Houston, Revisited

Leaving Key West

After my travel disaster story from last week, I felt like I needed a follow up of how it all ended. Yesterday, I made my way back to Denver from Key West — Key West to Houston to Denver. It was a much different experience from my last. After a few lucky breaks, I knew my good travel karma was back… and in spades. For starters, adding two days onto my trip meant changing my flights, resulting in an $80 credit because the flights on the day I chose to return home were cheaper. The new flights, the ones I frantically booked in the chaos of the Houston Airport a week ago, were cheaper but my connection in Houston was tighter than I like. Shortly before landing in Houston, the pilot gave us our arrival terminal. Not only was it the same as my departure for Denver, but it was only three gates away. My United app told me I would be able to make it in less than a minute. Then he announced that we’d be arriving 30 minutes early. Houston was looking better and better.

When I walked to my gate, two gates down from arrival, I recognized it because of the signage and the bar that was directly across from it. C32. It was the same gate I had slept in. Out of all the gates in the Houston Airport, there I was again. It felt eerily familiar, yet very different. The nearby bar, the one that people had been using to charge their phones and change travel plans was now filled with people eating and drinking and sporadically cheering or booing at the football game on the TV behind the bar. Normal bar activities. I found the chair I had spent the night in, which was not hard as it was directly in front of a sign with a dinosaur on it. There were many other chairs available, but given that United Airlines had already connected me nostalgically to the same gate, the chair felt like it was beckoning for me to give it another chance. I looked down at the floor in front of me, littered with bits of popcorn and a candy wrapper and was disgusted that I had laid down on it with only my thin jacket as a barrier for the upper half of my body. I was too exhausted to care much about hygiene that night and in desperate need of sleep, whether in a chair or on the dirty carpet on the floor. As I sat there remembering, the same airport custodian that had awakened me with his sweeping broom, came by with the same task at hand. I didn’t want to make eye contact, afraid he’d recognize me, but then realized there was no way he’d recognize me. He probably sweeps around thousands of people in a week, whether in chairs or on the floor.

Normal airport scene. The guy in the light blue cap is where I slept a week earlier. Right about where his suitcase sits…

I had enough time before my flight and was just steps from my gate so I went over to the bar and had a glass of wine and watched the beginning of the Chief’s game. I was pleased that everyone at the bar were cheering for my hometown team. The bartender told me it was a good thing I was traveling when I was as they were expecting ice in Houston the next day and sometimes that can lead to cancellations in Houston. I nodded without comment. I knew a lot about what ice does to Houston, Mister. Too much.

Passengers were making their way from gate to gate, not mad, not waiting for their turn with the gate agent, not on cell phones with the on hold song playing on so many phones that it was audible background noise. People weren’t one upping each other with how bad their travels had been and gate agents were not exasperated. It felt normal. Like airports usually feel. And so different from my last time in the Houston airport. There was something very full circle about returning to the same spot at the same gate and having a different experience and I was glad I got to revisit gate C32 while it was still so fresh in my memories. It felt like the Houston airport was apologizing to me and graciously, I accepted the apology.

On a side note, while googling the IAH to see if the terminal transportation had opened, I saw a link to “sleeping in the Houston Airport” so of course clicked on.
“The seating in this busy airport is disappointingly limited. If you can grab a seat or two, it will likely have armrests, making a comfortable sleep position nearly impossible. Overnight, you might be able to get away with pushing some seats together for makeshift beds. Your best bet is to seek out a quieter corner or nook and lie on the floor for some shuteye. Travelers recommend Terminal D the most often, but Terminal C is likely the next-best option. Bring an extra layer for warmth and cushion, especially for floor sleeping.”

It also went on to mention the chapel, in terminal C, which had pews that could be good make-shift beds. I remember passing the chapel as it was in the vicinity of where I was, but it didn’t dawn on me to sleep there. I also had to wonder how many people pack cushions in the carryon bag when they travel in anticipation of sleeping on the floor.

We left on time and arrived in Denver 30 minutes early. I checked my bag because my new ticket had me in the back of the plane and I doubted there would be overhead space available. Arriving early meant I’d make my airport shuttle and wouldn’t have to wait another hour if I missed it. When I got in the van, the shuttle driver told me the first stop would be me, in Boulder, then to Longmont for the 2 other passengers. Boulder is NEVER the first stop. I am usually the last person in the van to be dropped off. Everything that could have gone right, did, and then some. The long arm of time and distance that perspective offers, softens the edges of disasters and they are never as bad in the recounting as they were the moment they happened. Otherwise, I would have shared my story with the line up of people at the bar and the women seated next to me at the gate. But unless they were there and felt the frantic, angry, frustrated energy and tried to sleep in a chair or on the floor with the TSA announcements first in Spanish then in English all night long, it’s just another travel story told by yet another weary traveler.

I’m glad I’ve made my peace with you, Houston, and I felt your apology, but I still like Atlanta better when it comes to layovers.

Houston We’ve Got a Problem

All the good luck I’ve had traveling in the past several years caught up with me yesterday and bad luck evened the score in the short, but very long, span of 24 hours. I realized last night, while alternating between sleeping in a chair and sleeping on the floor, that when plans don’t go as you had assumed they would, it’s a lot easier to accept it, move on and just try to make the best of it, dismal as it may be. That revelation came to me at 10:00 p.m. at Gate C32 in the Houston Airport. Because of a series of unfortunate events that started with ice, my flight from Houston to Key West was cancelled, which is how I ended up going from the floor to the chair most of the night. A trio of women from Mississippi who were on their 2nd day of trying to get home from Brazil, a couple from El Salvador originally who were trying to get home to New Jersey and the kindness of strangers, offering up snacks when they heard I hadn’t eaten all day, were all slivers that made up the silver lining to a miserable night.

It all started out so perfectly. I had a 4:00 am pick up so was up by 3:30, but because I went to bed the night before at 7:30, and actually fell asleep, getting up that early wasn’t bad. Before heading out the door, I grabbed my large cashmere scarf, thinking it would be good on the plane, even though it would be excess baggage once I arrived in Key West. Little did I know at the time that that big blue scarf would become my blanket later that night as well as my MVP. It was my first flight since getting my new knee in September and I was anxious to put her through the paces of TSA and walking through airports with luggage in tow.

My flight from Denver to Houston got a late start because of de-icing so when I arrived in Houston, I had 30 minutes to get to my gate, which was on the opposite end of the airport. Houston usually has a transport system that gets you from one terminal to the next, but because of icy weather, it wasn’t in operation, leaving walking as the only option. I walked as fast as I could for 30 minutes, arriving at the gate with only minutes to spare, only to find out that the flight was delayed an hour. I hadn’t planned on it, but it was a good test for Rhoda (my new left knee) who passed with flying colors and no pain. I had my 12,000 steps in by noon. Not bad for a travel day. The one hour delay became two as our patient group of 30 passengers waited and kept a close eye on the FIDA (flight information display system).

After two hours, we finally got on the plane, anxious to finally be leaving and 4 1/2 hours later, we were still on the plane, that was starting to feel like a bus as it had only taxied from one gate to another. Our excitement was waning while we braced ourselves every time the pilot made an announcement that began with a hesitant “Folks…”. And would continue with “we are 14th or 11th or 9th in line for de-icing, which is the bad news, but the good news is the de-icing only takes about 15 minutes.” I’m not good at math in my head but 14 or 11 or 9 planes ahead of us at 15 minutes each, meant at least one movie on the inflight TV. I hadn’t had anything to eat except an orange and a bag of nuts and raisins, because I had been sitting on the plane for the past 4 1/2 hours, but could manage the hunger as I knew there would be a good meal waiting for me later that evening in Key West.

The pilot made the announcement that if there were any kids who wanted to come up and have a look inside the cockpit, it would be a good time given the wait. There were no children on our flight, just 30 adults and one toddler so after a short while, I thought, why not and wandered up to the cockpit. I was that kid and that kid got to do something she hadn’t done in over 40 years and that was to talk avionics with the pilot and co-pilot. I threw out some King Radio Avionics references to give myself some credibility (and to show off) and was surprised when they told me they knew what I was talking about, and what a good piece of equipment the KFC200 had been. I knew while I was talking to the pilot and co-pilot, I must have sounded like an old timer explaining the differences between a VW super beetle and its predecessor to a Tesla salesman. And yet I continued. We chatted for a while with me pointing to various instruments on the panel while they explained the instrument’s predecessor so I’d understand. The instrument panel looked surprisingly familiar, but bigger and with far more bells and whistles, but the familiar pleased me. If they had offered a plastic wings pin, I would have gladly accepted it and put them on my jacket. They didn’t.

After several more “folks, it’s going to be another 20 minutes and we’ll be cleared to take off for Key West,” came the dreaded “well, folks… (insert long hesitant pause), I hate to tell you this but…”. After waiting on the plane for 4 1/2 hours, our flight was cancelled for reasons that all began with ice. We were reassured that we’d be re-booked on the same flight the next day and the agent at the gate would be able to help us once we deplaned. It took us another hour of waiting before we deplaned due to gate availability. Needless to say, the 30 passengers, myself included, were not happy and began finding common ground with each other on whose travel day had been the worst. Our shared experiences brought us together as situations like this often do, as we shared our travel stories, each one getting progressively worse. My vote went to the young couple who entertained their toddler for the almost 5 hours. Give those parents an upgrade on their next flight or a round of martinis. They deserved both.

Once inside the airport, there was one gate agent and 30 people who needed to be rebooked. 30 angry and impatient people. We were told there would be no hotel vouchers because it was weather related. Most of the hotel rooms were either booked or impossible to get to due to ice-covered roads. I knew what that meant, but before settling into what would become my landing spot for the evening I went in search of food and a glass of wine as big as my head, only to discover that the restaurants and shops all closed promptly at 9:00. There was one exception, Panda Express, that had a line that was longer than the customer service line I had just left. Countertops at the bars were filled, but as I got closer I could see that the bars were closed and people were sitting there drinking bottles of water and charging while working on their phones or computers, probably in search of different flights. Most of the outgoing flights, had been cancelled and the airport was in a flurry of anxious, angry passengers looking for alternative plans. Gate agents were exhausted and ready for a break. I heard one tell a traveler who asked if her flight would get out the next day due to the ice. The passenger waited in the long line to ask that? I couldn’t blame the gate agent who answered, “I have no idea, ma’am. Maybe you could look out the window tomorrow and if the tarmac is shiny, it’s probably icy and you won’t get out.” Then she told the rest of the people in line that she had to leave because she needed a break. I get it. We all needed a break, but when I get the email from United asking “how did we do?” if I take the time to answer, I’ll have to say “Not so well.”

Sleep was difficult and came in brief spurts and when I finally did drift off, on the floor, on top of my coat because, well I needed some separation from the well-worn carpet, I was awakened by a custodial worker sweeping the carpet that several of us were slumbering on. It’s not a good way to be awakened… a broom close to your head sweeping crumbs and whatever else into the long handled dust bin. I know he was only doing his job and I was the one out of place, but it felt invasive to be awakened by a broom.

The airport at night, after all the anger had subsided, and people had found their landing spot for the night, and was eerily calm. There were no lines of anxious passengers waiting or people rushing by to their gates. It was just one big cavernous building with empty restaurants and shops and the only announcements over the loud speakers was a loop from TSA reminding you to not leave your bag unattended. First in Spanish, then in English, all night long. By morning, the lines, the noise, the anxiety were back and I felt rushed, even though I had 6 hours before my flight.

I should not know that this man is a snorer….

There was a shift in energy when people came to terms with their failed plans and instead of one upping each other on who had the worst travel day, there was the tiniest bit of “Kumbaya-ing” going on, or at least at my gate there was. The three women traveling home to Mississippi from Brazil offered up a spot for me next to them on the floor for me and apologized for not having an extra blanket they could lend me. When spending the night at the airport looked inevitable, they all bought travel blankets before the stores closed. They were smart. I was not. People were brushing their teeth in the water fountains and digging extra clothes out of their suitcases to add layers because it was very cold in the airport. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my bag because although I hadn’t planned on checking it, I ended up gate checking it in Denver because there was no more overhead space leaving me without an extra jacket and or my toothbrush. Not long into the evening, I knew who the snorers were and who fell asleep and stayed asleep for most of the night — details that felt far too intimate for a group of strangers whose only common thread was sharing the fate of cancelled flights.

I learned that boarding a plane doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to become airborne, my light blue cashmere scarf needs to always be in my bag, even when headed to tropical Key West as it not only provided warmth in a cold airport but became a security blanket on a night that was anything but secure, and when I loosened my grip on expectations, the outcome became easier. Oh and Houston? I learned last night that ice paralyzes your city and grounds your fleet of airplanes.

Traveling is often not for the faint of heart, but even after folding myself into a chair for moments of sleep off and on for 8 hours, and wearing the same clothes for more than 24 hours, and feeling so tired I could sleep anywhere (well, almost), I will still enthusiastically plan trips, book flights and pack my bags in anticipation of my next adventure. Years from now, I may not remember specific details about this trip, but I will remember my adventure in the Houston Airport and will likely be what I lead with when recounting this trip. When plans don’t go as anticipated, once the course is corrected there’s an unexpected side effect of a burst of gratitude that wouldn’t have otherwise been felt. This was my 5th trip to Key West but the first time I clapped when the wheels touched down. Finally.