The Long and Winding Road

This was it, the move to Montana from Baltimore. We loaded the U-Pack trailer over the weekend, spent a sleepless night on a leaking air mattress, and got up Tuesday before dawn to catch our 7:30 a.m. flight from Thurgood Marshall-Baltimore Washington International Airport. I called a cab while A. drugged Zuzu the cat and stuffed her into the carryon pet bag.

According to our itinerary, we would be in Missoula around noon, western time, after one stopover in Chicago.

At the BWI United check-in counter, we learned that “thunderstorm activity” in Chicago had delayed our first flight two hours, which meant we would miss our connection. The United clerk’s solution was to put us in a cab to Dulles for an 8:05 a.m. flight that would get us back on track.

The cab pulled away from BWI at 6:55 a.m.; though the flight we were trying for was eventually delayed until 8:25 a.m., we did not arrive at Dulles in time to catch it. At Dulles, another United clerk suggested a new itinerary, with layovers in Pittsburgh and Denver, that would get us to Missoula by around 1:00 a.m. that night. But we were worried about the effects of keeping Zuzu drugged and confined for this long, and so we decided to spend the night in Denver — at our own expense — and catch the final flight to Missoula the next morning.

We reached Denver uneventfully (except for a medical emergency on board, which was dealt with handily by the emergency-room doctor who happened to be among the passengers) and spent the night at the Red Lion hotel, giving Zuzu a hotel towel on the bathroom floor for litter. The next morning, trying to minimize the time that Zuzu would spend sedated, we arrived at the Denver airport only an hour and a half before our flight, but — because Denver International Airport puts all passengers through one security line, instead of having a separate line for each of its three terminals — this was not enough time to make our flight, despite our mad dash along the half mile to our gate at the far end of B terminal, wheezing in the mile-high air, shouting at people to get out of our way. (Punch the words out in a deep voice, from the diaphragm, and they veritably leap to comply, I note with interest.)

Because missing this flight was “our fault” in the larger scheme of things or at least the way airlines think about such matters, we could never again be “confirmed” on a Missoula flight on these tickets and would instead have to wait on standby for any empty seats. But because such small planes (and so few of them) serve Missoula, and because the order of standby — we learned — is determined not on a first-come-first-serve basis but rather by the number of frequent-flier miles a passenger has, it gradually became clear that we were not likely to ever receive seats on one of these flights. “Customer-service” representatives were not moved when, later in the afternoon, I pointed out that keeping our cat sedated and confined to a bag for days on end might hazard her health, nor could they even be bothered to express sympathy when, simply making conversation, I pointed out that we had indeed arrived at the airport 90 minutes early, as recommended on the United ticket envelope for customers taking domestic flights with checked baggage.

“Really you just need to be here on time to get on the plane,” snarled United clerk Marjorie Gray, a horrid little goblin about whom I will only say that I hope she is as unhappy as she seemed.

Desperation set in. We considered flying to other airports and driving to Missoula, but the fact of having a cat with us complicated this, as airlines restrict the number of pets that can travel carry-on on a given flight. We considered renting a car and making the 12-hour drive to Missoula, but none of the five rental companies whose Bangladeshi reservations staff I reached by cell phone from the crowded, noisy waiting area had cars available that afternoon. A. was in tears and I felt like I was losing my mind from the forced passivity of the situation (yes, yes, I know, control is an illusion, thank you, John Edwards and also the Buddha) when I saw a woman I had earlier heard identified to another passenger as a United supervisor. I decided to make one last effort to get the hell out of Denver. Somehow I managed to convince the supervisor of the direness of our plight (lots of eye contact, quavering voice, vague reference to the back story and to a sobbing wife and near-death cat), and she was able to confirm us on a flight for the next morning at 8:25 a.m. after five minutes or so of tapping away at a computer terminal. A. restrained me from going back to the desk of unhelpful people from earlier to tell them that I thought they were bad people and that I hoped their children would one day realize this.

We retired to Timbers Inn (Red Lion was full) for our second night in Denver, and when I say “retired” I mean waited in the hot, exhaust-choked curbside area for more than an hour for the hotel shuttle. Weirdly, my brother, who is as I write driving across the country on his way to San Francisco, arrived in Denver that evening, and he and I ate dinner in the hotel restaurant while A. went to bed early with a headache. Earlier I had walked along the highway to a gas station convenience store and bought a tin of tuna for Zuzu, who continued a remarkable run of well-behavedness in all of this (even deciding to do her first business of the evening in the tub, for convenient cleanup), until sometime in the night, when she climbed onto the room’s desk and urinated on one of our duffel bags. (Urinating on duffel bags is a predilection of hers; I believe this was number three.) We discovered this little surprise before dawn, as we prepared to check out and catch the 5:30 a.m. airport shuttle. A. piled into the shuttle with our luggage while I loped through the dark parking lot to the McDonald’s next door and threw the duffle bag into the dumpster.

This time we were at our gate more than an hour before boarding, with time for breakfast at the New Belgium Brewing Company, served by a wonderful bartender called Meatloaf whom we had first met the day before, when I had realized I either needed to get a little bit drunk or I was going to kill someone. Meatloaf runs easily the most pleasant bar I’ve ever been in — not the most pleasant airport bar, mind you, but the most pleasant, period — and demonstrates what an amazingly healing service a bartender can provide simply by listening to your troubles, taking your side against the world, and cracking some jokes. On the Pittsburgh flight the day before, after the ER doctor had finished helping the old man who had fallen ill, I heard him thank her with a heartfelt quaver of gratitude in his voice; it was a similar emotion that I felt toward Meatloaf, who may very well have saved my sanity simply by offering a friendly face.

We boarded the plane without a hitch, fearful all the while that some final complication would stand in the way, but the flight was trouble free (other than the vomiting woman in the seat behind us). As we circled in over smoke-shrouded Missoula (according to today’s Missoulian, “Montana is the epicenter of this year’s firestorm”), we dared to hope that we were close to finally reaching our destination, though of course we knew that some catastrophe might still divert us. And then the tires bit the runway and a little while later we were walking up the jetway, squeezing past the Army Ranger hugging his wife and kids. Incredibly, our checked bags had even made it to Missoula as well, though they were not on the carousel and we had to ask for them at the United counter.

We collected our car at row F in the long-term parking lot and drove out the gate into sunny, smoky Missoula.

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