I should have known by lunchtime that it was all going straight to hell.
“Is your flight tonight, Abby?” my colleagues asked me over a pre-holiday celebratory Tex-Mex meal.
“Yup,” I said, carelessly digging into a chicken taco. “I’m leaving for the airport at 3:30, my first flight is at 6, and I have a half hour till the next one.”
One coworker practically spat.
“What?” I asked, so young and naïve. “You don’t think it will work?”
He hesitated. “Where are you connecting?”
When I said “Dallas,” he erupted in a fit of laughter.
“I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “Maybe it’ll be fine.”
My mission was simple enough: Go home for the holidays, the refrain of so many Christmas songs and virtually every Hallmark movie.
I learned around Halloween I’d be moving to Houston from my native Vermont; by Thanksgiving, I’d arrived. Not much time, then, to book the 1,899-mile trip home. My long separated parents split my exorbitant $800 round-trip airfare the way they’d traded off my birthday parties as a child.
Bereft of many options, I hesitated just momentarily before accepting American Airlines’ tri-flight proposal: Houston Hobby to Dallas Fort Worth to Charlotte, North Carolina to Burlington, Vermont, my quaint, positively arctic hometown, the stuff of Norman Rockwell’s and Bing Crosby’s dreams. I’d depart 75-degree Houston at 6:10 p.m. on Friday, December 22, the biggest travel day of the year, and land at home at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, December 23. My longest layover? Thirty minutes.
“It’ll be OK,” I assured myself, clicking ‘confirm.’ “At least I don’t have to wait around in the airport.”
My mother assured me she’d be waiting at my final destination with my sleeping bag of a winter coat and Ugg boots I’d left behind. Good thing, since my connecting flights contained to the southern half of the continental United States meant I’d be traveling in a T-shirt and Converse low-tops.
That’s what I was wearing at 2 p.m. that fateful Friday, December 22, pleasantly stuffed and scrolling through the last of my pre-holiday work emails in a post-lunch haze. I saw one from American Airlines. What could that be? I’d already checked in for my flight.
It could all be found in the subject line: “Your flight to Burlington— canceled.”
I pulled up a map, and sure enough, a massive snowstorm revealed itself nearly exactly in my entire flight pattern. Shit.
My heart dropped into my stomach. I was leaving for flight number one of three in just an hour. I’m a planner, you understand; I don’t fare well with spur-of-the-moment changes, unexpected deviations or spontaneity in general.
A rise of panic set in that would, I’d come to find out, settle over me like a glaze for the rest of my sojourn. I called American in a tizzy. “You canceled my flight,” I said. “I need to get home.”
A sweet, Southern woman clicked away on the other end of the line. Tap, tap, tap – “nope, full.” Tap, tap, tap – “shoot, nope.”
It quickly became clear that Burlington was out of the question—unsurprising, as my hometown airport is roughly the size of an average living room. I rattled off all the cities with airports within three hours’ driving distance of my house.
Albany? “Nothing, sorry.” Plattsburgh? “We don’t fly there.” Manchester? “Manhattan? Yes!” No, Manchester, New Hampshire. “Oh, never heard of it. Nope.”
I narrowly escaped an international nightmare when I remembered my passport had expired just before my sweet Southern helper booked me a direct flight to Montreal—an hour from my home, but a decidedly different country.
Finally, my last and only option revealed itself: Boston. I’d get there, four hours from home, around midnight. How would I get to Vermont? We’d cross that bridge when we got to it: My new flight left in an hour for my connector, Chicago. And from George Bush Intercontinental, no less, on the opposite end of the city!
“Okay, okay, let’s do it,” I said, frantically waving at my coworkers as I ran out of my office, abandoning any vestige of hope for obeying the two-hour-holiday-air-travel rule, or any rule, really.
“Listen, you’re my last hope of getting home for Christmas,” I informed my Uber driver, Kamal. “Do you think you can make this 30-minute drive in, like, 15 minutes?”
He clicked his tongue.
“I have faith in you,” I goaded him.
“Have faith in God,” he said.
Kamal got me to the airport in record time, albeit to the wrong terminal. I stared hopelessly at the United counters all around me like a bad dream and flagged down an airport security officer.
“Sir?” I cried for the first time in my life. “Where’s American?!”
He summoned me to a series of escalators. “See that level? Don’t stop there. Keep going. All the way down, till you reach the purple floor. Then take a left. Go down the hall till you get to the shuttle.”
Yes, dear reader, the shuttle. I caught it, arrived at the correct terminal, and flew through security. For the first time all day, things were looking up.
They took a swift nosedive when the plane to Chicago was 30 minutes late. I obsessively refreshed the flight tracker, comparing its ETA with the departure time on my next boarding pass. A little part of me, yet to be beaten down, held on to hope: Maybe the gates will be really close together, and five minutes will be plenty.
It was not plenty.
I ran. I ran so fast. I ran so far. My new sneakers tore into the backs of my feet left exposed by my socks. I tasted blood.
“Boston?” was all I could manage, breathless, as I fell against the counter of my gate.
The attendant shook her head.
“Gone,” she said, or some other monosyllabic declaration to pulverize my heart. I nearly collapsed then and there. How did this look so easy in every dramatic sitcom finale?
An hour later, I was on the next flight to Boston. My friends, via text message, encouraged me to drink.
“I’ll have red wine, please,” I croaked to the stewardess.
She brought back two small bottles.
“I’m not going to charge you for this,” she said.
So I look that bad. I nodded. “Bless you.”
“Merry Christmas,” she offered.
At 1:50 a.m., Logan International Airport was a ghost town. No one manned the airline counters I strolled by, wine drunk. I’d booked a bus home to Vermont for 7 a.m. the next morning. In the meantime, I was to sleep at my friend’s house just outside the city in Quincy.
The train stopped running at 12:30 a.m., I remembered from my college days in Boston. I checked Uber. The estimated fare was $60–more than my four-hour bus ride.
No, I sighed, resigning myself to a night in the airport. I can’t.
Luggage, purse, and laptop in tow, I found the only open kiosk—Dunkin' Donuts, my old friend—and downed a coffee to counteract the wine I’d hoped would put me to sleep. I stretched out as best I could beneath the seat dividers of an airport bench, one leg on each piece of luggage, and hunkered down.
Still vaguely aware that anyone at any time could rob me blind, I resolved to stay awake. That proved easy enough, as Logan’s version of elevator music played on a loop all night long, vaguely Christmasy and full of enthusiastic, relentless horns over the same loudspeaker that advised I say something if I saw something.
I watched Bad Santa 2 and Page One: Inside the New York Times (RIP, David Carr) and ate my third pastry in the last half-day. The hours passed, and it was time to catch the train to the bus station.
I waited outside in my travel outfit meant for Southern states only, acutely aware of the fact that it was now sleeting. A train came. I got on it. We circled the giant airport, terminal after terminal, only to return to my origin point.
“When are we going to South Station?” I asked. It was dangerously close to boarding time for my 7 a.m. bus, the first and only trip of the day to Vermont that wasn’t sold out or canceled–literally my last hope.
“This train does not go to South Station,” the driver informed me. I was suddenly overcome with the urge to retch.
She directed me to the right train, which moved slower than death, and I began to cry. I disembarked at 6:59 a.m., my last bus likely pulling out of South Station as I ran through terminals, concourses, and up escalators, tears streaming down my face.
I landed at the bus terminal just as I’d landed at the Chicago airport gate: breathless, hopeless, and speechless. To my sheer delight, the bus was late. It hadn’t left yet. No one had boarded. I nearly choked: A Christmas miracle.
Once I regained the ability to speak, I explained my ongoing saga to a fellow traveler. Her name was Birdie, and through a charming French accent she offered me comfort and chocolate-covered pretzels.
“I’ve been awake for an entire day,” I offered. “I’m never doing this again. I’m never doing Christmas again.”
Birdie hushed me. “Don’t let anything break your spirit,” she whispered.
Twenty-five hours later, I was home. As you might imagine, my hell-trip, as it became known, was central to nearly every conversation I held over the next three days.
The night before I was to leave, I cried for hours, inconsolable. Friends and family rushed to remind me of the exciting, fulfilling life I’d already begun building in Texas.
They didn’t get it, though. I wasn’t crying about coming back to Texas. I was crying about having to get here.