by K.M. Zahrt
Awake in bed on Friday, January 3, 2014, at four o’clock in the morning, I was staring at the ceiling, thinking, How did I end up in a Best Western in the Poconos?
Katie and I, along with our friends Evan and Stephanie, had planned a trip over Christmas break, but it wasn’t a trip to a ski resort in Pennsylvania. We had planned a trip to Europe. We had been planning it for four, nay five, years. In 2008, the four of us made a pact: We would travel to Europe in 2012. We put our hands together and said, “Euro 2012 on three. One… Two… Three… Euro 2012!”
Well, it didn’t happen that way. By 2012, after a series of location and job changes for both couples, we hadn’t been able to save money for the trip like we’d hoped, but in May of 2013, the decision was made and tickets were booked. We bought tickets flying into Brussels, Belgium, for one reason alone: They were the cheapest tickets we could find. The flight plan had only one stop, a layover in Newark. So what if a layover extended the trip time? It would be worth saving a couple hundred dollars, wouldn’t it? And, in May, stopping in Newark sounded fine. Thoughts of winter and snow were the furthest from our minds (Lesson #1: Always consider Murphy’s Law in regards to weather and booking flights).
Then, the first hurdle came. On the morning of Friday, June 7, 2013, while Katie and I were preparing to leave for an anniversary trip to Stratford, Ontario, to see a production of Romeo and Juliet, I was sent to a Kroger to buy a pregnancy test. The wife–ever so cautious–was worried she was late. This was not the first time this had happened, so I thought little of it. An hour later, she was stomping around the house chugging water, saying, “This can’t be right. I have to take the test again.” I was following her around, trying to hug her and saying, “Isn’t this exciting?” After the doctor confirmed it, the first question out of our mouths was, “Can we still go to Brussels in December?” (Lesson #2: Always buy the travel insurance). Six months and five supportive doctors later, Katie was seven and a half months pregnant, and we were set to leave.
Then, the second hurdle: an ice storm hit Michigan on Sunday, December 22, 2013, the day before our flight. We were two of 40,000 people in Genesee County to lose power. We had to leave. I couldn’t have my pregnant wife sitting in freezing temperatures, so we finished packing in the dark and drove to Katie’s aunt’s house. That was all fine until she too lost power in the night. We woke with chattering teeth. Again, sometime around five o’clock in the morning (a trend is beginning to form now), we packed up in the dark and left early.
Because of a flight-carrier change (our new carrier had a different policy for pregnant customers), we needed to get a doctor’s note for Katie to fly. The doctor’s office was closed until nine o’clock, which would make our timeline tight, so we went to the hospital around six o’clock that morning to see if one of our doctors was on call and available to write the note. After I championed a heated debate with the RN (asked nicely), she went and made it happen for us.
Finally, we were off. No more hitches. Flight went well. Belgium was great (Lesson #3: The beer is everything it’s said to be; Lesson #4: The chocolate is everything it’s said to be; Lesson #5: The waffles are even better than they’re said to be).
On Thursday, January 2, 2014, the four of us were ready to return home with at least three unhealthy diet addictions to work off. I was awake early, again, lying in bed, listening to Stephanie talking on the phone asking about flights. From what I could gather we had a flight problem, a big flight problem actually: Our flight from Newark to Detroit had been cancelled already. This seemed very premature to us; Winter Storm Hercules was not supposed to hit that area until the evening. We were scheduled to arrive and depart from Newark long before the storm.
An airline representative at the airport in Brussels told us to fly to Newark and speak with a representative there. Maybe we could get on a different flight and get out. By the time we arrived in Newark, United had cancelled all of their flights, and in the next 24-hours, thousands more would be grounded. The line to see a representative about flight changes was an estimated three hours long. It was not a good situation, so we divided the labor. We found Katie a place to sit with the luggage. Stephanie waited in line. Evan went to see about flights with other carriers. And I took the train two terminals over to find out about car rentals. When we reconvened, still an estimated 1.5 hours from the front of the line, our options were scarce. Flights were being cancelled left and right. We spoke with people who had just finished talking with airline representatives at the front of the line, and they were saying, “They don’t have flights right now.”
It appeared standing in line would be hopeless. With all the cancellations, hotels would be packed. We were staring down a night–maybe even two or three–sleeping in the airport, and with Katie as pregnant as she was, that was not a good outlook. We needed to do something.
The car rental lines were bare. Nobody was crazy enough to even think about driving. But we are Michiganders, damn it; we can handle snow. We still had three hours until Hercules was going to hit. We could get out of Dodge a long way by then, and we could always get a hotel if things got too rough. Now, after all the waiting, we were rushing again. Every minute was precious. We had to get as far as we could down the road before we drove straight into the biggest storm of the season. We didn’t get far. We made it exactly 89 miles heading west on I-80 before conditions were bad enough to be considered life-threatening.
So, there I was. At the Best Western in the Poconos. Getting Warm. Resting. The pizza we ordered when we got in was still sitting like a rock in my stomach. We tipped the delivery guy plenty. That made up for asking him to drive out in that weather, didn’t it? It didn’t matter. Katie needed to eat. What else could we do?
Around the five o’clock hour, everyone was up and restless. Our internal clocks were all messed up. A look at the radar indicated the storm was mostly passed us, so for the last time, we packed up in the wee hours of the morning and left in a hurry. It was a feat to get the car dislodged from the snow, but we were happy to be on our way. Road conditions were still bad. We averaged 30-40 mph for the first hour and a half. We couldn’t go half an hour without seeing signs of accidents from the night before–semi trucks were stuck in the ditches and other cars abandoned along the shoulders. But then the sun came out and warmed the salted pavement, and it was clear sailing at last.
We were back in Michigan by early afternoon on Friday, January 3. After we said goodbye to Evan and Stephanie, we were glad to be in our own car, traveling north on U.S. 23, but we weren’t home-free yet. That’s when Katie got sick. She told me to pull over, but we didn’t make it to the shoulder in time. It was 10 degrees outside that day; her fluids froze to the side of our car before we had a chance to do anything about it. When we finally pulled into the driveway, nearly 48-hours after leaving Brussels, we had spent more in car rental fees and hotel rooms than the layover saved us (Lesson #6: Direct flights are always worth the extra money), and it would take Katie about 24-hours to recover (it was probably food poisoning).
But victory would soon be ours. We received word from United that our flight was rescheduled for Sunday, January 5, which was subsequently cancelled and rescheduled for Thursday, January 9. If we had stayed in Newark, we might not be home even yet. Better luck next time, Winter Storm Hercules.