Scarlett’s Letter September 16, 2013

The first thing anyone from Glasgow, Montana will tell you about their town is, “the closest Wal Mart is three and a half hours away”. I’m not sure if they think that’s a good thing, or a bad thing. I’m not a Wal Mart fan, but, as there is no Target anywhere nearby either, I am a little distressed. I’m glad I packed EVERYTHING like I was entering some survivalist game.

I knew to do this simply based on the trials of making travel arrangements. We are “required” to use a certain online booking agency, with a special division devoted solely to our company, for all of our business travel. That way, all of our geographical price restrictions and limitations are integrated into the reservation making process. For example, if I want to book a hotel in a certain city, I must first consult a spreadsheet to see what the nightly limit is for that particular city, then remain below that limit, or request, in advance of booking, manager approval. This is new, by the way. The per day meal expense limitation was diminished last year. When I started, there wasn’t one. So. Not. Happy. When I started this job five and a half years ago, as long as you didn’t expense an extravagant dinner and bar tab for twenty at an upscale restaurant, you were golden. As long as you didn’t book the presidential suite and charge your pay-per-view movies, you were golden. Now we are budgeted on hotels and dining. Hmmm.

So, I’m online. I manage to book a flight. It’s hella expensive, but it is the ONLY flight that day to Glasgow and has a six-hour layover in Billings, Montana. That’s the easy part. I search for hotels and the online travel agency can’t find any hotels nearby. I’ve only been to two other places where I’ve encountered this; some place in Arkansas where I did actually have to commute from Texarkana, forty minutes, to the tiny burg the client had their office at. The other time was for this very client in Glendive, Montana. According to Expedia and their related companies, Montana has no hotels. It gets better, or worse. I try to secure a rental car. No such thing. I have only encountered this one time before, in over five years of frequent business travel, and, again, for this client, in Glendive, Montana.

I’m beginning to have post-traumatic stress syndrome-like flashbacks of business travel in rural Montana.

A couple of years back, and then some, I was on a very long, extended, multi-week trip. I had two consecutive weeks in New Jersey and Pennsylvania on my schedule, same firm, but at a different location in a different city, each and every day. There was virtually no way to get home on Saturday and out again on Sunday and, actually, I ended up spending Easter Sunday, by myself, three thousand miles from home, having brunch at a steak house somewhere in New Jersey. The third week, I was to be in Montana. Again, there was no way to get home and then to Montana in time for my sessions to begin the next week. I think there were a couple of flights that would have made it physically possible, but I would only be home, literally, three hours. The miles would have been great, but I’d already made Platinum with United and wasn’t close enough to 100k to exert the effort.

So, I headed to Montana directly from Philadelphia. That was an adventure. I flew from Philly to Denver on a 737. In Denver, I switched to some tiny little plane and headed for Billings. I’ve flown tiny little planes before, and really don’t mind, except that the pilots look younger than my kids. As we make our final approach into Billings, the pilot turns around, yes, turns around, and says, “We can’t land. The wind is higher than this plane is rated for. We’re going to circle for a bit and hope the wind let up.” Fine. Hope is great but should never be considered a plan. My only question; how much fuel do we have? The fuel tank can’t be much bigger than the one in my SUV. We make a few laps around the airport and, miraculously, the wind has let up just enough for us to land without the wings snapping off the airplane. Excellent.

From Billings, I board an even smaller plane. I am the only woman. Not that it matters, but, yah. We make one stop, somewhere, at a tiny airport, a couple of guys get off, a couple of guys get on. Then next stop is Glendive. We land. The airport is, pretty much, just a metal outbuilding you’d find for sale at Home Depot to store your riding mower and a couple of bicycles in. I deplane. I’m the only one that deplanes. I’ve made arrangements for “the” rental car with Earl. I meet Earl inside, a nice older gentleman that reminds me of Barney Pheiff from Mayberry. We get in Earl’s beat up old minivan. There are stacks of paper covering the entire dashboard and as much paper covering every seat but his and mine. We drive a quarter mile or so to a deserted hangar where I “fill out paperwork”. I usually rent cars from National, where I am delivered by bus to a large lot and I’m “on file”, as an “Executive Member” and I just go get in a car and wave a little as I pass through a kiosk. Not quite. But I stop at the kiosk briefly and provide my ID so they know I’ve arrived, per my reservation, and that’s it. Earl has me write shit down on paper and then sign it. I do.

Paperwork complete, we get back in the minivan and drive back to the airport. I see all the big, strapping men from my flight milling around outside the “terminal”. Earl explains that their flight to Sydney (Montana, not Australia) didn’t depart because there was ice on the runway there and they wouldn’t be able to land. They all climb in and we drive to the Jeep dealership. I’m thinking, “Cool! I get to drive a new Jeep!” Nope. We drive around behind the dealership to a dusty, lone vehicle parked on a gravel lot. I don’t even remember what it was. Nowhere near new and looking a bit decrepit, forlorn and neglected. The car. Not me. Yet. I get in, bid Earl, et al, adieu and chug off in the only rental car in town. I’m on my way to the hotel I found online, but not on the company endorsed website. I’m staying one night, then I’m to drive to Medora, North Dakota, an hour or so away, to a “resort” where the client has arranged a conference room and projector and this is going to be a retreat/training for the whole firm. Ok. My GPS instructs me to get on the Interstate and head in a certain direction. I chug along in my gutless, little rental car, which, by the way, has a serious front-end alignment issue.

I get about a mile and am approaching my off ramp for my hotel for the night. But the road is blocked with traffic, mostly big rigs. The off ramp is full and nothing seems to be moving. I see a cop car and flashing lights at the top of the ramp and I’m wondering “WTF?” I wait and wait and wait. I’m getting a little irritated but am helpless to move. At this point, I am in this tiny, seemingly ill and untrustworthy little tin can of a car and I am the only passenger vehicle amidst a sea of big rigs. At long last, traffic moves, directed by the cop. I make it to the top of the ramp and notice that the street is lined with big rigs, on both sides, in both directions, for as far as I can see. All I can smell are diesel fumes. I wind my way through the maze of trucks, to my hotel, one of three, all of which are no more than two stars. Combined. Thankfully, I have my reservation because every room in town has been taken. It seems that the road is closed one exit up, due to ice on the highway into North Dakota. Yes, the very highway I must navigate first thing in the morning, in a car with a shaky front end that pulls dangerously to the left when the brakes are applied. And, keep in mind, I’m a Cali girl. Do people actually drive in the snow? And ice?

There are no restaurants on Open Table, why am I surprised. But, according to the toothless fella at the front desk that looks like the poster child for too much fried food, the place across the street is pretty good. The best in town. Alrighty, then. I head over there, order a glass of red wine and something to eat. It was good, even if I can’t remember what it was. I order a second glass of wine, hell, I only have to cross the street on foot, so why not? When I order my second glass, the waitress smiles, leaves, and returns with the glass filled all the way up to the rim. She understands.

The “hotel” has no elevator. Mind you, I have two suitcases. Two heavy suitcases. I’ve packed for three weeks. I’m thinking the only reason they call this a “hotel” is because it has a second story with an interior hallway, but, really, it’s a motel that is two-story and has an interior hallway. I lug my suitcases upstairs to my room, open the door, and if I’d had any energy or emotion left, I might have cried. I think I curled up, in a fetal position, in bed, trying not to think about what else may have been curled up, in a fetal position, on this bed, in the recent past. I slept. The next morning, I went to the front desk to check out. Luckily, I was told, the highway was open. Icy. But open. I ventured on.

It was sunny as I headed in whatever direction North Dakota was. East, I’d imagine. There were tall snowdrifts on both sides of the road, and much to my dismay, every mile or so, the snowdrift was punctuated on one side, the other, or both, with a car that had gone off the road and was stuck, apparently hopelessly, nose first, in the snow bank. My only thought was, “and these people know how to drive in this shit.” I had a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel as I travelled cautiously down the highway. The steering wheel jittered in my grasp as the misaligned front wheels tried, in vain, to track true along the road. I saw something in the road ahead. The early morning sun was glaring brightly off the snow, off the wet road and was gleaming off of whatever was in the road ahead. As I approached the flat object on the pavement, it occurred to me, it was ice. Nice. Ice. My mind is doing a quick Ctrl + F to search for “how to drive across ice at an elevated speed”. No results found.  I gripped the wheel tighter, squeezed my eyes shut, turned my head slightly towards the left, I don’t know why, I do that in scary movies, too. I crossed the ice. And lived. This method seemed to work well on the next three hundred and thirty eight ice patches. I made it to Medora, North Dakota unscathed, a little shaky and very relieved. I had a lovely, lovely week with my client.

It is to the same firm I am returning this week. Same firm, different location. They have three. In the three least likely locations in Montana. This week, yes, Glasgow. Home of the Scotties and about three thousand people. And no Wal Mart.

I get up at my usual 1:00 AM for a 6:00 AM flight out of Sacramento this morning. I’ve done the math over and over and it is, absolutely, five hours from alarm clock to push back from the gate, no matter whether I fly out of San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento. I choose Sacramento because it’s such a nice little airport, and, frankly, quite like home to me. I’m on a first name basis with the bus drivers from the economy lot. I fly Delta to Salt Lake City. I don’t normally fly Delta, in fact, I avoid Delta. The only thing I like about Delta is the fact that the miles I earn with Delta can be spent on Alaska Airlines. I like the airport in Salt Lake City, where, in fact, you will find the best drinking venues in all the U.S. SLC has an outstanding microbrew community offering some fantastic beers with some very clever names. I love the Polygamy Porter, for example. No time for beer this time. I switch planes on a fairly short timeframe and head for Billings and my six-hour layover.

In Billings I am to switch airlines from Delta to “Island”. I was told in Sacramento by the Delta ticketing agent that I’d have to deplane, claim my bags, check my bags with the other airline, and go back through security. I deplaned, claimed my bags, and went in search of my airline. Island Air. I’m not aware of any islands in Montana, but that was the name of the carrier. So I thought. But, as I walked up and down the ticketing counters in Billings, I only saw Delta, Alaska, Allegiant and Silver. Delta, Alaska and Allegiant had a regular line with the Disneyland type zigzag barricades. Silver had a very small sign taped to the counter and no attendant. Apparently, Silver and Island were one in the same, or so I was told upon my eventual inquiry. I stood at the counter for a period of time until, at last, one of the Delta agents came over to assist me. I was told my flight was delayed a few hours, and so, my bags would be checked for free. Nice. I guess. I handed over my luggage and considered what to do with my day. I thought about going in to town, but I was on cash basis today. My Corporate American Express had been hacked Friday and shut off. Some miscreant was at a Home Depot in New York City racking up charges on my Corporate Card. I love that Am Ex caught it in, like, ten seconds. They texted me twice on two phones, called and left voicemails on three numbers and sent me emails at three email addresses. I felt popular for a minute there. A new card was sent out to me, but due to timing, didn’t make the cutoff for overnight delivery to my house on Saturday. My new card would meet me at my hotel in Glasgow later tonight, Monday. I decided to hang around the airport, rather than tempt myself in town with dining and shopping possibilities. Another time. I’m sure.

I find the one and only restaurant outside security and head there for lunch. And beer. I’ve got eight or more hours to kill. I have pork tenderloin for lunch, which was good, but typical for this part of the country. Mostly meat, sad salad of iceberg lettuce and a waxy, orange tomato slice, big, fat, greasy fries and a pickle. And, the fries are entirely too close to the pickle and have soaked up all the pickle juice. Ew. I have two local beers with lunch. I go pee after lunch. I head to the bar and have two more local beers, all different. All good. I decide to make my way through security while I’m still upright. Now, I travel a lot, as you well know. I have been through most of the major airports in the U.S. And, if you’ve read many of my articles, you also know that I have a long-running experiment with TSA. I carry a bottle of mouthwash and a tube of toothpaste in my purse, which I never remove to the bin. I leave it my purse. I also have a bottle of eye drops in my computer bag, again, which I don’t remove to the bins as per instruction. I have had them in my purse for nearly two years and they have never been detected, even when the bags have been hand searched because of all the electrical cords I carry for all my devices. I usually skate right through security, I get a little pat on my ass for the bling on my Miss Me jeans, which is routine, and which I enjoy joking about, but that’s it.

Billings International Airport, apparently, seems to think they will be the origin of the next big terrorist event. There were no less than ten TSA agents milling about, pretty much just making everyone’s lives difficult. They re-ran everyone’s bags multiple times. They interrogated everyone in line. The guy checking ID’s almost didn’t let me pass because my name has a hyphen on my ID but not on my ticket, it’s all run together into one word. I’ve travelled this way without the bat of an eye for over half a decade. Anyway. I finally make it through security and head for the bar where I have a couple more local brews. And a slice of pizza. And another beer. About the time my plane was originally scheduled to leave I grew antsy. I decided to go to the gate and check on the status. My app on my phone never updated the departure time for the delay the ticketing agent spoke of. My app has never failed me. I teach tomorrow morning, I have to be in Glasgow tonight.

I get to the gate and, by golly, they’re boarding. App never fails me. Again. Always right, always true. I’ve known about delays and cancellations before the gate agents, on multiple occasions. It’s “Flight Track Pro”, if you’re curious. I swear by it. We board a tiny plane, about the same size as the one I went skydiving out of in July. I’m amused, of course I’ve had seven beers in six hours, everything is amusing. The very young pilots board and we take off, boarding to flight in about three minutes. As we take off, the man across the aisle from me notices some liquid coming from the engine, “that’s not right”, he says, and walks up to the cockpit and tells the pilot. No, there is no door, you can see the pilots up there, picking their noses and popping their zits. Yes, they still have acne. We land at the next little town, Wolf Point. We are told we must all deplane while they check out the mysterious liquid. Mind you, the man who pointed it out is at his final destination. The rest of us, three of us, are not. We have another leg of this flight. On this plane. I say, “the plane was flying just fine, can we just go?” Again, I’m amused, but no one goes along with me. We go into the terminal, not much more grand than the one in Glendive. We sit and wait. A big lifted truck pulls up. It’s the mechanic, he lives at the end of the runway. I’m thinking that’s great! Quick! Quick! And we’ll be on our way. Here’s the problem. The air service to these remote Montana towns is what is called EAS. Essential Air Service. And some airline agrees to serve these towns, and I assume, at a great financial loss. Last time I flew through here it was a different airline and one that was terminating their service imminently. As evidenced by the signs taped to every blank surface that read “it’s been fun, but …” this airline was supposed to have terminated its service a month or so ago, but agreed to hang on just a bit longer until the next, hapless airline takes over. Unfortunately, they’d already dismissed the mechanic that was now looking at our plane. And, as he wasn’t employed by the airline anymore, wasn’t willing to say whether the plane was okay to go on, or not. The liquid, as it was explained, repeatedly, was probably just water from the plane being washed down moments before we departed Billings, but no one was willing to sign off on that. A call was placed to headquarters (aka, the lawyer). An hour later, we were told we weren’t able to fly to our next destination. But, as luck would have it, an employee of the airline would drive an hour from Glasgow, pick us up and drive us there.

An hour passes. There is no beer. Thankfully, there is a cell signal, so I’m texting and talking on the phone. More time passes and still no ride. A woman pulls up, comes in, ignores us, collects the pilots, and heads off. They got a ride. We didn’t. But, a while later, another car arrives and we are beckoned forth. There are three of us, so I imagined a van or something to accommodate our luggage and all. Nope. It is a dismal passenger car from maybe the 1990’s. One of such poor design and workmanship that I didn’t even recognize the make and model as familiar in any respect. I’m thinking it’s probably in a worse state of disrepair than the airplane. We pile in and take off down a flat, straight, dark road. We are regaled with the high points of Glasgow; first, there isn’t a Wal Mart within three and a half hours, second, there is only one hotel worth staying in, and, thankfully, it’s the one I’ve booked, as has everyone else in the car, including the driver, as she is only in Glasgow until the airline departs for the final time in a few weeks. Third, there is a lake that is worth seeing, Fort Peck, with the largest earthen damn or some damned thing. I make a mental note, though I am really too tired to really take in much more stimuli today.

We stop by the Glasgow International Airport on the way in to town to pick up the rental car I managed to locate after an entire day of Googling and playing phone tag. I drive to the hotel. I check in. Despite the fact that someone else’s food is in the fridge, and God only knows how long it’s been there, and, there’s blood on the pillowcase on one of the two beds, I change into my jammies and I crash, in the other bed. By this point, I’ve been up nearly twenty-four hours and I have to get up in a few short hours to work. I didn’t even have the luxury of locating my clients’ office the night before as I routinely do. I’ll just have to get up earlier and manage it in the morning. And, so begins my week in Glasgow.

An Effort to Evolve An Effort to Evolve

An Effort to Evolve An Effort to Evolve An Effort to Evolve An Effort to Evolve An Effort to Evolve

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