Just got back from a short trip out west.
Like lots of people in the North Country, I’m a long way from an airport that offers commercial jet service. My home near Potsdam is four hours from Albany. Ottawa is almost always too expensive. Syracuse is three hours away and unreachable when the snow is too heavy. Burlington is more than three hours.
I could fly from Ogdensburg or Massena on a 9-seat propeller plane. I’d rather get dental work, without anesthesia. While I like the convenience, I hate the cramped quarters, turbulence and motion sickness. Always have. But my aversion to air travel deepened after a plane I was on in Europe got hit by lightning and went into a sharp dive. Masks dropped. People screamed. It was bad. The pilot recovered, obviously, but I didn’t.
Getting back to the local offerings, there’s the recently added option of jet service from Watertown to Chicago. Like the flights out of St. Lawrence County, these are subsidized by the federal government and so they fit my budget, but didn’t work with my schedule for this trip.
So, I booked a ticket out of Albany. My flight was delayed, repeatedly, then canceled. At least the airline put me in a hotel and gave me a ticket on another carrier the next day.
That’s when I realized my driver’s license was expired. Rental car companies don’t give you the keys if you don’t have a valid license – even if you’ve pre-paid your rental, as I had.
First lesson: Don’t. Ever. Pre-pay. A rental car. The pricing online might make it look like a good deal. If your airline cancels your flight – even when the airline admits fault for the cancellation – it will not pay for the other things you’ve booked, but now have to cancel. This includes rental cars, hotels and anything else.
They also won’t pay for the time your car spent in airport parking. Curse all you want, this is the reality of modern air travel.
Yes, there is a new passenger “Bill of Rights” that requires airlines to give you hundreds of dollars if you’re thrown off an over-sold flight. But this is the only circumstance in which you’re entitled to any compensation. A maintenance problem is a flight “irregularity” (like a weather delay) and (if it’s the first flight on your itinerary, not a connection) this entitles you to exactly one grimace and/or “sorry” from a gate agent. I was lucky to get a hotel and I only got that because I moaned about my four-hour drive to the airport.
I did eventually reach San Francisco, with just enough time to join my parents for dinner and catch a train from Martinez, California to Klamath Falls, Oregon.
If you like travel, you owe it to yourself to take this trip.
Before the train came, I was sitting in the high-backed wooden benches of the station when a woman around 30, an adolescent girl with dyed blue hair and a younger girl – around 10 – walked in and sat across from me.
The woman took an iPad from her bag and began reading aloud to the younger girl. The blue-haired teen was already enthralled with her phone, texting away.
But within a few minutes, she and I started listening to the woman read. A moment later, she passed the iPad to the young girl, who also read aloud.
I caught the names Lydia and Mr. Bennett and realized they were reading Pride and Prejudice, still one of my favorite novels.
It struck me as noteworthy because this very modern group was reading an 18th Century novelist on a 21st Century contraption, while traveling on a 19th Century conveyance.
We were waiting for the Starlight Express, Amtrak’s night departure that – by dawn – winds through redwoods, iconic wild valleys and around the snow-covered monolith of Mt Shasta.
This wasn’t like my past train rides from Albany into NYC: increasingly noisy affairs on commuter cars with seats resembling those on buses or planes. My trip through northern California was quiet as a library. The train had only double-decker cars with wide seats upstairs and bathrooms down. There was a dining car, a cafe car and a glass-domed viewing car, too.
In the morning, the Amtrak bus took me from Klamath Falls to Medford, OR where I could actually rent a car. There’s no difference or change in regulations in Oregon. The woman behind the counter simply didn’t look at or react to the expiration date on my license.
My destination was the Britt Music Festival in Jacksonville, OR where my wife plays each summer. I caught the last concert of the three-week program and fell in love with the town, primarily built of brick and wood, walkable in a 10-minute span and free of rain and humidity until the beginning of winter.
Together, we drove south, winding our way eventually through the Napa Valley, where we ate outside under the white pergola and luminaries of the Calistoga Inn. Sitting there, it’s impossible and pointless to not feel like you’re starring in a really good romantic movie.
We spent the night at the Raford Inn, near Healdsburg in Sonoma County. My newly drafted plan for world peace involves giving everyone 15 uninterrupted minutes on the porch. All you see are vineyards and trees. The B&B’s owners make wine, of course, and one of the best breakfasts I’ve had in a long time.
Then we went to Jack London’s house in Glen Ellen, walked around the square in old Sonoma and drank wine on the balcony of Artesa – the only winery in Napa or Sonoma County where you can see San Francisco.
The next day was devoted to family and friends and re-charged my batteries.
San Francisco is hosting the America’s Cup trials and the City was a bit crowded, but we got a nice, clean hotel room for $160, made our way to the airport and had remarkably tranquil and just-about-perfect flights to Chicago, then Albany.
We landed just before 11:00 p.m. and I thought we’d rent a room and then drive home the next morning.
Ah ha ha. It’s racing season in Saratoga. The Holiday Inn Express did have a room available for $369. We drove to Lake Placid, where we got the last room for $160.
The next morning, I wondered about the difference between price gouging and the cost of a room anywhere between Albany and Schroon Lake during racing season. Maybe you know?
Back in the car, we caught On Point’s re-airing of an hour on Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. My wife loves his work. She listened intently, air conducted and talked about some questions raised on the show.
The sky was blue. The clouds were puffy. The late-summer Adirondacks rolled by.
And all of it – the delays, the frustrations, the flights, the re-uniting with my wife after three weeks apart, southern Oregon, northern California, the vineyards, the winery, the family and friends and then coming home – it was all beautiful, beyond words.