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.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Portland … Part 2

Author’s note: I didn’t travel anywhere this holiday season, but right now my husband is stranded in Oregon due to a blizzard here in Colorado. 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. Read Part 1 of this story.

Ken and I leapt from bed at 4:45 on Sunday morning, fed the cat, grabbed the sandwiches we prepared Saturday night, and headed to the bus station. It was Re-Do Day…and we were determined to get everything right, like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day.

This time, the bus to Denver International wasn’t nearly so packed (because it was earlier!) and we arrived a few minutes early. This time, the Southwest check-in line clipped along at a speedy 15 minutes, plus we had no baggage to check. This time, we glided through the security line. No delays, no equipment breakdowns—just smooth sailing.

We spent the better part of two days in Concourse C. Photo courtesy of DIA.

We spent the better part of two days in Concourse C. Photo courtesy of DIA.

We camped out at the gate of the Southwest flight to Oregon one-and-a-half-hours early. We were first in line to board on standby on the overbooked flight, yet the gate attendant gave us a pitying look as she wished us good luck. Crossing our fingers, we grimly munched on our sandwiches. And waited.

Soon that same pitying gate attendant began making announcements: “We’re now taking volunteers for anyone who would like to give up their seat. How about spending the day and night in Las Vegas? We’ll fly you there, put you up in a swanky Vegas hotel, and get you to Portland tomorrow morning. Plus we’ll give you a $200 voucher for your next Southwest flight.”

A few cheery gamblers came forward. The odds weren’t looking so good for Ken and me.

Airport Purgatory

Sure enough, the flight left for Portland while we still sat forlornly in Denver. Dejected, we asked for options. A 2:30 flight to Oakland had two unclaimed seats, and once in Oakland, there were two more oversold flights to Portland that we could try on a standby basis. Let’s do it, we agreed, taking our cue from the Vegas travelers. Oakland might have our lucky number.

With five hours to kill before leaving DIA, we stretched out on the carpet in a quiet part of the concourse and napped. (DIA chair rows all have arms, so if you want to lie down, there’s only the floor.) An hour later, we emerged stiff, but a teensy bit refreshed, and took solace in lunch at a sports bar.

Ken is not exactly what I’d call a fan of the sport he calls “snootball,” so you have some idea about our morale when he plunked down at a table, ordered a pint of Fat Tire, and became engrossed in the Dolphins vs. Steelers game. When turnabout fumbles happened, we started to chuckle, and then to laugh. It was the first time either of us had cracked a smile in two days.

California (?!) Here We Come

We had a good-humored flight to Oakland: Southwest flight attendants specialize in wise-cracking over the microphone in their Dallas drawls. Besides, Ken and I got a row to ourselves and whole cans of soda instead of a three-ounce cup. What more could we ask for after the last grueling 24 hours?

When we arrived in California, the East Bay turned golden as the sun set, and for a few moments we reveled in looking out the window of the Oakland airport and seeing reeds and shorebirds instead of airplane wings, engines, baggage carts and tarmac.

Our reprieve was short-lived, however, as all the flights to Portland from Oakland were overbooked, and we were unable to fly standby. In fact, a number of other passengers joined our League of Stranded Travelers club. We started making jokes about how we should rent a van and just drive to Oregon. It wasn’t that funny, really.

The Kindness of Strangers

As Ken sat at the gate in a numb stupor, I shifted into manic survival mode, pleading with a soft-hearted gate attendant, Sunita. First, she booked us onto spare seats on a flight to Portland at 6:15 the next morning. (“Whatever you do, don’t miss this flight,” she implored.) Then she also arranged for us to get the “distressed traveler” discount at the airport Best Western. (And boy, did we qualify as distressed travelers!)

And just as it seemed that our trip was giant fiasco, a light appeared at the end of the tunnel. I’d already been hatching the idea of extending our trip to Oregon, and so, despite my exhaustion, I made some calls. Suddenly the chorus of “no”—no seats, no flights, no standby—changed its tune.

Yes, the condo on the coast was still available for an extra day. Yes, the rental car dates could be shifted—no problem. Yes, Ken and I could extend our trip by an extra day. Yes, there were seats available for our return home on January 7th instead of January 6th.

And the final, most resounding “yes” of all: Sunita and her supervisor at the Southwest desk performed computer gymnastics and managed to change our return flight for free, by applying the credit that we’d been given by a sympathetic Denver manager about a hundred years ago (really just the day before).

I gave Sunita a huge hug, and later I wrote a letter of appreciation to Southwest Airlines commending her service. (If you’re reading this, Sunita, thank you again!!!!)

Happily Ever After (sort of)

At last, we had confirmed tickets to Portland … for Monday, the day it seemed preordained that we would arrive in Oregon all along. (Indeed, the Travel Fates have an ironic sense of humor.)

In the end, Ken and I spent 48 hours in the process of traveling—or more precisely, not traveling—ate six meals in two airports, and slept at a hotel in the wrong state. But we did arrive finally, and we spent three lovely nights by the Pacific Ocean, which helped us forget our travel trauma.

Other than gray hairs—and the disappointment of not having a fourth night to spend (as originally planned) with Ken’s family in Hood River, Oregon—we sustained no permanent damage.

Footnote #1: My suitcase, which I checked on Saturday, January 2, arrived in Portland on Saturday, January 2. It greeted us—tanned and rested—when we arrived (bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived) on Monday, January 4.

Footnote #2: If you know anything about the weather in Oregon, you also know that I’m lying about my suitcase sporting a suntan.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

 

Already I’ve heard some other travel horror stories from readers. Feel free to share yours by leaving a comment below.

P.S. I’ll cover some “Lessons Learned” in my next post.

Winter Snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain Park

Blue skies, fresh snow: what better Christmas present could you ask for?

On Christmas day, my husband, my dad, and I went snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a gorgeous sunny day, mild in temperature, with no wind—unusual in winter in the high mountains.

We parked at the Sprague Lake parking lot, which was fairly busy for a winter day—but then again, it was a holiday with perfect weather and lots of snow.

We three tramped past the lake and through the forest for a distance. So many of the pines were brown from pine beetles, but still it was beautiful: sun shining on snow crystals, the kodachrome-blue sky, the chatter of squirrels.

The snow squealed and crunched under our snowshoes. “Guess we won’t be sneaking up on any wildlife,” I joked.

Our outing was magical, and we stopped to admire a lovely view of Hallet’s Peak. Then we returned to the lake, where you could walk over ice to cross to the other side. A lot of families were out—many of them from out of town. (Wearing tennis shoes in snow drifts is always a giveaway.) Some kids were sledding on a hill.

One young man without a coat—he looked like he was from India—was fascinated by my snowshoes and poles. “Are those skis?” he asked. I shook my head: “No, these are snowshoes.” I’m not sure if he understood, but he smiled as he watched us crunch away on them.

Rocky Mountain Park in winter

Our National Treasures

Meeting people from other parts of the country and world reminded me of what a treasure our national parks are. They’ve all been set aside as natural or historic preserves with little or no development allowed. They’re some of our country’s greatest natural wonders. They let people experience the magnificence of the outdoors in ways they otherwise might never have.

Although most visitors come during summer, Rocky Mountain Park is open year round—even for snow camping.

My father, who lives in Estes Park, Colo., hikes and snowshoes in Rocky Mountain Park year round.

There’s something special about visiting a national park in the off-season—like it’s a secret nobody else knows about. Normally there are few visitors, so you might get the place all to yourself.

Of course, quite a few people—many of them wearing Santa hats—were out on Christmas day. But it was a secret I’m glad to share.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Rocky Mountain National Park has 355 miles of hiking trails ranging from flat lakeside strolls to steep mountain peak climbs.

Protect the national parks you visit by following the Leave No Trace principles.

Originally published on December 27, 2010

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

Castles in the Utah Desert: Hovenweep National Monument

A castle-like tower as seen from the hike through Little Ruin Canyon in Hovenweep

Hovenweep National Monument has a lovely visitor’s center, and the monument and archaeological site straddles the Colorado/Utah border. (The park is located northwest of Cortez, Colorado.)

Ken and I spent about three hours in this small park, although next time I’d love to camp for one or two nights so that we’d have more time to explore this beautiful area, best known for its ruins.

The enchanting two-mile trail through Hovenweep’s Little Ruin Canyon is to be savored. Filled with square, round and even a spiral towers—along with an assortment of other buildings, storerooms and a “castle” complex — this narrow canyon must have been a 13th-century southwestern Manhattan.

Like most of the Ancestral Puebloans’ impressive architecture, Hovenweep’s dwellings were abandoned just one or two generations after they were built. Drought and deforestation probably factored into the people’s departure, and they moved south where resources were more plentiful.

Hovenweep features twin towers among its architectural wonders.

The hike through Little Ruin canyon is self-guided, but there’s a descriptive brochure that identifies all the prehistoric buildings. (Temperatures during October’s Indian Summer were about 80 at noon.) At the end of the hike, we stopped and rested on a bench, soaking up the warmth like the collared lizards of the area. Overlooking the canyon under brilliant blue skies—with the late afternoon sun golden on the stone and twisted pines—was magical.

For more information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country visitor information bureau.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted October 20, 2008

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

Hovenweep National Monument’s visitor center