Sunday, December 29, 2013

Just Another Typical Travel Day

It is Sunday, December 15th. I'm travelling on the weekend again, but I'm used to that. I miss the family already though. I've made it to Detroit thus far with no serious hassles outside the typical insane traffic in Toronto. But, after boarding my 8:25pm flight for Marquette, Michigan, our departure is delayed while the airplane is de-iced. I drift off to sleep in the middle of a Delta magazine crossword. This one is frustrating me anyway.

A bump and a roar jolt me awake. It is dark outside the window. I think, "Ah, we've landed, and I'm in Marquette. Excellent." But the plane appears to be building speed and I realize we're only taking off now. I look at my watch. We have been delayed 40 minutes. Well, at least we're going, as the pilot announces an outbound American Eagle flight is still stuck at the gate at our destination in Marquette.

While I was unconscious, the guy in the window seat next to me assumed a wide stance, most of my leg space and sole possession of the armrest. I formulate a strategy and go right for the leg-on-leg. It works and he backs off. He can keep the armrest, because I'm cold and cross my arms.

The flight is uneventful, the best kind, and we make up a little time, landing in Marquette at 10:15. The plane comes to stop, and some other passengers begin to unfasten their seatbelts, but I notice the airplane is still on the runway and the cabin lights don't come on. Sawyer International airport only has one runway. What can we be waiting for? The pilot's voice comes over the intercom, always a bad thing when an airplane is parked.

"Hi folks. The afternoon American Eagle flight is still sitting in our gate. The backup de-icer is broken. The regular de-icer is ok, but it's stuck to the cherry picker, and that's broken too. The ground crew have to see if they can detach it before anyone can move. You can't make this stuff up. Sorry, for the inconvenience."

How can this be? There are another two gates, and there can't be any more planes here this time of night. Ground crew in the distance don't look overly busy. I try to stay patient, but end up cheating my way to the finish of the crossword since I can't concentrate. I keep thinking about the early morning ahead. The flight attendant offers extra half-ounce bags of pretzels; who decided butter is a good flavor for a hard pretzel?

The pilot comes back on after 45 minutes. "The good news is the ground crew separated the de-icer from the cherry picker, but now American Eagle is grounded. Detroit won't give them clearance because the weather's turned. The American Eagle flight needs to deplane its passengers, then go park wherever they go when they're stuck here. Then we can use that gate. But it will be at least another 20-30 minutes before we can deplane. Thanks for your patience folks." Curious. I wonder how can it take that long to unload passengers from a small commuter jet.

Thirty minutes pass. By now it's begun to snow heavily, but true to word our airplane proceeds up to the gate at about 11:30. After deplaning, a few of us wait in the jetway for gate-checked carry-ons that were too big for the overhead bins. After a few minutes a handler comes to tell us gate-checked bags will be delivered on the carousel with checked baggage. No worries, I proceed to the car rental counter through a crowd of dazed or very agitated American Eagle passengers. How long were they sitting on that plane?

I'm first in line at the car rental desk. That's uncommon. I wish I'd played lotto today. Remembering the snow and the time, I try to upgrade to a 4x4, but they are all out. I should have considered just how much snow the UP gets when I booked three weeks ago. I pencil-whip the disclaimers, wait a minute more for my bag at the carousel, and head for the compact car in parking spot 4.

Where is spot 4? There's at least 10 inches of snow on every car. I hit unlock on the key fob and note a dim glow beneath one snow pile. Yeah right, as if I'm going to notice scratches during the walk around. And, great, there's a foot and a half of snow the plow pushed in front of my row of autos. I start to delve a trench in front of the car with my foot. Five feet ought to bring me out to the main lane-way. I begin to regret I wore sneakers. My boots were in my gate-checked case, but that is at ambient temperature now after sitting on the runway so long. And it's freeze-your-nostrils cold. I'm not putting them on if I don't have to.

I wrench a muscle opening a frozen door, the fourth I've tried. Happily, the car starts up. Gunning the engine, I plow through the remaining snow barrier with difficulty, and I can begin the drive to my company accommodation in Ishpeming.

Now without a doubt, the Chevy Cruze is the worst car I have ever driven, ever. The windows are frosted over on the inside. They are also frozen shut. The door open indicator has not gone off since I tried to shut the the trunk after putting in my bag. The rear defroster does not appear to work, the front one struggles on high heat against steam from snow melting off my pants, and the 1.4L engine does not give enough power to harm a baby deer at top speed. But I get great mileage.

The roads are now effectively snow roads, and that's not bad, as snow offers good traction at subzero temperatures. But three inches of new snow constantly catch at the little summer tires if I get off the main ruts, and brisk lake effect squalls seriously impede visibility. It's blowing head on, so my brights give the illusion of hyperspace, and low beams only offer a few feet of illumination in the whiteout. This is upper Michigan, and it's a long way between lighted areas. Few oncoming cars can help determine the road curvature in front of me. I begin to worry about those deer. I notice I've slowed.

I guess I shouldn't have tried to use that wiper fluid. It's glazed the driver's side windshield over, and feeble wipers bounce over the ice. I pull over and scrape with the $1.99 rental tool. It's useless - what credit card can I sacrifice?

Normally, the drive between airport and Ishpeming takes about 25 minutes. I make it in 45 this time, pulling into town at about 12:40am. I barely top 40 mph the whole way, and I go about 30 for most of it. I drive up to the company "cottage" driveway, 600 feet winding upwards at a 10% grade. I observe a couple inches of new snow that's not been plowed. I'm not going to make it up to those inviting lights in this car. I feel out a little way anyway, but 30 feet up the 1.4L engine says "I think I can't" and struggles in place. Any farther and I risk sliding back down uncontrolled into one of two stone pillars framing the drive, so I slowly back out after a brief risk assessment. My personal safety is job one, and I don't need an incident report for the sake of saving a few more minutes.

Do I look for a hotel? At this late hour I don't want to play poker. The company research laboratory is about 3/4 mile down the hill. I head there and park between two pickups after struggling through the unplowed lot. I figure a walk back to the cottage will take at least 10 minutes in the snow. I'm still not putting on my boots. They were in the trunk, and the last temperature reading I saw was -12F (-24.4C), which is now pretty much the temperature of my boots. I'll be moving very fast anyway.

The sky has suddenly cleared now that I'm no longer driving, and I walk luggage-in-hand under the illumination of the full moon and bright stars on the snow. You could read by it. At one point, every dog in the darkened neighborhood seems to note my passing, and I half expect their armed owners to check out the source of the disturbance. I suddenly feel very alive. Otherwise, the silence is only pierced by the squeak, squeak, squeak of snow underfoot.

I walk briskly and am puffing by the top of the hill 10 minutes after starting up. I think "this geologist needs to spend more time doing fieldwork if a 10 minute climb is taxing", but now I'm here. The cottage has a key lock. I know the code, but unfortunately the porch light is not on. I'm the only one here on a Sunday night; why didn't I bring a flashlight? I feel in the dark. Five buttons. I guess which is which and punch out the correct entry code.

I enter a sauna, My room must be 85 degrees, and I've been working out. An older house like this has a radiator. It puts out a lot of heat, and I'm not searching a virtual mansion for the settings. I fiddle with the wall-mounted air conditioner for several minutes and get it pumping cool air. They can fight it out overnight.

It is now about 1:30am. Despite the sauna conditions, sore muscles (from shoveling my own snow at home the day before), excess caffeine and a sunken bed that dates from the 19th century, I am glad to be prone. Even if I can't sleep.