My Inconvenience

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This is not the post I wanted to make.  This is not the outcome I wanted to share.  This post essentially becomes an offshoot of the last I wrote about airline travel, but it is not a story that is the same kind and lighthearted storytelling as that previous post.  I never want to post something in this blog that is disappointing or disheartening.

Then I again, none of this is what I wanted.

Last Thursday, I was scheduled to present at a Graduate Seminar at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI.  The seminar, based on spaceflight & quality assurance, would be the chance to build up the accumulation of my career and speak to professors and students at my alma mater of the critical areas of expertise and passion.  In many ways, it felt like a validation that what my college experience was still put out an active person working in a great field.

It didn’t happen.

This seminar and the day long of meetings with different people at MTU didn’t happen.

It didn’t happen, because a connecting flight was 10 minutes late, and United Airlines maintained their on-time departure for the next.

Typically when I share stories of airline trouble, I leave company names out of it.  I am not, because in this case, they don’t deserve to be left anonymous.

My history with United tends to be unlucky, but then again, travel with most airlines for me tends to be unlucky.  Trouble is, United does not have much room for bad luck.  They tend to schedule tight connection times in big airports.  While I know people that swear by United, there are times I can see why and there are times I don’t.  Some things, like communicating with their customers, they do really well – but when you have multiple delays and multiple situations where customers needed to be communicated too, they need it.  Others tell me that upgrading for leg room is a good thing with United — well, I’m short, so I don’t care as much as legroom, but I can tell you that upgrade gets you the same leg room on other airlines without paying $50 a flight extra.  I find their in-flight experience lacking and their equipment outdated, but those are just little things.  My main problem is what exactly happened on this trip.

Let me start by saying that this was going to be a troubling trip regardless.  The closest airport to the school is Houghton County Airport, located just short of a half-hour from the school.  By small airport standards, this even smaller than you think.  Currently, it has two commercial flights a day – which comes into play later in this story.  United Airlines is the only airline that services the airport.  Now, there are other options further away like Marquette, Duluth, or even Green Bay; but that was not what was selected for this trip.  Because I was invited by the school at the school’s expense, they set the travel.  While I offered options, I don’t know what they were given from their travel service or United Airlines.  Yet there is a critical moment in the itinerary that was risky at best and doomed the event in the plan at worst.

There were actually six planned flights.  I would depart from Burbank to Denver, connect from Denver to Chicago O’Hare, then O’Hare to Houghton.  Return is similar but went through San Francisco instead of Denver.  The hangup was the 2nd connection.

It actually started in Denver.  About twenty minutes before we were to board, the pilot got on the PA at the gate.  Now, it’s usually a bad sign when your pilot is talking to you before you get on the plane … and he actually said those exact words.  He followed it with promises that we would leave on time and arrive on time.  It’s just we didn’t have a plane.  Two gates side by side had planes departing with mechanical issues.  Since they couldn’t park the incoming, we were on an unknown delay.  This was odd to me since, if you ever been to Denver International Airport you might have seen this (and even if you heard of the city of Denver and can guess what their airport might look like), they have more than two gates.  We didn’t in-fact depart on time, and we didn’t in-fact arrive on time.  We left Denver 20 minutes late and arrived at our gate 10 minutes late into O’Hare.  Now you might think “10 minutes isn’t bad”.

Well … My layover in Chicago was scheduled to be 39 minutes.

By procedure, United can book a connection that is 35 minutes or greater.  There are no caveats to that, just the 35 minutes.  This is odd to me because United starts boarding 35 minutes before departure and states they can close the plane door at 15 minutes to go.  I received notice that my flight was boarding while still sitting on my inbound Denver plane.  So the assumption is that I can transfer from one plane to another in 20 minutes (or by schedule 24 minutes … or by my exact condition 14 minutes).  What this time span does not consider is:

  • Time to de-plane.  Thinking ahead, I did buy one of those upgrades, so I was sitting in the 2nd row.  You do need someone to move the jetbridge, though, but that doesn’t count towards any delays – especially if it takes 5 minutes for someone to arrive.
  • Distance between gates.  For instance, I had to transfer from Gate C28 in Terminal 1 to Gate E7 in Terminal 2.  So yeah, I had to switch terminals.  Assuming you don’t know O’Hare well, let me explain what this really means.  Start at one end of one hallway walk about 200 yards, take a slow escalator down two flights, cross a quarter mile on a moving walkway, take a slow escalator up two flights, head down a new hallway about 150 yards, turn a corner, go down another 100 yard hallway, duck around some corners in another 100 yard dash, turn a corner, make it down the last stretch to the gate.
  • There is no assistant given to non-disabled travelers to help make short connections.  Even though the airport was mostly empty and folks had carts available, assistance is not available.
  •  Any choices made by the gate crew to close boarding early.  Which, in fact, happens.

I stepped off my Denver plane at 8:52pm, 24 minutes before my departure time.  I arrived at Gate E7 at 9:06, 9 minutes before departure time.  The gate agent closing the plane up was down there for 4 minutes ignoring knocks at the door or calls from other staff.  At 9:10, 5 minutes before departure time, the gate agent arrived.  The conversation went:
Me:  “I am on this flight, my connection was delayed.”
Agent:  “The door is closed.”
Me: “It hasn’t departed.”
Agent: “I can’t open it back up.”
Me:  “So what happens now?”
Agent: “Have you spoken to customer service.”
Me:  “No.”
Agent:  “Speak to customer service.”

By this time two others from my flight were by my side.   So, at least three of us missed this flight.

Minutes later, I was told the devastating news — the next flight with available seats would arrive just before Midnight the next day after the graduate seminar was over.  In fact, I would arrive on the same that would fly me back the next morning.  I was given no choice but to cancel the whole trip.

The cold response from the gate agent was one of someone who gets yelled at daily for this kind of thing.  He, in response, followed procedure.  A procedure that does not make him question why so many people failed to board a plane.  A procedure that does not communicate between connecting flights that things did not go as plan.  A procedure that finds that re-routing passengers is preferred over the best interests of those passengers.

You might ask yourself, why United wouldn’t hold the plane when three people were coming in on a late flight.  Well, first I would say ‘Good Question,’ because the better the question, the dumber the answer.   Likely, the United team was following policy. Probably their top priority was on-time aircraft.  While I came in on a late plane, while holding the outgoing plane by 5 to 10 minutes might have been enough to have all their passengers on board, and while there was a chance they still could have had an on-time departure just to give that little bit of waiting — clearly an on-time departure was more important than ensuring people get where they bought a ticket to go to.  

I fly American, and one thing they do that sticks out to me (especially when flying through DFW) is they wait for late arrivals.  There’s been more than once that I am sitting in a small commuter flight when it is late in the date and we are all itching to get to our last stop – when a pilot or flight attendant comes on and says they are waiting for a couple of people.  In that moment, you don’t think about that late arrival by a couple minutes – you think of “if it was me, what would I want other passengers to do?”

Well … United in Chicago doesn’t think like that.

By the time I spoke to customer service, there were about 15 people from the Denver flight who missed connections across Terminal 2.  Customer service told me that because mechanical issues were the cause, they would give me:

  • Re-route back to my destination.  Because I guess if it was weather delays, I would have to walk to Burbank.
  • A hotel … off the airport … good distance away … perfect for an early morning flight back.
  • Vouchers for meals, which at 9:30pm in a vacant airport didn’t really get me anything.  Did get me a disgusting bagel sandwich in the morning that I couldn’t eat (because I was still kind of shaken up) … so basically $3 worth of food and a bottle of orange juice.
  • Someone who had the nerve to say “Sorry for your inconvenience.”

I don’t yell at customer service.  It gets you nowhere.  She was following the procedure as well, probably.  That’s the thing though.

I wanted to yell.  I wanted to scream.  My inconvenience.  A delay getting home after a long week is an inconvenience.  Having to change routes or airlines is an inconvenience.  Flying standby in a middle seat is an inconvenience.  Getting sick from a disgusting bagel is an inconvenience.

I missed what I was sure would be one of the great moment in years for me.  I had the opportunity to meet with young minds, old minds, and caring minds.  I was there to talk about the future of space flight in a small school and small organization that needs every leg up it can take.  I was giving back to my past.

Of all the times I have air travel problems, and of all the times I’ve been ‘inconvenienced,’ this was the first time that I broke down.  The agent was helping me with the route home, and I had to stop – I nearly had to take a knee.  I wasn’t inconvenienced, I was wrecked.  As I pushed my shaking hands to rid the tears out of my eyes, I nearly choked “just get me home.”

I am considering making a formal complaint.  It wasn’t out of my pocket, so I don’t really think a refund is in order.  I believe that if 10 people read this, and they tell 10 friends, and even if every one of them never flies United again – it won’t even add up to one plane of the thousands that ‘fly the friendly skies’ daily.  Most of all, I don’t want to complain because their likely retribution would be a flight voucher … and if I can’t trust someone to fulfill my expectations at full cost, why could I trust them to do it for free.  Then again, I may submit a complaint out of a sense of duty.

I just need to heal for a bit.

So, that’s why this post wasn’t what I hoped it to be.  Thanks for hearing me out anyway.

 

 

Top-Ish Lists: Frequent Flier Crazy

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Here’s something new and different … I was traveling this week.  Yeah, strange, isn’t it?  No seriously, I was traveling this week, like I did last week, and like I will take next week.  I’m cranking a lot of flight miles right now; but then again, I have been for most of the last 18 years.  I don’t travel as much as some business travelers, but I have seen some things, some crazy weird things.

In fact, this week, I added to the list of crazy weird things that happened when flying.  It made me reminisce about all those crazy weird things, and next thing I knew, a list was coming together.  One of my favorite “Top-ish lists.”  So let’s do this.

As with all these lists, there must be rules … because without rules I can’t overexplain things.  The rules this time are:

  • This is a list of weird and crazy things that I remember happening to me when traveling by air.  Which means:
    • I have to be the one traveling, that leaves out the time I watched a plane land without landing gear from a hotel bar.
    • It has to be when traveling by air, so the time I almost was blown up on a subway doesn’t count either.
    • By ‘happened to me,’ I only mean I was on the plane when it happened – it could have been others that it really happened to.
    • I have to remember it.  Like, I swear there was another aborted landing, but I can’t remember it.  I want to blame Milwaukee.
  • The list includes times when I was in danger, but in no case was I injured, wounded, or killed.  I mean, I might have been killed, but I would think an afterlife would mean I will be writing a heck of a lot more blog posts (either as a reward or punishment, if you get my drift).
  • I am not listing airlines here because, honestly, it may paint the wrong picture.  Except in a couple of cases, I really can’t blame the airlines or airline personnel for any of these items – in fact, most cases the airline personnel performed admirably even in the face of overreacting passengers.  That being said, if you know me well enough, you may know I have an airline preference and can connect the dots from there.

So here we go.  In order of “none of your business what order this is in” here is…

My Top-6 Weird and Crazy Stories from Air Travel

1) This Just Happened! – The aborted take-off

When I say “this just happened” I mean, it JUST happened on Wednesday.  After a long six-hour flight, I had a short layover in Phoenix before the final leg to Burbank.  Tired, cranky, and ready to see the pup, I was set for a 4pm arrival.  We were delayed at gate for an issue with the pilot’s oxygen mask, something he apologized enthusiastically about.  Yet after just about 15 minutes, we headed out, reached the runway, then the fun began.  The plane powered up, we rolled down the strip, and just as we were closing in on takeoff speed, there with a bump and a rattle.  The pilots immediately powered down, slowed, and pulled us off the runway.  Many of us were laughing about it being a blown tire, but in a couple minutes, we learned the truth.  Something was ingested into an engine.  It could have swallowed a blade or picked up some foreign object debris, but the pilots said that it made the warning lights go off like a Christmas tree.  It was a pretty safe situation, it happened early enough on the runway that we had a ton of it left to slow.  Of course, a few seconds later and we are talking about being underpowered on liftoff, and in an emergency situation.  Instead, after a two-hour delay to get a new plane, we were on our way.

2) The Legend of the Phantom Cousin – Emergency Landing #1

This is actually a story that’s passed around our family for over a decade, and I think I even shared this in the blog once.  My cousin Ed was getting married in Minnesota.  I had set myself up for a great weekend, flying up from Wichita to Rochester through Chicago on a Friday, renting a convertible, and ready to chill with the family.  Leaving Wichita, the plane headed out and took off without any sign of trouble.  About five minutes into the flight there were a couple of alerts from the pilot to the flight attendant until at some point we got the explanation.  Apparently, the onboard computer believed we were still on the ground and wouldn’t allow the landing gear to retract.  The plane couldn’t be flown like that, so we had to return to Wichita.  Problem was, there was no way to know if the gear were locked in the lowered condition, so they had to declare an emergency landing.  The plane landed safely, though the fire trucks following us was a little upsetting,  As we prepared to deplane, they announced that the plane couldn’t go to Chicago – and they wouldn’t have another plane come in that night.  Despite the fact we just were in a frickin’ emergency landing, many of the passengers lost it in anger.  Despite the fact their world almost ended, having to reschedule a flight was like a world had ended to them.  Of course, my options were pretty limited … not a lot of flights to Rochester, not a lot of ways to get to those flights.  I would basically arrive about 12 hours before I would have to depart.  So I chose to stay home.  For nearly a decade afterward, my new cousin-in-law thought I was phantom, a ghost, a myth that didn’t exist.  Then again, I was in an emergency landing, so … I could have died.

3) Something Wasn’t Right – Aborted Landing

I tell you what is unsettling – aborted landings.  I watched a ton of them in Milwaukee from my patio overlooking the airport.  From the ground, you see that plane getting close to the runway, and then the engines power to full and the landing gear pull up.  It sounds like a final act of desperation to safe an ending.  The quirky lake weather in Milwaukee could mean a bad night could have a half dozen of them happening over the hours.  So when I was coming into Boston once and felt the engines start to roar, I knew something was up.  The weather was a little shaky, there was some turbulence, but other than a little rain, things didn’t seem too out of place.  Yet when we cleared the airport, I could see we were higher than normal.  The pilot came on and said ‘something wasn’t right on approach.’  My guess is he missed the approach.  But what do I know?

4) We Show You Departed – Powerless in Dayton

For the record, this is the one story that reflects badly on an airline – but I don’t fly them anymore.  Most of these stories tend to be about commuter flights, but that is the nature of a lot of my lifetime travel.  For instance, I judged a lot in Dayton when I lived in Wichita.  While I could drive the 45 miles to Cincinnati to fly home, adding the extra leg to Dayton sometimes save as much as half the price of a plane ticket because of demand.  Rarely was this an issue with the 25-minute flight, but on one morning it was.  It was 6:30am, and I was about five minutes from boarding when the power went out at the airport.  All of it.    I thought it didn’t mean much since the plane wasn’t affected, but security came through, and things changed.  All the doors in the terminal were electronically locked, and for safety purposes, loss of power unlocked them all.  This meant everyone had access to the runway – which from a post-9/11 world is a problem.  They ushered us all out past security, which now started the next problem.  No power meant that we couldn’t re-enter, no metal detectors.  Until the power came back, none of us would get access to any airplanes – no one was leaving.  After four hours (all of it spent sitting on a marble floor), enough power was restored that they could let us reenter the terminal.  Problem was, computers were back up yet, so they couldn’t figure out what to do with everyone.  This was when I found out my plane left.  I called the airline (rather than wait in line), and I was told I was in Cincinnati, mind you … I wasn’t.  The Dayton staff, knowing they had no control over rebooking anyone without computers, did the one thing they thought would help.  There was a plane scheduled to go to Atlanta, and enough people were around that they thought they could fill it … so they did.  A couple of hours later, we arrived in Atlanta.  I met a representative, and she proceeded to tell me … 1) Dayton didn’t lose power, because her computer didn’t say it did, 2) I wasn’t in Atlanta, and 3) I missed my flight to Wichita during my layover Cincinnati.  After a great outpouring of patience on my side, and some hand waving to prove that I was physical, in fact, standing in front of her in Atlanta, I was booked on another flight.  Not to Wichita, mind you, to Cincinnati, because that was my route.  So, about nine hours after I should have boarded a 20-minute flight for Cincinnati, I was finally in Cincinnati.  Where my flight to Wichita was delayed.

SOAPBOX moment — Just so it’s out there.  If you ever find yourself in a crazy travel situation, my advice is to show as much patience and respect to the airline representatives.  For one thing … it’s not their fault … mostly.  I mean, sometimes the ‘airline’ is at fault, but the representatives at gates or counters can’t change that.  While most will help you regardless of how you act, you get better service if you show that patience.  If you really think you deserve better than you are treated, contact customer service after you get home … they’ll take care of you.

5) Spoiler Alert, Alcohol was Involved – Landing for the Authorities

On a fun trip from DFW to ‘Strugglebus International Airport’ (Moline, IL), I was lucky to score an upgrade to first class .. on a commuter jet.  I wasn’t the first one on, but the only one I remember ahead was a professional looking woman.  As I was putting my bag up, I accidentally bumped her, and she reacted … well … weird.  Shortly after takeoff, she got up, like really shortly after takeoff.  I thought I saw her move into the bathroom, but could hear some conversations with the female flight attendant who sat through the take-off up front.  It wasn’t long, maybe a few minutes, and the woman returned to her seat.  The male flight attendant, who sat in the back, had made his way to the front and pulled out the drink cart.  The woman got up again, had a quick chat with the male but was doing so over top of the drink cart.  At this point it seemed pretty clear they weren’t doing anything with the cart, just letting it sit there.   … and that’s when the pilot said we were returning to DFW, no reason given.  We landed, started pulling up to the gate, and the pilot announced that we should remain seated until told otherwise.  No sooner than the door opened, and two officers boarded the plane.  They walked up to the woman, asked her to grab her things, and come with them.  Another officer stepped on and started talking to the flight attendants.  After a few minutes, the pilot finally gave us an explanation.  Turns out the woman in question felt mistreating the female flight attendant.  The rest I found out from a web search (I mean, it wasn’t hard, I basically found the article on ‘bad passengers’ Facebook group).  It turns out the woman asked for a nice nightcap, and the flight attendant feeling the woman had a few already, refused.  The woman disagreed and showed her disapproval with grace and dignity … with a slap across the flight attendants face.  Yeah … by the way … don’t slap flight attendants.  You get jail time.

6) All This for an Inflight Movie — Emergency Landing #2, and then some

Hold onto your butts on this one.  I had just finished 6 days on the last minute, highly visible, and potentially career-limiting stay at a supplier in Torino, Italy.  Yes, Italy is great, but this was a really tough situation; I mean, I had to reschedule my return trip because I didn’t find the smoking gun all my management expected me to find.  I just wanted to come home, just wanted to let life go back to normal, but this wasn’t going to be a normal flight.  The flight was from Milan to JFK, before a couple of connections back to Wichita.  About 30 minutes into the flight, the pilot made us aware of a minor electrical issue.  He stated the flight controls, avionics, and all other things to keep the plane flying was fine … but the entertainment system wasn’t working.  For some reason, the pilot said this was going to be needed for the overseas flight, and we needed to land to fix it.  The thing was, they couldn’t repair it in Milan, the airline maintenance was in Rome.  So we had to fly to Rome … to fix the entertainment system.  After about an hour, the pilot comes on again and tells us that we should expect a routine landing … except for the fire trucks.  Because we had a full load of fuel, the plane would be coming in a little hot, which means officially we would be making an emergency landing … again, for the entertainment system.  We landed, got isolated on the runway until fire trucks could make sure things weren’t on fire, and then we started taxing to someplace where we can park.  That’s when this story goes from weird and crazy, to REALLY weird and crazy.  It turns out that Italian laws state that if a plane lands on Italian soil at a different location than on the flight plan, the pilot needs to be immediately detained.  So … our pilot was arrested.  Let me restate … Our Pilot Was Arrested … for an entertainment system.  We couldn’t get off the plane because then we would be arrested, because, yeah, the entertainment system.  We eventually arrived, with our pilot, five hours late into JFK.  It led to a ridiculously short night at a Chicago airport hotel before getting me home, but at least I stayed out of jail.

Learnin’ the Flag Dancing

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Yesterday, I ended another judging season, which either confuses some of you, raises an eyebrow for others, and maybe just bores the rest. For you long time Bear Feeders, you might have came across me droning on and on about some kind of bands and drums and things thing (that’s the marching band activity for people who want to use correct words for things). I’ve been involved in the activity in one way or another nearly continuously for almost 30 years. A majority of that time, I’ve been a judge during fall marching band competitions. For a guy who changes hobbies sometimes with the seasons,. Holding on to this activity and doing my part to be in it still should mean to you that it means something to me. It does – a lot. I tend to say, judging is the best job in the world if not for the hours. I get to watch great performances in the best seat in the house while people feed me and pay me, and all I have to do is write down a number those kids deserve. Only down side is that I only work 4 to 6 days of the year doing it. I almost spend more time clarifying the tax implications of the activity than I do judging.

Well, last year, I decided to see if I wanted to do more.

When you talk about the marching band (or now called the ‘marching arts activity’), it’s good to know that there are actually three seasons to the activity with three distinct differences (and one of those seasons has three distinct differences in itself). The most traditionally recognized is Marching Band – a fall activity that is essentially a competitive form of your football halftime shows. The second is very similar called Drum Corps. This is a summer program that is essentially a higher level production of the fall marching band. These are independent organizations that tour the country and perform programs with world class production levels. The world championship of drum corps is generally considered the highest level of the activity. Finally, there is the winter program, and that’s what I have dipped my foot into.

When you break down a marching band or drum corps program, you can isolate out three interdependent groups — winds, percussion, and color guard – or the blowers, the beaters, and the twirlers. A few decades ago, someone realized that color guard had an offseason. While the winds and percussion would continue with their school concert programs during the winter, the color guard had to hang up their flags until the next summer … a long time in eager young minds. So, someone came up with winter guard. Now governed by Winter Guard International (WGI), they essentially take the guard & auxiliary performers, place them in a gym, turn on some music, and let them be beautiful. Because it’s a pretty physical activity that incorporates not only equipment but movement, schools around the country embraced it not just as a pastime, but a class worth of arts or athletics credit. Arguably, it is more popular than fall marching band in the number of programs in it. Was Winter Guard got more successful, an idea was spawned to allow marching percussion a shot at the same thing. Still under the WGI banner, indoor percussion was spawned. Both of these has had significant impact on the entire activity. Because both are spawned from a visual medium that is ever changing, WGI performances tend to be ahead of the curve in standard and trend setting. Now that a Winds program has been started, winter programs continue to push the whole of the activity.

So what does this have to do with me?

Well, for all my decades of judging … nothing … until last year.

Like I said, this started as a guard thing, then became a drum thing … I was a wind guy. I was a visual judge, which covers all aspects, but it was still intimidating to look at the winter programs.

So what changed?

Honestly … I bought a house in California.

Take that in two ways. First of all, the activity is big here. Like massive! The SoCal winter guard regional program (which includes a couple groups from Bakersfield & Las Vegas, but is mostly LA, Orange, Riverside, and San Diego Counties) had over 600 competing units in their championships. Sure, the activity existed in other places I lived (sans Alaska); but I couldn’t avoid it here.

Also, when I bought my house, I realized I needed to start making money from my ‘little hobby’. While I don’t expect to make a massive profit, a second source of income for a couple months out of the year won’t hurt.

What I didn’t expect was how tough the training process would be. While I am not new to judging, I essentially was treated like a new judge because the activity was new to me. I thought it would be easy to make that transition, but quickly learned it wasn’t. The pace is faster – fall band shows last just under 10 minutes, winter guard last for 3 minutes. So I am expected to cover as much ground in my evaluation in a third of the time. The way we approach the feedback we give, the way the evaluations are weighted, even the language used was different. The curriculum was extensive as well. In the end, I took three online courses that required about 100 hours to complete, spent days & days practicing on my own, I practiced judged five different competitions each hours long with hours of self-evaluation homework, shared judging responsibility at two competitions, and was left to the wolves one final time. The irony is that all of this training required significant out of pocket expenses, so. I probably will have to work a couple more years before I start to break even.

Don’t take this as a complaint though. I am a better judge for this process, not just for winter, but for year round activities. I met some great people, some great minds, and some friends along the way. The shows are fantastic to watch, and it gets more and more fun the more comfortable I get. At times I was touch-and-go whether or not I wanted to commit to this process, and I am still touch-and-go whether or not I will be approved as a judge; but at this point I am going to keep sticking it out.

Thing is … season is over. Yesterday was the last competition in our area (maybe in the whole country). Because the SoCal activity is so big, they have to wait until after the world championships to fly in every judge available to make the show happen. There were six sites for the preliminaries and two panels for finals, requiring nearly forty judges over the weekend – and that’s hard to find in the weeks leading up to the worlds. Yet with that last show, now it is not until February 2020 before the next round begins.

Still, the experience has been good, and I look forward to what will happen in the future.

Fear & Loathing on I-15

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This weekend, I drove to Las Vegas and back again along I-15.  To summarize what that was like, I just have to say … It sucked.  Not the destination, or the reason for the destination, the drive.

People have romanticized Route 66 for all its quirky old fashion road trip experience.  Yet if some other stretch of road had seen its own spotlight in other works, it has to be I-15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.  At least, I can name two such stories.  Most famously would be Hunter S Thompson’s trip (pun intended) to the titled city in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  The first line states:

We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.

Now, you would never get me to recommend loading up on anything while driving that road or any road – let alone the mass quantities he and his lawyer took.  Yet it sets an image, doesn’t it?

The other thing that this stretch of the road pulled me in on was the movie Swingers, where two guys excited to get away hop in a car in Los Angeles and keep repeating “Vegas, baby, Vegas”.  They hit the road, excited for all the crazy that is ahead of them.  They flash forward, and a couple hours in that drive with way more still to come, their tried faces try to flash to life and say again, “Vegas, baby, Vegas.”

In theory, I-15 in that stretch shouldn’t be that big of a deal.  It’s a long desert highway with stretches weaving through the high and low deserts of Eastern California and Southern Nevada.   Heading towards Vegas, the road switches from Northwest to West to North finding the routes through the mountain passes as it rises up from near sea level to nearly 5000 feet.   The road sees a fair bit of heavy truck traffic, being the main route from Southern California to the mid-Rockies and areas beyond.  A vast majority of non-commercial traffic is the ‘Vegas, baby, Vegas’ crowd.  Especially over the weekend, like I did, there is a mass exodus out of Los Angeles to Las Vegas on Fridays to spend the weekend – then that same exodus runs on Sunday.

The road is far from uninteresting.  Any stretch of road with little vegetation and changing altitudes is at least interesting.  In part, it’s helped by its remote nature and the LA to Vegas traffic.  From where it leaves the LA Basin near San Bernadino, to where it enters the Las Vegas plateau; there really is only a half dozen places to stop over the 200+ miles.  Victorville is the biggest, but it’s essentially just over the hill from LA.  Barstow is that spot just a little too close to the beginning or ending to stop – but your options get thin after that.  Baker is that annoying town in the middle, where the gas sniffs at $5/gallon, and all the fast food joints are run down.  Primm is just across the Nevada border, so of course, it has casinos.  Crazy looking ones too, like they have roller coasters going through them.  Interesting yes, but you can guess what remote casinos are like on the inside.  The route is beautiful too, at least if you are into desert mountain landscapes.  The valley Baker is in is the start of Death Valley so it can be cool to see the salt flats there.  Plus you get to drive by the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System – which is a vast area covered in mirrors pointing the sun’s light at three boilers that glow white.  These things are surreal, and it’s hard to look away from them, but it just adds to what you can see.

So, why does this stretch of road suck?  Well … people.

One of the things I hate about driving up in Wisconsin is that there are lots of people up there that see the left lane as the only lane worth driving in.  Think like that … but with Californian egos.  Especially on my Friday drive, the road was filling up with people who would not leave the left lane.  Not that they weren’t going slow, but they inhibited the flow of the entire traffic.  Sure, there were semis and slower cars in the right lanes, but in comparison they were rare.  At one point yesterday on my return drive, I was in the right lane running a (how do I say this without admitting violating a speed limit) safe speed for the traffic.  I had a semi about a quarter mile ahead and another three-quarter of a mile behind me.  No cars were between me and the two semis.  I was at or just above the speed of the left lane.  Yet in that same stretch between those two semis, I counted 23 cars, lined up all in a row, not moving up or moving back.  Anyone who wanted to travel faster, they had to pass on the right.  This is what causes chaos then.  In fact, at times when there are three lanes of traffic (usually the rightmost designated as a ‘slow vehicle lane’), the lane speeds would be opposite of what you would think.  Slowest on the left, moving well in the middle, and occasionally someone gunning it on the right to pass.  What this means is that you get random slowdowns, inconsistent flow, and dangerous situations when cars that don’t belong in a lane are in a lane they don’t belong in.  It’s stupid, absolutely stupid.

I want to say that this is because the folks from SoCal are so used to massive lanes of traffic that no one learns how to drive a two-lane road.  I think like that, but that just pisses me off more.

Okay, it’s not always the people.  Much of that stretch is two-lanes, yet it backs up a lot.  It’s known for being a parking lot around the weekends.  However, there is nothing stopping the expansion.  Honestly, there is space between the two directions to add two lanes each right now.  I mean, it probably would end up with a billion cars on the leftmost lane with three lanes to pass on the right, but still, space is space.

So as I was talking to someone I was working with on Saturday, a conclusion came.  He’s from Long Beach and pointed out it’s an hour flight to Vegas without the hassles of driving.  So I asked myself … why the hell did I drive?

I don’t know.  Maybe I just needed to let the drugs kick in.