Illustration by Alex MunnRECENT FLIGHT TO SEATTLE: XANAX SAFELY swallowed, chased by a pint of ale at the Burbank Airport lounge, chased by a shot of Jim Beam. To wit, patient is feeling . . . fine. Relaxed. Almost dreamy. Until the lady behind me screams. This would be about 20 minutes into Alaska flight 417. Smooth if typically rocket-to-the-moon-like Burbank takeoff. Beautiful day up there. As I say, almost dreamy. Then, somewhere over the lower Central Valley, the air starts to get what the pilot will soon describe as “a little choppy.” If, as a pilot once told a friend, turbulence is merely the bumps in the higher road, no more dangerous to an airplane than pebbles and potholes to an automobile, this is a Russian road project in the sky. The faces of the flight attendants, a moment before nearly blissful in the secure banality of their jobs, take on a masked but perceptibly pained look, as if to say in a low-voiced, Tom Waits sort of way, “Am I going to be unlucky today?” The voice of the pilot comes from overhead: “Ladies and . . . little choppy up here . . . a minute . . . lower altitude . . . fasten seatbelts . . . flight attendants . . . take . . . seats.” The “minute” is, like, 10; the knuckles, like, white. The MD11, which if you ask me is far too long and skinny for an aeroplane — and where are the engines? — shudders and drops and kind of lurches. That's when the lady behind me screams, not a Scream II scream, but enough of one to cause all the lovely effects of the Xanax and the Red Hook ale and the Jim Beam to miraculously evaporate. Into thin air. Did I mention that I'm on my way to Seattle for a funeral?
Anyway. The pilot eventually gets clearance to take the plane down below the turbulence, which seems like only 12 feet lower, and everything returns to normal. Blood reappears in the knuckles, the flight attendants return to their bagels, the pilot does not speak to us. Until somewhere over Mt. St. Helens: “Ladies and . . . little windy up here today . . . fasten . . . belts . . . ” The rest of the trip can be described in one odd little word: yawl. Landing is like surfing Haleiwa — in a group. On the way off the plane, I ask the pilot to rate the turbulence. “Moderate,” he says, “a 6 out of 10.” And the wind? “Rare. I've only encountered that flying into Alaska.” Feeling somewhat vindicated, but no better for it, I head for the bar and join wan fellow travelers sipping amber ales, studying the foam for signs of fate.
RECENT TRAIN JOURNEY BACK TO L.A. (REturn flight abandoned): About five minutes into the Coast Starlight's southern journey, at which point the train is still lumbering past the Kingdome and Safeco Field at something like 2 miles per hour, the thought occurs: This is insane, it's going to take forever. A day and a half later, sipping a decent Chardonnay on a swivel chair in the lounge, looking up from a novel (which I am now 200 pages into) out over the Pacific, the picture has changed: This could be The Twilight Zone (“The Train to Nowhere”) and I don't care. There was the mysteriously pleasurable night — rickety-rickety, rockety-rockety-whoo-whoo — in the compartment (an absolute, albeit expensive, necessity); waking to Nature just outside the window; pancakes and coffee with strangers who look like they've just rolled out of a mummy bag. (An underappreciated pleasure, this seeing people at their amusing worst.) There was stepping off the train into the brisk morning air of Klamath Falls and other such towns, watching breath rise and families reunite, stretching the legs and rubbing the hands together, and hopping back on at the somehow pleasing “All a-board!” And there was going back to the novel, because there was nothing else to do — the sort of nothing-else-to-do that we've largely lost in our lives. The sort that books, and staring out the window at the passing world, are made for.
There's no real stress save for the strange magician girl's insistence on involving everyone in the fun and games. This is not to say that there aren't other trying moments: The little kids and their tape player across the hall are making too much noise, but this is easily dealt with by throwing them off somewhere between Yreka and Weed. Or, rather, fantasizing about it, then asking nicely. (It works.) And there are the people at meals who either don't talk to a stranger, which is a little disconcerting even though it means I can continue to read the novel over dinner, a luxury in and of itself; or those who talk too much, about which there is little to do except eat fast. That's okay: There's a book to finish. And when the Coast Starlight meanders into Union Station, I'm ready to get off, but not without a twinge of regret.
Now, when's the last time you felt that way getting off an airplane?