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To Jeff Smisek, CEO of United Airlines

TO: Jeff Smisek, CEO United Airlines

FROM: Everett Maroon, Mileage Plus Member XXXXXXX

DATE: 9/4/2012

RE: Series of poor service incidents from UA Staff

Please let me begin by saying that I appreciate the challenges present for commercial air carriers in the United States today. Your recent merger announcement with Continental is of course predicated in part on finding efficiencies in both business models and improving the destinations and flight coverage for passengers overall. I can’t imagine what pressure your business must be under regarding the logisitics of such a large merger of corporate climates, staff, benefits packages, strategies for future development, and heck, the terrible cost of jet fuel these days.

Because of these oft-reported limitations and tensions, I have been willing to put up with a certain level and number of inconveniences as a frequent traveler–the disappearance of the in-flight meal (they weren’t very good anyway), and later, of the small bag of pretzels, the addition of checked bag fees, and the changing, increasingly invasive security process, which I understand is not under the control of the airlines. Along with these shifts I’ve seen consequences for how I travel–I head to the airport much earlier than before, I plan for snacks ahead of time, I bring only certain bags that are within weight limits or will fit in such-and-such an overhead compartment. I have rejiggered my traveling strategy because now I have a 1-year-old child, and I acknowledge that my customer experience expectations have evolved because of all of these changes from the airlines, the world we live in, and my personal life. Read More…

On the Timberline

We raced out of town on a weekend getaway for all of the obvious reasons, not the least of which it’s gotten very hot in Walla Walla. Even worse, it’s uncharacteristically humid, so 95 and 98 degree days feel powerfully worse than they should. At least in drier heat one can take actual solace in the shade. Now the shades just mock the old-timers into second guessing their memories. We began on our usual route west along the gorge of the Columbia River, and past the creepy tree farm on I-84, stopping briefly in The Dalles for our regular visit to Burgerville. Then at last we were on the winding, scenic highway to Mount Hood. And there it is that we encountered a species of human very new to me: the skier. Read More…

Their Neighbors to the South

Having just spent a week en Canada, I am continuing to think about the small but notable differences I encountered while there. They may be little things, but they’re enough to remind one that one is in a foreign land, a land largely absent of GOP/Democrat partisan bickering, American Idol crooning (they have their own version), and conversations about whether evolution is a Real Thing or not. Read More…

Land of the Taxidermist

patinoire at west edmonton mallI’ve driven through large swaths of Canada several times now—if I’d stitched them together they would pretty much connect the east and west coasts, except for the fact that I’ve never driven into Manitoba. That said, I have not driven in Canada much at all and for someone used to watching out for bands of small, white-tailed deer, Canada is a bit of a different game. In the way that junior varsity basketball players against NHL left wing players match up. Which is to say that they don’t. Read More…

Driving Miss Dodo

The DC BeltwayOne of my favorite statistics about Washington, DC, is the number of lawyers working in the city: 50,000. That’s one lawyer for every 10 residents. Do these people directly benefit those residents? No, not really. Perhaps some of them do, or must, just by the laws of chance and probability. But certainly, many of those J.D.-carrying folks are members of an elite squad known as the lobbyists. They represent everyone from chemical producers to apple farmers to county-level employees. They’re not concerned about the people in the city so much they are getting into the city. And that is exactly where the residents made their stand. Read More…

Moose in the City

In all of the traveling I’ve done since moving to the Pacific Northwest—a journey through Glacier National Park, driving through the Rockies and Bighorn National Forest more than once, exploring Yellowstone, walking through the unbelievably tall mountains in Alaska—I have not seen a single moose. I’ve even driven up next to a lumbering bison, which by the way, didn’t smell all that good, but which was still amazing. I’ve stood 50 yards away from a brown bear lolling around on the soft carpet of moss. Black bears make my list of eyewitnessed nature, too, as I’ve taken in a newly independent cub feasting on fresh salmon in a glacier-fed river as close to the Arctic Circle as I’ve ever come. Yes, I really want to explore the Yukon now. Read More…

The wheels of the bus go round and round

We drove down into Walla Walla on Monday morning, Susanne napping in the passenger seat and me maneuvering through the Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascades. I set my barometer for driving endurance in college, where my parents’ house and the university were roughly four and a half hours apart. The corners of Washington State are about the same distance, so it doesn’t feel like too bad a stretch to get from point A to point B. Anything shorter than this is a breeze, anything longer and I start to feel like looking at asphalt is itself an exhausting prospect. Read More…

From here to there

If the ocean signifies the breathing apparatus of Planet Earth, then the mountains are the memory of its earlier incarnations, seemingly frozen in time even as they move secretly in some new direction. I have an affection for sea water, since childhood play dates with sand, shovel, and pail. Growing up east of the Mississippi I thought that the Appalachians were as powerful as mountains ever aspired. They counted as wilderness, filled with things not commonly found in our suburban parcel. Read More…

Kitschy but good

Someone on my Twitter list mentioned yesterday that she would soon be embarking on a trip to Alaska, and I immediately thought of the train ride Susanne and I took over in Skagway. At least four people told us to make sure we rode up and back on the old gold mining trail, so we booked our tickets well in advance of our cruise, and then we climbed on.

It was nothing short of amazing. The White Pass & Yukon Route train was a bit too modern to have jumped out of a steampunk novel, but it belched and groaned like a steam engine all the same, as it dragged us up 3,000 feet into the Canadian Yukon. We sat for much of the trip on the way up, but at the end the conductors moved the engine around, and our front car became the caboose. We didn’t miss the chance to stand on the end, marveling at the mountain ledges, miles and miles of the tallest evergreens I’ve seen in my life, and the detritus those thousands of Klondike miners left behind.

So it occurs to me that there are, in the quadrillions of tourist trap options available in the US, a few very choice gems that should get some fair due. They may be popular, they may be hyped, but they’re worth, say, wearing bright blue plastic ponchos. Here are a few favorites I want to mention:

The Maid of the MistNiagara Falls sounds like a great tourist destination, if it’s 1952. There are a lot of depressing buildings screaming out for fresh paint, and filled with plastic-wrapped souvenirs, but just follow the signs to this boat ride. I think the Maid of the Mist is more fun if you’ve gone to look at the falls from the top first, to help with a sense of perspective. It’s true that the Canadian side of the falls are more majestic; the US side is taller, but our neighbors to the north have the “horseshoe falls,” which I captured from the boat. No matter whether one takes the boat ride from the US or Canadian side, it will still travel into the heart of the falls. I couldn’t believe I was surrounded by hammering, plummeting water. As tall as the falls are around the Maid of the Mist, that’s how much water she’s sitting on—170 feet on both counts. You better wear the silly blue poncho.

Old Faithful at Yellowstone National ParkIt can be argued that my entire generation first learned about this geyser from Yogi Bear and Jellystone National Park. I’m happy that Susanne didn’t rend me limb from limb as I repeated my Yogi Bear impression as we wandered around the wilderness. It might not be the prettiest geyser there, it’s far from the most colorful, like the “paint pots” were, but it was shocking to witness, the smooth vapor all at once belching and hurrying out of the way of boiling white liquid. This is 3rd grade science fair to the 20th power. Once it’s done with its 5-minute show, take a walk on the rest of the geyser platform, and by the time that’s done, Old Faithful will be just about ready to have another conniption.

The Baltimore AquariumLess kitschy and more just plain overcrowded, the Baltimore Aquarium is organized by ecosystems, very accessible, and proportioned well. I don’t feel like I’m in a tiny building with smelly fish, and I don’t feel like there’s a lot of wasted space (I’m looking at you, new MoMA). Plus it has puffins, the globe’s friendliest, funniest bird species, in my humble opinion. There are dolphin shows, it’s true, but at least they’ve gone to some trouble to unpack how the animals are treated, and they have a fairly prestigious breeding program for bottlenose. That said, it is expensive, so try to get your hands on some coupons or group deals, because at more than $30 a ticket, the cost adds up fast. But the sharks and manta rays, inches away from the homo sapiens, are really not to be missed.

Have any kitschy touristy fun? Pipe up and add your own in the comments!

Riding off into the sunset burns my retinas

To say I’m sick of driving would be to trivialize everything I’ve seen on my journey across the continent and back, would be to make too much light of the 8,600 miles of the trip, in which I’ve encountered everything from:

  • tiny baby bunnies
  • crystal blue boiling pools of adulterated water that are fueled by the unseen middle of the earth
  • exasperated parents who look like they’re questioning the entirety of their lives
  • all manner of coffeehouses and espresso shacks that dot the West like freckles
  • at least 50 species of birds—sparrows, swallows, hawks, eagles, kingfishers, vultures, quail, turkeys, hummingbirds, and more
  • barns and rural structures in all stages of their life cycles
  • blue-collar men who all looked dazed and stressed, no matter where I encountered them
  • lightning bugs outside a greasy spoon diner in Pennsylvania
  • long moments of coasting down from mountains just after fighting to get to the peaks
  • many, many anti-abortion and anti-Obama billboards
  • tired front desk hotel staff

All of these people, animals, and situations were notable enough that they left their impressions on me. I don’t know their stories, except in some rare instances in which we had time to converse. Like an unfinished painting, I’m left wondering about all of the open canvas and what could be drawn on to fill it in. Perhaps some of these things will get worked into a story or other over time, or my memory will do that thing I hate and blur different events together in its quest to find patterns and meaning. But that tendency is why I write things down—then I retain the edges of each experience.

That said, I am loathe to sit behind the wheel of the car right now, even to go set up Internet in our apartment or buy bread. I’m sure that this hatred will fade, but hopefully I’ll remember that I don’t particularly enjoy driving 3 days in a row for 12 hours a day.

We rolled into Walla Walla on Friday evening, having come through the evergreen forests along the waistline of Idaho. Sister cities Lewiston and Clarkston, watching each other from across a river and state boundary line, seemed small and a bit bedraggled, the road infrastructure not seeming to lead to any important point in either place. We opted to get some drive thru food, knowing how close we were and not wanting to take any more time at a pit stop. Finally, at long last, the wheat fields, close to harvest, signaling that we were almost back. I’d gotten so used to driving into the sun that I didn’t need to put on my sunglasses anymore. Around this turn and that, we swirled around the low mountains, revealing the last inkling of daylight and then burrowing into dark indigo again, weaving through what must have been a tapestry of bold colors, if only we’d had a bird’s eye view.

A bird’s eye view, I realize, is precisely what I’ve been interested in finding this summer. Something to help me understand my time in Walla Walla and how to get through the next portion of it when it inevitably sneaks up on me this winter. I’ve asked a lot of questions about who, what, how I am and I’ve enjoyed the funny moments, for sure (the leaky tub dripping into the kitchen below, not so much), but I do still feel the need for some larger perspective.

Maybe it’s all a big joke, a set on Laugh In that I haven’t realized is still being performed on a sound stage in southern California. Maybe I just need more time to elapse before I’ll come to the punchline, or the Big Reveal. In the meantime, we’ve reached Seattle, and wow, is this town a hoot. All this bluster about saving the planet but everyone chain smokes. Aren’t our lungs part of the planet, people?

I think this is going to be interesting, this fall.

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