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 bad...my 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 :-)

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