Sunday, June 5, 2011

Watching The Ship Sail Away


Map picture

We're Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay

Watching the Ship Sail Away

And that indeed was how our trip ended; sitting on a dock in Valdez, Alaska watching our ship sail away! It was a pretty lonely feeling--really. It was raining, and believe me, Valdez is no bustling metropolis, so seeing our home of several weeks leave the dock and sail into a gray mist was a little emotional, to say the least. Sadly, we had a bad experience with the ship and to add to that Lisa was not feeling well, so we decided that the best place for both of us was at home. But, how to get home from Valdez, that was the question, and it is here that I want to unabashedly rave about our travel agent and her superlative staff! We phoned Brenda in the office of The Travel Door at around 9am Alaska time, or around one pm in Kansas City. I left a message that if at all possible we needed to come home right away. Within 15 minutes - that is not a miss-type, Brenda phoned back and left the message that she had already booked the last two seats on the last plane of the day from Valdez to Anchorage, then from Anchorage a red eye flight into Minneapolis, and from there to Kansas City, arriving at 9am the next morning. Atta girl Brenda!

Still, the trip home provided some really interesting vignettes. The security guards at the dock in Valdez would not leave us until the one, and only taxi in Valdez, finally showed up to take us to the airport. Courtesy like that from the locals was commonplace throughout Alaska and so welcome. The taxi finally arrived in the form of an old van driven by a large husky woman named Ethel, who hefted our bags into the back of the van as if she were lifting lightly loaded laundry, and not heavily loaded suitcases. She drove to the airport at a rapid 15 mph, all the while talking non-stop about the town of Valdez and what was happening to whom. We heard about old Fred whom she had just helped deliver home from the hospital, and we listened to a long phone call with Mable who was wondering why our driver was late to her house. They chatted about the poor 48ers (that's us) who were heading to the airport, and agreed that Mable was in no rush.

Arriving at the airport, our driver quickly disappeared and showed back up with an old fashioned baggage cart that looked as if it belonged in a railway station and not an airport. Once again, she deftly lifted our baggage on the cart, and when I asked what I owed her - I about fell over when she asked for only $15. I said "you mean $15 each?" "Nope," she says, "just $15."

When we entered the terminal, it was not hard to find where to go - there was only one airline counter, ERA Aviation. It offered flights only to and from Anchorage, and at that, there were only two flights a day, except Wednesday when they had an extra fight. It was understood by everyone that flights were all highly weather dependent, and in fact the noon flight had already been canceled for weather. Looking outside that seemed understandable since it was raining, a foggy mist was coming off the tarmac, and the ceiling was around 300 ft, not to mention that we were in a valley surrounded on all sides by high snow capped mountains. There were a fair number of people waiting for the flight. It was only 1:30 in the afternoon, and our flight was not until 7pm. Seems that in Alaska it is pretty common to spend a great deal of time at the airport waiting. I heard someone mention that in Alaska, you always allow 3 days to get a flight out of town. Our flight to Anchorage was only 37 minutes, but the alternative was to make a drive of almost 7 hours over roads that were frequently closed by weather. I guess this is why all ERA can charge a one-way fare of $1,070, but as the signs all over the airport advertised, "take five and get one free." What a deal!

As we were waiting, I looked around at what people were going to carry on, and everyone had very small backpacks. Our big carry-on's stood out like a sore thumb. This got me to thinking that perhaps I better ask as to the equipment being used and whether or not our bags would fit. Good question it turns out. The aircraft was a 30 passenger Dash 8 Turboprop, and the gate agent told me that there was no way that our bags would fit into the overhead bins. She offered me a chance to check the bag, but since it had my camera, a computer and my breathing machine equipment, I was really reluctant to do that. Instead, I asked if I carried the bag with me, would they check it at the door and put it in with the bags, and then on landing return it to me at the ramp. Nope, she told me. They would take the bag alright, put it in with the other bags, but they would not issue a bag tag, and Anchorage required that all bags then be put on the carousel. She asked if there was something valuable in the bag, and I told her what I was carrying. "Oh my, you can't do any of those because you will never see that bag again." She winked at me and said "when you board the flight, I will call you and your wife to board first. Just follow me, and I'll show you what to do." True to her word when boarding came, she called out names, and took us to the plane while everyone else waited. She then said a few words to the stewardess onboard, and told us to go on up with our bags. The next thing I knew, the stewardess had taken our bags and in a very clever finesse managed to just barely get them to fit underneath the first two seats. That did not leave any leg room, but at least they were on the flight.

Now security at Valdez was extremely tight, As we entered the boarding area, a large sign was posted which read: " NOTICE; please remember to check your firearms at the counter." That in a nutshell was all the security we encountered. There were no TSA agents lurking, no x-ray machines, and no snarling women waiting to frisk Lisa -nothing but a sign. Don't you just love small town America!

Our short flight was very memorable. We departed in lousy weather and encountered rain and ice during a rapid climb. But whenever we could see through the clouds, the magnificent snow capped mountains which seemed to surround us were absolutely breathtaking. Our stewardess must have been working on a future career on the stage, because during the entire flight, she was dropping one-liners in a constant non-stop running commentary which left everyone rolling in laughter. Before we knew it, we were landing in Anchorage. After landing I told Lisa we would just stay in our seats until everyone had left the aircraft, because fighting to get our bags from underneath the seat was not going to be easy. We pulled up to the gate, and as they were opening the door, the man across from us had already worked Lisa's bag into the aisle. So, she had to get up, and I was going to wait, but people seemed genuinely helpful, and helped me get my bag out before anyone could leave the aircraft. Not one person was rushed, or rude. It was truly just a different world in Alaska, and one that we enjoyed- right up until we hit the TSA line to board our flight to Minneapolis.

The line to go through security was long - it probably took us over 30 minutes to slowly drag our bags to the front of the line. I went through the usual screening - shoes off, computer out, sleep machine out, watch off, pockets emptied, plastic bags with liquids separated out - you know, the usual. When I looked back to see how Lisa was fairing, I could see that she had been pulled aside because of her artificial knees for a personal pat down. Then all hell broke loose! Before going to screening, Lisa had washed her hands in the rest room. While they were giving her the once over, they swabbed her hands, and the swab tested positive for explosives!!!!! Remember Lisa was not feeling well to start with, so she needed what followed like a hole in the head. She was immediately escorted into a locked room surrounded by two large women wearing latex gloves. According to Lisa they examined her from head to toe and everything she had on. The only thing they did not do was to ask her to drop her drawers. Meantime, every single thing she was carrying was spread out on the counters and swabbed for explosives. Every bottle was opened, her camera was taken apart, our pill cases were separated out and individually screened - I mean not a single item was left undisturbed. Forty--five minutes later, finding absolutely nothing, they simply said she could pack up and go now. To say that at this point poor Lisa was a nervous wreck, would be a mild understatement. I understand the need for security, but it seems that things have gotten a little out of hand.

From that point on, things returned to normal. We took the five hour red-eye and slept into Minneapolis, had a brief layover, and then arrived home around 9:30 in the morning, bone tired, but very, very glad to be home.

Sorry our trip has ended so soon for everyone, but do hope you have enjoyed our journey together. I will get the pictures of the glacier posted perhaps later today, and until our next trip together - -take care.


1 comment:

scapel said...

Very well written Jim as usual and entertaining.