Monday, July 17, 2006

Back Home

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.]


Blogger Rusticus said...

Glad to hear you're back!

Unreasoning fears are a real pain in the butt.

I can't stand heights, but I've grappled with the whole vertigo thing, and now I can't stand heights. See? Improvement!

How was the super skerit lab?

7/18/2006 6:33 AM  
Blogger Stickwick Stapers said...

Good thing you don't have to chase bad guys across rooftops, Rus. :)

The super-sekrit lab was pretty sekrit. So much so that I only got to see the outsides of some buildings. But the Bradbury Museum was pretty informative. For instance, I learned that a person's average yearly exposure to radiation is 360 millirem, and out of that the total radiation contribution from living in the "nuclear age" combined with atmospheric tests of bombs is only an extra 1.1 millirem. However, if you're a pack-a-day smoker, you get to add an additional ~900 millirem to that. Staggering. Anyway, if you ever make it out to Los Alamos, I recommend the museum.

Meanwhile, I have a trip for a mountain retreat coming up in October, and I don't want to miss it on account of some stupid phobia. I will conquer this thing!

7/18/2006 11:09 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Did you drive through Tucson and not try to contact me?

I'm hurt!

And Arizona isn't a bad place to live, but there's not enough money in the world to get me to move to Phoenix.

7/19/2006 5:19 PM  
Blogger Stickwick Stapers said...

Actually, Kevin, I regret very much not having the opportunity to visit with you. I didn't know for certain I would be driving back to Texas until that morning, and figured it would be awkward to try to arrange a visit on such short notice. Count on it that next time I'm in that area, I will contact you!

7/20/2006 11:16 AM  

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