Thursday, May 30th 
Brussels - New York - Seattle - Anchorage

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The Longest Day, 1996.

The weather is beautiful today, they expect 28°C.  But I don’t care, it may even rain today.  Or lets leave something for those staying home.

Kathy, our driver to the airport is ready.  In fact, she is half an hour to early, but better this than half an hour too late.  I was mistaken, but later on it seemed to be a good margin.

Nothing forgotten ?  Too late for a question like this as we are standing in front of the airport terminal.  Although, I’m almost sure that we have thought of everything.  And we might use a bit of self-confidence, it can always be convenient for the coming three weeks.

A friendly United Airlines hostess asks me in Dutch with a French accent if we are flying Business or First Class?
I wanted to ask if we looked like it, but it was probably a polite way to tell us “that we should go to the UA desk, because there is a change in our flight schedule.”
“A good start !”, I think and I move up to that desk.
Clearly, we are not alone and I line up behind the rest of the queue.

Our self-confidence is put to the test.  The change in flight schedule is quite simple : flight 951 from UA to Washington can’t depart because the plane hasn’t arrived yet.
The also friendly person at the UA desk tells me, in Dutch with an English accent, that he will make new tickets for us : first flight with American Airlines to New York JFK, departure at 11h00.  We have to hurry up to check in !

Our turn now to hand over our luggage.
“Did you prepare the suitcase yourself ? Did you always keep an eye on  your luggage ?  Can you point out your luggage ?”
A strange interrogation if you want to fly with an American company.  Are they really paranoia ?

A friendly lady at the check-in desk informs us that the flight is completely booked.  In my imagination I see our 20 hour journey turning out into a disaster.
Another employee steps in to help us : “It’s not possible that the flight is full, but you won’t have a window seat anymore.”
I don’t care, better a seat without a window than no seat at all !

Quick to gate B6.  Zaventem (Brussels International) has a new airport terminal, but we don’t have the time to see a glimmer of it.
“Can you point out your luggage ? Did you keep an eye on it all the time in the hall ?  Did someone ask you to take something with you ?”
There we have the American paranoia again.
Finally, we get on board, no time to pee, no time to loose !

The pilot reports us, in English with an American accent, that he has a delay of half an hour, but now he is preparing to take off.  The former we already knew, the latter we only hoped for.

At last, the 767 of American Airlines rises his nose up to the sky.
The pilot asks us to fasten our seat belt when we stay seated.  He does the same, he says.  What a relief for us …

The crew has the excellent idea to entertain us during the more than 7 hours flight with television, a 10 channel radio and last but not least food.  Peanuts as appetizer and a choice between sandwich, steak or pizza.  When I ask for the pizza, I notice that all the rows in front of me must have had the same interest . So, I have to switch over to steak.  A salad with Italian dressing makes the menu complete.
I just skip the coffee.  Our flying cook must have had an Italian influence somewhere, but I can’t imagine that the coffee will be a fresh-made espresso. As I am used to have in an earthly Italian restaurant. 

A movie then ?  No, thank you.  It is possible that ‘Babe’ shows the American countryside from its best part, for me it stays a weak copy of Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’.  But I suppose that the Disney-like style will delight a lot of passengers.

Okay then, a bit zapping around the music channels ? The Carpenters, Michael Jackson, Linda Rondstedt, country music, a yoga-course, news flashes, talk shows
and a probably lost track from The Police ‘Can’t stand losing you’.  I finally choose for classical music, Haydn, Verdi, Vivaldi. It turns out to be pieces of soundtracks from (again) American movies.

How will we ever reach Alaska with a clear mind and stomach ?  We are just a few hours on the way and I already start to loose my courage.  My self-confidence gets another slap.

The ‘fasten your seat belt’ light goes on.  Are we already there ?  A tender voice informs us that the captain has put on this light because he wants us to fasten our seat belts.  It’s an obvious sign for me, but this might not be the case for other passengers.
But are we already there ? No, just turbulences, nothing more than that.

Another snack to kill time : a “hamburger with ham and cheese, Ruffles Potato Chips and a Coke, no ice please”.  Oh, it’s a ‘Classic Coke’ with less carbonic acid.  A matter of healthy eating, I suppose ?
Anyway, the American food culture moves up with heavy artillery, I’m afraid we will have to surrender, sooner or later …

Television again : Abbott & Costello are preparing the next culture attack.  Americans have fun with 40 year old jokes, and they think the same of us.

19h15 (Belgian Time)
13h15 (New York Time)
New York, here we come !
We can already start to turn back our watches 6 hours.  I keep in mind that these are the first 6 hours of the totally 10 hours we will have to wait before really going to sleep.

7 hours and 45 minutes later the transatlantic flight is over.
“Welcome to the Big Apple !  We hope you enjoyed flying American Airlines and ... blablabla”. We touch the ground at JFK while the soft voice continues giving some other common instructions.  A list of some boring connections just makes the desire to our exciting destination even bigger : Detroit, Las Vegas, Chicago, etc.

“New York loves you” says a advertising poster, while we wait in line for the customs.  The man on the advertising, with a seventies haircut and an Ultra Brite smile, points to us in the style of Uncle Sam and hopes in this way to steal our hearts.  He doesn’t know that he is at the wrong address, Anchorage, Alaska stays our leading destination.
“Great country”, says the friendly customs officer who was asking for our destination.  That’s what we would like to say when we return home in three weeks.
Next, we push our luggage cart to the luggage check.
“Any food in your luggage ?” , asks a somewhat lazy official.
My answer is positive, and he directs us to another desk.  The lady over there asks the same question and more precisely  “what do we want to import ?” 
“Nothing special”, I reply, “Just some cookies and snacks to satisfy our stomach.”
It wasn’t what she was expecting to find and she points us to the exit.  Did she really think we were trying to import a whole livestock in our suitcases ?  Or is this the paranoia again ?

Up to the United Airlines desk.  After going up and down a few escalators, we aren’t any step further.
“United Airlines ?  You have to take a bus downstairs. THIS is American !” growls a American Airlines aboriginal.  Okay then, we have to go downstairs and look after a ‘red, white and blue striped bus marked Airline Interconnection’.

A lot of busses in all kinds and colors pass by but none of them comply with the given definition.
“There is one and he stops !”  We just prepare to grab our luggage when he leaves again.  Nice !

Five minutes later we see the next one turning towards us.  We grab our luggage again and hurry to the entrance.  This one, however, has all the time of the world.
“United Airlines Terminal, please ?”
“Stop 14”, the driver says after a quick thought.  Afterwards, I noticed that he hadn’t thought at all.  He just read on the signboard that was hanging above our heads.  We could have found it ourselves, if we only knew …
After stops 24, 22, 8, 2 and 12 (in that order), we have stop 14.  The logic of JFK ?

The luggage is checked in again.  The aluminium Sigg drinking bottles together with the metal poles of the tent cause some troubles when our camping gear passes through the X-ray.  A second radiation and an explanation from our side makes it all clear.  I suppose that terrorists don’t use these obvious ways to penetrate an airport terminal.

A Boeing 757 from flight UA 301, destination Seattle is being loaded.  I check attentively every piece of luggage that comes over the conveyer belt.  As usual, I can’t see our luggage.  We will have to rely on United.
The pilot appears in the cockpit window, that’s also a relief.

After the ‘safety regulations’  captain Womack welcomes us on board.  He will fulfill for us a smoothly flight of 5 hours and 16 minutes.  Unbelievable ! What a preciseness !  He doesn’t round off to 15 or 20 minutes, no, exactly 16 minutes, nothing more and nothing less.  He probably hopes that we will have forgotten his introductory speech in the euphoria and the tiredness when reaching the Pacific Coast.  And that is almost certain.

While driving to the runway, I notice the skyline of New York between some airport buildings. It doesn’t take long to take off ; there are 6 waiting behind us.

The weather is beautiful again.  We are crossing the Lake District and can enumerate each lake one by one, with a map, of coarse !  It must be nice on the bank of one of these lakes on a sunny day like this.
Hilde is getting tired and takes a napp.

It’s 1 o’clock after midnight in Belgium and we get our evening meal. A ‘Tortellini bolognaise’ with ‘Italian style breadsticks’ and a salad with ‘Lite honey mustard dressing’.  The ‘walnut crunch brownie’  is just a rather poor dessert.  Every part of the meal is inspected by my meanwhile septic mind and even septic taste buds before I try to use it to appease my hunger.  I can’t afford a stomach ulcer at the beginning of this adventure.

A fatigue overpowers me.  The screen shows “The Best of the Johnny Carson Collection”.  The funniest moments out of a 30 years talk show of a ,for us, complete unknown television personality.  I wander if SABENA would show ‘The best of Urbanus’ on their flights.  Anyway, I can’t enjoy it and I would prefer to close my eyes, if I only could …

The Missouri river flows widely below us.  Maybe I can follow it upstream until its origin somewhere in the Rocky Mountains ?

The Rocky Mountains announce themselves but now I can’t find the Missouri anymore.  Five minutes later, the Rockies also have disappeared in the clouds.

The sun shines low above the horizon while the pilot starts its descending manoeuvre.  We aren’t lucky with the weather., it’s cloudy above Seattle, it might even rain.

22h04 (New York Time)
19h04 (Seattle Time)
Touch down.  We may turn back our watch another 3 hours.  It’s 4 o’clock in the morning in Belgium.  We are awake for 19 hours of which 15 ‘on the road’.

The airport terminal of Seattle looks desolate on this Thursday evening, the sky is gray, temperature about 15°C.  Alaska is visibly coming closer : several airplanes from Alaskan Airlines pass by.  They are recognizable by the Eskimo image on the tail end.
We check in on flight UA508, destination Anchorage.  The plane seems to be completely booked.  That’s the last thing we expected for this part of our journey.
By looking at the luggage, I can identify the passengers : fishing lines, backpacks, camping gear and so on.  Clearly people who know where they are going to and why.

Canadian Coast MountainsThe third take-off for today is predictable.  After a few minutes, we are back above the clouds.  The pilot explains us that the flight will take 3 hours, the weather in Anchorage is “partly cloudy, 65°F”.
The sun is still up, although close to the horizon.  It seems that we will soon have to give up our chase after the daylight.  It is clearing up now and we can see the Canadian Coast Mountains.  Only snowy plains on mountain sides are giving up some details.  A whimsical coastline attracts my attention, the beginning of the Inside Passage.  Alaska, the Last Frontier, at last !

The steward, definitely with ancestors from the Last Frontier, serves a last snack.  Hilde isn’t interested in a fifth meal for today and she is right.  Sleeping at this moment is more important than eating.

A drink is served by Madonna.  Not ‘the’ Madonna but a friendly stewardess.  Although, I don’t care who would serve it, the drink itself is more valuable.  “No Coke, please, just a sparkling water”.  I can’t swallow a Coke at this time of the day.  The expression “time of the day” gets on this moment a metaphysical meaning : what time where ?  And on what day ?

We go down again.  The sun has done it a bit earlier.  In the twilight, I see a rough landscape passing by beneath me : snow-covered mountains, glaciers ending in lakes, rock and low vegetation.  I begin to realize what we have begun, though, I’m not sure …
Then, the plane swerves to the right over water (the Cook Inlet) in order to approach Anchorage Airport.

23h45 (Seattle Time)
22h45 (Alaska Time)
We are touching the ground again, for the last time today.  And for the last time, we may switch over to the final time zone : turning our watches back for one hour to Alaska Time.

In the entrance hall, some people are waiting to welcome their relatives or friends. Apparently, some of them have been waiting a long time for it.  We, however, are only welcomed by a huge polar bear standing on his hind legs and his forelegs in the air. Quite appropriate, I think.  The friendly and hospitable animal has unfortunately come to his life’s end, then stuffed and put in a showcase.  This must have happened a long to before we even thought about coming to Alaska.

The luggage conveyer belt starts moving.  Again,  we can examine the contents of our plane : about 60 % backpacks and camping gear, 10 % fishing lines and for the rest ordinary suitcases.  Relieved, we also find our luggage and camping gear intact.

Next step, our rental car.  After filling in some papers we get the car keys and drag our luggage to the car park.
We have to seek for it.  Not the car itself, the brand new Chevrolet Lumina with only 1000 miles is glittering in the twilight.  But it is the hand brake that we don’t find.  It appears to be a pedal that has to be pushed in together with the brake.  Why do they call it a ‘hand’ brake if you don’t use your hands for it ?  The headlights are always on when the engine runs and the hand brake is off.  The car has no papers (the rental contract seems to be sufficient) and no license plate (requested but not delivered yet, so a paper on the rear window must do).
But everything is perfect :  a spacious trunk, air-conditioning, power steering, electrical operated windows, central locking, double airbag, arm rest between the two front seats, two can holders and a radio.  With all this, it is not too difficult to get used to an automatic gearbox.

And now the last quest for today : the hotel.  We are driving up and down several lanes, drives and avenues, mostly in both directions.  Once even in an one-way road.  I quickly turn around, but my action has been noticed by a local police officer.
“What’s the matter, son ?”, he asks, when he drives his car next to ours.
“Sorry”, I reply politely, “It’s our first day here and we’re looking for our hotel.”  It was in my opinion a full excuse to arouse some pity.
“Al right then, be careful”, he concludes, after which the traffic light becomes green and we both drive away in different directions.
Fine people, those Americans, I hope they are all like that.

It is 1 o’clock after midnight when I turn out the light to start a well deserved sleep.  Meanwhile, it is 11 o’clock in the morning in Belgium.  We had a day of 27 hours awake, of which 21 hours ‘on the road’.
Goodnight and “Welcome to the Land of the Midnight Sun” …

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