California Day One: Richmond to Houston to Los Angeles by Bill Pike

My wife, Betsy, the Commander Supreme, and her sister, Abby, another Commander Supreme, had been in collusion. Abby took the lead in planning and pitching a trip to California where she and her husband, Art reside.

Agua Dulce, about an hour northeast of Los Angeles, in the landscape of the high desert is their home.

Now, don’t blab this to anyone, but Agua Dulce, (which is barely a speck on any map) is a treasure in my mind for one exceptional  reason—it is quiet. Even the leaves on the California pepper tree barely rustle when a late afternoon breeze ripples through them.

This trip would have many moving human components. Abby and Art’s three children and two grandchildren would be a part of this expedition. Schedules would only allow one of our three children to tag along.

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Promptly at 2:50 on the afternoon of Monday, August 6, our neighbor, Bobbie Ansell, drove us to the Richmond airport. It was exceptionally hot and humid as a passing rain shower’s moisture had been instantly reheated by the sun that had quickly reappeared.

The drive to the airport was uneventful. We thanked Bobbie, grabbed our luggage, and with a tad of excitement in our steps found the check-in counter.

Thankfully, the Commander Supreme took over, and we made the walk to the security check point. For this flight, the TSA had granted us the less intrusive security check. Once again, I followed the Commander Supreme’s leads, and somehow I cleared the security hurdle.

The walk to our gate was short, and there were no surprises waiting for us. In the summer, flying through the Southeast during the afternoon can be a challenge because of thunderstorms. But our plane coming from Houston was in the air and only running a few minutes late.

Airplanes and flying fascinate me. But getting on the plane, stowing carry-on luggage, and squeezing into a seat that I’m certain continues to shrink as the plane flies irritates me.

For the ride to Houston we would be flying an Embraer 175. Four seats, two on each side lined the fuselage. The overhead bin did not want to take the Commander Supreme’s over stuffed carry-on. I thought I was going to crack the flimsy plastic edging of the bin as I shoved the bag overhead.

Despite appearing to be a relatively new plane, the brain-trust at United Airlines wasn’t thinking about the comforts of their passengers. Clearly, they were thinking— shrinking the size of the seats means we can cram more seats into the plane—meaning more seats = more passengers = more opportunity for profit.

As a passenger, this compression made me feel like a sardine packed in a tin of sardines, or like three bulky stalks of romaine lettuce shoved into a too small plastic bag.

Finally, all of the sardines were packed on the plane. Safety procedures were noted, and the pilot made no promises about making up lost time in the air.

Taxing out to the runway for take off added another half-day of travel to this cross-country trip, but we eventually gathered speed and lifted off. Visibility was good as the plane scurried us away from Richmond.

The first attempt to serve beverages and a pitiful bag of pretzels was aborted. The pilot warned us about some choppy turbulence. Eventually, items were served, but the unsettled air continued to taunt the plane most of the way to Houston.

As the pilots lined up the approach into Houston, I could see a stormy skyline with rain showers falling. The wing on my side of the plane easily sliced through the summer clouds. Our descent was slow—slower than a slug moving through a flower bed.

But eventually, we did touch down with a hard thud. If you had been napping, you were awake now.  The pilot taxied the plane toward the terminal. Again, it seemed like we were driving  into downtown Houston to unload the plane it took so long. This Houston airport named after the first President Bush is massive.

Finally, we reached our gate, and it took us a bit of time to figure out the gate for our next departure. Of course, our next plane was departing in a different terminal. This meant catching a ride on the airport’s shuttle system.

I had hoped to sample a Texas craft beer while waiting to depart for Los Angeles. A single craft beer on the plane cost a mere $7.99!!  But, we barely had time for a bathroom break as we found our next gate. United personnel at this gate had already started lining up the sardines and romaines for entering the plane.

For the flight out to Los Angeles, we were on a Boeing 737/900, a much bigger plane, but with continuously shrinking seats too.

As final preps were being made for departure, the pilot highlighted the flight plan and weather conditions along the way.

Without too much delay, we took the twenty-mile trip out to the runway. With the engines revved up, we quickly were above Houston. The fading sunlight created a colorful backdrop of pastels on assorted clouds as the pilot steered the plane west.

Darkness timidly encroached the sky. Soon, the lights of cities and towns were dotting the landscape. Occasionally, I would spot a remote singular light with vast darkness surrounding it. I wondered how lonely that light was and if the people out in that spot were lonely too.

Our pilot did a nice job of keeping us updated along the way. The crew actually made up some time in the air as he announced many passengers on the flight had international connections to make.

As we made the approach into Los Angeles, lights were everywhere, but even with all of those lights, I know there are lonely people in the city of angels.

Even at this hour of the evening, the freeways were still buzzing with high volume traffic. We had another hard, jolting touchdown, and another long taxi to the jet way for deplaning.

Just as all of the sardines and romaines stood up to start their exit, we were told one passenger had a medical emergency. We were asked to sit back down.

Out the window, I could see emergency trucks had been waiting for us to arrive. The delay wasn’t long, and as we exited the plane, medical personnel were working with the person.

We found our way to the luggage carousel, made a pit stop, and exited into the chaos of LAX with other departing sardines and romaines searching for their rides.

The Commander Supreme had been texting our outside position to Abby and Art. There were lots of cars, buses, and taxis jockeying for curb position.

Just before we were picked up, there was a commotion to our right. We notice shrieks and quick footwork and the picking up of luggage. Soon, we realized what was causing the commotion—a rat, not mouse was looking for a ride home. As he scampered by us, the lady beside me jumped on top of a safety bollard to avoid the rat.

Just as she made her leap on to the bollard, Abby and Art drove up. Abby wondered what had caused her to do this.

That rat was a nice welcoming touch by the city of Los Angeles. Maybe the rat heard that weary, compressed sardines and romaines were going to be piling off the airplanes this evening.

Art managed to get us out of LAX unscathed. More importantly, no extra passenger hitched a ride to Agua Dulce with us.

It was well past my East Coast bedtime when we crashed into bed.

Sleep was what I needed, and, luckily, I had no nightmares about sardines, romaines, and rats.

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