Archive for the 'US Travel' Category

Shirley

Thanks to my aunt, who reminded me to tell this wonderful story from December 2010.

As I took my aisle seat on the tiny plane from Minneapolis to Sioux City last year at Christmas, I was greeted by a great big smile and a hopeful set of eyes from the older woman seated next to the window. That woman was Shirley.

I endeared myself early on by helping her out of her jacket and stashing it in the overhead compartment for her. We had plenty of time to get to know each other, as our flight sat on the runway for twice as much time as it spent in the air.

Shirley is a 78-year-old woman from Yankton, South Dakota, though, as I told her, I honestly would have guessed her in her late 60s. She has that spark that my grandmother had; that glint in her eye that betrayed the reality that life had not always been so easy and comfortable, but the fire that assured her if she could overcome that, she could face anything.

She, as they say, had me at “hello.” But I truly fell in love with her spirit at her description of her sister-in-law, who had been born and raised in the north of England before moving to the U.S. “She was real stylish, real stylish. Oh, kiddo… she knew how to dress, she did. And she knew how to use makeup!” Shirley always wished she had gone to visit her, but young children at home in South Dakota had made the trip seem impossible. She has since passed away, Shirley told me with no small pang of regret.

When we found out our tarmac-bound plane was to be even further delayed, we both called our loved ones to let them know to delay their trips to the airport. After Shirley hung up with her son, she started relaying to me every word he had said—while I remained on the phone with my parents and tried to make sense of the little bit of conversation I could hear through the cacophony of voices. She told me about the son who was picking her up, about her daughter, and about another son, the one she had lost. He had a heart condition, the seriousness of which he kept from them as long as he could—until the day his father found him dead in his bed. “That was real hard on Charlie,” she told me. “It was real hard on him…”

Charlie was Shirley’s husband. “Oh, he was an absolutely wonderful man. Just a wonderful man,” she declared, a smile on her face that was full of equal parts gratitude, pride, and sadness. Because he, too, is gone. He died last year, two days after Christmas, while shoveling snow near their farm. They were married 53 years. She told me that he loved to brag to their friends that they never fought once in all their decades of marriage. “But then I’d say, ‘Tell ‘em why, Charlie.’ And he just told ‘em, ‘Anytime Shirley starts to get a little off kilter, I just smile and walk outta the room. No one for her to fight with then!’”

My paternal grandmother grew up on a homestead in South Dakota. Her childhood, and for the most part, her life, was defined by austerity. She was a child of the depression, no doubt. But she could laugh. And she could love. Both my grandmothers shared those two wonderful qualities. Shirley was cut from the same fine Midwestern cloth—her hardships had only made her stronger. I was moved to tears as she spoke about loss after loss, and told her so. She simply smiled and said, though it had been tough, she was “real blessed.” Real blessed.

She was also real talkative. I got precious few words in during our hours together, as I learned about her job at a print shop in South Dakota; how lovely the dress she wore to her granddaughter’s wedding had been (“You shoulda seen me, kiddo. With earrings, and everything. Oh, it was a real pretty dress, honey. I was a sight.”); how she was a 20-year veteran of her hometown’s sensible eating support group, and how now, in her 70s, she mentored newcomers of all ages (“I teach them how to cook some nice vegetables. I’m a great cook.”)

As we got off the plane and my parents rushed up to meet me, I watched out of the corner of my eye to ensure Shirley found her son. I was attached to her now. If her son hadn’t shown up, I would have made my parents give her a ride to Yankton or take her to lunch. Three hours together in a prop plane, and she had become my newly adopted grandmother, adorable in her collared sweatshirt and admiration for well-dressed British women.

At baggage claim, I introduced her to my family, gave her a hug, and wished well to Snickers, her “sweet little dog,” whom she said had kept her company since Charlie’s death. And then we were off, both going our separate ways.

But I’m still thinking of her, all these months later. Spring will be coming soon to South Dakota. She’ll have fresh grass in her yard and leaves on the trees in her backyard that overlooks the river. I hope she’s traveling again soon; maybe that trip to the UK that she had always regretted not taking. I hope Snickers is well.

But more than anything, I pray the people in her world realize how blessed they are to have a mighty woman like Shirley in their midst.

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If You’ve Heard of “Mesaba,” This One’s For You

There is no getting from New York City to Sioux City, Iowa, (aka, “Where I Grew Up,” and “Yes, the airport code really is SUX”) without passing through the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. I love walking past the gates where my flight from NYC lands and fantasizing about jetting off to somewhere new. Last week, I strolled past queues of passengers bound for Shanghai, Tokyo, and Amsterdam. Sigh…

But past the exotic locales seen in the big terminals, we find the real Minnesota-ness of MSP’s Terminals A & B. Any big city transplant who originally hails from towns like Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Rhinelander, Wisconsin; or Bemidji, Minnesota, will smile knowingly with me at their mention. Terminals A & B, my friends, are where the puddle jumper planes take off. The destinations get progressively less exciting. And the Midwestern-ness, progressively more… er, Midwestern. If you’ve ever heard of Mesaba Airlines, you, too, dear reader, are from the Midwest.

It’s a brilliant place for people watching. I like to guess at people’s stories; their reasons for travel. A true Midwestern farmer type would never “waste money” to fly from Minneapolis to somewhere accessible by car in a mere 5-6 hours. Over Christmas, the terminals are packed with 20 and 30-somethings who fled the small towns for the big city: they (ahem, “we”) can be identified by their in-vogue wardrobes, high-heeled shoes (women), effective use of hair product (men), and intellectual liberal-leaning reading material (all around). They have a point to prove.

The other young refugees returning to the motherland for Christmas are those who fled single-digit winter temperatures (Europeans, I’m talking Fahrenheit) for warmer, greener pastures. You will recognize them by their Arizona State sweatshirts, their vocal and frequent complaints about winter driving, and their annoying commentary about how warm it is in wherever-they-just-flew-in-from.

I’m progressively acclimated to the Midwest as I step first, into the Minneapolis airport, second, into Terminal B, and finally, on board the plane. Boarding that 50-seater bound for Iowa is a vastly different experience than hopping on any plane on the east coast. People smile, first of all, even when you sit in that empty seat next to them. The vocabulary is different on these flights, too. Just try asking for “seltzer water.” And I overhear chatter about things like the price of corn and cattle futures, things I had forgotten existed after so many months and years away.

Most people want to talk, for better or worse, often for the duration of the 45-minute flight. I’m usually traveling this route on three hours’ sleep, but when I can push through my New Yorker cynicism and exhaustion, this can be absolutely lovely. More than once, I’ve met someone who knows my family back home, or have been so touched by my conversation that I felt compelled to introduce my fellow traveler to my family upon our arrival in Sioux City. This time around, that was Shirley. More on her soon.

It’s funny, it’s sweet; sometimes endearing and sometimes eye-roll-inducing, but you know what? It’s home. And it is what it is, so you might as well embrace and enjoy it. I ran into a cashmere-clad couple waking down the jet-bridge in Sioux City last week carrying a Dylan’s Candy Bar tote among their Vuitton carry-ons. I stated, more than asked, “You’re from New York?” We discovered we had been on the same flight from LGA. The woman sighed with as much urban exasperation and snobbery as she could muster, “Yeah, it was like a cross between a day care and Noah’s Ark. Babies everywhere. And the dogs… It was all ‘two-by-two.’”

At LGA, I probably would have joined in the rant, especially while proudly whizzing through the expert traveler security line. But her sarcasm and negativity just seemed a little out of place at Sioux City Gateway. This is the Midwest, after all. It softens us up a bit—or, at least, it should. I just smiled and wished them a merry Christmas.

It turns out that simple friendliness has become as exotic as Shanghai and as sought-after as sashimi in Tokyo. I’m going to stash a little bit in my carry-on to smuggle back to my big glamorous city. I hear Midwestern kindness is this season’s “new black,” and it will certainly warm things up a bit. Isn’t that why we all left in the first place?

When in Rome… Or, perhaps, Hartford

Hartford

As I just confessed, I’ve been spending a lot more time thinking about writing (and about traveling; and about travel writing) than I have actually writing.

So, when I had to make a couple short trips to Hartford, Connecticut, for work, I thought a lot about making the most of whatever kind of travel I have the opportunity to take. Was Hartford on my “top 20 destinations” wish list? Not quite. I don’t think it would have made a top 100 list. But, it’s somewhere I’ve never been, and I was traveling on someone else’s dime. Granted, it was a very non-luxe dime, but this budget traveler is easily pleased. As long as she’s well-fed.

So, in the spirit of making the most of life, here are some moments I loved in Hartford, Connecticut:

  • It’s a state capital. As someone whose childhood included some very proud moments memorizing state capitals (and winning spelling bees), visiting a heretofore undiscovered capital city made me happy. In a geeky sort of way. (Did I mention the spelling bees?)
  • New England snow falling, shining in the lights of Connecticut’s 200-year-old Old State House, with a glimmery Christmas tree street lamp decoration nearby? You gotta stop and smile for that. But not for too long, because it was freaking cold up there.
  • I was working in a big office tower with two or three separate elevator banks, a couple of banks at ground level, a concourse with several restaurants upstairs—and it took me no more than 30 seconds to spot the green mermaid smiling at me, tiny logo though she was, and discovered the secret path through a back door to get my afternoon Americanos without venturing outdoors. Thanks, Starbucks, for being both ubiquitous and consistent.
  • Eating delicious food at a trendy place for what feels like a 20% discount over New York.
  • Friendly, fabulous New Englanders. I had people offer me rides, jobs, copies of their novels, drinks, and rooms in their homes if I ever want to vacation there. I love meeting new people when I travel.
  • Discovering that not all of Connecticut is WASP-y and posh. Hartford was kind of rough, yo. Not all over, but I drove through some patches that evoked my drive from Park Slope to JFK down Atlantic Avenue. (Let’s just say it’s a door-locker.) I’d subconsciously stereotyped Connecticut as uniformly idyllic. This qualifies as a “moment I loved in Hartford,” because I love learning, even when it means I’m wrong.

I’m not planning a return to “The Insurance Capital of the World” any time soon, but I’m glad I went, not least because it opened my eyes to the pleasure of exploring just about anywhere, even when “anywhere” isn’t so sexy. Since I came back from Europe, I’ve been reminding myself that great “travel” adventures are to be had even here in my own city. All that’s required is opening my eyes, slowing down enough to be surprised, and a little willingness for adventure.

There’s room for that in every life traveler’s budget.


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