At 9 am Monday, I left my home near San Francisco for what proved to be one of my longest trips ever. Twenty-nine hours later, I reached my destination, after a grueling air journey.
But I hadn’t been hurled halfway around the world. I had finally touched down in Fargo, North Dakota, just halfway across the U.S., a mere 1450 miles from home.
At that rate—about 50 miles per hour—I could have driven there.
By comparison, some years before, in 24 hours, I flew from Singapore to Johannesburg to Nairobi to Kampala, Uganda—over 7500 miles. Another time I traveled 8800 miles from San Francisco to Singapore in 23 hours, including a very short overnight in Bangkok. Twice I had flown nearly 10,000 miles to India through Frankfurt in a mere 21 hours.
But the day before my departure for Fargo, a “Check in Now” email from United hinted that I might have a problem. Though my calendar insisted it was March 30, and that spring had sprung ten days before, Fargo hadn’t gotten the memo. The weather forecast for my destination was “Blizzard” (a word I had hoped never to see on a boarding pass), accompanied by an ominous graphic of dark, stormy clouds carelessly spewing snowflakes, the word “WINDY” ethereally italicized across the skies. Expected high temp: 29, low temp: 12. At my home near San Francisco, it was nearly 30 degrees warmer.
I had been tracking Fargo weather for a while. I was flying to a teaching gig for a couple of days as a Visiting Artist at Minnesota State University in Moorhead, near Fargo. Some weeks earlier in the second half of February, as I was discussing the terms of my upcoming visit with Raymond Rea (a former colleague from San Francisco State and now a cinema professor at MSUM), Fargo had about a foot of snow on the ground and suffered through eight days when the high temperature did not rise above 15 degrees. One day the high was minus 3 and the low minus 18. That same month the Bay Area had highs in the 60s.
My fellow San Franciscans Bart and Scott were in Fargo on a shoot in late February, writing dire Facebook reports about brutal weather. Bart posted a beautiful photo of a snowy landscape with the caption, “Don’t let the blue sky fool you, it’s ONE degree out there. Murder in the first degree,” and another shot of him shooting video while bundled up, captioned “Does this wind chill make my ass look cold?”
But Fargo-Moorhead had warmed up in March. Temperatures rose above freezing most days, though they still slipped into the 20s and teens at night. The snow melted completely away by the middle of the month. March 30 brought a high of 50, the first day it didn’t freeze in a while. Downright tropical!
But that same day I got the Blizzard Warning from United.
Ray emailed me. “We do have some snow predicted tomorrow. It should be over by the time you land.” Despite this inkling that my trip might not go smoothly, I usually had good luck with travel. A couple of years before, I was concerned that my flight home from Brazil was taking me through Dulles in Washington, just as Hurricane Irene was devastating the East Coast and closing airports and roads. Dulles, however, stubbornly remained open, and I ended up changing planes there on a sunny, calm afternoon, a day after the storm had gone through.
All systems were go, as I checked in for the first leg of my trip to Fargo, a two-hour hop to Denver. No mention of weather problems on my connecting flight. Ray texted and asked me to let him know when I landed in Denver. “And if there’s snow, don’t worry. The pilots who fly up here are used to snow.” Good to know!
Thus reassured, I felt pretty confident as I strode purposefully up the jetway into the terminal in Denver a couple of hours later. I looked forward to an easy transfer, an early evening arrival in Fargo, an informative scouting of the venue for my workshop, a restful dinner, and a relaxing morning tomorrow. The main workshop I was teaching wouldn’t start until tomorrow evening. I’d planned my itinerary carefully, so I would be at peak performance, rested and oriented for that three-hour session.
I found the schedule monitors just up the concourse from my arrival gate and was immediately shocked and deflated. “CANCELLED,” a word I had never hoped to see on a departure board, was repeated IN CAPS next to all the Fargo flights.
ALL the Fargo flights.
I looked away, blinked a couple of times, and looked back. It was still there. I looked around the board. Hundreds of flights to dozens of destinations around the country and around the world. A few showed delays. The vast majority were on time, including flights to other northern metropolises like Minneapolis and Chicago. At that moment, the only airport closed for weather was Fargo, the flower of the upper Midwest.
My luck had run out. The man who had bravely flown into the teeth of Irene was stuck in Denver.
I hit the Customer Service window, waited in line for a while, then spoke with a tired agent. “The computer has rebooked you on a nonstop from here to Fargo in two days.”
“Two days? I can’t do that! I have to teach a class there tomorrow.”
“Let me see what I can do.” He gestured toward the crowd in line. “See all these people? They’re all heading for Fargo. All the Fargo flights have been cancelled today. I’ve spent my day rerouting Fargo passengers.”
“I’ve gotta get there before tomorrow evening.” Ray and Kyja Kristjansson, his department chair, had been promoting my appearance among their cinema students for several weeks. I couldn’t fail to show up.
“I can get you out tomorrow on a 6 am flight to Chicago, connecting two hours later to Fargo.”
“Isn’t Chicago quite a bit east of Fargo? And aren’t we quite a bit west of Fargo?”
“Best I can do. You get into Fargo around 2.”
6 am. Ugh. But getting in around 2 would give me four hours before the workshop to clean up, rest, and get ready. “I’ll take it. What about a hotel?”
“We’re not responsible for the weather, so we don’t pay for a free hotel room. But this voucher here will get you a discounted hotel, courtesy of the airline.” I found out later it saved me five bucks.
“How about my bag?”
“Oh, we’ll check it through. You can pick it up in Fargo.”
Oops. I could wear the same clothes tomorrow and then change before my class, but I really needed my CPAP machine, which I carry for my sleep apnea. I never miss a night and would sleep very badly without it. “I’ve gotta have my bag.”
He looked worried. “Well, we can bring it up for you, but it might take a while.”
“What’s ‘a while?’”
“Uh, an hour or two.” I looked at my watch. 3:30.
I grabbed a snack and headed for baggage, where I positioned myself on a bench in sight of Carousel 15 and called the number on the voucher. The agent offered me the Marriott, Embassy Suites, or the Doubletree. “They’re all near the airport, and they all have shuttles,” she told me. I chose the Doubletree.
I called Ray and told him about my delay. “I’ll still make it in time, though.” He told me the threat of the blizzard had closed the MSU campus that day, but it turned out that the storm didn’t actually hit until that evening.
I killed time—a lot of time—reading a novel about a lady detective in Botswana, emailing a friend about an upcoming job, and fussing as my phone ran out of juice. Four-and-a-half miserable hours later, United finally coughed up my bag. I had made hourly visits to the baggage office, where they had curtly informed me several times that my bag would arrive any minute. Then the curtest of them all realized, without apology, that the teletype printer with which they signaled the baggage handlers needed rebooting, and that, despite all those hours waiting, my bag request hadn’t gotten through. One hissy fit and 25 minutes later, I grabbed my bag off the carousel, then spent nearly an hour waiting for the supposed every-half-hour Doubletree shuttle. It didn’t arrive until after 9. I was tired, hungry, and jittery. And I had a 6 o’clock flight the next morning.
The Doubletree shuttle left the airport grounds and zoomed down the freeway. I spotted a nearby exit with services and saw the comforting signs of the Marriott and the Embassy Suites. No Doubletree. The bus sped up and headed off into the blackness of the Colorado night. I decided I needed to take a diplomatic approach with the driver.
“Where the hell are you taking me?”
“Uh, to the Doubletree.”
“Why isn’t it near the other hotels?”
“I don’t know why, but it’s just a 25 minute drive,” he said with a big smile. The Doubletree was located conveniently close to the airport, but it was near Stapleton, the old airport 20 miles from Denver International that had been replaced nearly two decades before.
Oy! I started to think about my early flight. “What time do you start running the shuttle in the morning?”
“About 4:30.” The “about” scared me. I was wary because they already seemed erratically scheduled. If they were on time, I would get to Denver International around 5. If they were even a little late and there was a line at security in the morning, I’d be running for the gate.
Finally at the hotel, I wolfed down a burger and Cabernet, ordered a cab for 4 am, popped half an Ambien, and headed for bed on a full stomach.
Four restless hours later, I blearily decided to struggle back into the same clothes, planning to shower and change in Fargo during my four-hour respite before the workshop. This wasn’t the way I had planned my trip. Catching a cab at 4, flying hundreds of miles out of my way to Chicago, arriving in Fargo the same day … none of this fit my visualization. Peak performance seemed a tenuous possibility, at best.
I made the 6 am flight easily. At O’Hare in Chicago, I had to move to a different United concourse for my connecting flight to Fargo. That meant a walk through a long subterranean passage I thought of as the Psychedelic Tunnel. I always enjoyed this brightly lit eye-opener. Strips of colored neon lighting flashed on and off, translucent walls glowed and rippled a bright pallet.
I stopped to take an oddly tilted picture in the Psychedelic Tunnel, then uploaded it to Instagram and Facebook, captioned, in part: “Hallucinating! … Just now, connecting between terminals at O’Hare, my tired brain started to see flashing lights and weird, warped shapes. Here’s the digital capture of my mental state.”
My Facebook friends quickly started commenting: “Bill, have you been smoking that funny stuff again?” and “Been there (O’Hare, I mean, but probably mental state as well)” and “Dude!” My sister posted a concerned, triply punctuated “Wow!!! R u ok???”
I commented back as I waited for my flight to Fargo: “They used to play ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (aka, the United jingle … as Gershwin is rolling in his grave) as you walked through the tunnel. Then they started playing selective parts of the Rhapsody in different parts of the tunnel, for a sort of prismatic/audio-cubist type of experience. Now there’s no music at all, and the lighting is tamer than it used to be. I think some jet-lagged travelers must have started foaming at the mouth when they tried to change tunnels. We used to call it the Psychedelic Tunnel. Now it’s less of a mind bender, but still fun and still kinda weird.”
Prismatic/audio-cubist experiences? I wrote like I had been smoking that funny stuff.
My flight to Fargo was in one of those small planes that holds a few dozen people, where guys my size get hernias from scant leg room and short ceilings that don’t let us stand up straight. Of course we were delayed, sitting on the tarmac for a while to get de-iced. I love de-icing. I’m strongly in favor of it. They spray a mixture of alcohol and water on the wings, which apparently don’t work too well when they’re coated with ice. A sweet alcohol aroma often pervades the cabin. I usually have no problem waiting for de-icing, but this delay was shortening my turnaround time, and I was still wearing yesterday’s clothing.
Eventually we took off. As we approached Fargo, I could see the result of the blizzard across a bleak, overcast countryside. It was April 1, and three inches of snow covered the ground. I snapped a monochrome landscape shot. The sun came out as we touched down around 3. I uploaded my photo to Facebook. Again the snappy repartee from friends, mostly comments about Marge Gunderson, the Frances McDormand character in the Coen Brothers’ classic film Fargo.
Ray picked me up at the airport and took me to my hotel to clean up. He went home to feed his cats and I went off to find my room. 3:50. Just over two hours till my workshop. I had forced my weary eyes closed on both flights that day, which hadn’t always produced sleep, but often resulted in a pleasant, groggy, pseudo-rest. By the time I showered and changed and guzzled some hideous in-room coffee swill, I felt almost human. Almost.
In the end, adrenaline is truly a beautiful thing. Ray returned, threw me into his car and schlepped me across the Red River into Minnesota to the Moorhead campus, just a few miles from my Fargo hotel. We dragged lighting and camera cases from his department’s building to an auditorium nearby, where I saw the venue for the first time. Instead of a relaxing survey of the facility the evening before, I performed a hasty scout moments before the students started to arrive.
In the weeks previous, I had been nervous about the venue, hoping all the technology would work. It did. The room had auditorium seating, with a long, narrow space in the front where I planned a lighting and camera demonstration. The front wall held a large projection screen where I could play video clips from my laptop or the output of an HD video camera on a tripod near me. Cases of camera and lighting gear lined the space. The overhead lights could be dimmed and controlled by a panel in the teaching station at the front of the room. I scarfed down half a chicken-and-corn burrito Ray had bought me. Let the games begin.
Ray introduced me. At his suggestion, I started out by telling them about my laborious trip to get there for them. I’m sure they were fascinated by this gray-haired guy telling them about his adventures conquering the skies! After all, I had faced down the great blizzard.
“Now I know why they call it Far-go,” I told them. Many smiles, a few laughs, some polite titters, and we moved on to more serious subjects.
We talked about preproduction planning, scouting locations, and basic approaches to setting up a shot. I showed them a clip of interviews I had shot for the “West Wing Documentary Special,” including three former presidents, and we discussed the subjects’ eyelines and the angles of the key light. “Where is the light coming from?” I asked them for each shot.
I had ten student volunteers line up next to five cases of lights. Then I asked them to open the cases.
“But don’t take anything out of the case yet. First, stare at the inside for a while. Notice how the contents are packed, see how each item fits into a special cutout or division in the case, notice which way the cable is coiled, memorize this arrangement, and plan to put it all away just like this. If not, you could be victimized on your next shoot by someone else’s negligence.”
Ray told me later that was his favorite moment.
I pointed to a huge snarl of extension cords (known as “stingers” in the lingo) which had been sloppily macraméd together during a shoot by a student crew recently, then returned to the equipment room. “It’s a cooperative effort. You’re all in this together. What goes around, comes around. Being a slob is contagious, and terribly inefficient.”
We lined up shots with a succession of students and faculty in the frame. We noted the changes necessary when switching from a young guy with black hair to an older guy with none. We moved our key light, the main source of illumination on the set, first around to the side, then up front, close to the camera. We pulled the light off its stand and lowered it to the ground to watch the effect on our subjects. We looked at the results with the house lights on full, then dimmed down, then off. In all, I was going for a three-hour summary of the semester-long advanced cinematography and lighting class I had been teaching at San Francisco State for years.
The students attacked the demo with great energy. They asked thoughtful questions, and they watched all the changes carefully. We had fun and laughed.
Eventually we wrapped. I was still tired, but buzzing with energy. Ray dropped me back at my hotel, where I ate the rest of my burrito and read more about Botswana. And eventually slept.
Next day, I spoke to a couple of classes about my work and travels, showed clips of a number of projects, explained how I’d started out in the business. I was excited to see they had printed a poster to publicize my appearance, and I found my name on an electronic news board on campus. I’d never been posterized or newsified before!
But I still had to get back home. My departure the next morning was set for 6:15, my second too-damn-early flight in three days. The weather in Fargo was cold but clear. But once again I had to transfer in Denver, and Denver had snow warnings. No blizzards, just snow. Nevertheless, my mind boggled at the possibility of getting stuck again in Denver.
We waited a while on the tarmac at Fargo Airport in another smallish plane. The captain told us that one of the two de-icing rigs was on the fritz, but assured us that wouldn’t stand in the way of a thorough de-icing, no matter how long it took. That was fine, safety-wise, but “no matter how long” had the impractical effect of shortening my transfer time. We got off the ground an hour late and landed late in Denver amid light snow flurries. I had only a half hour to buy a sandwich and race to the gate, arriving just as my boarding group was called. Without missing a beat, I hustled aboard a brand new 737, found my exit row seat, and stretched out.
Leg room. Padded luxury. No delays.
Time to play around. I pulled out my phone and shot an intense closeup of a plastic water bottle, reflecting a yellow paper behind it, the warm reading light over my seat, and the cool blue windows. Before we took off, I posted it on social media with the caption, “Shapes on a plane. Conquering boredom during today’s flight from Denver. Abstract Art.”
This provoked odd and puzzled reactions from friends, like “Album cover!” and “Sounds like a Samuel L. Jackson movie,” but I didn’t care. I was going home.