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.

Oregon’s Sylvia Beach Hotel Is for Book Lovers

If you’re a literature lover, allow me to introduce you to the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon (a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Portland). A quiet place on the coast, this 20-room inn sits atop a bluff right above the surf and offers a literary pillow to readers and writers.

The J.K. Rowling room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon, shows off a Harry Potter theme. Photo courtesy Sylvia Beach Hotel

The J.K. Rowling room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon, shows off a Harry Potter theme. Photo courtesy Sylvia Beach Hotel

If you can set aside your book or the manuscript of your magnum opus while staying at the Sylvia Beach, you can enjoy strolling on the beach or taking a (chilly!) dip in the ocean. You can also explore the artsy, historic Nye Beach neighborhood with its lovely mix of bookstores, cafés, bistros, galleries and the Yaquina Art Center.

Ken and I stayed in the Sylvia Beach Hotel 20 years ago, and on this year’s trip to Oregon’s central coast, we stopped by to see how the place is faring. Its literary theme is as whimsical as ever: each guest room is decorated in a style and with mementos of a famous author.

Literary Magic

The door to the Tennessee Williams room where we slept two decades ago still says, “Stella!” (a famous line from A Streetcar Named Desire), and the double bed is still draped with mosquito netting (ala Night of the Iguana). The Edgar Allan Poe room still has a stuffed raven to commemorate “The Raven,” and a metal pendulum hangs over the blood-red bedspread, an eerie reference to Poe’s story, “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

The Dr. Seuss room is popular for the young, or young at heart.

The Dr. Seuss room is popular for the young, or the young at heart.

You can also indulge your inner child in the Dr. Seuss room, decorated in homage to One Fish, Two Fish, The Cat in the Hat and other works of juvenile genius.

There are no TVs, radios, telephones or Wi-Fi at the Sylvia Beach, yet it’s still an English major’s delight. The rooms aren’t grand, but what they lack in luxury they make up for in literary spirit.

Tables of Content

Miso Pumpkin Soup, one of many delicious things served in Tables of Content restaurant.

Miso Pumpkin Soup, one of many delicious dishes served in Tables of Content restaurant.

Meals are a time to be social at the Sylvia Beach—even if you keep your nose in a good book during the rest of your stay. Breakfast is included in the room rate, and guests sit at tables of eight in the “Tables of Content” dining room. (I think group tables are a great, no-stress way to get to know other literature lovers!)

Dinner, served at 7:00 p.m. each night, is another chance to enjoy pleasant conversation with a bookish bent. The food is served family style (with a choice of four entrees) and the evening’s icebreaker is game of Two Truths and a Lie. Essentially, you introduce yourself to those at your table with two biographical facts and one whopper of a fib! Then your fellow gourmands guess what part of your tale is a lie. Coming up with a lie gets your creative juices flowing, and when I played, it was fun recalling unlikely trivia from my past.

The Mark Twain room has a fireplace and private ocean-view deck.

The Mark Twain room has a fireplace and private ocean-view deck.

Rooms at the Sylvia Beach

All the hotel’s rooms are themed according to an author. Here’s a sampling:

Classics: Rooms directly over the surf with fireplaces and decks. They include Agatha Christie, Colette, and Mark Twain.

Best Sellers: These rooms have an ocean view with panoramas of the coast and the Yaquina Head Lighthouse. In this category are rooms devoted to Alice Walker, E.B. White, Dr. Seuss, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Jane Austen, Lincoln Steffins, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and Virginia Woolf.

Novels: These rooms have no ocean view, but they’re still cozy and fun. Here you’ll find Gertrude Stein, J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Who Was Sylvia Beach?

A mural of Sylvia Beach and author James Joyce decorates the lobby of the Sylvia Beach Hotel.

A mural of Sylvia Beach and author James Joyce decorates the lobby of the Sylvia Beach Hotel.

In case you were wondering if this ocean-overlook hotel was named for a beach called “Sylvia,” let me put your questions to rest. Sylvia Beach was an expatriate American who dominated the literary scene in Paris between WWI and WWII with her English-language bookstore and lending library, Shakespeare and Company. James Joyce fans will recognize Sylvia Beach as the publisher of the Irish author’s famous book, Ulysses (1922).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Out yourself as a bookworm and let readers know of other literary getaways they shouldn’t miss. Just leave a poetic or prosaic comment below!

Flavorful Agritourism: Sleeping in an Organic Vineyard


Pheasant Valley in Hood River, Oregon: a great B&B and organic vines. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I love beautiful, rural settings and local, farm-to-table foods, which is why I’m a fan of the agritourism trend: visiting and staying at farms. I like that it puts me in contact with local agriculture, and I like that farmers benefit from the additional income that small-scale tourism brings.

Recently, my husband and I spend two nights at an organic vineyard in Hood River, Oregon: at the Pheasant Valley Winery B&B. This small, Columbia Gorge vineyard is run by Scott and Gail Hagee, who live right there amid the grapevines.

The Hagee house is lovely, and they have three guest rooms—the Tempranillo Room, the Zinfandel Room, and the Pinot Noir Suite.

We stayed one night in the small, but comfy Zinfandel Room, and spent our second night in Pinot Noir, which is definitely worth the extra expense. The spacious suite has a private balcony with sweeping views of the countryside and the always-mesmerizing, snow-covered Mt. Hood. It also has floor-to-ceiling windows with the same view, vaulted ceilings, a sofa/sitting room, and a huge, luxurious bath with a walk-in shower and a Jacuzzi tub.

Hood River's peaceful and sustainable wine country ©Laurel Kallenbach

Whether or not you opt for the big digs, the house has plenty of shared space: an open, gorgeous living room, a front porch with that sweeping view of the volcanic mountain, and a shady back patio with tables. And a real bonus is Gail’s breakfasts. We dined on French toast one morning and a Mexican-style omelet the next.

Tasting the Grape

Another bonus: When you stay at the B&B, you get a free wine tasting—your choice of any six of Pheasant Valley’s vintages. We walked through rows of grapevines to the tasting room and sat outdoors on the patio overlooking Mt. Hood and the pine forest on a warm summer afternoon.

Whether you stay at the B&B or not, Pheasant Valley Winery's tasting room is worth a visit. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If the weather isn’t great, the indoor tasting room is quite atmospheric with its European décor, huge stone fireplace, and wine-barrel tables. (If you prefer to eat while you sip, Pheasant Valley Winery sells antipasto platters and ploughman’s lunches too.)

I enjoyed the refreshing, citrusy 2012 Estate Organic Pinot Gris; the 2011 Organic Pear Wine (great for dessert or with a light lunch); the berryish, oaky 2009 Tempranillo; and the smooth 2009 Syrah.

Between the wonderful wine and the beautiful surroundings, Ken and I loved Pheasant Valley. Flavor and relaxation…organically.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Organic grapes at Pheasant Valley. ©Laurel Kallenbach

See my other blog posts about agritourism on “Laurel’s Compass”: