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.

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