Sunday, December 31, 2006

Blizzard Diary


Finally getting around to posting the thrilling narrative of my sojourn in Denver a couple of weeks ago.

12/20, 3:30 pm
There's no hope. I'm stranded in Denver. We had hopes, ah, such hopes of escape. I'd gotten myself booked on the one flight to Dulles that hadn't been cancelled. They loaded us on the plane, sat us down, turned on the fasten seatbelts sign. I felt so smug, knowing there had been over a hundred people waitlisted for this very flight, and here I was, stretching out my legs in the luxury of United's Economy Plus. I actually stood a chance of making it home before rush hour. Except the baggage cart got stuck in the snow, and they needed to bring snowplows around to get it unstuck, and the snowplows were themselves stuck on the other side of the airport. And then there was a heroic effort to push the plane back from the gate, to get it into the deicing area, and from there (once the foot of snow on the wings had been cleared) out to the runway. Such a heroic effort. Of course we were doomed.

They let us off the plane after four hours. I found myself in the smoking lounge of B Concourse, drinking beer and watching, with a rowdy gaggle of United employees, a 757 getting painfully wrestled back to its gate in the driving snow. All RIGHT, dude! Mush! Mush! Mush! the United people yelled.

One of them said, Hey, did you see them trying to get that 777 out? They were spinning all over the place. I was like, dude, give it up, no way. His colleagues fell all over themselves laughing.

That was my plane, I said. Of course that was even funnier. Actually it was. It’s hard to describe the kind of wacky refugee-party vibe here. Even though it’s highly possible we could be here for another two days, I’ve heard surprisingly few people freaking out. Which is good because we’re totally cut off. Even if there were space in nearby hotels, there would be no way to get to them because the roads are closed, taxis aren’t running, everything’s closed down.


8:00 pm
Most of the restaurants have closed, but the two bars that are still open are doing a booming business. I’ve had three beers, which is just about as much as is probably wise for me to drink. I Left the Mile High Grill just in time to snag one of the last two travel-toothbrush/mini-tube-of-Crest kits left on the whole B Concourse. (Later I found out the USO was handing them out for free -- somehow I missed that.) Brushed my teeth, slowly, gratefully. Everything’s going to be ok. With my teeth clean, the whole world seems a better, nicer, more bearable place.

I don’t know when I’ll get out of here. The plane I nearly flew out of here on and the truck that tried so hard to push it out to the taxiway are both now covered two feet deep, and the snow’s still falling fast. I’ve heard they may try to reopen the airport at noon tomorrow, though some travel agents are now saying they aren’t booking anything before Christmas Eve. Nothing to do but wait.


12/21, 1:45 am
Started out sleeping on the floor, hood of my fleece hoodie pulled up, using my lumpy Timbuk2 bag as a pillow. At some point somebody left me a little blue airplane pillow and threw a blanket over me; I discovered the pillow on top of my laptop case was something like comfortable. Except I really need some lumbar support. I could take off my hoodie and use that, but then I’d be cold, and I wouldn’t be able to use the hood to block out the light. I’m sitting up now, hoping I’ll get tired enough not to care about my back.

The snowplows cleared off a lot of the ramp area, and it looks like my plane has less snow on it than before. I may get out of here yet. But snow is still swirling down. I’ve never seen snow fall this thick for so long. Swirling, swirling, like thick smoke.

10:00 am
When I decided to get up this morning at about 4:30, the whole taxiway between the concourses had been cleared off. But now it’s all covered again. The word is no flights are coming in or out of the airport till noon tomorrow. Snow is still falling. Unbelievable. Some concessions are open – their employees are stranded here too. There’s a massage shop where I got some of the tension rubbed out of my shoulders and back yesterday afternoon; they were talking about going out to the terminal where the Red Cross cots are and seeing what good they could do.

I’ve heard there’s food to last for another day. Maybe by that time Peña Boulevard will be cleared off enough that some deliveries can be made. Maybe by that time we’ll all get to go home.

A flock of six or seven little brown birds just hopped by where I’m sitting.

What fascinates me about air travel is the feeling it gives me of stepping outside of normal life. Travel by other modes is a process and experience within itself. You look out the window of your car or train or riverboat and see the places in between where you started and where you’re heading. You might meet some of the people that live in those places, get into conversations with gas station attendants, with waitresses at Denny’s. Air travel is different. You’re in limbo. All you see is the inside of one airport, then the view above the clouds, then the inside of another airport. There’s a soothing alienness to it all. Brian Eno captured it perfectly in his Music for Airports; Eero Saarinen realized it architecturally in his TWA terminal at JFK International.

At this point, though, it’s a little much.

I think when I finally get to take a shower, shave, and sleep in my own bed, I’ll weep with happiness.

1:05 pm

I’m confirmed on a flight that leaves the afternoon of Christmas Day. But I’m going to get my skinny little ass waitlisted on every flight to Dulles between now and then. Spending another four days in this airport is unacceptable.

When I see you, I tell Diana, I’m going to squeeze you so tight.

And when you do, I’m going to go "erk" like a kitten.

I know. That’s why I’m going to do it.

There’s a gang of men with shovels digging out the trucks and equipment that were being used to try to push us away from the gate yesterday. It’s still snowing.

2:20 pm
The sun’s out.




4:25 pm
Ordinarily this airport has some pretty nice places to eat, as airports go – there’s a Wolfgang Puck Grill, a (somewhat) French (quasi) bistro, a couple of Tex-Mex options, bunches of decent little sandwich shops. But all those closed up earlier today. My dinner options were Mickey D’s, Domino’s, and KFC. So I went with the least karmatically damaging option and had a 6-pack of KFC crispy chicken strips. Salty, greasy, nasty little monosodium-glutamate-infused nuggets of the damned. My body is recoiling in horror at the vileness of what I’ve eaten. It’s going to take a lot of beer to kill the aftertaste.

12/22, 4:00 am
I started out sleeping upstairs, by the entrance to a kitschy animal art store, then (realizing the light up there was just too bright) moved down to where I slept night before last: Gate B36, on the floor, squeezed in between the back of the agent’s area and the window. I slept really well. When I woke up just now, I realized the twinkling lights I’d seen earlier were on the wingtips of planes being prepped at the next concourse. Wonderful to see.


11:50 am
This morning I waited in two long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long lines, and now I’m on standby for a 12:45 flight to Dulles, along with 149 other people. It's extraordinary to me that it's only 11:50 am. Feels like it should be mid-afternoon.


1:00 pm
No joy. The plane only had 14 vacancies. Whenever anybody's name got called for boarding, we all cheered. All of our standby tickets will roll over to the next flights, so there's still a chance I'll get out of here today.

4:30 pm
The crowd of us, frowsty, punchy, with our pillows and blankets and carry-on luggage, waiting to be called on the 3:35 flight. When one woman gets called, she turns to me, gives me a quick hug, and hands me her blanket, saying Give this to someone who needs it.

The next name they call is mine.

On board the plane, cheers, laughter, high-fives. I see the woman who gave me her blanket and I drop it in her lap. During the safety lecture, I close my eyes for a minute. When I open them, we've just taken off and we're already a few hundred feet above the white, white world, heading up into the bright quiet no-place above the clouds.

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