Wednesday, January 7, 2015

One-Way Gateway - Part 1

Part 1

Walking around one’s home city is enlightening and rejuvenating.  There’s much more to the area you live than you think, and nothing proves this more than a nice, leisurely walk. 

But what about walking somewhere you don’t call home?  What’s that like?

When we travel to another city, we’re very used to either keeping to the car we drove in or the car we rented, observing the city at arm’s length.  The glass barrier between you and the organic, moving city impedes both parties’ ability to impact the other.  All you hear is the noise of the road, an occasional horn, and your GPS barking directions at you as you turn down unfamiliar streets.  You don’t hear the can getting crushed underfoot as you stroll, or the kids playing at the vacant lot, or the bits of conversation between a college-age couple on the patio of the local coffee shop.

Why would you want to miss that?

One Saturday this past October, my wife and her friend had decided to take a short day trip up to Cincinnati, about a two-hour drive up I-71.  With nothing on my agenda, I decided to find something to do myself and, as has been the case previously, I mimic my wife, travelling at the same time she does.  Last April, she saw a friend in Las Vegas, so I decided to go to Washington, D.C.; we even flew together to our individual connections in Atlanta.  When she went to Portland, Oregon for a conference in July, I flew to meet her there after visiting family in Pennsylvania.

With a tight budget in mind, I considered daytrips myself.  Indianapolis?  Nashville, perhaps?  No, neither of those grabbed my attention. 

What about St. Louis?

My wife and I celebrated our first anniversary there in 2010, and we had a great time.  Between the relaxed feel of their downtown with numerous modern and historic attractions, it was a neat way to spend a weekend.

As my gears spun on the idea, I brought up all the tools of the trade: Google Maps, Expedia, and Wikipedia.  While St. Louis is a perfectly reasonable drive from Louisville, about four hours, I saw something that intrigued me.

Owensboro, a reasonably-sized town west of Louisville, offered direct flights from their airport to St. Louis and back.  The whole thing would cost me just over $100.00.  OK, so I could fly to St. Louis; no worrying about parking the car, freedom to wander where I wanted to, the ability to see an airport I’d never seen...sounds good!  But where would I walk?  What’s something distinct in St. Louis that would mark a walking milestone effectively?

Oh, yeah.

A quick search revealed that, to walk all the way from St. Louis’s airport to the Arch on the Mississippi River would be a solid 14.5 miles, a five-hour walk.  So walk from one side of this great Midwestern city to the other?  Deal!

With a few clicks, I was booked for that same weekend; by virtue of that alone I was guessing it wasn’t a particularly high-demand flight.  Little did I realize I had actually booked a puzzle, not a trip. 

Although flying directly to St. Louis and back was great, it did somewhat limit what I could do in the time allotted.  From the time I landed to the time my return flight departed, I would have to complete my entire trip, which put me under the gun.  I had to take into account transit times, security lines at the airport, flight delays, etc.  I couldn’t dally too much, but I also wanted to make the journey worthwhile.  Thus, I constructed a route that, I decided, would give a nice overview of the city at large without sacrificing a lot of time or relying on significant public transit usage to get around. 
I plotted my path and prepped my trusty backpack.  Snacks and money: check!  Airline confirmation: check!  Camera and hoodie: check!  Walking directions: check!  Time for a One-Day Gateway adventure!

A very early adventure, it turned out.

A jarring 4:30 rise got my day started.  I kissed my wife good-bye and wished her a safe trip.  She mumbled a mirrored response sleepily, and I slunk downstairs for a bite to eat and a cold water bottle to go.  The morning was very still, and a few clouds coasted by overhead, softly illuminated by the residual light of the city.  The sound of opening my car door echoed unchallenged on the quiet street. 
My little Volkswagen came to life and I was on westbound I-64 in a jiffy.  On my right, the Ohio River was still asleep, silently reflecting the third quarter moon which hung on the horizon.  The third quarter moon has always been my favorite because, in a way, it’s the least seen.  It rises in the middle of the night, often most visible right before the sun rises, as the first quarter moon is most visible after the sun sets.  Across the Sherman Minton Bridge and into Indiana I went, snacking on a Clif Bar.  For a quiet hour, I drifted in and out of cell signal, and my Spotify sputtered with each cell change.  I turned off I-64 at Exit 57, heading south towards Owensboro.  Shortly before crossing the Ohio back into Kentucky, I noticed a pair of cooling towers to my left, the telltale, hourglass concrete markers of what’s usually a nuclear power plant.  Despite appearances, however, it was actually a coal-fired plant; I’d never seen one with these towers.  A towering, traditional smokestack rose into the night between the two wider cooling towers, the fifth tallest of its kind in the country.

The surprisingly modern bridge into Owensboro greeted me a minute later; smooth, sleek, and well-lit, the suspension cables rushed by on both sides.  Back in my home state, I rounded the city of Owensboro, exited a stop early due to a sign bearing the resemblance of a plane asking me to do so, and wiggled a back way over to the airport.

I’ve been in some of the largest and busiest airports in the world, where hundreds of thousands of passengers are processed daily.  Owensboro was not one of those places.  

On a back road, with residential homes right across the street, this place barely felt like an airport.  Where’s the multilane interchanges, massive parking garages and two-tiered passenger discharge and pickup system?  The world’s busiest airport processes the same amount of people in three hours as this airport does in an entire year.

Parking was free, so long as you didn’t leave it overnight.  Well, it was dark when I arrived and will be dark when I leave, but I guess it won’t technically be overnight.

The airport was nearly empty upon entering.  The terminal consisted of two airline desks to the left, security straight ahead, and a waiting area to the right with coffee and vending machines.  The wall, decorated by famous Owensboroans, included fairly dated photos of both Johnny Depp and Florence Henderson, who herself was actually born north of the Ohio, but close enough to count, I suppose. 

I approached the airline counter to get my ticket.  Today I was flying Cape Air, an airline known mostly for serving its namesake market, Cape Cod.  They offer regional connector flights in seemingly random parts of the country, including Missouri, Montana, and Puerto Rico.  Even their largest flights only seat a few dozen, so today’s flight was going to be on a small plane for sure. 

During check-in, the friendly attendant struck up a conversation, saying that she’d only been in Owensboro for a short while; indeed, she didn’t have the drawl of a local.  As she typed in the information she needed, she asked a bevy of required security questions.

“Did you pack your own bag and has it been in your possession the whole time?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Are you carrying any dangerous articles, flammables, weapons, or explosive devices?”

“No, ma’am.”

“And what’s your weight?”

“N – wait, what?  Um, 225?”

“OK, thank you!”

Never had that question before.  If the plane is small enough they need to determine, to the pound, how heavy each passenger and their baggage is, this will be quite an adventure.

I had gained an hour by moving into Central Time, so at a few minutes after six, I was ready.  Security wasn’t open yet, as we’d be the first of only a handful of flights for the day, and it didn’t look like there’d be much to do beyond the scanners anyway. 

I walked outside to watch the sunrise instead.

There’s that moon again!

Two propeller engines fired up in the distance, and assuming it would be ours, decided to head back in.  Security was just opening, so all four passengers bound for St. Louis went through the line.  Our screening was just as thorough as any large airport, just smaller and more personable with maybe an extra “y’all” thrown in there.  Because you’d be landing beyond security in St. Louis, presumably to connect to a larger flight, security must be just as stringent at little KOWB as it would be anywhere else. 

We went through to the nice, but austere waiting area, which had exactly two “gates,” which were basically just sliding double doors that led directly onto the tarmac.  The same lady who asked for my weight and gave me my ticket had donned a visibility vest and come around the corner to collect that very same ticket.  We waited outside the door on a portable metallic ramp.  We hadn’t been standing there more than a moment when our plane came rolling out to greet us.

Yep, that’s all there was.  I’d be lying to you if I said I hadn’t looked up to see what equipment we’d be flying to St. Louis with, but a picture made it look a lot bigger.  But hey, I love to fly no matter what.  Whether I’m flying over our own city in a three-seater Waco or soaring over the ocean in a Boeing 747, I just like to be up there.  This one might test my 6’2” frame a bit, though. 
As the tallest passenger by a head or so, I was given priority seating.  #jetset.  Everyone tossed their luggage in what I can only describe as wing saddlebags.  Locked luggage containers would carry your belongings with only a thin sheet of metal and a lock between it and a 6,000-foot fall.  I tossed my backpack in there, retaining only a notebook and pen, my iPhone and headphones, and my camera.  The rest of the luggage went in the back “row,” though I don’t know any adult human who could have comfortably sat in its seat.

While large planes have seating configurations like “3-5-3,” and “3-2,” this little Cessna 402 was set up in the ol’ “1-1” configuration: one seat on either side of an 18” “aisle,” with the left seat of the third row centered in the aisle to allow room to enplane and deplane.  As this offset seat offered the aisle as legroom, it was suggested I sit there.

As soon as the four of us were on, the folding hatch was shut and our pilots turned around to give us the safety briefing usually performed by flight attendants and an instructional video from the 1990s.  We buckled up and began to roll out; I’d say, from stepping out of the terminal to taxiing lasted perhaps five minutes, tops.  Now that’s prompt service!

The sun was just over the horizon, making for a colorful sky that was ready to welcome us into it.  A quick turn onto the runway, a check of the flaps and ailerons, and then the engines roared.

For such a small plane, our climb was gentle and stable.  The sound of the engines was deafening at first, but soon, all of our ears adjusted to the noise and the relatively small change in pressure.

We leveled off at an even 6,000 feet (I could see the instruments from my seat, if you could believe it,) skating right along the cloud tops.

The flight was scheduled for a little over an hour, and we’d pulled away right on time.  I slid my headphones on to attempt to listen to music, but the engine noise was far too intrusive to make out more than a few notes, so I unplugged the iPhone and kept the cans on.  Cape Air had an inflight magazine advertising everything around Cape Cod from restaurants to events to shops.  Having never been there myself, it all seemed pretty swell.

For a while, we followed the Ohio River, headed roughly west across southern Illinois.  We turned about thirty degrees north after a few minutes.  We were moving at a pretty good clip, and there might have been a chance we’d land early.  Hey, with a schedule as tight as mine, I wanted to have as much piddle room as possible. 

We flew north of Scott AFB, which featured an intriguing taxiway binding two separated runways from each other that appeared to be nearly the length of either runway.  If you look closely in the center, you can see some cool fighters parked on the central apron.

There’s the city!  A bit left of center, you can see the Arch’s southern leg catching a flash of light from the sun on the opposite side of the river. 

There’s the mighty Mississippi.  As we pass over the river, I look down and track the ground below.  “Oh, yeah, I’m gonna have to walk this whole distance.”  Every minute we’re in the air is another couple miles I’ll be marching to meet my goal.

St. Louis’s airport is on the far northwestern side of the county, but given our vantage point, we could already see it the moment we crossed the river, and our two pilots began their approach.  The trees got taller, the houses got bigger, and the engines revved down as we glided towards our landing.

With a soft flare and plop, we were safely down.  In a little plane, you feel every twist, rise, and bump, so it’s tough to keep things steady when your arms are the tripod.

A quick taxi on what appeared to be a fairly quiet Saturday morning at the airport and we were at our gate.  Several other Cessnas (Cessnae?) were lined up to ferry their passengers back to Owensboro or any number of other little airports they service.

After grabbing my slightly chilled backpack from the saddlebag, I slung it over my shoulder, rode up the elevator adjacent to the terminal and emerged at gate C7.  As the rest of the passengers dispersed to make their connecting flight, I made a beeline for the exit, emerging shortly on the landside of the terminal.

As soon as I exited the terminal, I reached for the printed directions in my back pocket.  All I pulled out was my airline confirmation.  I checked my backpack.  Nothing.  All pockets and wallet.  Nothing.

Uh oh.

I looked up, and the street I was on wasn’t the first I’d remembered in my directions.  Luckily, I’d emailed my directions to myself, so I pulled out my phone, switched out of airplane mode, and brought them up.  I scribbled the directions onto the back of my airline confirmation, assuming they’d be a sufficient stand-in for the directions I’d almost certainly left in my car in Kentucky.  Can’t very well go back for them now.

I nodded, satisfied with this solution; less phone checking, less battery drained, and a good, if not shallow, story of resourcefulness later.

My arms shivered as a stiff breeze blew between the airport parking garages; time to get that hoodie on.  Hood up, and let’s go.


This is the first of four parts.  New posts continuing the story go up every Wednesday!

Keep going -


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