Paul's Chateau d'Oex Journal

The 1998 Swiss Alpine Hot Air Balloon Festival

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Thursday, January 15, 1998

The clock radio at the Quality Inn switched itself on as it had been programmed to do, and the top stories from Morning Edition spat the new day into my cotton-filled head. My flight to New York was scheduled to depart in about 90 minutes, and I was going to face it with only a few hours’ sleep. This would be difficult, but there was no question that it would be well worth it. A 10-day ballooning adventure in the Swiss Alps? Yes, I thought, I could drag my tired bones onto a plane for that.

Chateau d'Oex (24576 bytes)Yesterday, late in the afternoon, I’d made an abrupt change in plans. Instead of frantically driving to the airport on the morning of my flight, battling the rush-hour traffic on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and weaving through the commuting maniacs on I-5, I decided to take my car and my stuff over to the vicinity of the airport and spend my pre-trip night in a hotel. One of the benefits of this was economical and convenient parking. In exchange for buying a night’s stay, I could leave my car next door in the Radisson Hotel's lot for the entire length of my trip. Since the cost of my room was less than half what I would pay to keep my car in the airport ramp for the duration of my adventure, this was a sound economical move.

It was also nice, with only a little sleep, to require just a 5-minute shuttle ride across the street to the airport in the morning. No matter which plan I followed, I had known that I would be sleep-deprived this morning. parking.jpg (8696 bytes)After all, I hadn’t really given much thought to details such as packing until the preceding night, so I was destined to be up too late. As it happened, I didn’t leave home until 11:00 pm, and I arrived at the Quality Inn well after midnight.

In any event, it was morning now, and my plane would soon be leaving. I headed out my door and down the hall, then ran back to my room one last time and unpacked everything frantically. By the time I resolved my "Where did I put my keys?!" crisis, flight time was only about an hour away and I was still in my hotel room. Since I’d be crossing international borders, I was supposed to check in two hours before the flight’s scheduled departure. Well, I guessed that wouldn’t be happening.

After only a few tense minutes of waiting in the hotel lobby, the hotel van whisked me to the Delta doors in the front of the terminal. I was growing concerned about the time, since I appeared to be within 45 minutes of departure at this point. Baggage checking, passport scrutiny and perhaps two or three accompanying adventures in line-waiting lay between me and Seat 34F. This could be trouble.

In fact, though, I must have gotten my temporal bearings from a malfunctioning clock at the Quality Inn – perhaps I should wear a watch? – because I actually had an entire hour until flight time when I entered the airport. Within 10 or 15 minutes, I was all checked in and skulking around the gate impatiently waiting for the call to board.

As I lurked, I looked for Annie Erickson, who was scheduled to be on my flights all the way from Seattle to Geneva. I had assumed that she would have arrived long before I did, since I was plainly not hewing as closely to a responsible schedule as typical folks would, yet she was not to be seen in the gate area. I was puzzled.

When the time to board arrived, I sauntered onto the plane and took my seat. The flight was not very full, which is always nice. airframe.jpg (10466 bytes)I was troubled, however, by the utter emptiness of Seat 34A, across the plane from me next to the port window. No Annie. Had I made a mistake; was this the wrong day to be traveling? Had Annie changed her plans, or perhaps been abducted by space aliens? The stranger next to me in Seat 34D was useless in providing answers to these questions.

The front door closed, and the plane taxied away from the terminal and toward the runway. The adventure was actually beginning! I opened Michael Crichton’s Airframe, a novel about a fatal in-flight airplane disaster, and I felt the Delta 757 pull up through the clouds and away from the west coast ground that I would not see again until after I’d experienced all the unimaginable adventures that I knew lay before me.

The flight to New York was uneventful, except for a few little tosses and turns in the air. Nothing as jarring as what happened in the novel I was reading as we crossed from sea to shining sea. The inflight movie was "The Game" with Michael Douglas and Sean Penn. It was marginally distracting, although I was glad that Delta had provided a complimentary coupon to cover the $5 cost.

We approached New York's Kennedy airport substantially on time. It’s always morbidly interesting for me to pass through Kennedy: I spent the first half of this decade living a few miles away, in Kew Gardens, and depending on our approach, I can often spot my old apartment building as we descend through Queens. Indeed, it’s even visible from the windows of the American Airlines terminal ... but not from Delta’s. In any event, I didn’t see it this time.

I was more interested in seeing my traveling companions: The Florida contingent would be joining me on the New York-Geneva leg of the journey, and so I would have my initial meeting with Cindy, Linda, Susan, Richard and Rosemary. (And whatever happened to Annie, anyway?) Since I’d never met any of these people, I wasn’t sure how we’d connect with each other, but I had faith that somehow we’d figure it out.

There was a chance that I might be able to recognize Cindy. I had realized, just as we began our descent into New York, that there were several pictures of her at, because she had been on some prior ballooning trips with Alf. Since I had a mirror of the site on my notebook’s C: drive, I was able to review those photos and have an image in my mind to match with a face.

We had a smooth landing at Kennedy. I would be spending the next few hours here, waiting for the Swissair flight to Geneva. The last time I had been in the Delta terminal was last August, when Ken and Sandra and I were on our way back from Prague. With wonderful memories of that trip freshly triggered by my surroundings, my excited anticipation over the journey now commencing became even further enhanced.

I made a couple of phone calls to those who might have cared, to report on my progress so far, then I found a quiet watering hole and settled in for a drink and some poking around on my notebook computer. A few days before leaving, I had again read Stephani’s Journal from last year’s Chateau d’Oex trip. Prior to that review, I hadn’t read it for several months, and until recently I’d never had the thought that I’d be making the trip myself. Now, once again, I turned to last year’s report to refresh my preview of what was to come. Of course, each Alf trip is different, and I knew that our adventures could not be predicted from what happened last year. Still, it was nice to preview some basic geographical and feature parameters of the trip.

As I sat in the outer room of the terminal bar, a couple of attractive women emerged from its smoke-filled inner chamber. My pre-landing research paid off: I thought I recognized one of them as Cindy! As they approached, they glanced in my direction. "Cindy?" I asked. Well, this must have come as something of a shock. Here she was, a thousand miles from home and apparently recognized by a complete stranger. But I quickly explained who I was, and we had a nice little talk. Her companion was an old friend whom she had arranged to meet during her brief New York layover, and since the Fort Lauderdale flight arrived before mine, they had already been reminiscing for some time in the bar.

Because Cindy had booked the flights for all of us, I thought she might be able to explain the still-mysterious absence of Annie on my flight out of Seattle. Perhaps Cindy had handled some last-minute plan change, and she would be able to say when, or indeed if, Annie was going to be joining us. As it turned out, however, the explanation was better than that: After our initial ticketing, Cindy had rebooked Annie into a different seat. Thus, the emptiness of Seat 34F meant nothing. Still, if Annie had made the flight, she would have had to arrive at the gate late, after I boarded. I supposed that this was possible. We might have our full contingent of balloonists after all!

As the time approached for the departure of Swissair/Delta 110, I wandered around the Delta terminal with growing anticipation. I toyed with the idea of exchanging some dollars for Swiss francs, but the commission charged by the moneychangers at Kennedy seemed a bit steep. I would wait until the Geneva airport and do it there.

With under an hour to go before our flight, I went to Gate 5 and prepared to check in, but the computers were crashed and the agents were unable to do anything. There were some whiney and obnoxious people in the line – obviously New Yorkers – who were astounded at this personal snub, offended that the sea was not parting for them. I smiled as I considered that I could still be living in this city and experiencing this sort of behavior every day, had I not left and moved to civilization two years earlier. I walked to a different counter and checked in for my flight without any difficulty.

As the time to board approached, the other members of our party converged on the waiting area at Gate 5. There was Annie; she’d made it after all! I also had my first meeting with Susan, Linda, Rosemary and Richard. Susan, it turned out, looked familiar, and I realized that I had seen her photos, too, because she had been with Alf in Bangkok in December. I was shocked to hear that Linda had two children who were each about 20 years old; from her appearance, she must have been about six years old when they were born. Cindy joined us and bid farewell to her friend. Richard and Rosemary rounded out our cohort.

Our seats were scattered all about the plane, so we boarded and went to our separate areas. Once again, Annie had originally been booked into a seat next to me, but her seat reassignment carried over to this flight as well. My neighbor for this flight would be a woman named Grace. During our flight, I would learn that she was the personal secretary to a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, whose work I have long enjoyed, and his wife, who is an editor for a leading quarterly literary journal to which I happen to have a lifetime subscription. Conversation with her about various topics was easy and wonderfully enjoyable.

Our takeoff from Kennedy was delayed for about an hour and a half. Traffic out of New York was heavy, and we slowly taxied behind a long line of other planes waiting to take off. There were rumors that Air Force One was in town and holding things up. That seems to be a frequent suspected excuse whenever a flight is delayed in Washington or New York, however, and my guess was that there were simply a lot of flights all scheduled too close together. In addition, the weather was less than perfect: It had been raining much of the day, and it was coming down now with considerable intensity. But my conversations with Grace made the time pass quickly, and nothing could interfere with the pleasure of the moment. After all, this was a major adventure, and every minute was to be savored.

Swissair MD-11After our 90 minutes’ wait on the jet highways of JFK, we finally made it to the front of the line. Grace, who had grown up outside Geneva and longed to be in Switzerland as frequently as possible, made this trip on Swissair 110 often, yet she was still wary of the takeoff and landing phases of the flight. With a stormy night and a large, full plane, I could see how the aviation demons might bare their teeth and rattle their chains. Steeled by my optimism over the adventure that I knew lay before me, though, I was confident that nothing could stay our destiny. And, indeed, nothing could. With a surge from the plane’s three engines, we were off into the night sky, toward Nova Scotia, the Atlantic, and beyond.

Next: Friday, January 16

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