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…