Got home last night around midnight after quite a long drive. I was supposed to have flown up north for a vacation with family, but couldn't muster the nerve to get on the airplane. I've got a full-blown case of flying phobia. It traces back to a very bad experience I had a few years ago on a small prop plane flying from eastern Oregon to Seattle, during which we hit a bad patch of turbulence -- passengers were coming out of their seats, and the woman behind me was screaming and crying. Looking back, I realize that we were in no real danger, but it was so distressing that, gradually, I got more and more nervous about even the slightest turbulence. Last Friday it peaked during a slightly bumpy 50-minute flight from Albuquerque to Phoenix, and even though I was facing only a 2-hr flight from Phoenix to Boise, I could not get on the plane.
Irrational fears are kind of fascinating. As a physicist, I understand well the mechanics of flight and how safe air travel is. I know that turbulence has caused planes to crash only in the rarest and most extreme cases, I know that planes are very robust flying machines and don't plummet out of the sky, and I know that during turbulence the plane is moving up and down maybe a few inches to a few feet -- uncomfortable, but not dangerous at all. And yet this knowledge is absolutely powerless to assuage the paralyzing terror I now have of getting on an airplane. You just can't fight panic.
So, I cancelled my visit and decided to rent a car and drive home from Phoenix. Turned out to be an enjoyable trip. Before heading out, I subscribed to this service
and put hours of William Shatner's Star Trek
recollections on my iPod. Shatner's a ham, but he's a good traveling companion. I've always liked road trips, which are a great way to see your own country. It was interesting to see the gradual transition of landscape from Arizona to New Mexico to Texas, and I now know the one state in which I would least like to live: Arizona. Especially Phoenix, which is big, ugly, barren, and hot as Hades. I had to wait outside for an hour for the airport shuttle to arrive, and felt like I was being slowly cooked. However, I did find 113 F dry
heat easier to take than the 98 F humid heat of central Texas. Like the shuttle driver said, better to be a chicken than a lobster. Drove through Tucson, which looked nothing like I imagined (at least from the interstate), and gradually transitioned to landscape that very oddly looked like a cross between the lunar surface and Washington-state farm country. I liked the huge saguaro cacti though. Got a slight pang of concern when I saw a sign for Cochise County
, where they've been having a lot of trouble with violent border-jumping criminals. I-10 hugs the Mexican border for quite a stretch, and from there I could see the big fence. Border patrol vehicles were here and there. Looking south, you wonder how anyone could survive a long-distance trek through such landscape, and yet it's done all the time. Somewhere in New Mexico I hit a huge dust storm, and lost visibility for a short while. It fills you with awe to approach a wall of dust from a distance and realize how enormous it is.
By the end of the first day of driving I got to El Paso, and called it a night. Next day I realized how mountainy that area is. I've done the drive to Ft. Davis many times, but didn't realize that the mountains stretched even further west. It's a pretty drive. And you know you're in Texas because people immediately start tailgating. In Arizona and New Mexico, drivers keep a respectable distance. In Texas, you're driving on the interstate at 85 mph in the slow lane, nobody for miles in the passing lane, and some jerk still huffs and puffs on your bumper. It's the only thing I dislike about Texans. Speaking of weird driving habits, I don't understand why Mexicans drive well below the speed limit. The illegals in the U.S. always drive slow, because they don't want to give police any reason to pull them over (do they realize it does give police a good profiling tool?). But you see a guy in a nice car with a license plate from Chihuahua and know that he crossed the border legally, so why does he drive like a slug? Maybe it's because they are in the habit of not giving their own police reason to pull them over and demand bribes.
Anyway, here I am back at home, temporarily beaten back by fear. I know where it comes from, and I know how to eventually defeat it. Like this guy
says, you can't do it directly. But I'm confident that by next spring I'll be back in the air.
One last note. Never again will I travel -- even by air* -- without a handgun. Talk about feeling vulnerable. There are long stretches of nothing between big cities in the U.S., and I also never want to be that close to the border without protection ever again. Even when further up north, there are plenty of psychos and scumbags on the interstates, and a finite number of state police to come to the rescue. Besides, as Carnaby pointed out, I missed a golden opportunity to openly strap on the ol' .45 in New Mexico.
[*Legally stowed in checked baggage, of course.]