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Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Monday, 13th August, 2001

Other than not wanting to leave in the first place, I was facing a formidable travel timetable to find my way back from Phoenix to Halifax. Travel is always far more interesting at ground level where everything is close-up and visible, and you have the freedom to stop whenever you feel like it. The world looks very different from many thousands of feet due up and I'd be seeing plenty of it over two days of travel.

Various alarm clocks raise me early, around six thirty in the morning, an unholy time to most. Time to say my adieus and sayonaras until I could return, probably a few months hence. Too long.

Travel proper starts at nine with the arrival of a cab. I've used this firm before and will do again as their drivers are prompt, friendly and efficient, and a far cry from their competition who don't even turn up. A quick thirty buck cab ride takes me to Sky Harbor and an hour and a half wait for a thankfully on time flight. Most of England holidays in Europe where delays are routinely far more horrendous than I've ever had to deal with on my flights to and fro over the Atlantic.

I spend half an hour on a temporarily grounded plane flicking through the Continental magazine, which details many ways in which the airline has built the highest morale in the industry. I wonder where the finance is coming from to power employee reward schemes that give out Ford Explorers and swathes of regular cash bonuses.

Headphone rental at four bucks a pop suggests one source. In three years of semi-frequent flying I've always found them to be complimentary, along with the refreshments and entertainment. It seems manipulative to provide a film for free but require payment for a means to listen to it. I am even asked to close my window shutter so as to provide a better movie experience but I prefer to write and enjoy the scenery. At least the food is good, which is quite a surprise as the terrible reputation airline food enjoys is well deserved.

Phoenix seems incessantly flat from the ground but only from the air can the full truth be seen. Cruising east through Arizona at 37000 feet provides the perfect view of a city without contours. What landscape there is surrounds the city but not for much distance. It's only a short hop over the foothills to the next chunk of interminably flat desert beyond.

The exceptions to the rule are the mesas; odd outcrops of land that occasionally make the quantum leap from three dimensions to two. They push their way up in very confined locations like miniature volcanoes, often forming the sort of geological freakshows recognisable from Roadrunner cartoons. I'm sure that city planners will be thankful that the laws of gravity are adhered to, at least.

The mountains that we cross every now and again are the real scenery. They may not be tall but dry river valleys crisscross them like cul-de-sacs with turning circles. They suggest the work of some mad giant ancient Meso-American artist.

And always back to desert. Desert is the natural state of Arizona; people live here despite the surroundings not because of them. Temperature here ranges from hot to too hot and wildfires are rife. I'm always fascinated and delighted to watch lightning pummel the landscape but it's a very different feeling entirely to watch it pound neighbourhood so obviously crammed with bone dry brush.

Past one stretch of desert the scenery bursts into subtle colour: miles and miles of farmland split into strips or circles of blues, greens and browns. I can't guess at the logic of farming in circular or even hexagonal fields but it makes for a fascinating aerial view. Circles within squares, bisected circles, circles clumped in groups of three or more; combined with regular squares and gradiated polygons and contour lines into some mammoth geometrical nightmare.

What tweaks at the mathematical mind further is the strange behaviour of clouds. The cloud cover is patchy but stunning, the white tufts of fluff hanging motionless over their shadows. Two hours east of Phoenix and this lowlying candyfloss is joined by swift swathes of white and red dust. Flying through cloud is a dull and monotonous experience but flying over it is constant flux. Sometimes it seems like the spilled contents of a packet of cotton wool balls, sometimes it bubbles off into the distance, sometimes it thins into near nothingness. At its best it just hangs like a gallery of miniature explosions, captured in freezeframe.

Not much captures my eye but the clouds until I start estimating the percentage of homes in Jersey that persist in flouting convention and not adding a swimming pool. Soon the Big Apple itself eases into view and I search for landmarks. Yes, there's the Statue of Liberty, a proudly erect munchkin dwarfed by skyscrapers and urban sprawl. Liberty Island is an insignificant dot when viewed from the final descent into Newark.

I've got so used to waiting for planes at Newark over the past couple of years that it has become almost routine. I spent the time before my flight out of England trying to stay awake; here the routine passes the time for me and I may as well have been asleep.

It seems strange now but the airtime from Phoenix to Newark isn't far short of that from Newark to London. I have a healthy respect for the Atlantic Ocean and its sheer size but I'd never realised how big North America is in comparison. Five hours passes like a flash courtesy of the New York Times and a bad Brendan Fraser movie and I'm cruising over Ireland. It's midnight back in Phoenix but here it's 8.00 am and the sky is telling me I should have slept.

At least I have a spare seat next to me; morale might be great but Continental must be losing passengers nowadays. At least it meant I could steal the handheld audio/video controls that never work consistently for me, today being no exception. The headphones were back to being courtesy but my connections were terrible, so I ended up with my headphones in next door's socket.

The ocean instills patience but once it's past, some inside mechanism tells me that we should land any second. England might be small but there's still a great chunk of it to fly over to reach London. At 27,000 feet I can't see much in the way of anything but sky due to being seated right above the middle of the wing, but wisps of cloud dance above me, dropping even wispier skirts of mist. I sit back and fight a losing battle to rediscover some of the patience that accompanied me for so many thousand miles of water. At least I get to waste fifteen minutes trying to stow both sets of controls. There must be a knack to this that forever eludes me. Am I missing a button or something? I feel dense.

Back on the ground I reap the one benefit of being English in England: customs officials ignore me. I just quickly wave my passport and I'm through. I shouldn't smile too widely though as on the last trip Heathrow took three days to return half of my luggage. This time all goes smoothly and I subtly enjoy standing like a statue at the baggage claim and watching everyone else get progressively more flustered.

Everything feels different. I'm home, but only in the loosest possible way. Home for me now is Phoenix, five thousand miles away where my girlfriend is starting a night alone. My last experience there was the pain of leaving while her kids tried to barricade the doors so I couldn't leave. Nowadays England is just a place to live and work until my green card comes through.

Of course, where I live and work isn't London. Halifax is a long way north, not in distance terms but in the sense of time, by which most Americans measure distance anyway. To get there I face a four stage trek: train, coach, train and eventually Shanks' Pony, as I walk the few remaining minutes to a bath and bed. Suddenly travelling is tiring and I want to sleep.

Unfortunately that's not on the agenda for a while. I find my way through Gatwick Airport in search of the attached railway station and wait for a train into London. There are two that follow the Gatwick-Victoria route, one being more expensive than the other because it's a non-stop express. This is understandable, at least until I realise that the cheaper one only stops once. I can live with one stop for the sake of saving a few quid.

So far, so good. Now I'm back in England I can start reading about Americans again, so I delve through my luggage to find Bill Bryson's 'Made in America', which is one of the most fascinating books I've ever read. For some reason it has become my travel book, as I've read it almost entirely on coach trips. Last time I read any of it at home was in the bathtub and when an American friend rang my mobile I just had to explain all about the truth behind the Gettysburg Address before getting dry.

Sports and games in the colonies keeps me awake on the train and I wonder if the journey from the train to the exit is actually longer than the exit to the coach station some distance down the road. Indoor distances are always hard to judge. I find my way through the crush of people, thanking myself for having the consideration to return on a Sunday, and manage for the first time not to get lost on the way to the coach station, only to find it packed like sardines.

I need to buy a ticket but the mass of people here before me seems like an unholy joke. There are six or seven people dealing with customers but they can't stop the queue from snaking down the office and back five times before disappearing out of the door and partway down the station. I want to scream out 'I've been travelling for sixteen hours! Everyone move out of my way and let me buy a ticket!' Of course I do no such thing, instead quietly join the end of the queue and do what comes naturally to the English: wait.

After thirty minutes of waiting I finally reach an employee who points out that the Halifax coach was due to leave about two minutes earlier. The next one is full, as is the one after that, leaving me with a potential eight hour wait for a seat. I follow advice and chase on down to bay nineteen on the off chance that the coach hasn't left. I soon find out that not only has it left, but my ticket is for that particular coach only and it won't guarantee me a seat on any subsequent one. I head back to the ticket office to sort out why I was sold a ticket for a coach that had already gone and find a line just as long as before. I forget the English sense of waiting and do the American thing: ignore the queue. Five minutes later I have a new ticket for a Bradford coach that will leave in a mere hour, just enough time to find somewhere that sells Dr Pepper.

Six hours later, after the coach drops me in Bradford and the subsequent train whisks me along the ten minute trip back to Halifax, I try to keep my eyes open long enough to walk back to my house. Somehow I manage it, only to wake up as soon as I get through the front door. After so many hours of willing my bed nearer, I can't sleep.

Five thousand miles away, my girlfriend has worked a full day, slept a full night and has greeted the new day since she kissed me goodbye. I miss her already.


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