SOMEWHERE OUTSIDE OF WIMBERLEY, TEXAS — I’m sitting on the deck at the Roadrunner Ranch, my brother’s place in Hill Country, Texas.
The good news is that real life still exists outside of the bitter political divide that seems to loom over everything these days, where people can visit with loved ones to talk pleasantly about everything and nothing at all. As I write, my brother and sister are enjoying early afternoon coffee, and the deer and gray foxes have finished lunch in the shade of the live oak tree and gone off to nap in the underbrush.
The better news is that my sister and I arrived here safely and in relatively good spirits, without any major headaches on our trip. If you’ve mostly sheltered in place in Indiana for the last year and a half and want to get back out there, you should be glad to know that air travel is pretty much back to normal.
Which is to say: just awful.
Well, not exactly just awful.
My friend Joe, who wrote features for the Michigan City News-Dispatch, was also the toughest movie critic I have ever met. Since he ended up in Chicago, editing Roger Ebert’s copy, I bow to him as an expert on the subject. He had only three ratings for movies: stinks, doesn’t stink and better than doesn’t stink.
“But, Joe,” I once asked him, “what about that rare movie that gets everything exactly right and shines as a beacon of film-making perfection? What would you call that movie?”
“Well, if I ever see one, I’ll let you know.”
I have adapted Joe’s rating system, with minor alterations, for air travel. There are only three kinds of air-travel experiences: not quite awful, awful, and worse than awful. Even if you do everything right, and there are no weather reschedulings or other act-of-God delays, not quite awful is the best you can expect.
To that end, seasoned traveler that I am, I offer two suggestions to take the edge off the awfulness.
The first is to go First Class. Yes, you’re paying ridiculously more to travel in the same plane to the same destination. But if you’re not a frequent flyer, if you get on a plane once a year instead of several times, it’s worth the cost.
You are seated two to a row, not three. Each passenger has an armrest in the middle instead of having to share one. There is actual leg room. And the flight attendants treat you with more respect. If not comfortable, it is certainly less uncomfortable.
The other is to leave the car at home. Take an Uber ride instead of facing the nightmare of airport traffic at the beginning and end of the trip. Our driver was polite but not talkative (the perfect combination), the car was showroom-floor clean, and the trip was straightforward. Since the price is calculated ahead of time, the driver is not incentivized to take the long way around to rack up the miles and cost.
Still, air travel is air travel. And with our layover in Atlanta, roughly three hours of actual in-air time equated to 11 hours of travel hell, pushed this way and that like cattle in the chute, dumb beasts at the mercy of malevolent forces.
And, God, the masks.
Since we were flying on Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of our national humiliation, we’d thought the trip would be permeated with gloomy chatter about terrorism and the haunting possibility we were flying on the wrong day.
Sure, there were the suits on cable, mumbling on TV sets in the cavernous air terminals about the wonderful unity of the country back then and how terrible it was that we lost it, before they went into the latest diatribe illustrating how they have helped orchestrate that disunity.
But otherwise, it was COVID, COVID, COVID all the time, especially on the plane. The flight attendants let us know how very serious the airline was about the whole thing. Mouth and nose covered all times, and even if you’re eating or drinking, masks back up between bites and sips. And if you don’t comply, there can be civil and criminal penalties, and, oh, yes, we will kick you off the plane.
I thought one of them might be grinning when he said it, but who could tell, really?
I came to see the trip as a metaphor for where we’ve come as a country, huddled together but kept apart, anonymous behind our masks, wondering if we can ever touch down and resume our normal lives.
So, I will enjoy my time here even more than usual, trying not to think about the not-quite awful trip to come. If I let myself dwell on that, I might be tempted to have my lunch in the shade of the live oak tree then wander off to nap in the underbrush.
Maskless, thank you very much. It’s a precaution, not a religion, OK?