I open this post with the first person singular in order to satisfy a pair of requests. First, Mr. Bill Sweetland of Chicago urged Barzun’s gentle rereader to reveal a bit more about himself. Then a new friend insisted that I make the “ridiculous travel itinerary” for my pilgrimage to San Antonio part of the story. He enters the tale following the San Antonio Symphony concert “Berlioz and Barzun” (commissioned by Mr. Charles Butt) in a forthcoming post.
Well, three thousand miles is not such a long way to go when the planes, train, and cars lead to Jacques Barzun. Millions of visitors to Mecca, Jerusalem, Lumbini and other sacred places journey farther. Still, the desire to see a legend while he still lives was strong enough to bring me down from the Great Land to little Texas.
The experienced Alaska traveler builds in buffers whenever an event must not be missed. A concert on May 15th meant planning an arrival in San Antonio two days ahead. Fortunately, Alaska Airlines flies into Austin, but only from Anchorage with at least one stop and a plane change, usually in Seattle. And I would still need to get from my home at the end of the Trans Alaska Pipeline in Valdez to Alaska’s largest city, population around 150,000.
Valdez is home to about 4,000 people and gets more snow than any other sea-level town in the U.S. We even had a smattering the week before the concert. Fog is the main enemy for fliers during the summer months, but spring brings the most sunshine of any season in this part of the state. Nevertheless, I booked a commuter flight more than 8 hours in advance of the red-eye to Seattle, just in case clouds descended on the Valdez airport. Then I’d still have time to make the gorgeous six-hour drive through Keystone Canyon, Thompson Pass, and past the Matanuska Glacier on the way to Anchorage.
There was rain from low clouds the morning of my scheduled departure on an eight-seater Beech. The weather reduced the number of pilots willing to risk participation in the annual Valdez Fly-In that same Saturday. The usual carnival atmosphere prevailed, however, and I arrived early enough before my departure to wander through the booths and enjoy meeting my new Valdez neighbors emerging from winter hibernation.
But first I made a pest of myself at the counter, telling Bob about the reason for my trip and how important it was that I be on that flight. Then I walked out onto the tarmac to wait for the plane to arrive from Anchorage. I greeted the pilot a few minutes after he’d rolled to a stop, discharged his passengers, and got out to stretch his legs. He saw that I was eager to get aboard, promised that an announcement would be made in the terminal when it was time to do so, and headed for the restroom.
So I went back to watching the bush pilots compete for honors in the shortest take-off category (a vital skill for remote Alaska airstrips and beach landings). Suddenly a helicopter sprang into the air, lifting off in reverse! Heads snapped left and right as folks exclaimed to their companions, “Did you see that?!”
It would have been great to remain outside to watch longer, but I was afraid I’d miss the boarding announcement. The small terminal was crowded as non-passengers visited the booths inside and residents caught up with each other. The counters were packed, and I stayed close to the doors.
Then I saw John, whose office is just down the hall from mine, and he described the short-landing judging that he’d been asked to do. When he asked where I was going, I pulled out my copy of A Stroll with William James and told him about my favorite author and the trip to San Antonio. We also talked about the Fly-In and shared our amazement at the helicopter’s backwards take-off.
I stepped back to the doors to check on my flight, saw a few people standing around 25 meters from the plane, but since they weren’t boarding the Beech, I returned to my conversation with John. Already he was talking with someone else, a snow bird who spends her winters in Hawaii and summers in Valdez. The introductions included the two Johns offering surnames, and we learned that her name was Leigh Coates. She also offered her card, and our eyes popped when we saw that her company was Vertical Solutions. She was the helicopter pilot who had just taken off backwards. Leigh was a distraction, but I wouldn’t have missed an announcement that my flight to Anchorage was boarding.
Chief Pilot Leigh Coates above the Columbia Glacier
Still, I wondered what was holding things up. So I walked back to the glass doors and looked out … and saw my plane rolling out to the runway without me! I dashed to the air carrier’s back door, hollered that the plane had left me behind and called, “What happened to the announcement?” Maybe what came next occurs in commercial aviation elsewhere, but I thought: ‘Only in Alaska.’ Instead of blaming the passenger, he quickly radioed the plane and then told me that the pilot had agreed to taxi back and pick me up.
Bob stepped onto the boarding ladder and took the blame – “My bad” – saving me from any sneers. I buckled up, added my apologies, and was met only by smiles and assurances that no connections would be missed.
And so my pilgrimage began. A nap in the Anchorage airport preceded the red-eye. Nothing was stolen while I nodded off. The hop to Seattle went smoothly and I made the connection to the Austin flight with time to spare.
My taxi fare to the Austin Amtrak station was double what the train ticket to San Antonio cost. Instead of renting a car in Austin, I decided to ride the Texas Star in part because of JB’s love for trains. The opening line from God’s Country and Mine conveys as much: “The way to see America is from a lower berth about two in the morning.”
I enjoyed the legroom and footrests in coach while rolling through Hill Country, but remembered JB’s criticisms in “Trains and the Mind of Man” (Holiday, February 1960) and added one of my own when I learned that the only sustenance – besides scenery – to be had on a regular run starting from Chicago was junk food: candy bars, chips, and sodas. Alert the First Lady!
At least the train was making good time. The conductor announced that we could arrive at our destination as much as an hour ahead of schedule. Even pausing to let a freight train use the track didn’t put us behind schedule. We reached the outskirts of San Antonio before dark, and slowly rolled through town. Then, with less than three miles remaining to reach the station, we came to a full stop. An eighteen-wheeler truck was disabled on the tracks ahead. The announced wait of half an hour to remove the truck turned into an hour and then an hour-and-a-half as a mechanical engineer was needed to inspect the tracks at the scene. I could have walked to my hotel from where we were stopped, but regulations forbade that.
We arrived at last, and I was plenty early for the Tuesday concert … and the inaugural meeting of the Jacques Barzun Book Club on Monday night.