Our vacation could have started better. After hours of our toddler daughter vomiting in the airport hotel, a deafening siren sounded at 2 a.m. It continued to blare, interspersed with: "We have a reported emergency. Please stand by for further instructions." No further instructions ever came, and my 4-year-old son asked a remarkably astute question: "If it's an emergency, why aren't we leaving?" We imagined every terrifying scenario -- while our daughter continued to vomit. Around 3 a.m., the alarm ceased, and we heard: "This was a system malfunction. We apologize for any inconvenience." This beginning was a harbinger of things to come, and we soon realized we'd gone about our trip preparation all wrong. Traveling cross-country with two small children -- through four airports and on three flights, lasting 12 hours in one direction and 26 in the other -- is decidedly not a vacation. It is more akin to running a Tough Mudder, without the glory.
Started by former British counter-terrorism agent Will Dean, Tough Mudders grew out of his "frustration with unimaginative and repetitive marathons, triathlons, mud runs and other adventure runs," according to the Tough Mudder website. These 10-12 mile events -- designed to be mentally, physically and emotionally challenging -- include such savory obstacles as fire walking, swimming in near freezing water and sprinting through a field of live wires. As a distance runner myself, I take issue with
Like preparing for a Tough Mudder, I must mentally prepare myself to fly. I used to refer to myself as a "white knuckle flyer" because of my acute fear, but I'm really a "bare knuckle flyer"; I beat my fear into submission in order to get on a plane. My fear is not unfounded. My maternal grandfather, John J. Couchman, a talented gauge inspector at the Watervliet Arsenal near Albany, N.Y., was killed in a plane crash in March of 1972 -- only a few miles from his home. Oft-repeated statistics (about how it is much safer to fly than to drive) simply don't help soothe my flying anxiety. His early death moved plane crashes from merely theoretical to horrifyingly real, so logic just doesn't help get me on the jet. Instead, I gear up and prepare for battle. My poor spouse endures my plane crash nightmares in the weeks leading up to any trip; once we're on board she must bear with my disquiet over every patch of turbulence or unexpected "ping" or "knock." On this particular trip, my daughter's pre-flight sickness and the freaky emergency alarm did not aid my poor nerves. I wasn't adequately prepared to test my strength, stamina and mental grit.
My second mistake was in thinking that flying is still the glamorous and thrilling activity it used to be, in say 1950 when only 17 million travelers passed through American airports. Many of today's 650 million passengers (who shuffle along wearing flip-flops and clothes that look suspiciously like their pajamas) are inevitably in my way on the moving walkways while I sprint -- with kids in tow -- to make an insanely tight connection to a horrifying small prop plane on the opposite end of the concourse. As a runner, I knew I could sprint to make connections. But I didn't factor in that my dashing and weaving -- around stationary travelers on moving walkways -- would necessarily involve hauling all the parenthood accoutrement. (My sincerest apologies to that poor guy in Denver who I whacked with a diaper-stuffed totebag.)
Although a Tough Mudder's challenges are daunting, they are entirely expected and anticipated. Not so the trials on our trip. I did not expect the broken plane, the missed connections or the extra night in Denver. Nor did I anticipate the excessive turbulence on the hopper from Wyoming to Colorado -- or my stomach's acute response to it. My lost purse, our missing baggage, the hour-long wait to re-book our flights and the airport shuttle that simply wouldn't come were all additional, excruciating obstacles. But I also did not expect the revitalizing camaraderie I discovered along the way.
Here we are, a nation divided. Political parties and super PACS spend gobs of cash convincing us to hate one another. And yet. A stranger saw my anguish over my lost purse and ran alongside me through the Denver Airport to help me find the plane that was about to leave with my bag still on it. And yet. A gate agent marched out onto the tarmac and literally knocked on airplane doors to retrieve my purse. And yet. A minimum wage food service worker -- without being asked -- calculated the optimal use of my food vouchers to make sure I'd have enough food for my kids in case we got stranded again.
Our family's Mudder did everything the real events promise. We tested our limits, and learned the strength of our team. But more importantly than "unlocking a true sense of accomplishment" as advertised by Will Dean, I emerged from my trip with an unforeseen kinship with my fellow countrymen. This affinity is what will enable me to get on the plane again next time so my children can spend time with their grandparents. I know my own grandpa would have liked that.