This story is looooonnnng overdue. And the story itself is equally as long. But I had to write it anyway for my own record. This was the craziest travel experience I have ever had and I am not very good at keeping up my journal. 😉
Part I: The Flight to Denver
Sometimes I swear I am psychic. I had this weird feeling that my travel plans would not come to pass as smoothly as my boarding pass displayed. (Okay, maybe it was only because my last trip from D.C. to Utah three years ago had me board a plane only to sit for an hour and then be directed back off the plane until they could figure the weather out. There was also the middle aged gentleman who invited me to travel with him sometime….) As soon as I had arrived at the airport I got an email saying my flight had been pushed back an hour. I meandered through security, found a nice spot of floor in the crowded seating area, pulled out my textbook and began to read.
An hour or so into my wait I spied an open chair. Perfect, now I could people-watch. I looked to my right and noticed two men about my age in long brown robes and belts made out of ropes. They had dark curly hair, beards, and backpacks. I won’t lie–the appearance of these two and the fact that we were in an airport did not add up to great math in my head. I wasn’t the only one typecasting though as I noticed almost every other person give them a glance as they walked by. This one lady was the only person I saw who approached them and started a conversation. She seemed pretty spunky from what I observed.
Something told me that I would be on the same flight as these guys. We started boarding and I eventually found my seat which was right between one of my robed friends and an Army Logistics Officer returning home after 13 years in Germany. In the pocket on the back of the seat in front of the bearded man was a book that looked like scripture. It had colorful ribbons used as bookmarks that reminded me of the ones we made in Young Women’s representing the values.
After some silent waiting and a lackluster security demonstration, the young man turned to me and started a conversation. He was very friendly and I was surprised when I realized he had a stutter. We started with the cliché travel conversation where we discussed our destinations and then he told me that he is a Franciscan friar. Impressively, he is also an aerospace engineer currently working towards his masters degree. He and his buddy (seated a few rows ahead) were traveling to Colorado to attend a friend’s wedding. Pretty awesome dude.
Confession: I did not know friars were a thing in America, or even this century. The only friar I have ever known was the friend of a certain thief who steals from the rich to give to the poor. I asked my neighbor what the difference was between a friar and a monk? He explained that monks are confined to their monastery while friars have more mobility. Friars can also hold a separate career. (He wants to travel to different schools and teach engineering eventually.) In response to the myriad of questions I threw at him, I learned that friars make specific vows and then renew the vows a few years later after this probationary period of sorts. He wanted to be a monk early on when he was inspired by the writings of Saint Augustine. A senior monk encouraged him to wait until he was 18 years old to make sure that was what he really wanted to do. I also learned that the differing orders of friars and nuns have slightly different rules. Because of this he confessed he had a favorite group of nuns that he preferred visiting to the others.
I started to ask him about the doctrine he studied. He said something about a prophet called Elijah and I excitedly exclaimed, “I know him!” He looked a little surprised and continued on. Later he asked if I had ever read a prophet called Isaiah. “Yes! I love Isaiah! I took a whole class on him. His stuff is so neat.” My friar friend concurred and shared how he thought Isaiah shared such beautiful and joyful messages. I nodded and said, “That is where Handel gets his lyrics for his Messiah, right? ‘Wonderful, counselor….'” Again, a surprised look. Then he hesitantly asked, “Can I ask how you know about Elijah?”
“Oh, I read the Bible! I actually just restarted the Old Testament.” He seemed impressed.
Then, “Where did you take all these classes?”
I had told him about my classes specifically on the Book of Revelations, Judaism/Islam, and the Old Testament. “Oh! Okay.”
The gentleman on my other side would chime in to our conversation occasionally. He was an interesting man himself. He was super friendly and an upbeat kind of guy. He would often make jokes and kept a sunny disposition when we had landed and our pilot told us that we would remain on the tarmac indefinitely until a gate opened up. The flight attendants were also very nice. They did their best to lighten the mood of the plane full of anxious passengers dying to get off. Apparently many of us were scheduled to make the same second flight to SLC. A kid behind me overheard me telling the friar that I had to rush to my next gate and he tapped me on the shoulder. He asked if I would wait for him and help him get to the gate. This was his first time flying alone and he wasn’t sure where to go. This was how I met Aaron. Little did we know that we would soon be playing cards together on an airport floor.
Part II: The Layover
It was nice to be upright and moving again. We had sat on the tarmac for so long. Half of us rushed to our next gate to make the SLC flight that was supposedly waiting for us. (It should have been landing in Utah already but it had been delayed itself.)
Unfortunately we all rushed in vain. We were notified that out plane would be delayed another hour. Aaron and I made ourselves comfortable by a charging station where I plugged in my dead phone. This is where we met Jodie. She had also flown on our plane from D.C. and was on her way home to visit her parents. Jodie is one of those people you can talk to for five minutes and feel like you have been friends for a while. The three of us just jived together. Our party quickly took on a fourth member as an older (grandma-aged) woman from Florida joined our conversation. We never learned her name but she is quite the lady. Do you know those birthday cards they market to friends with illustrations or photographs of sassy old ladies on them? I swear they based those off of our Florida friend.
As we were getting to know one another and get into discussing the ridiculousness of our delays, we were informed that our gate had changed. It is important to note that we were not notified over the intercom or by an official employee, we were notified by other passengers who had heard from official sources. After looking around confused and clarifying with other passengers, we ventured a few gates up and over and saw “Salt Lake City” on the board above the seats. We made ourselves comfortable again and fatigue started setting in.
I had been sick the entire week before (which made finals exciting) and I was starting to feel it now. My throat was swollen and scratchy. I was also hungry. I was counting on being at my parents’ house by 11pm and eating all the free food I could possibly hope for. As luck would have it, the entire Denver airport had shut down all of their food places. There had been one random stop and shop thing open but as Aaron and Jodie went to get us all something, they cut off the line a few people in front of them. Aaron was a lifesaver and pulled out some granola bars from his backpack. It was about 1:00 A.M.
Once again we were notified that our flight would be delayed another hour. We weren’t sure why; the rumor was that the plane coming in needed to unload its passengers first. There was a plane chilling on the tarmac but no one ever got off and we never got on. Oh, and they had us change gates again. At this point we figured they were just trying to get us out of the way. But the airport was definitely emptying out. Our airline didn’t have any employees behind any of the desks anymore. Our mass of passengers to Salt Lake was almost the only life in the airport and we just kept migrating around. I felt bad when a girl tapped me on the shoulder and held out her phone. She is deaf and had typed a text asking me if we were moving again. I nodded yes and she looked upset.
At our next campground, we talked with a family who looked worn out to say the least. These parents had taken their two sons and daughter to Disneyland and had been stranded for over 24 hours. Their last flight back to Wisconsin had been cancelled and the airline had rebooked them onto ours–apparently Salt Lake City was the closest they could get them to home. (Doesn’t make sense, right? That was seriously what they told this family.) So they took the tickets figuring the airline might have a better chance to get them home from there. One of their sons with special needs needed more of his medication that was running out. They needed to get home before the poor kid suffered too much. This mom and dad were incredibly kind about their situation. They were obviously exhausted and worried but they understood that getting angry would only get you so far in these situations. I respected them for that.
Aaron revealed that he had cards at this point and so he pulled those out and we played Black Jack and Poker. That brought some joy until we had to switch gates again. At the very beginning we were told the delays were because of weather but the weather really wasn’t that bad. Eventually they told us it was because they didn’t have enough staff. Apparently they couldn’t call any pilots in because they had all maxed out their hours. This next transfer we slept. And by “we” I mean the whole flight. Passengers were sprawled out all over the floor laying on backpacks and coats. My pictures don’t do it justice but it gives you some idea.
Surprise, surprise, our flight got delayed again an hour later. And we had to move. Again. People were getting more restless and agitated. Jodie, Aaron, Florida Lady and I found another spot and resumed our card game. Enough time had passed that passengers were starting to get their second wind. We watched kids ride on the moving side walk in front of us and do weird poses. It was pretty much this just with different choreography:
At 5:30 a.m. the dreaded news came. It was what we had expected but felt the airline was too afraid to tell us all along: our flight was officially cancelled.
One father started yelling. He accused the airline of kidnapping. He had been one of the few whose original flight had been cancelled and was rebooked on our flight. The initial outrage sounded like a mob, because, well, it was. It was scary. They demanded everything be fixed, that we all get our money back, and that the airline be shut down. Some yelled that they would never use this airline again and that they would tell everyone how terrible it was.
The poor employees who had to deliver the message were helpless. I don’t even know if a manager was there to help them. The word was that there would be no refunds but the passengers could talk to the airline and they could rebook them on another flight. The catch was that the next flight may not be for another day or two. The line for the customer service desk was four hours long and counting. It wrapped down the hall and around the moving sidewalks. We stood in it for a bit and the poor kid in front of me (about 15 years old and traveling alone) told us how he was just trying to make it to his cousin’s funeral. I felt so bad. I also felt bad for my family. I knew they were waiting for me to call and let them know when to pick me up from the airport. My mom had been sleeping on the couch waiting by her phone.
Part III: The Road Trip
It is a legitimate thing on my bucket list to take a spontaneous road trip. I had just always imagined it with a husband or best friend rather than with a stranger.
After talking to my parents and weighing my options, I decided to rent a car with Jodie and drive to Utah from Denver, Colorado. Aaron was going to come too but his mom didn’t feel super great about it. Instead, she booked him a flight home with another airline. I went down to the rental car desks to try and get something before they were all taken but found that the desks in the airport weren’t opened yet. There was not an employee in sight. I did some Googling (thank goodness for smart phones!) and found a car available, I would just have to take the shuttle to the actual facility. I called them ahead of time and reserved the car. I called Jodie to let her know that I would meet her at the car rental place. (At this point we still weren’t sure if Aaron was going to come with us so Jodie was with him while he waited to hear back from his mom.)
First, I had to get my luggage.
I wish so badly that I had fought my impatient mind and tired body to take a picture of the luggage carousels! I followed the signs through the ghost town of an airport and found my way to where the luggage would be. When I rounded the corner I was met with a sea of bags as far as the eye could see. It looked like a luggage store threw up all over the airport with bags of all shapes, sizes, and colors spilling over everything in sight. You couldn’t see the ground and it was like wading through quicksand to get to the carousel itself. All the luggage had come from all of the flights that had apparently been cancelled. Who knows how long it had been sitting down there? As the flights had been cancelled at different times there were no signs that said which carousel held which plane’s luggage–it wouldn’t have mattered anyway as all the luggage had been pulled off the carousels to make room for more. I forced my way through the jungle of suitcases to place a real-life version of Where’s Waldo, with my bag being Waldo. Simultaneously I was praying that my bag hadn’t been stolen and cursing myself for not buying neon luggage.
A blessing from above, I found my suitcase. I trucked it out to the shuttle pick-up place and waited in the cold. Now that I was back in daylight and public I was very much aware of my unbrushed teeth and day-old clothes that had been slept in on an airport floor. Ugh. The shuttle pulled up and the driver was as chipper as anything! He made me smile. He should really be referred to as my chauffeur as there was no one else riding.
The lady at the car rental counter had an accent that sounded Russian or Eastern European. (I think. I am not great at my accent identification.) She also was a bit irritated and pushy. I told her that I had reserved something already and that the lady on the phone had told me it would cost such-and-such amount. The woman checked her computer and told me there weren’t any reservations. After an awkward pause I asked her if I could rent their cheapest car then. She told me what they had then asked if I had any luggage. I said yes and she asked if I would like a bigger car. I told her that I thought the smaller one would be fine and she insisted. She told me that I would probably need more room for my luggage. I insisted again that the smaller car really would be fine. (Heck, I drove a PT Cruiser for a few good years and shoved all sorts of stuff in that car that shouldn’t have been able to fit.) Realizing I wasn’t going to change my mind based on interior space she changed her tactic and started to talk about the snow. She told me that a different car would be more capable to handle the weather. Again, I said no. (That 2-wheel drive PT Cruiser took on a mountain that gets feet of snow every winter. And not to toot my own horn but I am a pretty good driver in snow.) After some haggling the lady finally handed over some keys and I booked it out of there.
Before we started on our journey we had to stop by a store. We both desperately needed a car charger for our phones and we had gone quite a while without proper food or water. When we got back in the car Jodie bravely voiced what I had been thinking, “Do you want to say a prayer before we go?” YES. It was snowy, we were driving in a car we didn’t own on virtually no sleep. I definitely wanted to start with a prayer. Thank heavens for Mormons right? We might have been strangers but saying a prayer together was not weird at all.
Good thing we said a prayer. It didn’t take long for me to realize that our odometer was way off. Starting off slow to make sure I had a feel for the car, there was no way in heck we were going 120mph! I paced myself with the cars driving around us. Assuming they were going the speed limit, I guessed that a 140mph reading roughly equated to 70mph in real life. We kept that pace for the whole 8+ hours home. I was hyper aware of any cops that drove by and luckily we never got pulled over.
Jodie and I listened to music and talked quite a bit. Things got personal real fast as she asked me about my dating history and then told me her own emotional story of the last guy she almost married but then he married someone else. We talked about her job, my schooling, our families…. We talked about how much we loved Utah and got as excited as a man in the desert finding water when we drove through the mountains. The sun had set by the time we pulled into the Salt Lake City airport. Almost 24 hours later than when we should have landed there. As Jodie left with her dad I returned the car. My dad picked me up soon after. It was an amazing feeling to know that a bed was waiting for me only 30 minutes away.
Lessons I learned from this trip:
- NEVER judge appearances.
- Don’t go for the cheapest flight.
- Buy neon luggage…or at least mark it with a red ribbon or something.
- ALWAYS bring snacks.
- Bring a toothbrush/paste everywhere. And ibuprofen.
- Read your scriptures. You can impress friars with your knowledge of Elijah.