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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A very bumpy ride

Our adventure started on Friday afternoon.  To be more precise it began on Friday morning when we found our flights had been altered.  I had checked in online the previous evening but had not been able to secure seats together, so I decided to see if it was possible to alter them the following day.  I have become slightly paranoid about seating on a plane (now there's a surprise....paranoia setting in!!) and do like to pick my own seat prior to arriving at the airport. We were due to fly out of Austin on Friday evening, to Rapid City, South Dakota, via Denver, Colorado.

On Friday morning I revisited the airline site and was a little confused.  The flights showed that they were booked for that morning rather than the afternoon.  I called to Dana to find out if he had made sure he had booked the flights at the right time  Dana checked the airline web page and sure enough the flights were showing as originally booked.  However, when I attempted to print the boarding passes, they did not have the bar code.  When I tried to get back into my itinerary page, I was unable to access any details.  This is where the real fun began.

Dana called the airline and they said there was a reconfiguration with our second flight, so it was impossible to change anything with the itinerary.  I was not totally convinced as as if the flights were being reconfigured on just one leg, it would be possible to change the seats on the other.  The assistant suggested we check back in an hour or two.  After about half an hour (I have never been really good with following instructions,) I went back into the site and couldn't access the itinerary.  However, a 'would you like to talk to a live agent' button, popped up.  I clicked on 'yes' and explained my predicament to the guy typing on my screen.  He confirmed my first flight but said that the second flight was being reconfigured, and he had me seated in row 13.  I was not impressed.  I had managed to get myself in a bulkhead seat the previous night.  Unable to alter my seating, we bit each other farewell and he disappeared from my screen. 

In about an hour I tried again.  Our flights were now showing leaving Austin on Saturday afternoon.  Dana rechecked the web page and it showed our flights were leaving on Saturday morning.  Back on the phone to the airline, the excuses started.  Firstly, they blamed the weather.  My first phone call was to the Austin airport, whilst looking at the Denver Airport site to see if their flights had been cancelled.  The very nice lady at Austin told me that there was nothing wrong with the weather, and the flights were all on time, which is quite surprising, as flights out of Austin are, to be as polite as possible, slightly tardy.  Dana relayed this information to his airline rep, (not about the flights being tardy) who presumably then pressed, 'button number 2!'  It was the fault of the travel agent.  They had cancelled the flights and re-booked them.  After a lot of 'to-ing' and 'fro-ing', it was obvious that we were not going to be put back on the evening flight.  He released the rep from the phone line and called the travel company who were adamant that this was not their style, and they managed to connect a three way call between Dana, the airline and themselves.  The airline rep then decided, 'Let's see what's behind door number three', and found the next, and perhaps most elaborate, excuse.  'It was your wife.  She clicked on something to alter the flights!', she said with so much conviction, I almost believed her. 

Whilst this was happening, I had got through to a representative who also ran through the various scenarios as to why we were not on the flight for that day.  We were, however, at no extra change, re-booked for the next day.  Not satisfied, I told him I needed to be on the evening flights, as we had reservations.  I was put on hold, for an eternity, and when my rep returned to my telephone line, he told me, 'you clicked on something when you checked in'.  I asked him how he knew that I had checked in and not my husband.  At this, he put me on hold, again, and came back with the good news that we had been put back on the flight, which apparently had no seats ten minutes previously.  I was very grateful until he told me it would cost me $1200 EACH!  How come so much?  The reason, he told me, was that it was a last minute booking!  Not holding back my full blown temper, I told him that I could not, and would not pay this amount.  Too late, he informed me, he had already booked it, and it would cost me a cancellation fee.  In my best English accent, after a deep breath, I asked him why did it not cost anything when my flights were re-booked for tomorrow and why were WE not given a cancellation fee by the airline, when they took us off the flight for that afternoon. Completely baffled, he stumbled over his words for a few seconds, until I put him out of his misery and demanded to speak to a supervisor.  He stumbled some more and I simply said, 'NOW!'  Once again, I was out on hold. 

Dana appeared in the back office, where I was trying very hard not to cry, and informed me that all had been resolved and we were, once again, back on our flights for that evening.  We had to get to the airport slightly earlier than usual just in case we were 'bumped' again. (Although the airline refused to use this term.  Like a 'Code Red' in 'A Few Good Men', not used, 'in public')  In my euphoria I had forgotten about the rep to whom I was shouting moments earlier, but his dulcet tones were heard over my screams of delight ,and I handed the phone to Dana, who introduced himself, explained that our schedule had been reinstated and that it was not going to cost any extra.  Presumably the rep responded in the affirmative and Dana finished the call with a 'Have a nice day!'  Sometimes a deep American accented voice works too!

At the end of the day we scrambled to clear the office, having lost a couple of hours of work during the mammoth virtual plane changes.  Samantha, Edward and the dog dropped us off at the airport and we attempted to check in.  I was just about to pack up and go home when the machine displayed no seat options, but I continued to the 'dinger' and our bags were x-rayed for dubious objects.  Breathing less than easy, we bought a hot dog and made our way to the gate.  An airline rep eventually appeared and Dana asked if we could have some exit seats, as he is rather tall and I am rather paranoid.  I would rather be in charge of the 'pulley thing' by the door than let some stronger, more-abled. person take the place.  Have you ever noticed how airline staff go to the same school as plumbers?  First the sharp intake of breath, then the pursing of the lips, biting of the bottom lip, then the slow shake of the head.  However, this woman suddenly forgot the next step as she said, 'You have been upgraded to Economy Plus; extra leg room'.  That will do nicely!

We had a really good flight from Austin to Colorado.  Although Colorado Airport is rather large, our gate was not.  In fact, it was a shared gate with seven or eight other flights.  You wait until they call your flight, you line up at the piece of carpet with your gate number on it, and then they lead you through a door to the unknown.  People were disappearing through the door but no plane was in sight.  As there had been some bad weather in certain parts of the country, the flight before ours was delayed indefinitely, as their flight crew were flying in from somewhere else, and they did not have an estimated time of arrival.  Our flight was called and we and we lined up by the piece of carpet, herded through the door and walked down some stairs, and then along a corridor with doors that had numbers above.  They were gate numbers, and when we reached ours, a very nice lady told us that our plane was the 'second on the left'.  It was like being at a bus station.  I had never played musical planes before, but there is a first time for everything.  People were boarding, finding out it was not their flight, and alighting in an attempt find the right aircraft before take off.  To make matters worse, the plane was one of those 'hoppers' with very few seats and we were right at the back.  Row number 13 was by the extra small water closet. 

The fifty minute flight was not as bad as I had feared and we landed in South Dakota just a few hours after I had been sure I would never see the State. The airport was rather compact and finding the Hertz desk was very easy.  Dana took out his confirmation, credit card and driving license.  You know when you think nothing else can go wrong... 'Your license expired on 1st August', she said.  'No way', he said.  'Yes way' she responded.  I pulled out my purse, took out my license and said, 'guess I will be driving'.  You know when you think nothing else can go wrong....'We will need your credit card, ma'am'.  I don't have credit card!  Fortunately, I had a card from my English Bank, which she only needed for security purposes. The car was a very nice Nissan Altima, a bit sporty but a nice larger car.  We had ordered a compact, but we thought perhaps the travel company had called ahead.  (Compensation?)

Samantha had asked me to call her when we were in the car, but I wasn't sure of the South Dakota laws regarding talking on mobile phones whilst driving, so I didn't call.  She called me, but I couldn't get to the phone in time, and I decided to call when we reached the hotel.  After driving along dark roads and up into the hills, we reached our guest house, which looked idyllic, even in the dark, and Dana went to check in.  I sat in the car and tried to call Samantha.  You know when you think nothing else can go wrong.....there was no phone signal at all.  The landlady was very bubbly.  She seemed very pleased to meet me as I stormed into the house trying desperately to get a signal.  I must have looked like one of those workaholics.  I said a polite hello, but then spent the next five minutes waving my phone around in the air, saying, 'I can't get any service. I need to contact Matnee!'  The landlady said that they had just erected a new tower, and we should get service in the room.

The room was beautiful and before I unpacked I set up my laptop and sent Samantha a message on facebook. Thank goodness for facebook.  Samantha and I 'chatted' for a while and I told her all my news.  Being very practical, she gave me a bunch of 'fixes', including the fact that Dana could renew his license online.  Exhausted, I took out my wet wipes, cleaned the already spotless bathroom, had a quick shower and collapsed.

Saturday morning was beautiful and around 8am there was a knock on the door and breakfast was delivered.  As near a full English as you can imagine.  We took it out on the deck.  Very decadent.  Dana renewed his driving license and we went to Bear Country.  Bears roaming around all over the place.  Each time I attempted to take a picture, the delay mechanism on my camera kicked in and I must have taken a dozen pictures of bears' bottoms!  It was much quicker to take them on my phone, and, as I had just learned how to use the blackberry messenger app, everyone and anyone was receiving pictures of bear behinds!

Then the highlight of the trip.  High on my wish list was one of America's amazing feats.  The carvings at Mount Rushmore.  We drove from Bear Country, along some winding roads and suddenly, as we turned a corner, I caught a glimpse of the heads.  I don't remember the last time anything had that effect on me.  It was one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen.  Clicking away on my camera and phone, I was sending pictures continually.  I could have stayed and looked at the monument for hours, but eventually we decided to leave and make our way to the next State.  As we drove out of the park, we caught a side glimpse of Washington's head and, again, stopped for a photo opportunity. 

As we travelled towards Nebraska, the scenery was amazing.  We drove for miles just breathing in the beautiful countryside and were not sure that we had not missed the sign for the State.  In the middle of nowhere, there was a Casino called, 'End of State', and just passed the building was the Nebraska State sign.  I got out of the car and Dana took a picture.  I was in Nebraska for about 20 seconds and decided that it really wasn't the state for me.  Not very impressed with Nebraska, (as I had been with Missouri) I told Dana I was going to walk all the way back to South Dakota!  I crossed the road and started to walk....all the way to South Dakota.  We got back into the car, drove into Nebraska once again, turned the car around after a few miles and returned once again to familiar territory. 

When we got back to the hotel, we decided not to drive into town but to eat at the establishment just across the road.  I had a shower, put on a nice pair of black trousers, nice top and a pair of high healed ankle boots.  The evenings had turned slightly cooler.  We started to walk to the restaurant.  All we had to do was walk down the gravel path; the gravel path with a few dips here and there.  So Dana walked and I hobbled and tip toed. Did I mention I was reasonably dressed?  Dana had on a pair of jeans and everyone else had apparel that did not proceed past their knees.  The owner/manager/general head cook and bottle washer told us that he was short staffed, and there was probably about a forty minute wait.  Unfortunately, he didn't have anywhere for us to wait because of the vast amount of people waiting for a table. As he went to find somewhere for us to stand, we looked at the menu.  It was probably one of the most expensive chicken fried steak I had ever seen advertised,  and the rest of the menu required selling our house for a down-payment.  We excused ourselves, crossed the road and Dana walked up the cobbled path to get the car.  My shoes took priority.

Rapid City town center is really very trendy, very expensive, with a president on each corner, made out of brass.  The restaurants were pricey, but offered slightly more than chicken fried steak, and at a price that would not require us to go into debt.  We found a nice bistro and I ordered Buffalo, whilst Dana had venison.  My meat was cooked in a chocolate orange sauce with ginger.  Divine!   After dinner, we returned to the hotel and decided to make use of the hot tub that was on the side of the deck.  We sat in our bathing suits, in the cool winter evening, looking at the stars.  What a way to end the evening!

Sunday morning and breakfast of french toast and fruit was delivered. Once again we snacked out on the deck and checked our route for the day.  After chatting to the owners of the B&B, we set off to Wyoming.  Again, we drove for miles and miles of what was essentially beautiful nothingness, and after about an hour we saw the sign.  I have no idea why I was so excited to be in Wyoming, but the atmosphere of this particular State was so calming, so wonderfully peaceful.  The Welcome Center was a few miles down the road and we decided to stop.  As we walked in, I heard some English voices.  I was quite sure they were Northerners, so I followed them out and asked where they were from.  When they heard I was English, they seemed to become quite animated.  When they heard I lived in Texas, they seemed even more excited.  They were from Liverpool.  The shorter one started to tell me the story of how he and his wife had done this trip three years ago, by coach (bus).  Now he was doing the same trip with Ernie.  Unfortunately, Ernie's wife was a very sick woman, all their married life. She had died recently. (I conveyed my condolences, and he added, 'Three years ago').  So they wanted to come back and do the same trip by car.  They were going to bring their bikes but it was too expensive, so they were going to take their bikes to Germany instead.  It was like being on the set of 'Brookside' (an English soap opera set in Liverpool!)  We were not in any particular hurry, but they seemed to have all the time in the world and were determined not to leave out a single detail.  The shorter one continued, without taking a breath, 'My son said to me, yer can't go to Germany on yer bike dad, and I said to him, why not son, and he said, because yer too old dad, and I said to him, I were riding bikes before you we thought of, lad.'  Ernie then chipped in that they may be old, (I'm 70 and Ernie 'ere, is 73!), but they were still able to ride their bikes.  They had been to Germany years ago.  Their car had broken down.  (By now Dana had come out and was trying to understand the broad scouse accent).  'You ever been to Germany?' (same breath, new sentence.) Dana replied in the affirmative, twice, once with his parents, when his father was stationed there, and once when he was stationed there, in the army, in the 70's.  Ernie and the shorter fella were there in the 70's.  They had stopped in a town to call a mechanic, when their car had broken down.  'This woman came out, big as you she were, that tall, big as you', ('big as you'; chipped in Ernie, who. bless him, had a slight speech impediment, so wasn't able to talk as fluent as his shorter pal; who probably had a name, but neither of us caught it, perhaps because he didn't say, or maybe because Ernie tried to say it but didn't manage to get a word in edgewise!)  'Big, BIG woman, (he continued) and she 'ad 'ands'.  I tell ya, she ;'ad 'ands'; and he continued to tell us that they spent a week in a hotel, as that is how long it took to fix the car.  They were returning to visit the place again later in the year, and continued to tell us the whole telephone conversation they had with the hotel owner's daughter.

Then, they decided to tell us how they had only got lost once, whilst in South Dakota, and that was in Rapid City (where they were staying).  Ernie (bless him) had not realised that the road sings were actually at the side of the road, and told the shorter one to turn.  He then realised that the road signs overhead were the name of the road that runs across.  Poor old Ern was slightly embarrassed, and tried to explain what had happened.  Unfortunately, it took too long for him to get out the excuse and the shorter fella continued on with his story.

Making excuses that we had to leave Monday morning, we shook hands, wished each other bon voyage and headed out to the car park.  We got back into our car, and Dana looked like he had been hit by a ten ton truck!  Firstly, he wanted to know, didn't all German woman have hands?  Secondly, what on earth were they saying.  He managed to catch about a third of it, and that was about some German woman who 'ad 'ands!'

We continued on our way and reached Devil's Tower, the monument in the movie 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind', took pictures, and then on to the town of Bullah, which has a population of 33.  I am sure we saw 32 of them, with the 33rd at the look out point in case Ernie and the shorter fella came back through town!  We drove on and found a wonderful cafe for lunch.  A couple approached us as we got back to the car and were very excited thinking we were fellow Washingtonians, as our license plate displayed Washington.  I told him, 'fraid not', but he continued to tell us that Rapid City was exactly 1,973 miles from Seattle and somewhere else, the city where his wife was born. As you can no doubt tell, by this time, my concentration was waning and I was wondering why everyone found it necessary to tell us 'all'.  I guess it was pay back time for all the times I tell people stories about people they do not know, and all in great detail!

Along we travelled to Montana and after purchasing the obligatory fridge magnet, and taking the obligatory pictures, we drove through the breathtaking countryside, back into South Dakota and through Deadwood (I looked for Doris Day and sang a chorus of 'Whip Crack Away,' but she did not show!) 

With most places closed on Sunday, we finally found a 'family restaurant' and enjoyed a surprisingly good evening meal (the architecture and surroundings did not give a particularly favourable impression, but never judge a book by its cover), and made our way back to the hotel and again, luxuriated for a long time in the hot tub.

Monday morning was Eggs Benedict, and pouring with rain.  We had to eat inside, which was very sad, and then we had to make our way to the airport to catch our flight out of Rapid City and back to Austin, via Colorado. Rapid City Airport seemed to be smaller than before. The bag handler doubled up as the travel announcer, but he seemed to know what he was doing and we all boarded on time.  Amazingly enough, at Colorado, we were called to the desk and informed that we had been upgraded to first class.  Dana said he has never had so much legroom on an aeroplane. 

An amazing trip, and although the pre-journey nightmare was not the best start, it certainly turned out to be one of the most amazing holidays I have ever been fortunate enough to enjoy.  I do feel slightly like the shorter fella, giving so many details, (I loved every minute of his monologue), but it seemed to enhance the story and now I just have to work on .....another story,

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