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Rant #435
(published May 21, 2009)
Fourteen Planes to Chefornak
(The Poor Mojo's My Travel Fiasco Rant Contest WINNER!)
by Karen Schwabach
WINNER of Poor Mojo's $33-and-a-third Meritorious Boon for finest My Travel Fiasco Rant, Spring 2009

It all started because of the cornbread I baked for my next-door-neighbor's wake. That and the Tootsie Roll. One Tootsie Roll, thirteen canceled flights, and a week in an unheated spare bedroom in Bethel, Alaska. What more can you ask?

My next-door-neighbor—let's call her Nanuuq—spoke no English, and I spoke very little Central Yup'ik. I walked past her door every morning at 7:45 a.m. en route to my job as an ESL teacher in remote Chefornak, Alaska, on the Bering Sea Coast 498 air miles west of Anchorage. For the first two years, of course, she didn't speak to me. That's a Yup'ik thing—one doesn't. She stood at the door, dressed in her knee length parka and sealskin mukluks, and watched me pass.

Later we began to greet each other. By that time I had enough Central Yup'ik to exchange the pleasantries. I knew her grandchildren and some of her children well. And then one late April morning, when winter was in its last throes, she wasn't there. She had died in the night, and she lay on the living room floor on a blanket, surrounded by religious pictures.

The village was saddened. That is the saying. Every loss is everyone's loss in a Yup'ik village. Years ago, before they learned better, school authorities used to release only those children who were "related" to the deceased to attend a funeral. Now it is understood that everyone is related, and the school is closed.

The cornbread I baked for the wake was a new recipe off the cornmeal box. It involved (why not?) canned jalapeños. I thought it would go well with seal-oil or caribou stew. And it did. But while I was baking it I popped a Tootsie Roll into my mouth and broke a molar clean in two.

So I hopped on the next single-engine plane that came to the gravel airstrip, and made the one-hour flight to Bethel, Alaska to have my tooth fixed at the Alaska Native hospital. That in itself was no problem. A dentist from Down States who was fulfilling a National Guard obligation shot me full of Novocain and packed in a monstrous filling.

Then the weather went down.

That's the Alaskan saying. When visibility is less than a mile, small planes, which have no radar, can't fly. Of course, some do anyway. Lord, I've been on a great many that did. When you're sitting in the co-pilot's seat and the pilot next to you grins maniacally and announces "all the other pilots have turned back!" or when he seems reasonably sane and mutters, "Oh, @#$%" under his breath, it's not a good feeling.

But the FAA keeps a close watch on Bethel, just because of these habits, and no airlines wants to be put out of business when the stranger who lurks around the terminal or books onto one of their flights turns out to be an FAA inspector. So they cancel flights.

There are curious customs relating to plane travel in the Alaskan Bush. One is that a plane ticket costs exactly the same any day you buy it, an innovation the rest of the world might want to take note of. Another is that they won't actually cancel a flight until an hour after its scheduled departure time, which is extremely annoying.

A kindly couple in Bethel took me in and stuck me in their spare bedroom, which wasn't heated but there were plenty of blankets. There I stayed for the next week, except for my trips to the airport to check in for 14 flights.

First I would call an airlines—there were three serving Chefornak at the time.

"Can I make a reservation on the flight to Chefornak?"

"Sure. Name?"

"Is it actually going to go?"

"I don't know."

"I know you have to say that. But really, is it?"

"I don't know."

So I would make a reservation. Then I would find someone to drive me to the airport. My host did it several times. The rest of the time I took taxis. Bethel, Alaska, which is not accessible by road from anywhere, probably has more taxis per capita than any other town in the United States. Of the numerous companies, my favorite was Quyana Cab, an outfit run by Korean immigrants. The thing I liked was that they would actually pick you up and take you where you said you wanted to go. Every other company would pick you up and then go around town picking a dozen or so other people up, till you had two strangers' babies in your lap and had twice been back to the same street you were picked up on, at which point you would protest loudly and threaten to get out and walk, which often led to delivery at your final destination.

At the airport, I'd go through the rituals of checking in in the Alaskan Bush.

"Your weight?"

(I don't know why all airlines don't ask this. Then we could take more luggage if we weighed less, yes?)

"Put your bags on the scale."

(This was always a sore point. My bags contained mostly groceries, of course, and they were busy attaining room temperature while I waited for the flight.)

"Is this flight actually going to go?"

"I don't know."

You had to check in an hour before flight-time. Then they waited an hour after flight time before the inevitable announcement would come:

"Flight 4888 to Chefornak, Newtok and Nightmute has been canceled."

Then it was up to get my bags back and slog along to the next airlines (in Bethel they each have their own separate building, about a mile apart from each other) to try again.

During one of these perambulations, probably around the fourth day of my Airline Hell, I ran into some fellow strandees and we decided to look for a charter pilot. We found one in a coffee shop and approached him. He was interested in our blandishments, but ultimately decided to follow the FAA safety rules like he was supposed to. It was a good decision, and one I wish he had kept to—a week later he flew a chartered planeload of passengers into a mountainside in bad weather. There were no survivors.

By the way, you may be wondering by now if any part of this story is exaggerated. The reason I mention this is that, as I write this, I'm wondering the same thing myself. A reality check is required. Is it all true? Yes, it is.

A week had gone by. My school had been minus an ESL teacher for five class days, and the Novocain in my mouth was pretty much worn off. I had checked in for thirteen flights to Chefornak. The perishable groceries in my luggage had long since perished. And then, on the seventh day, on the fourteenth check-in, it happened.

"Attention. Flight 4888 to Chefornak, Nightmute, and Newtok is now available for passenger boarding."

My heart in my throat, I joined a dozen other lucky passengers. We met the pilot at the back door of the building. He had a clipboard, and he checked off our names. We walked across the tarmac (some of the only tarmac west of Anchorage, till you get to Vladivostok). One by one we climbed up the ladder and buckled ourselves into the schoolbus-style seats. The pilot told us where the safety flares and fire extinguisher were located. The plane taxied, sped down the runway, launched.

The tundra was thawing. A thousand thousand ponds spread out below us, and rivers untrammeled by any human plan. Not one sign of human interference—not a road, not a structure—would meet our eyes for the next 98 miles, until we reached Chefornak.

And then comes the awful moment of suspense. Will Chefornak be fit to land in? Sometimes it isn't. If the weather goes down in Chefornak when it is up in Bethel, you can find yourself stuck on a plane that turns around and heads back to Bethel. The worst thing I ever saw in this way was when the plane was bringing students back from a year away at the state boarding school in Sitka. Parents and friends waited eagerly by the runway. Excited teenaged faces peered at the portholes as the plane came into the runway, wheels down, traced its length, and then regained altitude. A second attempt at the runway fared no better. The wind was too strong and an inexperienced pilot, only recently arrived in Alaska, didn't want to risk it. The plane turned and flew back to Bethel. A father who was standing next to me waiting for his daughter had been chatting merrily to me a few minutes before. Now he couldn't even speak as he turned and trudged home.

On this occasion, though, the fourteenth plane to Chefornak landed. The village spread out below us, always so unexpected on the vast expanse of tundra—a cluster of plywood houses, a generator plant, a post office, a school, all connected by wooden boardwalks. (The boardwalk I lived on, not quite three feet wide, was amusingly entitled "Third Street" by a US Census Bureau map.) People on ATVs and snowmachines waited to greet the plane. We banked, the tundra tilted dizzyingly, I closed my eyes.

The wheels touched down, and we sighed with relief. The fourteenth plane to Chefornak had made it. I was back in civilization at last.

Karen Schwabach lived in Alaska for eight years, and is now a full-time children's book author.

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