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The Long Way to Missoula

Red TulipsThe irony of this last prompt is that I hadn’t yet lived my worst travel horror story. I tried to write it in 99 words, but it was too long. However, trying to write with brevity helped me keep the tale tight. And that’s today’s tip for writers: practicing flash prepares you for longer stories.

Communication has abruptly halted because I dropped my cell phone in the parking lot at my son’s graduation. Then–as the story below will inform–I had a challenging travel day.

Today, I got to see my eldest daughter defend her masters and tonight I cooked tapas for her listening party. We gathered at the home of her adviser to listen to her hour-long radio documentary. I cried. It was beautiful, intelligent and she rocked the multi-media elements, pushing boundaries in journalism to tell humanistic stories.

The next few days I’ll have the privilege of sitting in on a few more defenses and Wednesday my second daughter turns 24. A good week to be grateful that I’m alive. And yes, it was no guarantee that I’d be here to savor this week. Using creative elements that I’m learning through flash, here is my true-life travel horror story.

The Long Way to Missoula

“Want to borrow my phone,” asks my daughter’s father-in-law.

“Nah, I’ll be fine. Allison knows my flight arrival.” It’s 4:30 a.m. at the Minneapolis airport and I’m returning to Montana to see my eldest daughter defend her masters after watching my son receive his BA magna cum laude the day before at the University of Wisconsin. That’s where I shattered my phone, dropping it on pavement.

No texting, calls, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, contacts. How did we exist pre-smart phone? And who was the genius who made them out of glass?

Minneapolis to Denver. Despite mis-designated gates I find my connection in time. Sitting at a window seat, head against thick plexi-glass, I watch slush pool in the sill. A Rocky Mountain spring snow. I’m only an hour away from crepes, lemon curd and red tulips that await me in Missoula for brunch.

Men in parkas de-ice the plane, we take off and all seems fine until—

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. We have bad news…”

He could have been announcing the weather or an obvious landmark below. Bad news evidently is delivered in the same friendly monotone. Mother’s Day and I wonder if I’ll ever see my children again.

“…the mechanism that keeps the wings free of ice has malfunctioned…”

My husband is an airplane mechanic. He used to work for United (the airline I’m flying) and I recall he disliked their fleet of CRJs—the plane with the malfunction. “Pieces of crap,” he’d say. “They should fly Embraers.”

“…the Denver airport is now closed due to the snow storm. We can’t go back…”

It’s a simple formula: ice + wings = crash. I wonder if my husband will remember to talk in “Grave Digger’s” monster-truck voice at my funeral—our joke.

“…we can’t land in Missoula. Without the de-icing mechanism we can’t land anywhere that it’s snowing…”

Snow in the Rockies can occur any time of year. This happens to be a big system. Snow stretches across the vast northwest of the American continent. We fly over, searching for a safe break in the storm. We pass Missoula and Mother’s Day brunch.

“…we’ve declared an emergency and Idaho Falls airport is our only safe option…”

Idaho Falls, Idaho. Home. Sort of—I live north 500 miles in Elmira, Idaho. Will I see my pond again?

I look down at the seven-year-old red-head boy with more freckles than white skin who’s seated next to me, flying without his mother. He’s going to Montana to see his father.

I’ve gained a child in a matter of moments, and I imagine placing his oxygen mask when the yellow cups drop from the compartment overhead. Watching flight attendants show the maneuver before each flight I’ve ever taken has prepared me.

Being a mother has prepared me to take care of stranger’s child today. I smile at him and say, “Idaho. That’s where I live.”

No snow, only gust of wind powerful enough to knock me to my knees awaits us on landing. And we land with only a wobble. I say a grateful silent prayer to God, guardian angels and the United pilots. They landed this piece of crap safely.

Like cattle, we’re herded off the plane. Like survivors, we all gather in the secure area the airline employees prepare for us inside the small terminal. It’s Sunday and closed, but welcomes our little emergency. Passengers are like family now. We hug, shake hands and nearly everyone runs fingers through the boy’s red hair. He’s now child to us all.

Everyone’s flipping on phones, calling loved ones. “We’re okay. I don’t know—Idaho Falls.”

My phone lies shattered in my purse. No texting, calls, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, contacts.

“Do you want to use my phone?” Several passengers ask. We’ve come to care for one another. But I don’t know my own children’s phone numbers—I’m used to just selecting a call by name.

I know my husband’s number and I call him to call our daughters. “Was it a CRJ,” he asks. I know what he’ll say next, “Pieces of crap.” He tells me there’s not a maintenance base in Idaho Falls. The agent now assigned to our group tells us the mechanics are “out of town.” It’s Sunday. Mother’s Day.

Mechanics are driving up from Salt Lake City. Why don’t they fly in? The airport is actually closed. No flights in or out today. Except emergency landings. But United is chartering a bus to get us to Missoula.

A bus? We look at one another, laugh and bad airline travel stories pour out of us collectively as if we are group-painting for art therapy. One woman, who is now best friends with the woman she sat with on the plane, says, “This was my first time flying. I don’t have any bad stories to tell.”

We all laugh and in unison say, “Now you do!”

The bus arrives, but another glitch—the unaccompanied minors (three red-head boys all together)—can’t travel without a chaperone. We all volunteer. The agent explains, “Official airline chaperone.” Soon a United baggage handler shows up—on Mother’s Day—to escort the boys to their father in Missoula. We can all leave.

“This is my first time driving this bus,” announces our bus driver who has also volunteered on a Sunday. We laugh. He’s joking, right? No, he’s not we realize as he grinds gears. I get the giggles. How will United explain to the press that this flight of passengers died on a highway in a bus?

Big Sky Country opens up to us with sightings of buffalo, antelope, osprey and plenty of snowflakes. We chat, sleep and begin to count osprey along the Clark Fork River. Almost there. Six and a half hours on a bus without heat because the driver doesn’t know how to turn it on.

We’re the only flight to arrive at Missoula Airport by bus. It’s chilly and I’m missing my phone to call the girls, to say “I’m alive! I’m here!” I guess I should have taken Dan’s phone. But who knew?

My husband pulls up and I’m taken aback. Todd drove over from Idaho to greet me at the airport at 10 a.m. He says,“I came over to surprise you. Now come on, we have dinner reservations!” Brunch has long passed.

Guess I surprised him instead.

My daughters and son-in-law greet me at their house with red tulips, Proseco and the biggest box of chocolates I’ve ever seen. Brianna cries and flees outside to smoke a cigarette. She hates to fly and after today, I doubt she ever will.

“But it’s okay,” I say. And it is.


  1. Annecdotist says:

    Ooh, Charli, glad you’re safe. I’ve read short story about a game of Scrabble where the words on the board come to presage real-life dangers, I hope the same isn’t happening with your flash fiction prompts. You need to get home soon to the tranquillity of your pond.
    I’m really impressed by how well you’ve written this account so soon after it happened as I tend to assume we all need some processing time. Perhaps you are being converted to memoir?
    On which point, I’ve posted my response to your travel challenge today:
    It’s combined with my response to Lisa’s memoir prompt interspersed with further musings on the differences between the two. As I know you’ll be short of time in putting the post together, the travel bit is easy to pick out as it’s the first of the two in red.

    • Charli Mills says:

      From now on, I’ll exercise some caution with presaging prompts! Funny thing is, throughout each moment of the ordeal I kept thinking which elements would make a good story. Maybe memoir is wrapping tentacles around me…

      Brilliant to combine the flashes. Thanks!

  2. Susan Budig says:

    Uff-da! Whadda trip! You touched on all my same thoughts, like about picturing caring for the youngster when the oxygen masks dropped down.

    I also am nearly whiplashed by your travels. No wonder you didn’t have time to see me in Minnesota. 🙂 Curious, how many were on the plane? 200? 400? It seemed like a smaller plane. And I have never heard of an airport closed on Sundays. That’s a small airport.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Susan, I’m glad you picked up on that element of imagining how to care for the child…it seemed so natural, yet comforting to know that I could look out for someone else. Maybe that’s a universal response.

      I’m suffering travel whiplash but buoyed by the joys of seeing children graduate, meeting their important professors, coaches and mentors. I’m sitting in on a bunch of environmental journalism defenses this week. what a privilege!

      My son wasn’t going to “walk” since he’s staying at Stout for his masters. But he changed his mind and wanted family out there to support him. I was the only one who could go, but it took lots of last minute figuring out–how to get from ID to MT to MN to WI back to MT in time for all events, including my other daughter’s birthday and the Mother’s Day that almost wasn’t! 🙂

      Next trip out will be better planned for visiting!

  3. Norah says:

    Wow, Charli, what a story! And true to boot! I was thinking the same thing as Anne, about real life mirroring fiction, however I’m certain you didn’t create these events with your prompt. Sounds like a great movie – starts off warm and fuzzy with the joy of academic success, followed by a horror trip that brings out the best in everyone, especially in caring for the redheaded children (were they really redheaded?) followed by everyone safely reunited at the end. I can just imagine the horrors of the bus trip after the flight ordeal. Better get started on the screenplay ASAP!

    • Charli Mills says:

      Screenplay potential! I like that, but it will have to queue up behind the other prose projects. 🙂 Yes, four brothers on the plane and three were brilliant redheads with tons of freckles. The eldest had hair black as a crow’s wing and no freckles. They were half Irish and half Native American. And that’s no fiction!

      • Norah says:

        Gorgeous! I love it. It becomes more complex and interesting every minute. I hope someone picks up your story and runs with it to the box office! Fully attributable to you, of course!

  4. Sarah Brentyn says:

    Ack! I hadn’t seen this is the flurry of tweets and flash. Geez, Charli! Glad you’re safe. Sorry to play on your bad fortune, but this is a great story. :-\ Thanks for sharing. (The little boy…you got me good there.) Congrats, again, to you, proud Mama.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Writers never have a bad day–everything has story potential. 😉 Yeah, the boys got to all of us. Thanks, I’m having a cup that runs over with kiddo-moments this week.

  5. Diane says:

    Nicely written!

  6. Wow, Charli! What a story! I can’t believe the luck you had from your phone to the plane to the bus… or should I say; lack there of! You had me laughing though when you mentioned the bus driver had never driven a bus before. I couldn’t even imagine! But I guess you had very little options and from your thoughts above, just couldn’t wait to get home. Beautifully written and quite entertaining=)

    • Charli Mills says:

      The luck certainly wasn’t in the travel cards but it did give me a great story. Oh, I lost it in a fit of giggles when the bus driver demonstrated just how little experience he had with that bus! It was so fitting to the day! Thanks for reading!

  7. […] Apathetic and Inept Airline is the Skies…if we don’t crash. And yes, that was my last travel horror story. I was kind that time and did not call out the airline. Nore was I ever compensated for my trouble. […]

  8. Sherri says:

    Oh Charli, what a story. Thank goodness you were okay and I love the wonderful ending…there’s that Prosecco again, not to mention the love and warmth of your wonderful family 🙂 I’ve flown so many times but mostly long haul as you know and I’ve got a few horror stories of my own. Sends shivers up my spine reading your story and not just because of the ice on the plane. Hubby works in the airline industry too for an American company (yet another coincidence). Your Hub and mine could spend hours in deep conversation I’m sure…and yes, I have to ask the very same question. Why on earth are smartphones made of glass? Within a month of getting my brand spanking new one I dropped it and the glass shattered. But it still works…for the next 2 years I’m trapped in my contract. Ha 😀

    • Charli Mills says:

      Ha, ha…you’re noticing the Prosecco pattern! 🙂 Oh, yes, the Hubs would have much to discuss. The airline industry has changed so much. My part-time job is to find the Hub employment outside of that industry! Oh, no…those smartphones are like carrying around an egg for communication! I smashed mine so thoroughly it doesn’t work at all. And, of course, right after I signed my life away for two years of contract communications, too!

      • Sherri says:

        Oh yes 🙂 I hope your Hub can get out. And even with our wonderful ‘smart’ phones, the coincidences continue…this not such a good one though, what a pain. Motorola flip phone, come back, all is forgiven is what I say 🙂

      • Charli Mills says:

        Ha, ha! Yep–I long for my flip phone, too! 🙂

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