanical issue and wouldn’t arrive until 8:30 PM instead of the 6:30 PM it was supposed to. The flight would arrive in Mammoth long after my Southwest connecting flight in LA would leave for Denver.

The woman in the vest said we should head to the annex building where there was a snack bar and TVs while we waited for the flight. Everyone in the terminal wearily walked into the annex, a large sterile building that looked like a metal barn. The snack bar was on the opposite end of the doorway with a crowd of wooden tables and chairs and two restrooms in between. A giant flatscreen TV blared CNN above one of the restroom doors. I spotted an unoccupied electrical outlet across from the TV and took it. Since I was now at the mercy of the airplane gods, a full cell battery was vital.
First order of business was to text a coworker because I was supposed to work my day job the next morning. Even if I got to LAX, there was no guarantee I’d make it to Denver. Fortunately my co-worker could cover. After that relief I called Southwest Airlines to see if there was another, later flight from LAX to DEN. I talked to a woman named Joey and she said there was no other flight tonight, but there were flights leaving first thing in the morning. Joey found a flight leaving at 6:30 AM, but it would fly to Phoenix first. It would arrive in DEN by 10 AM.  With good traffic I could be to work by noon. Since I only had a small carry-on, bags were not an issue. Joey said she would book me on the flight anyway even though I had no way to LAX yet.

After my phone call, a group of people sat at a table next to me. A woman at the table talked a bit loudly and provided a lot of insight into the workings of Mammoth Airport. I learned that she and her husband lived in LA and had a second home in Mammoth. They had another couple visiting with them along with the woman’s mother from Ohio. The woman said that there was only one flight in and out a day so if that flight doesn’t make it, there wouldn’t be another until the next afternoon. Also according to her, this was a regular occurrence. She told the other couple they used to fly from LA, but previous bad experiences now cause them to drive back and forth.

“You’ll see, they’ll cancel this flight,” she said. “Keep your eyes on the board. If it gets canceled we have to rush over to the terminal to get her rebooked.” By her, she was referring to her mother. Shortly after this conversation, it happened just like the woman said it would. The board changed showing the flight canceled and everyone, myself included, jumped up from our chairs to get into the terminal. I ended up in the middle of the ticket counter line. Behind me was a couple from Virginia who told me they had a 10:30 PM red eye from LAX to Alexandria. The wife mentioned they didn’t have to be back to work until Monday (today was Thursday), so they considered staying in Mammoth another night, but worried flights to the east coast would be full on a weekend. They also had two young kids staying with grandparents at home whom they hadn’t seen in a week.

The woman with the vest walked by and the couple asked her what happened to our plane. She said there was a mechanical issue that they thought was fixed at the airport before the plane left. However, the issue came back during the flight. She then said Mammoth Airport doesn’t have a mechanic so the plane, which was actually beginning its descent into Mammoth, had to turn around and go back to be repaired. Myself, the Virginia couple and now the man in front of me began bombarding vest woman with questions about what Alaska Airlines was going do to help us. She said the airline would be renting some vans to drive people out, but that there wouldn’t be enough room for everyone.

“WHAT?!?” We all asked in unison. She told us to stay in line and they would come around and take our names for the van rides. The four of us began weighing our options. The guy in front of me lived in LA and was a construction manager of a project in Mammoth. He spent four days week in Mammoth and went home to his family for three-day weekends. He thought out loud that he could just go back to the apartment the construction company rented for him and stay another night and see his family tomorrow. The Virginia couple discussed calling Uber or a taxi service and began searching on their smartphones.

A woman at the ticket counter then announced that a van, and only one van, had been rented and she would take names for it. The van would only hold 13 people. There was at least double that number of people in line. Doing a quick count I put myself at 15. Over the buzzing talk of people on cell phones a woman near the front of the line grabbed her bag and walked to the middle of the small terminal with two other people following her. She announced to everyone that she was getting a ride to LA from a friend and they had room for one more person. Myself along with five other people raised our hands. An older man standing next to a much younger Asian man told everyone that the young man was a foreign exchange student and needed to a ride to LA or he would miss his flight home to China for school break. Feeling that story trumped ours, construction guy and I both lowered our hands. The woman offering the ride said come over. Suddenly a grey-haired woman a few places ahead of me loudly said “Well, that was mean!” Everyone in the terminal turned in her direction. 

“That was awfully cruel of you to offer only one seat then not even take the rest of us into consideration.” In my little group of people all our jaws hit the floor. This woman didn’t have to offer anyone anything. Why talk like that to her?

That little event took four people out of line. I now had a shot at the van. Basically the airline was offering a night in a hotel and a flight out tomorrow or a seat on the van. I didn’t like either choice. The woman with the orange vest reappeared with a clipboard. She was taking names for the van. After each name, that person would grab their bags and leave the terminal. She slowly worked her way toward me. When she got to construction guy I could see a long list of names on her paper. Construction guy was #13.

“So I’m on the van?” he asked her.

“Uh, no. There’s only room for 11 people.”

“They said 13 earlier.”

“Yeah, they couldn’t get the larger van.”

“Why don’t they rent more than one van?” I asked. “If you got 20-odd people that were supposed to be on that plane, they should get enough vans for everyone who wants a ride. It’s their fault, not weather.”

“That’s just how they do it,” she said.

“That’s ridiculous.” I signed.

“I know,” she responded. She took my name anyway, just in case. Just then two people came over to Vest Woman and said to take their names off; they were going to spend the night in Mammoth. Construction Guy became #11. I sighed again. So close. Then the Virginia couple asked me and the two people behind them if we wanted to pool together for an Uber ride or car rental. I said sure. Then the wife stepped in front of me and tapped Construction Guy.

“You know, you should let her (pointing to me) ride on the van since your final destination is LA,” she said. Both of our eyes widen in shock. He grimaced.

“Southwest re-booked me on a flight first thing in the morning. If I miss it, I won’t get back to Denver until late tomorrow night or maybe even Saturday.” Yes, I tried to sound desperate, but I was not lying. Joey had told me on the phone almost every flight to Denver was booked for Friday.

“Go ahead,” he said and waved vest woman over. “Take my name off the list and put her on the van.”

“Oh my god, thank you!” I almost started crying. Virginia wife patted me on the back. I grabbed my carry-on and went outside because my body temperature had skyrocketed with all the stress I had just endured. The cool wind felt good on my face. I looked at the Sierra Mountains and saw a beige smoke cloud creep over the ridge from the summer wild fires. The time was 8 PM. My ordeal was only just beginning…