We are heading back home. Almost back, since by now Anchorage, located on the same continent as our home, feels much like home.
The drive out to the airplane among the dozing albatross sitting everywhere was as unusual as the rest of our trip, with the driver of the first vehicle stopping and getting out several times to carry a sleepy albatross chick from the middle to the side of the road. We started the instruments and prepared for the flight, and I stood outside for a long while, looking at the black sky filled with millions of stars. Now, this is yet another grandeur of the past lost for the city dwellers: the stars. With all the lights of the cities you can hardly see the Milky Way anywhere in the modern civilized world, except probably in a hunting camp high in the mountains in late fall somewhere. But here there were no lights, and the skies showed themselves to me as they did to our ancestors thousands of years ago. From the brightest of the stars with the Big Dipper upside down, pointing to the North Star low on the horizon, to the faintest of constellations that I don’t know the names of, the stars were overwhelming, and easy to stare at endlessly, until your neck hurt.
The airport crew took about half an hour to drive along the runway, moving dozens of birds off the runway to the sides, reporting more of them than usual this time. As people on the island told me, later in the season this chore becomes quite difficult as the chicks learn to fly and keep flapping back onto the runway after they were moved off of it. It is not unusual for airplanes to sustain a bird strike at Midway, hence take-offs and landings in the dark; we were lucky and hit no birds.
We took off in the dark and headed to the Northeast. This direction accelerated the sunrise for us, and as we started to profile up and down the rising sun and the clouds presented to us a multitude of changing shapes and sizes: fantastic sky cities in the distance and highlighted plains; glowing towers of tall convective cumulus clouds; shimmering, feathery cirrus; vast expanses of stratocumulus looking like gigantic folds of fluffy corduroy.
We arrived in Anchorage at about 4 pm local time. Finishing the post flight activities by now is a routine, and people do it on autopilot, just like our Gulfstream finds its way along our routes once the pilots set up the course. Since we always seem to have it in Anchorage I am already expecting some kind of a surprise at the rental car counter, and my expectations are not failed: none of the three of us have a reservation for today. Interestingly, one of us has a reservation for yesterday and the other two, for tomorrow. The girls at the Hertz counter giggle and recall that we were concerned about this when we were sorting out our reservations the last time (isn’t it a bit worrisome when ladies at a rental car counter in another city begin to recognize you?). Finally we get our iron horses, pick up the rest of the crew and the luggage at the hangar and head to the Hotel Captain Cook.
Feeling at home here, we probably look like a bunch of very tired gypsies arriving to a homeland gathering when we piled up our bags in the fancy carpeted lobby upon the arrival at the Hotel Captain Cook, where the staff seem to have become used to seeing our faces and even recognize some people by name. Other guests, mostly tourists and airline crew members, shied away from us a little, probably deterred by the grim determination on our faces to just get the room keys, go inside and disappear from the world for as long as we possibly can.
Traveling East is harder to adjust to than traveling West. When you travel West you just go to bed later every day, which seems more natural. Traveling East, and starting at 2 am on top of it, put me out of commission in a serious way: falling asleep at 5:30 pm I got up, hungry, at midnight and came up with nothing better than going for a burger at Chilkoot Charlie’s at 1:30 am. Trying to sleep for the rest of the night was difficult but closer to the morning the sleep came, and I dragged myself out of bed at noon, feeling I could sleep for the rest of the day. As it turned out, many other people had as bad a time, some not having a good rest at all, unable to sleep for most of the night. It is a good thing tomorrow is a down day and we will not be working on the airplane, hopefully people will get a rest then.