Over the Mountains
I’ve flown hundreds of times in my life. I haven’t necessarily gone very far, but I’ve stepped onto a plane so many times that it’s second nature. I don’t remember my first flight because planes have been a part of my life for so long, to the point where I’ve witnessed ancient home videos of my brother and I as wee small children yanking off our jackets and tossing our bags onto the x-ray machine belt in totally practiced fashion without even a second’s hesitation. No big deal.
And yet for some reason, when I was about 24, I very, very suddenly developed an utterly intense fear of flight. The worst trauma I’d ever encountered mid-flight was a lot of bumps, just like most people do, so nothing serious, and yet there came one day when the idea of getting onboard an airplane just paralyzed me. I suddenly couldn’t just trust that yeah, planes just sort of work and everyone says they’re safe. I had a brain that would instead start loudly shouting “WHY do they work? How do you KNOW they’re safe?” and I couldn’t ignore it.
I only know one way to combat my fears: knowledge. I began a self-directed and very intense several months long study of flight and why it works. I learned about aerodynamics (in brief) and why airplanes are designed the way they are. I read pilot accounts of their adventures (or lack thereof). I read deeply into all of the past airplane disasters that I could find, dissected why they happened, read up on what had been done to prevent them. I studied until I was an armchair expert. Everytime there’s a bump or a noise or the wings do something funny, I can look at it and know pretty much exactly why it happens and what that noise/bump/flap that just extended is.
Annnnd despite that, it didn’t actually do much to stop me from being unreasonably afraid. Such is the way of phobias. They are, by definition, irrational. It did, however, teach me concretely that my fear is completely and utterly unfounded and that airplanes are really, really, really cool and amazingly well designed machines. They’re beautiful. No question.
In that way, I can now sit in my airplane seat and read my book very intensely during takeoff and landing while everything bumps around and the voice in my head is no longer screaming that we’re going to die. Instead it just mutters that we’re going to die while a much louder, slightly unconvinced voice uses a bullhorn to scream that everything is NORMAL.
And so I can still fly! Huzzah!
Now the big problem with this flight is that I couldn’t tell my cat that. I would give just about anything sometimes for the technology that would allow Aleksi’s peanut sized brain to comprehend the English language so I could explain to him that everything is cool. I was still on a bit of a post moving-is-a-catastrophe “It can’t be any worse!” high from packing up my whole life, so the flight was scaring me much less than usual, but as soon as I put Aleksi in his carrier, I started to have a whole new set of concerns.
See, I’d never flown with a cat before. I did my research beforehand and learned that yes, he would be able to come with me in the cabin, but terrifyingly enough, he had to be removed from his carrier in order to go through airport security. The first time I’d read that, it gave me heart palpitations and nightmare visions of his little fluffy butt vanishing through the crowd and into the airport itself, never to be seen again. Tim was awesome enough to make him a fantastic green camo harness (see: right, although his fur hides most of it besides the bundled leash) that was definitely not going to come off, but this only allayed some of my fears. Aleksi is a large and strong cat. I knew that if he wanted to leap out of my arms and run screaming over the horizon, the attached leash would probably leave a rope burn on my hand before flipping out of my grasp and away.
Cue: more research! My mantra, as with most things about this move, became the phrase: “People do this all the time! There’s a way. There must be a way.”
And I’m just going to say this: if you must bring a cat on a plane, and they don’t offer it as soon as you get to security, ask for a private screening room. I found out about that little tip a few weeks before I was supposed to leave and now that I’m looking back, I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I’ve heard tales of people who have trouble getting one, and I was concerned that security would be gruff and either not have one available or not be willing to accommodate me, but it was the opposite. I was asked once if I thought I could carry Aleksi through the security gates, and when I said I doubted it, there was no other kerfuffle. I didn’t even have to ask. To the room we went. It was quick, easy, and to my relief, Aleksi mostly just clung to me and quivered instead of trying to run.
But if you look in the picture to the right, I dunno, he looks like he’s calculating the distance from me to the doors and freedom from my madness. I’m glad I didn’t try to carry him through the gates.
After that, things were okay for a while. My mom, who’d come in to the city that morning to hang out, take me for brunch, wrangle the last bits of garbage from the apartment and assist me with initial depositing of cat-in-carrier, drove me to the airport and stuck with me until security, providing soothing tea and a lot of “Ahhhh, this is nothing and you’ll be fine.” talk that I really needed to hear. She’s kind of Best Mom. <3 I only got a little teary-eyed, and I was proud that I didn’t go into full blown waterworks again. I even maintained calm on the other side of security while waiting for my plane. Our timing was excellent and it landed shortly after I sat down.
And then I could stare at it: the big, shiny machine that was going to carry me into the sky and away. Hopefully smoothly.
I had my doubts about the smoothness. I’d been hoping as hard as I could hope for clear skies, but instead, as per the rest of the year, it was unseasonably rainy out. The clouds weren’t super thick, but they were clouds, and they were between me and 40,000 feet, and while I know in absolute no uncertain terms that turbulence is absolutely nothing to fear, it still sets my monkey brain to screaming and I was not wanting to experience it that day.
And of course, beside me was silent, worried Aleksi, who I couldn’t explain any of that to.
Oh well. Onwards.
We got to pre-board, which was nice. Cats are apparently the same category as kids with Westjet, so I was one of the first in line. I was happy to find that the medium-sized Sherpa carrier I’d had to buy for my really big cat was the perfect size and squooshed under the seat with no troubles. No protests from Aleksi, either.
Still, poor little puff. I’d heard that some cats yell a lot on takeoff and landing, but they’re hard to hear over the engines. I hoped he’d be okay.
I was lucky enough to not only get my favorite window seat right over the wing (the most stable spot on an airplane in flight; you experience the least turbulence there and the most if you’re sitting near the tail or the nose), but I also had no one sitting beside me and a quiet fellow with headphones on in the aisle seat. That was kind of nice. I couldn’t take feeling squished myself when I was already looking at my cat hunkered down under the seat.
And then I got out my book, sighed a little when the captain announced that yeah, it’d be a bumpy takeoff, and then I settled in for Intense Reading Session with Extra Don’t Look Out the Window.
And I think I actually made more noise than Aleksi, surprisingly enough. He mostly just glued himself to the floor and waited until the bumps gave way to smooth sailing. And so he stayed for the whole flight, stoic and silent. A few times I actually almost forgot he was down there. Once, I peeked and he was asleep. It helped set me more at ease and I think I ended up having one of the easiest flights in recent memory.
Untiiilllll landing that is. Alas, it wasn’t just bumpy on the way up, it was also bumpy on the way down. There were more clouds to rattle through, which we cleared just above Vancouver. I waved briefly when we passed over the Vancouver neighborhood where my roommate had arrived in a couple of hours before and then went back to hanging onto my armrest as we passed over the water and scattered islands before finally making our way into the airport in Sidney. We continued to bump and jostle all the way down.
And over Sidney is about the point when I smelled something. I couldn’t quite categorize it as anything but “Not a Nice Smell” and kind of hoped it was something airplane related. I kinda hoped so all the way until we touched down, and it got a little worse on the touch-down bump, but I had growing doubts.
Once we were safely down, I waited until nearly everyone else was gone, and then I gingerly picked up the carrier from under the seat.
I was greeted by kitty saucer eyes and a very distinct smell of litter box, sans litter. Both number one and number two, unfortunately. I can only guess that smooth ride transitioning into unexplained bumpiness had given Aleksi a fright and he’d decided it was time to blow the ballast tanks. I was in for at least a few days of “Mom, I don’t love you anymore.” after all. I sighed. All right, granted. Totally fair. If only I could have explained.
A quick text message later and my boyfriend and his mom (who was carrying flowers for me, super sweet, even though, alas, I definitely didn’t smell much like roses myself) met me in the airport to steer me into the bathrooms to take care of the worst of the mess before we got my bags. Hugs happened and eventually I even registered that they were hugs and returned them! It very much felt like my body had arrived but my brain was still walking across the mountains.
And then we headed to my new home, where I would be and still am temporarily staying in the fancy RV that sits in my boyfriend’s parents’ driveway. Aleksi promptly tucked himself into the smallest space available, underneath and then inside a recliner chair, but I was grateful to see that he would still descend his muzzle to inhale kibbles when I offered them. I only really worry about him if he stops being a food fiend. He came out after a few hours and took up residence in the closet instead. Now he’s claimed a whole chair and there he lounges.
And as for me? Suitcases were eventually unpacked, but first I mostly slept and tried to recombobulate.
And before that, there was pizza!
And a new home.