Trains, planes and randomness run amok


If Montana is a great destination, as they say in the travel biz, getting there is not half the fun. Two days by car, the first a boring schlep across the vast and arid desert. Getting out of there is less boring but more complicated.

I’d planned to take the train. I love trains. Two years ago, I drove my daughter Betty and infant granddaughter to Vancouver, where her husband Mark was going to be shooting a film for six months. I came back on the Coast Starlight from Seattle, not Vancouver, because the layover time between trains was longer than I thought I might live.

So after a floatplane ride to Victoria, a day of sightseeing and a boat ride to Seattle, I still had an overnight layover. Not convenient but very nice.

You can’t get back to California from Montana by rail. At least not from Bozeman. Amtrak stops in Shelby (spitting distance from the Canadian border) on its way west from Minneapolis. The only public transportation to Shelby is a bus. Ugh! The train goes from Shelby to Seattle where you wait half a day for a connection. The whole trip would take three and a half days.

Oh well, back to the friendly skies.

Mark had flown out of Bozeman to another job in Vancouver Sunday. The airport is lovely, parking is plentiful and close, and it takes a fast 20 minutes to get there. Thanks to the federal security checkers, it takes an hour and a half to get to your gate even though there are only two or three people in line for a Horizon flight that seats four across in about 16 rows max. We’re not talking jumbo jets here. When he called from Vancouver, Mark said he had been strip-searched. Drop the pants, everything. Does he look like a terrorist? Not even. It’s random, they say. But he is a male, traveling alone to a foreign country on a one-way ticket. How random is that, anyway?

I booked a Horizon flight to SeaTac (my favorite airport) with an Alaska Airlines flight into Burbank (about two hours each). How bad could that be? As long as I don’t get strip-searched. I get up at 5 a.m. for a flight that leaves at 8 a.m. There’s one man ahead of me in line. The bag he checks in is scrupulously searched along with his carry-on and a fishing rod in a canvas case. It’s my turn. I heave my check-in bag on the counter along with my carry-on and handbag. The checker tells me not to touch my bag again and carries it to the desk where they put tags on it.

The clerk checks my ticket, says, “Oh, you’re going to Burbank”? I nod. “We’ll have to recheck your bag,” he says.

Because I’m going to Burbank?

“It’s random,” he says.

The checker goes through every inch of my bag-underwear, soiled socks-all out in plain view. How mortifying. He struggles to get it all back in the bag and breaks the metal pull thingy off the zipper, which means broken fingernails for me when I eventually get it back. Anyway, he sends it on and I proceed to the gate, where once again I’m randomly targeted for more scrutiny. My carry-on contains my laptop, tape recorder, camera and overnight necessities (in case they lose my bag).

While they’re strip-searching that, I’m sent through the metal detector, ushered to a chair where I’m told to remove my Birkenstocks, belt and everything from my pockets. The matron waves her magic wand over me. The snaps on my shirt set off the bells. Now she goes on a search-and-seize mission of my handbag and the carry-on. Again. Inside my little cosmetics case she finds a tiny pair of nail scissors, which she triumphantly confiscates. This triggers another x-ray scan of the carry-on.

Back in my sandals, I’m finally cleared to go to the gate where I discover the searchers haven’t given me back my ticket and boarding pass. The plane is boarding, I rush back to retrieve my ticket, they fumble around and finally give it to me. I’m trying to remain calm, I don’t want to look suspicious, but I’m shaking, I haven’t eaten anything. I don’t do well when my blood sugar bottoms out.

I board the little plane and find the guy who should have been strip-searched sitting in my assigned seat pretending to be asleep. He is hygienically challenged. Grizzled stubble on swarthy skin, a hooded sweatshirt pulled up over greasy hair, stained work pants. He reeks, all the way across the aisle to the only other empty seat. No wonder they didn’t want to strip-search him.

I’m shaking harder, blood sugar close to pass-out level. All they have on board is peanuts, soda and insipid coffee. I search the jumbled mess of my handbag for my emergency blueberry bar. Gone.

Damn the terrorists, damn the storm troopers at check-in, damn the randomness. Can’t they figure out a gray-haired grandmother of three is not likely to highjack their dinky plane. And damn Amtrak, too. No wonder they need serial bailouts.

I devour the dozen peanuts and a flat ginger ale. I’m having visions of breakfast in the dining car. Fresh orange juice, scrambled eggs, hot croissants from china plates on white linens with real silverware as the train winds through the Rockies, the sun glinting off red cliffs, dark green forests with patches of new snow. Dream on.

“Fasten your seat belts for our descent into Seattle.” Please God, no more searches.

A bumpy landing, an unimpeded trek to the Alaska gate and an hour to munch croissants and sip a real Seattle latte.

Bless you, SeaTac. You’re still my favorite airport.