NOTHING COULD BE FINER THAN…… (Part 1 of Carolina)


Ah, travel! There’s nothing like it, all those preparations—when to go, how to go, what to take—and as one gets older there are often new decisions to consider, such as how many of those damned meds have to be counted out, and will there be enough for the whole trip or is another visit to the pharmacy necessary, just to be on the safe side. Which shoes and how many pair—let’s see, what kinds of social events will I have? Does everyone wear shoes in North Carolina, or do they dress like Opie and walk barefooted with a bamboo fishing pole over their shoulders, regardless of where they’re going? Do I need rain gear? I live in Wyoming, so what’s that thing called an umbrella that they have in volume, in Raleigh? Will it ever be cold there, in May?

I started this trip by relishing the thought that I would finally be able to use some of the 160,000 frequent flyer miles I had accumulated on United Airlines, many which had come from staying at Holiday Inns over 20 years of traveling for my various school districts, and the rest from the past few years of overseas travel to accredit schools in widely-dispersed parts of the globe. I have been carefully hoarding all those miles, with a few of my “bucket list” destinations under consideration—New Zealand, Australia, Scotland among them.

This trip had a number of components—-visiting my older brother near Raleigh, who has been dealing with a severe health issue for 11 years; working as a volunteer for a few days at a big golf tournament in Charlotte, visiting and playing golf with a long-time friend from my Peace Corps days, in Atlanta, attending the Hooding Ceremony at the Duke University Law School, where the son of a family friend was graduating, and spending a small slice of time visiting my eldest son and his family in Charlotte. I guessed that this journey would encompass more than two weeks, and as I approach its conclusion I’m somewhat glad that the three week trip planned to lead up to this one had been cancelled due to a potential health issue, but one which turned out to be nothing needing significant attention. I’m tired.

After counting out enough of the meds and supplements for 17 days, packing far too many pairs of shorts and short-sleeved shirts, adding more than enough pairs of pants, and selecting two kinds of sneakers, I drove the 120 miles to Casper, Wyoming, where one of the hotels lets you leave your car for the duration of your trip if you stay there overnight. Last spring, I was gone for five weeks! And, as my flight was to leave at 6 a.m., staying at the hotel was strongly advised.

The Flight

I put in a wakeup call for 4:15, just in case I needed awakening, but that was completely unnecessary. You see, the United Airline Information Service woke me with a 3 a.m. phone call to let me know that the plane would be leaving on time. I naturally muttered a few comments about that alert, and went about the rituals associated with waking up, personal ablutions, and getting dressed. My packing had already been done; I always have a small overnight bag separate from the travel bags, to use for my pre-flight hotel stay. For the trip, I would be allowed one checked bag free due to my Silver Premier status on United Frequent Flyer miles. That bag was precious, as it contained a carefully-padded bottle of Wyoming Whiskey, being lovingly transported for my son to proudly display to his Carolina circle of friends. And it cost $45. My other two bags were the Nike duffel bag received years ago as a tee prize in our local Labor Day Golf Tournament, and the backpack with wheels which the cat had urinated on three years ago, and was only now becoming acceptable in polite company. These two objects have been my constant companions throughout all the traveling I’ve done in the past few years, and have been all the way around the world. With that backpack, I always felt safe from assault; for some reason lots of people seemed to want to maintain a reasonable space away from us, except maybe some who had a head cold.

The flight from Casper to Denver left exactly on time, and was in one of those sleek Canadian jets that are extremely fast and fly high. The trip was uneventful, which is what you want when flying. It usually takes about 45 minutes of flying to Denver, but we went so fast that we arrived about 15 minutes early, and had to wait until the folks who operate those loading ramps decided to appear, about 20 minutes after we landed. My layover included breakfast, and the next flight also left as scheduled, to Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh airport was interesting only that there were very few people in evidence, and the atmosphere within the terminal was somewhat dark and dreary, producing a shabby, unwelcoming appearance to the pausing traveler. Maybe that’s why there weren’t many folks. I had to waste about four hours until the flight would leave for Raleigh; outside it was a drizzling rain casting a glistening sheen over the surfaces of any planes parked at gates , awaiting their turns to flee into the drier regions above the low-hanging cloud layer. Finally, it was time to board for the final leg, an hour trip to the Raleigh-Durham airport 45 minutes from my brother’s home in Clayton; again, everything was on time and a smooth flight.

Every time I fly on a domestic airline, I wonder how the foreign airlines are able to provide the much better amenities than ours. Lufthansa, which is a United partner, often flies the same routes from Denver to Frankfurt, but the service is quite different. Before a meal, for instance, the attendants come around with moist, hot towels to use to cleanse your hands. Then there is a tasty choice of two meals which include “extras” not seen domestically, such as cheeses, desserts, and other additions to the main course. United’s breakfast usually is a cellophane-wrapped small sweet roll, a small cup of yogurt, and juice. Lufthansa has a cheese omelet, sausage or other meat, and a variety of other goodies. At any time during flight, one can ask for a free glass of wine or a beer. After dinner, cognac is offered along with the coffee. Domestic airlines charge for everything except the lavatory, and that may be the next step. I asked if the airline is subsidized by the German government, and was told no. Similar service I have enjoyed on ANA (Japanese), Turkish Air, British Airways, Egyptair, and Saudi Arabian Air.

The Car

It was raining lightly when we arrived, and I took the shuttle to the Advantage Car Rental site in order to initiate a sequence of activities that were generally a bit stress-producing over the next few weeks. The first change appeared when the agent informed me that the Nissan Versa, which I had reserved, was unavailable and would I be happy to take a VW Golf instead? Well, as a former Golf owner (we had two) and someone who wouldn’t mind having that title on a car I might be driving to major tournament, I said “sure”. Golf VW’s are fun to drive, and I didn’t mind at all. The agent and I circled the car, looking for any damage to document prior to my taking the car and, as it was dark, she moved it into a lighted area. We noted nothing of significance until I was getting ready to leave, when she saw that the airbag light was on. “You can’t take this one, I’ll give you the other one next to it”. So I switched cars, but the walk-around was done in the darkness and no damages were seen—until the next day.

After reaching my brother’s home, we spent some time chatting and went to bed. The next morning I went out to the car, and was not pleased to see two door-dings and a large chunk of plastic knocked out of some trim around the driver’s door; subsequently a couple of days later I also discovered a small, three inch crack low on the passenger’s side of the windshield. The car itself informed me, from the message system in the dashboard, “Service Now!” Being prudent, I called the car company and was told to mark the damages on the rental inspection receipt, and as I was to head to Charlotte the next day, I could trade the car there for another if I so chose. They also said to ignore the “Service” instruction, and I guess it had been some automatic alert after the 25,000 miles had been recorded.

Anyway, since the car was fun to drive and seemed to perform well, I decided to keep it for the duration of the 17 days. And while the temperatures remained no higher than in the 60’s, with daily continuous moisture or its threat, things were fine. But when the temperatures suddenly soared into the upper 80’s with plenty of sun, that little crack decided to grow up, and over three days became a vertical scar reaching about 15 curving inches up the windshield. Even though there were only three days left, it was time to trade it in. I attempted to do so at the Charlotte site, but they were so swamped with new travelers that I went on to Raleigh, where I had first rented it, and exchanged it for a new Ford Focus. This car was fully equipped with everything including Bluetooth, so I left with a big smile of satisfaction and had no more problems.

I only spent a day in the Raleigh area, pausing long enough to accompany my brother and his wife to the Duke Medical Center where he went through some various scans to see what effect recent treatments have had on is condition. As I was going on from there to Charlotte, we drove in two cars. After they had left to go home, I wandered through the Medical Center seeking the exit point where I could head to the Duke Bookstore to buy some Blue Devil decals to replace the ones wearing out from too much admiration on the back windows of my vehicles. My wanderings were depressing; I had no idea how many people are really, really sick! Every “nook and cranny” of the building was overflowing with patients and I assume many of them were there as a “last resort”, seeking help from one of the medical Meccas of the US. My attitude was not further buoyed by the fact that the floor levels and corridors were so confusing that I expected at any moment to run across a Minotaur. As I look back, I was remiss in not leaving a trail of breadcrumbs so that I wouldn’t constantly be retracing my route. Anyway, I finally was directed to the right place, exited the Center, and ambled in the rain to the bookstore. Naturally, I had to pause at the hot dog stand on the way, to assuage the inner beast in the best way I know. And, in the bookstore, Duke t-shirts were selling at $6! I only bought one.

Next: Part Two will be Charlotte and the Big Golf Tournament, and include a listing of explosions from Iron Man 3, to which I took my two grandsons, and a behind-the-scene look at what goes on to support a TV golf tournament.

Always Be Happy!  To Our Youth!

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