Travelers blues

So it was, as we arced out of the airport at LA after crawling painfully to it through the traffic along the 405, as we settled into the airplane seats for the unjustly long coast-to-coast flight, which leaves one gazing desperately at the Skymiles catalog as a sort of antidote to fatal ennui rather than the suck of despair it really is (“the Victorian Glowing Painting! The turbo yuppie nose hair trimmer! The officially licensed Porsche self-motorized wheelchair!”), that I decided that travel has, after all, compensatory value.

Sure, there are downsides to spending one to three nights a week on the road, particularly when one’s wife is unwell and the dogs need to be put under general anesthesia for a dental procedure. (Which, by the way, is something that far too few human dentists seem willing to do.) But the opportunity to catch up on weeks of neglected email, to rearrange one’s Documents folder, to sit next to one’s vice president and look productive… priceless.

As I think back, though, the route between LA and the east coast has been a good one for me. Back in 1995, the LAX-Dulles route was the first I flew regularly, traveling between a DOD site and my former employer’s offices in the DC suburbs. It was this route on which I had my first really bad travel experience (chronicled elsewhere on this site), in which a brief delay extended to four hours’ delay on the ground at Dulles and a four hour free stay in an airport hotel in LA before proceeding to the poetically named Inyokern Airport (international call letters: IYK, “Icky” phonetically). Yes, gentle reader, back then airlines put you up gratis if their colossal blunders and failures to abide by generally accepted maintenance practices left you stranded; compare to my experiences trying to get from Boston to Salt Lake in September, which left me stranded in Chicago for 18 hours completely on my own nickel. But the route had its charms. Back then food on the flight, while dubious, was free, and while beer and wine were $3 (somehow, priced at a value point less than hard alcohol, as though the point was to make one visit the restroom to void the extra water included in the $1 discounted bargain) it was nice to sit with a 187ml bottle of something vaguely Californian and read.

Some of those cross-country flights were notable cultural experiences for me. I still remember settling back with a hardback 1940s edition of For Whom the Bell Tolls (purchased in some Georgetown used bookstore, now long vanished) and a small bottle of cabernet, and finding wedged into the pages a photo of a Korean woman, perhaps a serviceman’s sweetheart. I still have the book, and the photo, and will have to scan the latter and post it. Perhaps someone can reclaim that piece of a family history. I just know that it gave me a shudder of synchronicity as reminders of one war nestled among the fictional recollections of another.

Or on another occasion, one of several red-eyes, armed with a newly affordable portable CD player and falling asleep to a newly purchased copy of the Hilliard Ensemble’s Codex Specialnik, as pure a celebration of Renaissance polyphony in all its anonymous glory that the great men’s ensemble has ever produced.

And tonight, on one of the few LA-to-east-coast direct flights that I’ve taken since those days, I sit with a laptop and a “RightBites” box dinner, which costs $5 and combines various organic processed foods (pita chips, hummus, Late July brand “rich crackers,” canned tuna, raisins, Toblerone bar) into what still feels like a school lunch. But I have a 187ml bottle of cabernet, now also $5 (the same price as the Devil’s liquor), and a laptop with a podcast from KEXP on it, and noise cancelling headphones, which alone are worth much of the inconvenience that has occurred in the intervening 11 years.

And what if the turbulence makes it difficult to read the high-resolution LCD screen of the laptop? And what if I will arrive home after midnight and have to attend to another sales prospect, another customer issue, another product decision, bright and early tomorrow morning? I have wine and music. Who can say I am not the happy genius of my household?