Tales from the Travel Zeitgeist: Flying from here to there.

The Rowan Tree Travel mascot, Felicita the sheep, in London’s Heathrow Airport. Baaaa.

Last time I traveled this route, Santa Fe to Dallas to London to Edinburgh or Glasgow, I was chewed out by the counter person at American Airlines for not arriving sufficiently early for my flight. “Two hours prior to departure! Two hours prior to departure! Even if you’re already checked in! We have to route your luggage all the way through to a foreign country!!!” I wasn’t trying to be difficult by arriving an hour before my flight. With two gates and a capacity of about 50 people total, it never occurred to me that I’d need to arrive any more than 20 minutes prior to a flight departing from Santa Fe airport. But okay, okay! I’ll be there two hours early.

Tuesday morning I arrived one hour and fifty six minutes before my scheduled flight. Not only was I first in line at the counter, there was no one even working the counter for another half hour. So much for the two-hour-prior-to-take-off requirement. I tried to check in at the electronic kiosk. It couldn’t scan my passport. It couldn’t for the next person or the next person after that. Finally those of us already in line started advising people as they entered, observed the growing queue, and turned to move in the direction of the kiosk.

“Doesn’t work” someone would offer. Then we’d hear the sigh of resignation as the newcomer shuffle over to join us.

I don’t know if there’s no online check in anymore, or if it’s just for overseas travelers, or if it’s because of Covid, but I was unable to do so during the standard 24 hour window prior to departure. I usually do the online check in because I only take carryon luggage. No need to go to the counter. But I guessed the airlines might need to verify with travelers about entry requirements and documentation. No problem there. I was prepared! Had my passport and vaccination card and recent covid test report and my UK Passenger Locator form all ready for inspection. Here’s what I got from the American Airlines counter person in my hometown airport:

AA counter rep: “Ummm, did you meet all the requirements for travel to the UK?”

Me: “Yes”

AA counter rep: “Okay. Here are your boarding passes.”

That was it.

I walked away thinking, “For real? Did you just let me start a 20 hour marathon of connecting flights to a foreign country during a pandemic without checking anything???”

America! Hooray for individual choice and responsibility!

Santa Fe to Dallas. Tiny plane. Plus a boy scout troop!

I boarded my first flight. Santa Fe to Dallas. It’s a small-ish plane, just two seats on each side of the row. I had an aisle seat next to a pleasant looking lady. She was furiously working on a crochet project.

“Happy day!”, I thought. “What could be better than two crafters sitting side by side — really more like smooshed together in uncomfortably narrow seats — on a short plane ride?“

The crochet lady said to me “Oh honey, don’t worry about being so close or us touching. I’m cuddly!”

Then she proceeded to tell me she works as a lunch lady at an elementary school. She also told me she was not vaccinated and had no intentions to get vaccinated. Period.

“Oh shit“, I thought.

And I vowed right then to NOT remove my mask during the remainder of the flight. Screw cookies or pretzels. Or water, even.

I looked around the plane and wondered how many of these lovely Americans, next to whom I’d be sitting and breathing for the next hour and a half, had not been vaccinated.

I’ll tell you, my heart sank.

Anyone traveling to a foreign country has to be vaccinated to gain entry. Anyone coming to America and passing through a foreign country on their way here has to be vaccinated. (At least I think so, and know it’s true for many countries). What was the greatest threat to my personal health and safety at that moment? You guessed it. My fellow Americans.

And despite multiple announcements through the flight and reminders by airline staff, I saw people continuously wear their masks incorrectly (not covering nose and mouth) or disregarding mask usage altogether. And not just because they were eating and drinking. I also overheard numerous conversations that revealed people were traveling continuously, mostly for vacations and events, and because they had money to burn.

I’m not happy to report this situation. I’d love to tell you all that since I’m vaccinated and have safeguarded my health, that of my loved ones and my wider community through almost two years of severely limited activity that I felt totally safe traveling in that plane. But I didn’t. I felt much more like a young person having sex without a condom, hoping that luck would be with me so my actions wouldn’t lead to pregnancy or an STD. Really. That’s how risky it felt.

All during that plane ride from Santa Fe to Dallas, I wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake. Had I misjudged the risk level? Was I exposing myself to an unpredictable and highly contagious variant just to experience a break in the tedium and monotony of the past 18 months?

The crochet lady in shorts. Me in the black and white stripes. Degree of separation: zero.

All I could do at that point was hope for the best. I also decided to be absolutely honest with you readers about my experience in that moment. Though that fear receded as I left the country, I was deeply anxious through that first flight. It could happen to you as well. I want you to be forewarned.

Was it, perhaps, my many months of social distancing that put me in a panic when placed that close to a stranger?

Was it the new, higher contagion rate of the Delta variant?

Was it my reluctance to engage with those in our society who feel their right to refuse vaccination is more important than my right to simply live, work and go about my life without getting ill?

I don’t know the answer.

But the experience was jarring.

Knitting. Calms the mind, gives jittery fingers something to do.

Then suddenly, everything changed.

I arrived in Dallas, hefted my carryons and made the trek from one terminal to another. And suddenly, everything was different. In transitioning to the international terminal, I’d left noncompliance and lackadaisical efforts behind. Instead of an interior space teeming with casual domestic travelers, I entered a hushed, sparsely populated environment. Every individual wore a mask. Correctly. Everyone maintained social distance from parties not their own. People entered eating areas with masks on and reset them into place on exiting. In sum, people were careful.

“What’s going on here?” I thought to myself.

The tone of the international flight turned out to be entirely different as well. As we boarded, people maintained distance from those in front of them. They looked to airport staff to direct them as to when to move forward, when to lower masks for photo i.d. verification, what steps they should take next. Not one face had a mask on incorrectly. Even children had masks on, with parents gently reminding them over and over to adjust back to a proper fit. I can’t tell you how many people grabbed hand sanitizer as they entered the plane. But every passenger I observed during boarding did so.

Over the course of the next 8 1/2 hours, despite discomfort, the need to eat, drink, sleep, and converse over loud engines, travelers on the international flight from DFW to London were compliant with masking requirements and social distancing when possible. They gave each other space in the aisle. They checked their masks to be sure all the proper bits were covered. They were polite and even kind towards each other. I had many conversations with fellow passengers. I wanted to talk with them and sensed a keen enthusiasm for interaction on their part as well. Almost everyone was flying for work related reasons, or to see family they hadn’t seen for months or years, or because they’d thought the pandemic would be well over by the time their trips came around.

It seemed to me that everyone was trying to do the right thing while immersed in a difficult situation.

I’ve pondered the juxtaposition between the first flight I experienced and the second quite a bit since then. Not actively. That rarely works. But I’ve held the stark contrast in my subconscious for a couple of days, letting it steep like tea. Eventually, with hot water and tea leaves — and time — the right level of concentration occurs. Where once there was water, voila! Tea.

So it goes with questions and the subconscious. Where once I had observations and a vague sense of something in need of an answer, voila! A theory.

Here it is, in a nutshell: I believe the difference in atmosphere between the first flight and the second flight (and therefore my comfort level) had to do with the level of entitlement exhibited by the travelers themselves.

Those with a high sense of entitlement, viewing travel at this time as a right, and masking and health restrictions as an impositions caused me to feel very much at risk. Clearly, they were not concerned about me, or anyone else, much at all.

But later, those travelers who acted with best efforts of compliance, who seemed to view travel as a privilege (or necessity, if work related), whose actions conveyed a “we’re all in this together” attitude — well, they just made me feel proud to be human. Even a little hopeful for the near future.

So, go figure.

Were you hoping for a clear view on whether to travel or not travel in the current zeitgeist? I was hoping to be able to give you one. Instead, I remain almost as ambivalent as I was before the journey. I say almost because the next two days do have an impact on my views. As will, I suppose, each ensuing day as it unfolds. But I’ll keep you apprised of my thoughts.

What I can tell you is that STILL, the hardest part of a travel adventure is the transition from home to the destination. For those of us from the mountain west, southwest and west coat, the flying time is looooong. It’s an endurance test of epic proportions. I didn’t travel like this when I was younger so have no sense of whether the difficulty is exacerbated by age. What I do know is that it takes every bit of patience, resolve, and frankly, deep breathing, to get through that long international jump, navigate my way through yet another layover and finally arrive at my destination. Tough, tough stuff.

But then I did get there. (Here, really, as I’m writing to you from the Isle of Skye.) I arrived and the air smelled of Scotland – green and cool and just a bit different in flavor. And Heather was there by my side to sit in the driver’s seat and take on the circuitous route out of the Glasgow airport. (I once tried to do it and spent ages circling roundabouts and cursing at drivers on the seemingly-wrong side of the road.) And despite rain and traffic, we passed out of the city and into open countryside. We found our hotel and dropped bags, stale clothing and concerns. We drove twenty minutes down the road to visit one of the few extant houses designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh & Margaret Macdonald. We returned to the inn for steak pie and haggis and tatties and a pint. I reveled in the soft feel of pajamas on my skin, a bed on which to stretch out, the breeze off Loch Lomond working its way into the room through open French doors, and wrote to you dear people before falling asleep. I’m in Scotland. The trip has truly begun.

Next time, less philosophy and more pictures. I promise.

6 comments

  1. Scotland sure looks good on you two! Take time to soak it all in.
    Keep the philosophy coming.I appreciate you insights.
    Navigating your way across country to fly to Europe is a marathon- without the added virus issues! I applaud your fortitude! I relate to your anxiety as the dreaded delta is another confusing unknown. The lady next to you on the flight is the reason I still wear a mask to work and everywhere else. Less than half the county I live in is fully vaxed and few wear masks. I do think I’ll feel safer on the flight to the UK. I’m flying direct international from Dulles fo my trip in October- no JFK for me please.

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  2. Ah Suzie – you’re timing is meticulous. Terry and I had a long-standing trip planned for next week to go to Buffalo, NY to attend the wedding of the daughter of our friends, Pat and Irene (you met them at Terry’s BD a couple of years ago). But last night and this morning and after a few weeks of discussion, what with the surge of the Delta variant and Terry’s health risks of diabetes and post-heart attack and his normal stress levels and frustrations w travel and the instability of pandemic travel – we decided to cancel our trip. So while you’ve been actually doing the travel, I spent half the day ‘undoing the travel’. Fortunately, we bought a totally refundable ticket which American Airlines has promised to process in a timely manner. American has been one of the major airlines cancelling flights and we would be traveling through two airports in TX where the virus is again exploding (El Paso going to Buffalo connecting in Chicago) and Dallas (coming back from Buffalo). We both decided it wasn’t worth the health risk to either of us, even though we’ve both been vaccinated, there are so many in Texas who haven’t been…so no traveling for us likely at least for the next few months. Be safe and enjoy and keep those pictures coming. What a beautiful place – the Bonnie green of Scotland….

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  3. You are one heck of a writer. Loved every sentence. The pix really upped the piece.

    Can’t wait for next episode.

    linda w dillman

    >

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  4. Great writing, even the sleepy first one! Travel is still very unpredictable, you totally nailed the two types of travelers. I am pretty sure the Macintosh house you went to is the same one Darrell and I visited years ago- Hill House? Skye is such a special place. We hiked the Storrs and ate as much local seafood as possible. An amazing place, have a great time

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  5. Wondrous reflections……….Give Felicita a hug from me……..have her picture on my water bottle here at home.

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