Friday, March 31, 2006

Travelogue, part 3

Okay! So as you may have guessed, the gaps between these entries here have been the result of a combination of being busy in the evenings with Trivia preparation stuff, and busy during the day with, well, work. So I'll try to wrap this bad boy up here today, seeing as Trivia Insanity officially begins tonight and then you'll be lucky to see many posts from me at all for a couple weeks, aside from a link here and there and some Trivia commentary. So...where was I?

Ahh yes, the flight to the village. Well, up to this trip, I'd never flown on anything smaller than the little commuter jets and prop-jobbers that fly between Mosinee and Chicago/Minneapolis/etc. And to tell the truth, I was a little nervous...not scared really, I was looking forward to it, and I don't mind flying at all...but having never been in a single prop Cessna or whatever, I didn't know what to expect. Well, after my experience in Alaska, let me tell you...I'm in love. I'd much rather fly in a little 6 seater than on a 737. Partially because you're flying so low (500-800ft) that you get to see everything, but also because being the fat kid that I am, it seems like my standard seat is going to be the one nearest the center of gravity - next to the pilot. Now, you need to understand something...I grew up on flight simulators. Ever since putting around, shooting down Zeros playing "Aces of the Pacific" on our family's first Compaq 386, I've been a fan. So sitting in the co-pilot seat, yoke in front of me, conscious of the fact that I'd better not accidentally stretch my legs out and hit the rudder pedals or move my knee the wrong way and bump the fuel mixture or the throttle...THAT's the only way to fly :-) Not like the cabin on a big ol' jet, where you might as well be riding on a bus, watching the ground scroll by like a Google Maps satellite picture. Seriously, it was hard deciding whether I wanted to be looking out the window watching the tundra go by, or watching the navigation system and the instruments. I'm a dork, really. It's okay, I've come to peace with it. But now I've rekindled the dream I've had in the back of my head since I was, oh, 8 years take lessons and one day get my pilot's license. I know, add it to the list, right? Well I'm serious about this one...

Anyhow, after sharing that flight with a few other folks headed from Bethel, we were met at the airport (well, airstrip really...not much there :-P) by a guy with a van who drove us the short distance into the village and dropped us off at Sara's house. My first impressions of the landscape were's really a beautiful place, and quite different from what I'd pictured in my head. Not that I had pictured it as being un-beautiful, mind you. It's just different. And it was pretty cold, as well, but I'm certainly no stranger to that, and I really don't mind it that much. What I did notice, though, was the wind. It's crazy, we could hear it howling outside most of the time while I was there. Though Sara said it wasn't all that bad in comparison to some days, because the entire house wasn't shaking. So, I guess there's at least that. Hew. But anyway, we finally got to her house, and I have to say...we didn't do a whole heck of a lot for a few days. Which was absolutely, 100% fine by me. By the time we got home it was Friday afternoon, and with the cold and wind outside, and not much to do even if the weather was nice, it made for a weekend of bumming around the house...just enjoying doing normal, couple-type things we've missed out on with our wacky hella-long-distance relationship. There were cooking adventures, there was movie watching (Star Wars, of course...rapidly becoming tradition), and there was plenty of time just sitting around, reading, getting a feel for what it'll be like next year. Guess what? I'm really looking forward to it. Duh, right? ;-)

Well, come Monday morning, it back to reality...well, for Sara at least. Back to work! So she headed off, and I kept myself entertained through the morning with a book. It was fine, but I was certainly glad when she came home for lunch and asked if I wanted to head over and check out the school for the afternoon. I'd actually been thinking the same thing, and wanted to ask if I could, but didn't know how appropriate it would be for the teacher's dopey-ass fiancee to be sitting in the corner putzing around on the internet while she was administering tests to her students. Turns out, it was fine. So I jumped on the back of the 4-wheeler and was shuttled down the road to school. Note to self: #1 purchase in preparation for moving to Alaska: a good set of goggles. I was amazed as just how many 4-wheelers and snowmobiles (snowmachines/snow-gos there...kinda like the bubbler/waterfountain thing) there were around. Really, while there are a few trucks and SUVs around, there's not really not much use (or roads, for that matter) for them, and things we use here for recreation and diversion are the primary mode of transportation up there. Kinda fun to see full-blown "traffic" of 4-wheelers through the village around the time school lets out :-) Anyway, when we got there, I was able to meet most of the other staff and get a quick tour of the place, etc, which was nice. I spent that afternoon, and Tuesday afternoon as well, in the corner, typing emails and such while watching/listening to Sara in action. Pretty interesting, actually. I was even given a job (read: busywork) put in charge of putting together a classroom sign for the books they're reading. Yeah, hand me some construction paper, scissors, and a gluestick, and I'm set. I'm all about being the world's oldest 1st grader :-)

But I had something I wanted to do, and time was running out. You see, I have this habit of coincidentally doing most of my major traveling/adventures/etc. during the same couple weeks of March. I've been to Russia, Ireland, Scotland, paintball tourny roadtrips, and more, all randomly falling in the same few weeks of March of the given years. I've never made it to a "Spring Break"-type spring break, in Mexico or Florida or anything like that, but I've had plenty of my own spring break trips. Well, this year I was in Alaska, within easy reach of the Bering Sea, which gave me an idea. Since I'd never made it to the beach for spring break, I resolved to change that now. So we hopped on the 4-wheeler for a riding tour of the village, with our destination being the frozen beach. Now, it was cold, but by no means was it any more frigid than it had been at any point in Wisconsin this winter. And I was fairly seriously bundled up, fur hat, borrowed wool scarf and all, but this is where I made my determination that some shopping needed to be done. As we took off through town, it wasn't long before the cold wind in my eyes and my breath redirected through the scarf resulted it a couple of problems. Not only were my eyes watering, resulting in a rather painful eyelid-freezing situation, but a serious layer of ice had formed on my glasses, making any kind of "seeing" next to impossible. So yeah, if nothing else at all resulted from the trip, it's good to have this practical knowledge of the situation to be able to prepare for certain things I may not have previously considered :-) Anyway, we took a driving tour of what there was to see of town, framed by a beautiful sunset, and got to the beach in time to take a few pictures. Yup, that's the one I posted a week or so ago as a "test". Nice huh? I got to hang out on the beach for spring about you? I know, you're jealous, it's okay.

Well, after heading home and warming up, that was pretty much it. The next morning was Wednesday, and I was headed out. We said our goodbyes and reminded ourselves of the fact that we're indeed now in the home stretch...only a couple more months to go. The weather was beautiful, clearest it had been since I arrived, so flying out wasn't going to be an issue. We got the call that the plane was on the way, and I was picked up and taken to the airport, getting in some last good pictures of the tundra, the mountains, and the airport now that it was actually clear enough to see any of these things. When I arrived at the runway, I noticed the plane, aside from the front seats, was packed full of boxes. I was the only passenger headed from Quinhagak to Bethel that morning, so we were going to make a stop at a neighboring village along the way and drop off a delivery of mail and other goodies. I was in no hurry, and excited to be getting back in the Cessna, so this was a treat. The other village, Eek, was right along the way, and I had a good time chatting with the pilot. We really didn't lose that much time, either, making the extra stop, so I was in to Bethel with a few hours worth of time to kill before the next leg of the trip back.

And really, aside from my luggage being misplaced (resulting in a very tired second trip back to the Appleton airport Thursday night and a nice discount next time I fly with United), the trip back was about as uneventful as the trip out had been screwy and frustrating. So I'll pretty much just skip it, ok? Can you tell I'm a little less enthusiastic about my retelling of the story at this point? Sure you're pretty perceptive. But yeah, on the whole, it was a fantastic trip. Great to see Sara, fun to see where she's been living all this time and to see and experience things I've only heard about, and interesting to get a taste of what I'm in for come this fall. Should be a grand old time!

I'll post a few more pictures (and bigger versions, being able to upload them directly from my computer at home) sometime tonight or this weekend...but there you have it! And if I remember anything else I left out, I'll just post again. But for now, I'm ready to get back to my normal random, cranky blogging :-)

Thanks for reading!!!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Travelogue, part 2

Sorry, fairly busy weekend, didn't get a chance to post again...but that's what lunchbreak at work is for, right? So where am I? Ah yes, just getting underway at the Appleton airport...

So yeah, cutting to the chase, the new flight to O'Hare was fine, and after a longer layover (7 hours) and bit of a delay (another hour and a half), my flight to Anchorage was in the air. One thing about travelling lately...I've come to be fine with, if not enjoy, hanging around airports for long periods of time. One thing's for sure, there is no better peoplewatching anywhere than at an airport. O'Hare, especially.

So after flight number 2, on which I was blessed with a window seat in aisle 13 (if you've flown coach on a 737, you know what I'm talking about), I arrived at the Anchorage airport at a little after midnight. A little late, but not too mood was brightened by the knowledge that the resturants in Ted Stevens International Airport are open 'til 1am, and considering I had only a cup of coffee so far since being awoken by Mr. Recording, some overpriced airport food was just what the doctor ordered. After eating, I decided that since my flight to Bethel wasn't boarding for another 5 hours, I'd try to find a nice place to sleep for a bit. Now, here's a tip for those of you making connections at ANC...while the abandoned B concourse may seem like a quiet, comfy paradise compared to the C concourse where people are hanging out by their gates waiting for flights, don't get sucked in. The REAL sweet spot in the airport is pictured in the previous post...the upstairs observation deck. There's a native art gallery, which you should definately check out before kicking your shoes off and trying to nap, but once you're through with that, you'll have already noticed how quiet it is up there, the nice benches without the armrests, that there may be one or two people up there already, but they're already asleep, and it's so spread out and with so many display cases and columns it's almost like having a private room. So kick off your shoes, stretch out, use your keychain carabiner to attach your backpack to your watch (okay, so I was paranoid about my backpack being stolen...let's just say I had items of some value inside), and try to sleep. Only problem was I worried that if I actually fell asleep, I might overdo it and miss my flight, so I just kinda laid there and closed my eyes, hearing the time announced every half hour and being happy with just being horizontal and not stuffed in an airplane seat for a while.

So, after resting for a couple hours, it was time to make my way to the gate to make the flight from Anchorage to Bethel. When I got there, about 45 minutes before boarding was supposed to start, there were maybe a half a dozen people sitting, reading, knitting, or just looking generally tired and bored. I added myself to this group of weary travelers, sitting in a seat facing the window where I could see our plane at the gate. At least I'm assuming it was our plane. Well, there were about 15 Alaska Airlines crewpeople, walking along the underside and on lifts next to the fusilage, and they looked to be running their hands along all the seams and rivets of the plane. Still to this moment I don't know if this was a standard, pre-first-flight-of-the-day inspection, or if there was really cause for such a going over, but it wasn't long until the message on the screen at the gate changed from "boarding 5:45" to "cancelled". At the gate counter, they claimed some unknown mechanical difficulties, but as we were standing in line to be rebooked on the next flight (not 'til 6 more hours later), we noticed that the 6 or 7 of us in line were the only ones booked to be on that plane, and some middle-aged man with a Texas accent and an offical-looking oil company field jacket said dryly "I guess we know what the mechanical problem was...they didn't have enough passengers to pay for the gas." So they rebooked us, gave us a $6 cupon for breakfast anywhere in the airport, and I was off to Starbucks, where I refused to play their little grande/vente/forte/whatever game, and ordered the largest cup of regular coffee they had, and asked them to throw a shot of espresso in for good measure. Mind you, I've only been to Starbucks maybe three times in my life, but I think this coffee may have been worth the 6 extra hours in the airport. I can now see why people will pay $4 for a cup of coffee when it tastes like heaven and kicks like liquid crack. Or maybe I was just tired.

So 6 more hours of drinking coffee, reading, and watching another Anchorage sunrise over the mountains, and we were off to Bethel. The plane was an older model 737, and one that can be configured to carry half people, half cargo, so we all watched as they apparently figured out 5 minutes before boarding time that they needed to add/remove more seats than they figured, so even this flight ended up being half an hour delayed. It's a good thing I was in a decent, if tired, mood...else this may have been the point at which I became irritated. But we boarded, the plane was half empty so I had a row to myself, and the weather was beautiful, at least for a while. The picture attached above is us taking off from Anchorage...that's downtown back there, on the water and in front of the mountains. Really, it's a gorgeous city. I took more pictures of the mountains and sunrises/sets than were probably necessary while sitting in the airport...maybe I'll just dump/post a bunch of pics here after I'm done babbling about all the minutia of this trip ;-)

As nice as the weather was leaving ANC, it was just as bad getting into Bethel. Snowy, windy and cold. But none of that mattered once I made it into the terminal and Sara was there to meet me. It had been the plan, but with the weather I hadn't been sure she would make it to Bethel. But she did. And it was good. Really, what more can I say? It had been a while. So after our "well hello there" moment and a few introductions to friends that happened to be at the airport at the same time, we made our way over to the Era counter to try to figure out if getting to the village that day would be an option. Now from what I gather, Era is the biggest of the small aviation companies in southwest Alaska, as as such have the newest, largest, and some would say "best" planes. I'm guessing that's why they have some sort of partnership with Alaska Air, at least in sharing a terminal at the Bethel Airport. It also means that they're only planes that fly in questionable weather, making them the only option at times when the other, smaller companies can't fly. Also, apparently, making them rude jackasses about that fact. In the past, I hadn't been able to understand why Sara would tell me she'd fly Grant, dispite less of a chance of getting out, rather than deal with flying Era. She had mentioned a few things about their service, and I knew they were more expensive than the other places, which they can also apparently get away with because of their advantage in a market where flying is the only way to travel any distance over 20 or 30 miles. But the agents at the desk in Bethel were rude, gave us little or no information about when a decision would be made on if flights would be cancelled, and refused to hold our luggage for us in the event we were stuck overnight. A major concern, since Sara had done some grocery shopping in Bethel (a nice bonus/added chore about being in Bethel, I guess), and without cooler space things would spoil.

Well, after some consternation we decided to go get a bite to eat while waiting to see if planes would get out. We chatted and caught up over a late lunch of processed meat, watched objects in the distance to try to determine the range of visibility (and thus out chances of getting out), and I, not being able to wait any longer, pulled out the ring I had been carrying for 30-some hours and staring at almost constantly for 3 months or so. And was very glad when she seemed to like it. Not every day you get to do something like that, and of course I felt like a putz again, but Sara assured me the place we were at was just about the fanciest to be had in Bethel anyway, so it was all good. Our additude is, we've done nothing by the book up to this point, so why start now?

Well, after lunch and feeling more than a little lighter on my feet, we headed back to the Alaska/Era terminal, and after hearing that hotels in town did indeed have rooms open (we had previously assumed this wouldn't be the case, as the Regional basketball tounament was in town), decided to just grab a room for the night and try to make it out in the morning. I went to the Era counter to grab my luggage and Sara's backpack that we had previously checked, but they seemed unable to find them, and seemed quite pissy about being asked to, you know, look for them. Well, as it turns out, they couldn't find them because, oh yeah, that pile of bags and a box sitting unattended on the floor in the middle of the terminal? Yeah. Those are Sara's. No explaination as to why they'd already put those bags out there, sitting there for anyone to take. Seriously, screw Era. It was decided that we'd just fly out on Grant the next day.

So, the place we stayed in Bethel, pictured here to the right, is called the Longhouse. Dispite their unexpected lack of a cooler for Sara's groceries (grr), it was quite nice. Better than some places I've stayed around Wisconsin, that's for sure. But driving around on the way there, I wasn't sure what to expect. It's definately nicer than I thought it would be, but they could have won me over a little more had their coffee shop been open in the morning as advertised. Bastards. Apparently, they had some kind of party/live music the night before, and it looked like cleanup had yet to be fully achieved. In fact, it must have been some party, because as Sara and I were sitting in the lobby trying to figure out a plan, a very disgruntled, very out-of-towner guest came to the front desk and bitched up a storm about the noise and disturbance that had kept him awake the night before. At least until he resorted to calling the police after a number of calls to the front desk failed to quiet the ruckus. Funny, it's not that big of a place, yet we heard nothing. Though I suppose, after my travel situation, I was sleeping like the dead.

So we headed to the airport by taxi, getting stuck in a driveway along the way. Like reflex, Sara and I got out and pushed...I think it helps that I'll be moving to Alaska from Wisconsin, not somewhere like, say, Texas. The car you're in gets stuck, you go dig into the snow and push. it's just how it goes. Not a big deal. But anyways, we got to the airport, got on our flight, and got to Quinhagak. And that, my dear, longsuffering readers, is where I'll break today. I'll start next time, if I remember, with my first impressions of flying in small planes :-)

Travelogue, part 1

Okay, first off, let me say these pics I'm posting from work (this one and maybe a couple more today even) are double hosted at this point, so even clicking on them they'll be smaller than I'd like...but you can deal, right? Cool, I thought so.

So, story time I guess! Well for anyone out there that needs to be brought up to speed, here's the deal. There's this girl. Kickass, amazing person, great friend for a whole lotta years, and for some reason unknown to my feble mind has agreed to marry me, deal with my insanity for the long haul, and buy houses and have babies and stuff. Boggles my mind, really, but that's just how it goes. I'm easily boggled. Ask her, it's true. But, the thing is...this girl...she happens to teach and live in a small village near the Bering Sea in southwestern Alaska. Did I mention she kicks ass? So after some discussion and some creative (mis)management of my vacation time at work, a plan was hatched for me to visit her for a week or so in said village. Primarily to see her for the first time in months, of course, but also because as it stands at the moment, this is the village to which I will be moving at the end of this summer. Makes sense to check it out while spending some quality, non-internet-chat-based time with my honey. Of course, this plan had its risks...namely, the fact that the more time she has to actually spend with me, in person, before the wedding deed is done, the greater the chance she'll see the error of her original agreement to the proposal. But such risks must be taken in stride and delt with accordingly ;-)

Now, bear with me through the logistics. It's cheapest to fly out of O'Hare in Chicago, because it's one of the "hubs" of Alaska Airlines. So the plan was, in order to avoid the drive to Chicago and then parking for a week, to take a commuter flight there. Also found that, even on short notice (this plan was hatched mere weeks ago, dear reader!), flying out of Appleton was a better option than the plan of attack read as such: 4:30pm Thursday, fly Appleton to O'Hare. 7:30pm, leave O'Hare for Anchorage, to arrive around 11:30pm, after the time change. Hang out in the Anchorage airport for 6 hours or so, leave there at 6:30am Friday for Bethel, AK. Arrive at 7:30am or so in Bethel, where my lovely Smacca will be awaiting, and then either explore Bethel for a few hours, or if the weather looked like it would be taking a turn for the worse, try to get a flight to the village ASAP.

Was it Eisenhower or Patton who said "even the best of plans rarely if ever survives first contact with the enemy"? In this case, I'll call airlines the enemy. Which is really unfair, because everyone I've ever talked to in my travels has always been nice and as helpful as they could be...likely because I asked nicely and sincerely. One thing about sitting in airports for as lengthy of times as I have the last couple witness a LOT of frustrated, angry, rude, and just plain dumb people giving airline employees a really hard time for things totally out of their control. Example - coming back, at O'Hare, the people in line in front of me when I was trying to check in to my flight at the gate had just missed their it was just pulling away from the gate when they got there. They were irate, yelling at the person behind the counter. Their excuse for being late? They had missed the earlier shuttle from the hotel, and the one that got them to the airport had put them there just late enough to see the plane doors close and for them to not make the flight. So they were yelling at the United Airlines lady at the counter. How this was her fault, it's beyond me. She put them on the next flight, didn't counter any of their rediculousness, and placated them enough to get them to leave the counter and let me check in. I gave her a little smile and eyeroll and said "I'm easy, I just need to check in", for which I got a knowing and unexpected smile in return. Not that I've worked much in a "customer-service" capacity (for preciely reasons like this, as I don't have the patience for such stupidity...I think I would have reached over the counter and bitchslapped these two. Besides, it looked like they had missed the earlier shuttle because they'd overslept hungover, and came to the airport in the clothes they'd been clubbing in the night before), but I like to think I can maybe make someone smile or at least not be premptively bitchy to me if I give them a little bit of a "yeah, I feel your pain, I know your job sucks too" kind of vibe. And it seems to work 9 times out of 10, and in this case I ended up talking to the gate lady for a minute or two and getting my stuff worked out nicely...her words were something to the effect of "haven't those two heard of walking? Or a taxi? Not much I can do when you show up to the gate after the plane's done boarding, dumbasses..."

Anyway! Tangent city! Get used to it, I have a ton of airport stories I might throw in for you ;-) And who knows how many parts this rambling mess might go!

So, back to the timeline...airlines. Decent people, alright to deal with if you're calm and realize your problem is (usually) not the fault of the person you're actually talking to. So the story starts Wednesday night, when after a stressful week (see earlier entries re: car problems, work sucking, etc.), I decided to join my housemates for some beers at a local establishment, thinking it'd help me rest, and thinking I would be sleeping in a while before having to get up and ready for the trip in the late afternoon. Beer was consumed, as was some schnapps. Maybe a little too much schnapps, but such things cannot be predicted once you start playing dice at a bar. So i get to bed around 3am, fairly drunk and beat from having only slept 4 hours the night before. Reset my alarm for 10:30am instead of 9:30. Bed was nice and comfy....

Until I'm awoken by my phone 3 hours later. Still half asleep, but subconsciously aware that the call may be important since I'm traveling that day, I find the phone and answer it. I'm wished a plesant good morning by an automated recording. The voice then tells me my flight has been cancelled, no reason given. But never to fear, I have been rebooked for another flight! As Mr. Recording gives me the number, I start chanting it in my head while I look for a pen to write it down and check out how it will affect my connection(s). As I'm typing it into the computer to search the schedule, I wake up enough that something the recording said finally hits me...the voice said I had been rebooked for March is March 16th....they rebooked me for tomorrow? Oh HELL no! So I find my flight info and dial the customer service 1-800 number. Not surprizingly, I get another recording, United's automated service. Which is fine if you're on the road and you want to check if your flight is delayed, or you want to use a credit card to book a flight, etc. I need to talk to a person, and the menu doesn't even have a "stay on the line or press zero for assistance" option. So after exhausing my patience with the menu there, I look up for info, and find another number. No dice, that number leads to the same automated menu. Now it's been half an hour or so, I'm fully awake, and I'm starting to get into panic mode. All I want is to talk to a PERSON and explain the situation and see if they can switch me to another flight...I had looked up all flights leaving Appleton for O'Hare that day, partly to see if the cancellation was weather related or if it was just random (it was random, all other flights were listed "on time"), and knew that there were two other United Express flights that day I could switch to if they weren't full...which I worried they were quickly becoming as I was struggling with phone menus and other canceled commuters were grabbing up empty seats. Then I remembered hearing in passing about a website that collects information about how to actually get through to talk to a person when dealing with automated phone trees. I googled it. Bingo. What you have to do with United, apparently, is fib a little. It told me to get to the part of the menu where you switch from punching buttons to saying "yes", "no", "window seat", or "Denver" or whatever they're asking...and then no matter what the question is, to keep saying "AGENT" until it's successfully convinced you're actually a travel agent, and automatically routes your call to the phone bank in, from the sounds of it, Calcutta.

So the nice lady in India understood enough of my english, off her script as it was, to understand I could not wait 'til the next day to get out and still make my next 3 flights, and got me on a different flight the same day. Only problem was that flight was at 11am, and it was now after 7am, and I had to shower, pack, and get a hold of my ride...who, being my father and all, dislikes driving in any weather, much less the ice/snow conditions that had developed to cause my hair to turn grey as I watched the forecast deteriorate all week. All meaning, if I wanted to get to the airport, which is an hour away, at 10:30 for an 11-something flight, he'd want to leave at, say, sometime between 8:30 and 9:00. Totally do-able, says my dad and brother (who wanted to ride along), and after a quick stop at Napa to use my brother's previous emplyment to get a discount on an alternator to be messed with after my return, we made it to the house and then off to the Appleton airport in plenty of time. Well, aside from the 5-hour difference from the original plan, of course.

More to come...I can't believe I've typed this much and I'm not even off the ground. Sorry. It'll get better, I promise you...


Ahoy there!

I've decided that since this blog will be a journal and record both for myself and for friends and family, all about the big move and life up in Alaska starting this summer, I might as well kick it off by posting my account of my first trip to the "Alaskan Bush". I visited Anchorage last November, but that doesn't really count, does it? So without further adieu...enjoy!

And thanks for reading!!