A Birthday among the Ancient Rocks of Stonehenge

On my fiftieth birthday, I become a pilgrim to Stonehenge. On the evening I arrive, Wiltshire’s wide landscape is swept by a downpour and epic winds. The gates are closed, and all the day-tourists have hurried to pubs or their B&Bs to escape the midsummer storm. It is the after-hours entry time, and I clasp my special, advanced reservation like a golden ticket.

Stonehenge after the rain. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Stonehenge after the rain. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Weatherworn and rain-soaked, I am one of a tribe of twenty-six people huddling silently in the dusky gloom as a guard unhooks the rope that separates the public from the stones. I am pulled into the circle, toward these broad-shouldered behemoths of Salisbury Plain. Miraculously, the rain has stopped, though the last drops continue to drain off my raincoat, streaking my rain-pants and darkening my brown hiking-boot leather with bloodlike splotches.

The evening sun is swaddled in clouds; the filtered light is heavy and otherworldly. I walk beside the stones—the lichen-covered stones—so mottled they look hairy. More shadow than surface. Every blade of the hallowed grass is a slim, green knife too vivid to be real.

After fifty years of seeing photos of Stonehenge, I now stand so close I can smell the musk of ancient rock and the ever-so-slight perfume of damp bluebells. But no touching the stones. No hugging them. No climbing. No eating, drinking, or smoking. No indecent activities—in other words, no copulation or pagan fertility rites. The wary guards insure compliance.

©Laurel Kallenbach.jpg

©Laurel Kallenbach

Yet I have an entire hour to stroke Stonehenge with my eyes: veins of minerals through the sarsen slabs, shards of broken rock, crust of lichen, etched signatures from bygone centuries.

Walking beneath a giant lintel stone, I feel that I have stepped through a portal into the second stage of my life—into a land of uncertainty. At fifty, I’m veiny and far less statuesque than I care to admit. Silver hairs sprout with abandon. My joints complain. Sleep eludes me.

I cross my fingers before each mammogram and every cholesterol test. I have no faith in my own crumbling edifice—certainly not the kind of faith that it takes to build in stone. Faith that’s bolstered by generation after generation who studied the stars and who marked the sun’s rising and setting year after year. Who, like me, witnessed purple-and-black thunderheads roil and move on.

Center of the stones ©Laurel Kallenbach

Center of the stones ©Laurel Kallenbach

Even for those ancient people, the patient watchers of time, there came a day when they split the plain with flint axes, cleaving the wormy soil on a wind-swept plateau. “This is where we buttress the forty-ton rock,” they announced. “Here we build. This is where we begin.”

For millennia, people have come to Stonehenge for reasons we can only guess. For solstices? For healing? For community? My own motives are surprisingly vague as well. I believe I was called to this mythic place—that somehow Stonehenge will be my cornerstone for the decades to come. This is where I begin again.

Inside the stone circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Inside the stone circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I sink onto the damp ground in the center of a horseshoe of six-foot-high bluestones: an inner ring of dolerite rocks transported hundreds of miles from western Wales. The trilithons in front of me are bone-white against the brooding clouds. Stillness.

What is there to discover here? Dirt, grass, stone, sky. Permanence, impermanence. I simply sit and breathe in my own half-century. Nothing I can do or make will be here in five thousand years. By then, I’ll be as mysterious and invisible as the builders of Stonehenge and all those who have come before me.

 ©Laurel Kallenbach

©Laurel Kallenbach

Rocks have been raised; rocks have fallen. Some face the east; some open to the west. Looking north across the A344 highway is the Avenue, the processional pathway that people once walked to reach Stonehenge from the River Avon.

Next year, the petrol-infused asphalt of the A344 will be torn out, and once again the stone circle will be reunited with the Avenue. Its passage stones, those proud sentries, have disappeared. Cracked and dissected, they were carted off to become chunks of farm fences. But the Avenue’s footprint on the land remains, and the memory of stones points to the horizon, through rippling fields of barley that beckon “this way.”

I sight through the linteled megaliths, over the toppled Slaughter Stone, and beyond the Heel Stone to that ghost of a walkway. My hour here has passed; the sun, shrouded in clouds, has set without fanfare. No farewell display of amber or vermillion streaks the sky. This one day—significant only to me as the anniversary of my birth—is nearly done. Tomorrow, the sun will illuminate a new road—a whisper of a way—for me to travel.

A guard calls. It is time for me to rise and depart this temple of the grasslands. It is time to feel my own legs beneath me, strong and solid—though not as hard as rock. I leave behind no monument, no marker—but if these stones are ancient dreams made solid, then perhaps my hopes for the future will join the circle. I touch my lips to my fingers and offer a kiss to the wet, joyful earth.

—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Note: Since 2013, when I wrote this, Stonehenge has undergone “renovation.” The highway has been removed, and a new museum has been created. For information about visiting Stonehenge, visit the English Heritage website.

©Laurel Kallenbach

©Laurel Kallenbach

Eclipse at Cannon Beach: Don’t Miss These Other Oregon Views

Cannon Beach, Oregon, is right in the Path of Totality, so people will be flocking to this beauty spot. When you’re not watching the solar eclipse (wearing proper safety glasses, of course), turn your gaze on some of the other lovely scenery. Here are a few glimpses of the beauty of Oregon’s most iconic beach.

First, look up! The sun is not the only thing of note: clouds can create a stunning visual on the coast.

Elegant beachfront houses pale by comparison to the grandeur of the sky. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Elegant beachfront houses pale by comparison to the grandeur of the sky. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Next, take your shoes off. Wade, play in the sand. Get your toes wet.

You can walk for miles along the coast; giant Haystack Rock is always there as a milestone. ©Laurel Kallenbach

You can walk for miles along the coast; giant Haystack Rock is always there as a milestone. ©Laurel Kallenbach

When the tide is low, the rocks jut out more than at high tide. These are covered in barnacles and other tiny sea creatures.

Craggy rocks at Cannon Beach ©Laurel Kallenbach

Craggy rocks at Cannon Beach ©Laurel Kallenbach

Even after the sun goes down, Cannon Beach is lively, and people build fires in the sand to light the night. The best way to end the eclipse of the century!

There's nothing like making s'mores around a fire on a cool summer evening. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There’s nothing like making s’mores around a fire on a cool summer evening. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 —Laurel Kallenbach, freelancer writer and editor

8 Tips for Happier Traveling in Stressful Situations

Looking back at my airport odyssey (see “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Portland,” Part 1 and Part 2) reminds me not to take ease of traveling for granted. So many times I get on a plane and get off again at my destination without any problems at all.

As pointed out to me by many readers, I’ve been lucky. To date, the extent of my airline catastrophes have been having my luggage delayed by a day (twice) and missing my flight (once before this trip)—and the first time I was able to get on the next flight just two hours later.

So when we’re fortunate, we should thank the travel gods or St. Christopher (patron saint of travelers). Really, what’s the point of grumbling about lack of leg room or the absence of meals on flights? (Remember how we used to complain about airplane food? Now we don’t have icky food to worry about.)

When travel does not go smoothly, however, here are a few things I discovered that might help you suffer less and have a better overall attitude:

1. Expect the best; be prepared for the worst. Pack and plan accordingly.

  • Give yourself at least two hours lead time at airports during busy travel times.
  • Take a brown-bag lunch in case you don’t have time to stop for food before catching your flight. (Or in case you can’t find any healthy food in the airport.)
  • Never put valuables or prescription medicines in your checked luggage—you may never see that suitcase again.
  • Pack a change of clothes and essentials in your carry-on—just in case your suitcase doesn’t follow you to your destination.
  • Bring a good book to take your mind off delays.

2. Resist falling into victim mode. A passenger rarely has control over the situation when lines, security hang-ups, flight overbooking, flight cancellations, et cetera, et cetera, occur—so it’s easy to feel persecuted or victimized. Acceptance is a good practice, for your own sanity. Shed tears, mope, whatever—but then get over it and deal. Spreading your anger or grumpiness just puts everyone else in a bad mood.

3. Try to find creative solutions. Once I accepted that I was not going to get on my flights for the day…and the next…I distracted myself from the emotional anguish by trying to figure out what, if anything, I could do. Ken and I asked questions of many different people along the way. Most times we hit dead ends—we still couldn’t get to Oregon before Monday—but at least we can say we tried.

4. Practice compassion for others. People are more helpful and sympathetic than you think. If you don’t go ballistic or start yelling at airlines employees, they may extend help in whatever way they can. Many of them honestly want their customers to be happy and have a good experience. (Contented travelers make their jobs easier!) But remember, there’s a limit to their abilities to smooth your way. All the Southwest Airline employees I encountered were helpful beyond belief and tried to make the best of a bad situation. (I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be in their shoes, having to dole out bad news to us travel-weary passengers.)

5. Keep things in perspective. Even though a trip may be going down the tubes, it might help to remember that this is not brain surgery, and that no one will die because of scrubbed travel plans. (You did buy travel insurance…right?)

6. Humor can help. In the heat of the moment, I was not nearly so glib about our travel snafus as I seem in my posts. Ken was even less amused. I will admit, however, that the journalist in me saw ripe potential for a clever, funny piece about my ill-fated sojourns. My advice: If at all possible, try to find something about the situation to laugh at—or at least let yourself stay open to the possibility that you might one day look back on all this and laugh.

7. Stretch or walk around the concourse. Just moving your body can improve your attitude and ability to cope with the stress of cancelled flights or mechanical delays.

8. Say thank you! When an airport employee helps you, say thank you. When an airport employee can’t help you, say thank you. He or she made an effort.

I’d love to hear your suggestions for responding to travel trauma with calm.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Portland … Part 1

Note: I didn’t travel anywhere this holiday season, but right now my husband is stranded in Oregon due to a blizzard. Though I’m cozy at home, I started remembering this tale of travel woe from January of 2010, which is so detailed I wrote it in two installments. 

Into every traveler’s life, a little rain must fall. For me and my husband, our January 2–6 trip to the Oregon coast ended up being not just a drizzle of mishaps, but the perfect storm of travel nightmares.

I was oddly relaxed on January 1, 2010—I had time to pack and was finished with the pre-trip deadlines. After the hectic holidays, Ken and I were eager to spend a few days relaxing and whale-watching on the coast. (Late December and early January see the largest numbers of gray whales migrating south from Alaska to Baja.)

What we didn’t know was that the flight we’d booked way back in summery August was on the worst possible travel day: the Saturday after New Year’s. A day that half the people in the country (so it seemed!) returned from their Christmas vacations so they could be back in the office on Monday.

January 2

Blithely—eagerly—we caught the regional bus early that Saturday morning from Boulder to the airport. Our first surprise was that the suitcase-stowing process on the bus took forever, because so many travelers boarded—and we arrived at Denver International 20 minutes late.

Ken and I hurried to the Southwest Airlines check-in counter—only to find that triple the usual line dividers were in place. Even then, the queues wound down the hall and past the coffee shops. As we inched our way forward for 45 minutes, we decided that instead of checking two suitcases (they’re free on Southwest!) that we’d consolidate our liquids and gels into one checked suitcase and carry on the essentials—just in case that suitcase didn’t make it onto our flight.

The clock was ticking, and no one at the Southwest counter was calling for late check-ins—which often happens when lines are long and people can’t get through. We looked around for someone official to let us cut ahead in line, but everyone was working like crazy.

When we finally checked in, a harried attendant took my suitcase, wrote down our gate number, C-49, and told us we were leaving at 10:30 instead of 10:00. “Hurray! The flight is delayed,” we exclaimed. “No…” he said, “It’s on time …” We rushed away to the security line before he had time to check.

Hurry Up and Wait

Clutching our IDs and boarding passes, we crawled through the TSA line, filled with increasingly unjolly-looking passengers. One or two of the x-ray machines weren’t functioning properly, and technicians came in to run tests. More delays.

I could hear rumbling from others in line: “Do you think we’ll we make it on time, Dad?”

When at last we cleared the security section, Ken and I were prepared to sprint to gate C-49. It was 10:05; if the plane was slow to board, we might just be able to dash on. And if—oh please, please, please!—the flight was delayed until 10:30, we would be in good shape. There might even be time to go to the bathroom before boarding.

When we arrived at gate C-49, the doors were about to close on the flight to … Orlando??

“Where’s the flight to Portland, Oregon?” we shouted to the agent at the counter.

“Not here. Let me check.” The agent punched in our destination. “That’s on the opposite side of the concourse—at gate C-32.”

Cursing the check-in agent who had given us the wrong information, we turned around and began to run back the way we’d come, but by now our legs were lead from schlepping heavy carry-ons and coats. I urged Ken to go ahead if he could—he’s the runner in the family.

Our flight leaves DIA...without me and Ken. Photo courtesy Denver International Airport.

Our flight leaves DIA…without me and Ken.    Photo courtesy Denver International Airport.

Alas, when we finally arrived at the right gate by 10:15, the plane was gone, and there were already five others in line discussing their standby options with the Southwest agent. The news wasn’t good. It went like this:

“This is the only nonstop to Portland all day. We could get you on a flight to Orange County, and from there you could fly standby to Oakland, although that flight is oversold by two seats. But if you did make it to Oakland, the last flight to Portland is oversold by seven seats. So you’d be stranded in Oakland for one night, maybe two.”

Doggedly, the man at the counter tapped away at the computer, trying every iteration to get us to our destination. We asked about Sunday. “It looks like tomorrow is more of the same: All flights are overbooked from Denver to Portland, from Salt Lake City to Portland, from Oakland to Portland, from LA to Portland,” he said.

“The next flight that’s not overbooked is on Monday. I could put you on a Monday flight.”

Ken and I were numb. Monday? Impossible. That’s halfway through our four-day trip. Dazed, we flopped down on the chairs to gather our wits. We had an hour and a half until the standby flight to Orange County, which seemed the best option. We were sure we would be lucky enough to get to Orange County and then to Oakland and on to Portland on the same day.

Traveler’s Denial

The reality was that Ken and I were in what might be called traveler’s denial. First we checked again at the Orange County gate desk, where similar chaos reigned. As the day was wearing on, more and more people had missed their flights.

The Southwest gate agent there didn’t sugarcoat the truth. “Yes, you could get to Orange County, but you’ll never make it to Oakland, much less Portland today,” she said. “If I were you, I’d go back home and try on Monday.”

She did take pity on us and asked her manager for help. The manager authorized her to type a note in the computer that our missed fare could be applied toward another Southwest flight in the future. At least the airport Fates had not turned entirely against us.

Next, Ken had an idea. Why not check with United, which has a lot of nonstop flights to Portland every day and see if we could buy a one-way ticket? We took the shuttle train to United in Concourse B, found the Customer Service Desk, and waited in line for another half hour. The tired-but-polite customer-service person checked her screen, and said brightly, “Denver to Portland? I have two seats on…Monday.”

Dejected, we caught the next bus back to Boulder, with a list of standby flights for Sunday.

Tomorrow we’ll be more prepared, we vowed. We’ll arrive at the airport even earlier, allowing for a 20-minute delay on the bus, an hour at the check-in counter, and an hour for security. We’ll buck the odds and make it on standby—because some of tomorrow’s passengers will be sure to miss their flights. Then we’ll walk onto the plane and disembark in Oregon.

Surely the airport gods cannot frown on us a second day in a row.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read part 2 of our airport odyssey.