Mar 19 • 13M

Twin Falls, Unexpectedly

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The audio version of On We Go
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I have not been on an airplane since 2019. This is true for many, I’m sure. My reason for remaining grounded has nothing to do with Covid, however. I only figured this out one sleepless night this week.

Lately, I’ve gotten a few kind invitations to join friends on semi-far away trips. I’ve hemmed and hawed until it was too late to buy a ticket, or turned them down outright, choosing to stay home instead. This is not like me: I used to take off and go just about anywhere on an hour’s notice. Not now. The travel bug has cleared my system completely.

I flew a lot in 2019, for screenings and film festivals for a film I’d made. Boy, that seems like a lifetime ago... Anyway, I was en route from New York to Palm Springs—the closest airport to Joshua Tree—on an airline I won’t name. (Hint: there was a Covid variant named after the same Greek letter). I had to change planes in Salt Lake City, Utah. This connecting flight is always aviation culture shock: you go from the relative comfort of a big plane like a 747 to a loud bucket of bolts—questionably maintained—that seems like one step up from a VW bus with wings. When I’d made this same connection two weeks earlier, the tiny plane’s air conditioner was no match for the sweltering summer heat. The flight attendant yelled for everyone to please close their window shades—no need for a passenger address system in a plane that size—then she handed out airline-branded credit card brochures to use as fans. The ink ran, turning everyone’s sweaty hands blue or red, depending on how’d they’d held the brochure. The flight was grueling—especially for the flight attendant—who seemed to be composing her resignation letter in her head while strapped into her bouncy jump seat. When we finally got to Palm Springs, the 110 degree air was a welcome relief—and probably 10 degrees cooler than in the plane.

Knowing that this baby jet roulette is part of the package, I only ever travel with a small carry-on, a purse—and I dress in layers. You just never know what you’re gonna get.

On this particular June afternoon, however, the travel surprise occurred before we even got to Salt Lake. A sudden, severe, thunderstorm—which produced ground lightning—shut down the airport part way through our descent.

We suddenly started to climb again.

“Well folks, looks like we’re in a holding pattern for a minute,” the Captain said over the intercom. “We’ll keep you posted as soon as we get an update.”

There were dozens of planes in the air, with nowhere to land. The visual through the opposite row’s window was stunning: a line of uniformly spaced glistening jets—lit up by the afternoon sun—with a backdrop of menacing dark clouds and mountains behind them.

We didn’t join that row of circling planes, however.

We kept heading West.

“Oh, they must be diverting us to St. George,” the guy across from me said.

“No,” said the guy behind him. “I live there. That airport’s closed for runway work.”

A few minutes later, a guy in my row, who’d been glued to his phone, said, “The storm’s already over. Salt Lake airport is open again.”

Just then the plane banked sharply. There were sighs of relief, light scattered applause, and murmurs about making connecting flights after all.

Except we didn’t turn around. We started heading… North.

The landscape below us transitioned from the orange of Utah to rolling fields of green. The Palouse? Where the hell were we going?

“Oh shit,” said the guy from St. George. “We’re headed to Boise. That’s the only airport that can handle a plane this size.”

This plane was a Boeing 757—slightly smaller than a 747, but still a good sized plane.

The flight attendants came through the cabin, preparing us for landing.

“Are we going to Boise?” asked the St. George guy.

“I don’t think so!” said a bubbly young man. “Fasten your seatbelt, please.”

Looking out my window, the town I saw below—getting closer by the second—was too small to be Boise. “Holy shit,” I thought. “We’re in Twin Falls. Do they even have an airport?”

Twin Falls, Idaho is a lovely town. It’s pretty far off most people’s idea of “the beaten path,” so it’s surprising that I’ve been there several times—twice in 2013 alone. It’s a good pass-through town on your way somewhere else, like Montana or the post-apocalyptic Craters of the Moon National Park. Still, apart from a lovely waterfall downtown, there wasn’t a lot there last time I went through.

The plane descended and climbed a couple of times. This was unnerving. The collective vibe in the cabin was full-on anxiety.

We finally landed on a short runway that probably mostly sees crop duster action. The pilot did an amazing job landing smoothly and efficiently. The passengers applauded, relief spread through the cabin.

Then we taxied. And taxied. It seemed like we were driving in circles past the same outbuildings and storage sheds of this mini airport.

“I think they’re driving us back to Salt Lake,” said a guy a few rows back. Everyone laughed.

Suddenly the plane jerked to a dramatic stop, lurching us all forward.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Twin Falls, Idaho, where the local time is 8:17 PM.” A flight attendant said. “We’re waiting for instructions from the ground crew. We’ll update you as soon as we have more information.”

Everyone was instantly on their phones, trying to figure out what was going on. Those who got through to the 800 number received conflicting information: we were just there to refuel, we were waiting for another plane to take us back to Salt Lake, we were waiting for the runway backup to clear at Salt Lake then we’d be on our way. They’d figure out connecting flights once we got there.

By now, I’d missed the last flight to Palm Springs. I had terrible phone service, so I texted an extremely capable friend, who very kindly booked me a hotel room in Salt Lake for the night.

Spoiler: I never saw that room.

The flight crew sprang into party host mode, passing out drinks and doing their best to keep the mood light. It worked: people were extremely good natured, talking with their seat-mates, hanging out in the aisle. It was like Happy Hour in a very narrow bar.

After about 40 minutes, the ground crew rolled a stairway up to the plane. As soon as it was attached, half of first class bailed. Soon a few businessmen from the main cabin left as well.

“Folks! If you get off the plane, you won’t be able to get back on,” a flight attendant warned. “There’s no one from the TSA to process you, so if you get off, you’re on your own.”

This prompted several more in first class to grab their carry-ons and exit.

The guy next to me joked, ”What do they know that we don’t know?” In time, this proved to be an excellent question and one I think about often.

The buzz in the main cabin was that there were no rental cars or hotel rooms locally—everything had been snapped up. We soon learned that ours was the fourth plane diverted to this small airport; three other jets were ahead of us. In fact, that’s why we were stuck on the plane; the terminal was filled beyond capacity with people from the three other flights.

Seeing that first class was nearly empty, I abandoned my cramped window seat and slipped into something more comfortable. Others joined me. The mood was still light and even sort of fun. The flight crew was in full “fuck it” mode, topping off everyone’s drinks and rummaging through the cabinets looking for snacks.

One of the other jets took off. Everyone cheered; it was a hopeful sign—soon dashed. We hadn’t heard from the Captain for a while. When we finally did, it was not great news.

“Folks, we have some technical problems with this aircraft. We’re working on getting you all back to Salt Lake as soon as possible. So hang tight and thank you for your patience.”

The passengers exchanged a what-does-that-mean look.

By now, the people who’d moved to first class had bonded with the flight crew. It was a full on party and they were in it. This annoyed the few remaining actual first class passengers, one of whom yelled at us to go back to where we belonged.

This is when the mood shifted. Whatever’s happening—we pleaded with our flight crew friends—please just let us get off this damn airplane.

The Air Canada jet took off. This finally opened up enough space for us to go into the terminal. It was now 10:35 PM. My savvy fellow first class transplants gathered up pillows and blankets. This turned out to be a good move.

Rounding the bottom of the stairs, the “technical problem” the Captain mentioned was clear: that sudden stop during taxi was because the plane was about to hit a utility pole. We weren’t on a runway, we were in a damn parking lot.

The airport didn’t have the right equipment to back up a 757.

“Can’t you just put it in reverse?” I asked the Captain, who was hanging around outside. He explained that he had to get permission from an FAA official, who was on the East Coast and long asleep. That plane wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Rumors started flying inside the terminal: they’re sending another plane for us. No, they’re sending busses. No, they’re… bringing in pizza…

Working in television post production, I learned long ago that when the Domino’s boxes show up, the shit has officially hit the fan. Looking around, I realized my new buddies from the flight crew—and the Captain—were gone. They’d quietly left on jet #3, leaving us in the hands of the Twin Falls night crew. A visibly harried woman with a battery powered megaphone announced they were doing their best to get pillows and blankets for us because we would be spending the night. And oh, by the way, the crew took the key for the cargo hold, so we can’t access your luggage.

On a whim, I opened the Uber app on my phone. Miraculously, there was a driver available, willing to drive to Salt Lake. It was now after midnight. It was a four hour drive. The rate was four hundred and fifty dollars.

I started working the room. It didn’t take long to find three others passengers willing to split the ride with me.

I truly hope you never have to experience driving that far with a group of strangers in the middle of the night, taking turns talking to a sleepy driver you don’t know, trying to keep him awake. “Sooooooo, how many siblings do you have? Oh, uh huh, and what are their names?”

We made it to the Salt Lake airport just in time to greet the fresh-faced day crew opening up the ticket counter.

“I’m sorry, but the 11:00 flight is full,” the agent told me. “I can get you on the 8 PM.”

I stared at her for a long minute, then calmly said, “I’m really sorry to have to Karen you, but you’re getting me on the 11:00 flight.”

Was it my tone? My rumpled appearance? What might have been a crazy, homicidal look in my eye? I don’t know. But I not only got a boarding pass for the 11:00 flight, I got a breakfast voucher.

I had about five hours to kill, so I found a bench to sleep on outside a closed nail salon. As I fell asleep, I remember thinking that Salt Lake is a terrible place for an airport with climate change looming. Denver, too: they both have flight-delaying unpredictable weather which is only going to get worse.

Later, as I waited near the gate for my flight to be called, I saw a guy from our impromptu first class party. He looked like shit.

“How’d you get here?” I asked. “Did they send another plane?”

“No. They got permission to back up. We came back on the same plane! Gotta go!” He ran off to catch his next flight.

I think the reason my brain has been bringing up this memory lately is that it’s a metaphor for what was to come. I remember feeling that at the time. “The wheels have come off the bus,” I texted a friend that morning. “There are no more grown ups in charge of anything anymore.”

Two hundred people had their lives disrupted, slept on a floor in a brightly lit terminal, or found their own way with probably varying degrees of success, all because no one on the scene had the authority to put an airplane in reverse.

The other thing that feels somewhat familiar with what’s happened in the past two years is the inability to get the facts in an ever-shifting narrative. As a result, people make decisions—good and bad—with the facts and rumors they have on hand.

We didn't have a lot of options that night in Twin Falls. Even if they'd said at 9:00 PM, “Hey guys, this plane is stuck. The hotels are full. You're gonna have a sleepover here, but we'll keep you safe and get you pizza and take you back in the morning,” it wouldn't have changed the circumstances. But I, at least, would've liked to have known the truth. The Captain knew. The crew knew. Why didn’t they level with us?

There seems to be a hesitancy to it tell the truth these days, even though it comes out eventually. Without the facts, you make crazy decisions like a four hour late night Uber drive. In hindsight, I don't regret that decision, but it did use up my adventure inner reserves.

I have yet to get those reserves recharged.