Friday, July 5, 2013


Imagine we're finally going on our dream vacation. We count down first the weeks, then days, then minutes and finally the day arrives. It does not start out well. We are flying to our destination and boarding is delayed by 30 minutes. It's ok though, with a 90 minute layover in Chicago we can still make our connection. We board; 60 minutes late. It'll be tight for the connection but we can still do it. Then we sit on the tarmac, interminably. It becomes obvious that we are not making our connection. Nor the next connection. Soon it seems like we might miss the last flight form Chicago to San Francisco. Finally we take off. The relief of actually having forward momentum mitigates the extreme frustration of the long, unpredictable wait on the tarmac. Arrive in Chicago. We have indeed missed the last flight to San Francisco. Quick math. Even though we will be forced to spend the night in Chicago, if we forego the day hiking we were going to do in Death Valley, we can still make it to the Cottonwood Pass trailhead outside of Lone Pine, California by the date on our backcountry wilderness permit which we applied for 6 months ago; we can still make it up Mount Whitney and hike the last section of John Muir trail we have yet to do (ok, it looks like we are going on my dream vacation here, we can do yours next time).

Next morning, all flights to San Francisco are oversold. We are on stand-by with not much prospect of getting out before late afternoon. Frustration mounts. Now we will also have to forego the pre-backpacking expedition to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains outside of Lone Pine and jump right onto the trail to respect the dates on our wilderness permit. At last, a break. An earlier flight to Los Angeles has opened up. We can change our car rental, fly into LA and drove from there. We give up our spots on the lengthy San Fran stand-by list and run to the LA gate, only to be told the flight has closed (with empty seats on it!) and we will not be allowed to board. We run back to the San Fran gate and take a now, even lower spot on the stand-by list. Frustration is extreme. This vacation has been in the making for a year. The thought of it has been keeping us sane during some trying times at work and home.

Finally, seats open up on the last flight of the day to San Francisco. We are now a full 36 hours behind schedule but we have made the mental adjustment. Frustration and disappointment have ebbed. Our new reality is that we are 36 hours late; we are working in this framework. We have  mourned the loss of the Death Valley excursion and the Ancient Bristle Cone Pines and have adjusted to the reality of our truncated vacation. It feels good just to have a seat on a San Francisco-bound airplane. We don't even notice or care that the seats are small and uncomfortable. The fact that we are not sitting together and each have a dreaded middle seat, aisles apart is a trivial detail. We are on our way and we are grateful! We are still going to be able to summit Mount Whitney and finish the final stretch of the john Muir trail we have never done.

It's strange though because we were the last to board this plane. The air hostess urged us to hurry as she gate checked our carry on that there was no hope of finding a spot for on the already packed plane. We were so elated to finally be on the plane that it took a good twenty minutes to register that we have not actually pushed back. In fact the cabin door has not even been closed. It's almost as if... the thought is interrupted by the inevitable announcement: Minor delay. Might be just a faulty indicator. Waiting for maintenance. Thank you for your patience. And of course it is not just a faulty indicator, there is a real problem that will prevent this aircraft from leaving the ground. Though of course it takes close to three hours to ascertain that. The de-planning is interminable. Retrieving the baggage seems like a cruel joke especially when it takes extra long due to the departure of most of the baggage handlers given the late hour of the day. The good vibrations of relief and gratitude have long vanished, the rage, frustration and despair have returned acutely. We are too discouraged and disappointed to do the mental math. The equations are not in our favor.

The next morning, a stroke of luck, we are winging our way on the first flight to San Francisco. We are exhausted having only gotten 4 hours of sleep after arriving into a motel late after the luggage debacle and then returning to the airport early in the hopes of catching this very flight. Exhausted but cautiously elated. We work up the gumption to return to the mental calculations. We can forego the summit of Whitney and just do the planned portion of the John Muir trail. We can go to the Wilderness Office in Lone Pine and get our entry and exits adjusted on our permit. It will all work out. Then, a surprising twist, favorable headwinds hasten our arrival into San Francisco.We are jubilant. In fact, if one could quantify happiness, we are actually far more content at the moment we touch down a generous 20 minutes ahead of schedule than we would have been in the alternate reality in which we reached San Francisco almost 48 hours earlier.

The ability of the human brain to adapt to new conditions, to mourn the passing of a certain reality and move to work within the framework of a new reality is incredible to me. The fact that we can be elated by arriving 20 minutes early rather than enraged that we are arriving 47 hours and 40 minutes late is one of the triumphs of the human brain and spirit. Because of course I am not talking about taking a vacation and delayed flights, it's a convenient analogy for almost any forced adaptation in life. It's a convenient analogy for things I don't really feel comfortable writing about directly. It is astounding to me how the human brain can, after awhile, accept a new reality and rejoice in "good news" that prior to the adjustment/adaptation ago would have been disastrous news. To move away from the somewhat trite airplane analogy; it is amazing to me, for example, that a person could be involved in a horrific accident, become permanently disabled, adjust to the new life, make the most of this new life and find new opportunities within the framework. It is amazing to me that a person dying of a terminal illness can receive a modicum of good news about their condition and within the framework that their illness remains terminal, celebrate this news as heartily as they may have celebrated any joyous life occasion. The ability of the human mind to bend, adapt, accept and optimize is a wondrous thing.


  1. Oh wow, what travelling chaos, ugh! Enjoy the john Muir Trail; we did a portion from Tuolemne meadows to Garnet Lake 4 years ago and it was so good I want to go back and do the whole thing including Mt Whitney some day (maybe for my 40th in a few years???). Love your last paragraph, truly the mind and attitude can be a formidable force once they are working together and not against each made me think of some ducational institute I attended where the motto was "Adapt and Overcome"; at the time it didn't mean much to me but now you brought that word forefront I see it as "once you have adapted you will know you have overcome"....I hope your trip back is a little smoother!

  2. I hope the adjusted good news is the lasting type, and that reaaly does sound like your dream holiday because it's definitely not mine ;)

  3. I'm glad you adapted, I think I would be livid for a very long time! Hope you enjoy the rest of your trip.