Flight delays and making the best of it (Or, Zen and the Art of Airplane Maintenance)

May 1; Leesburg, Virginia — Sometimes you don’t have to travel far to have an adventure: I re-learned this lesson yesterday in the usually predictable confines of Dulles International Airport just outside Washington, DC.

I’d been in DC for five fabulously stimulating days and was scheduled to fly home to San Francisco on a 5:35 pm United flight. I arrived at Dulles around 3:00 and settled in for a sandwich and some airport email and reading time. My plane — a Boeing 777 usually reserved for international flights, which had flown in from Geneva earlier that day — was listed as on time. The afternoon sailed smoothly by until 4:45, when a gate agent announced that the flight was going to be delayed for mechanical reasons. She said they would make an updated announcement at 5:30.

By 5:25 the boarding area resembled a refugee scene: A long queue of people waited to confront two beleaguered ticket agents, and around them a ragged semicircle of travelers brandished their cellphones, complaining to colleagues, lamenting to loved ones, exasperatedly seeking alternative flights.

Then one of the ticket agents made an announcement that only about half the people could hear. “Can anyone fly to San Jose instead?” At once everyone who did hear assaulted the counter and those who didn’t began to call out, “What did she say? What did she say?” Afraid of missing something, they rushed the counter too. It was a stampede, with people waving their tickets in the air, elbowing their way forward, demanding their rights.After a few frantic minutes, five fortunate passengers sprinted across the corridor, clutching precious new boarding passes, and raced onto a Denver-bound plane just as its doors shut. The rest of us looked worriedly at each other. Casablanca, I thought.

I overheard a man in a business suit say something authoritatively to a young couple and followed him to the wine bar to ask what he’d found out. “There’s no way that plane is going to fly,” he said. “They’re trying to find another plane that could be flown here, but then they have to find a flight crew as well. They said they won’t know for three or four hours if they’ll be able to get a plane here tonight or not. So basically we just need to sit tight until they know what the situation is.”

Fifteen minutes later I Skyped to my wife: “The agent just came on and said that they’re looking for another plane that can come here and take us to SFO but they’re having problems, because it’s a larger kind of plane that usually just flies internationally, so they’re having trouble finding one that’s available…. I have a feeling we’re going to end up spending the night here….”

About ten minutes later the gate agent came back on the intercom and said that the flight was cancelled and that we should all proceed to the United service counter where we would be given a voucher for a hotel and dinner and a ticket for a flight to SFO the following day.

Like wildebeest we galumphed down the corridor toward the service counter, where two more harried agents waited. After standing in line for an hour and 20 minutes, I was handed a voucher for a hotel, a dinner voucher for the grand sum of $15 (woohoo!), and a boarding pass for the 4:08 pm flight to SFO.

“What about my check-in bag?” I asked.

“You’ll pick that up at the United baggage area when you arrive in SFO tomorrow,” the agent said brightly.

“And where am I staying?”

“The Lansdowne Resort, you’ll really like it,” she said.

Resort? I had been expecting an airport Hyatt or Hilton. The Lansdowne Resort sounded, well, vaguely thrilling.

“Go to transportation pick-up area 2H, and a shuttle from the resort will pick you up.”

I left the counter and realized that I had no idea what lay ahead. I was going to spend the night at a place called Lansdowne Resort, a place I was certain I would never otherwise have experienced in my life. I didn’t have to worry about my bag; all I had in the world was the laptop-bearing backpack that I’d kept as carry-on. A voucher was burning a $15 hole in my pocket. I felt lighter and lighter with each step. I was on an adventure!

That’s what happens when our well-laid plans go astray. One moment the day is all organized and itineraried; we’ve already lived it in our minds, we’re already arriving in San Francisco. And then the universe sends a little gift – your flight is cancelled; there’s a rupture in the fabric of certainty and expectation. The itinerary is out the window. Suddenly an alternative stream of possibilities, sunlit, floods into the scene.

Or at least, that’s the way I chose to take it….

As I write these words, it’s a sun-washed morning in northwest Virginia, and I’m swaddled in terrycloth splendor in my very comfortable room at the Lansdowne Resort. Last night I arrived at this spacious retreat set among green rolling hills and white golf carts and had a delicious dinner of grilled salmon and Sauvignon blanc at the estimable On the Potomac restaurant. The tab was considerably more than my allotted $15, but it was worth it.

After dinner I went for a walk under the stars. The night was beautiful, warm enough that I was comfortable in just a sport coat, quiet, the air almost caressing. A convivial group was gathered around a terrace fire pit, drinking and laughing. As I walked farther, I came upon an area of what looked to be expansive and expensive homes, no doubt following the contours of the resort’s lush fairways.

Of course, there were challenges to overcome. First there was the toothbrush issue. I channeled my inner Bear Grylls and briefly considered foraging for a twig and a few sprigs of mint among the resort’s manicured grounds — but as it turned out, I foraged in my bathroom and found, nestled among the stalks of Shampoo, Conditioner, and Body Lotion, a blue extract called Mouthwash, which served as the perfect toothbrush-in-a-pinch.

Then there was the clothing conundrum. I didn’t have a change of garb, but luckily, I discovered a stream in that same bathroom, peeled off my sweaty clothes and plunged them into the flowing water, then washed them in the sap of the Bath Gel plant. Finally, after laying them out to dry nearby, I crept up to the closet, carefully pried it open, and spied a woolly white Lansdowne-Crested Bathrobe. With a single leap, I wrested it from its perch and subdued it. That would serve as cover for the night.

This morning my hair looks like it’s been dancing to the beat of savage drums and my beard recalls Tom Hanks in Castaway, but this just adds a little more gritty glamour to the scene. I can hear myself at a future cocktail party: Yes, my flight was canceled at Dulles and suddenly I was thrown back on my own resources; I had to use all my wits to survive….

The truth is: I feel marvelously light. I don’t have to make any decision about what clothes to wear; I don’t have any choice. I don’t have to lug my check-in bag around; I’m as buoyant as the pack on my back. The sun is shining, the golf carts are revving up, the golfers are cleat-clattering on their way to the course, and the birds are tweeting the old-fashioned way from fulsome green trees. The day stretches infinitely, invitingly ahead.

This morning I’ve re-realized a truth that I once lived by: Traveling without baggage – of both the literal and the figurative kind – is wondrously lightening and liberating.

This morning I’ve re-realized a truth that I once lived by, and that too much business and too little adventure has obscured in the past year: Traveling without baggage – of both the literal and the figurative kind — is wondrously lightening and liberating. The metaphor has woken me up like the Virginia sun: light pack, light feet, light soul. And now, for half a day, I’m soaring, suspended, with nothing to do, nowhere to be, adrift on the winds of possibility.

Before long I’ll take a shower, exchange terrycloth for Oxford cloth and corduroy, wander around the grounds a bit, plug in my laptop and do the work I would have done if I were at home – some reading, some writing. But I’ll get to do it among the rolling green hills and gracious estates of this corner of Virginia I would never otherwise have known existed. One more piece in my picture-puzzle of the world will have been serendipitously filled in.

Sometimes we need these little ruptures to refresh us, to renew our sense of wonder and wander. In the end, a flight cancellation for mechanical reasons can be a ticket from the universe – a Zen koan that retools our inner engine: How do you fly when there is no plane?

[Image credits: JoshuaDavisPhotography.com; SalimFadhley; Jurvetson]