I don’t remember much about the movie Sully, in which Tom Hanks plays the heroic pilot who crash-landed a plane on the Hudson River in 2009, but I do recall the thrill of watching the flight attendants do their jobs so well. As the plane nosedives, they leap into action in unison. They issue impossibly calm instructions and usher the passengers onto the wings while the cabin fills with ice-cold water. Everyone survives.
Competence in the air—competence in travel at large—is a rare treat. I don’t know whether to affix to that declaration a disheartened “these days,” because I wasn’t around in “those days,” so I don’t know whether competence was scarce then, too. I do know that I like Lyft drivers who can find shortcuts without Google Maps and pilots who know how to curb turbulence.
It’s even more invigorating to encounter a passenger with the chops to manage a transportation crisis, or at least a knack for traveling with flair. I’ve been lucky to meet many nominees for this distinction. There was Rachel, a part-time book critic who indulged me in a conversation about her career while our bus stalled in endless traffic on the Long Island Expressway. Dina, a congresswoman’s wife, distracted a train conductor from asking for my ticket when I stole a seat next to her in the first-class car. Neither woman achieved a Sully-level feat, but both cured my travel headaches.
I would be remiss, however, to crown as champion anyone other than a woman I’ll call Eleanor, who sat one row behind me on a summertime flight to Phoenix that was dogged by delays. When Eleanor overheard me talking to my seatmates about my tight connection to Monterey, California, she announced that she was heading that way, too. Faced with the flight attendants’ desperate attempts to extract any morsel of useful information from the pilot’s sporadic updates, Eleanor took me under her wing and assured me that we would figure things out.
I was traveling alone, en route to an Airbnb where two high school friends awaited me. I’d flown solo before, but never for a vacation that I’d planned, on a flight that I’d booked. My gap year in New York had instilled in me a sense of cosmopolitan confidence that decidedly did not translate into competence—I still tripped on subway escalators at least once a week. And I remained a klutz in the air, too, misplacing my boarding pass and spilling complimentary drinks on fellow passengers’ laps.
Eleanor informed me that our flight to Monterey was the last of the night. We would only have one shot. As the pilot’s optimistic announcements grew more ominous, I made peace with the prospect of missing the next flight. I probably had the stamina to spend one night in Phoenix without dying of dehydration or boredom. But Eleanor was having none of it. After excoriating the flight attendants, she launched into a solo brainstorming session, rattling off far-flung ideas about planes, trains, and automobiles. She was, I imagined, one of those problem-solving junkies, the kind of person you call when you need your new IKEA dresser assembled.
Eleanor’s brutal competence enthralled me. I was more than eager to let her shoulder the burden of solving this problem. She, apparently, was equally pleased to have a sidekick. I agreed to join her, and she assigned me my first job: bolt down the aisle the second the pilot turns off the seatbelt light, run to the other gate, and hold the door for her. We’d board the plane to Monterey together and fly off into the sunset.
Usain Bolt could not have made the connection in only four minutes, let alone a fairweather Central Park jogger like me. When Eleanor arrived in the neighboring terminal a moment later to find me huffing and puffing in front of a closed jet-bridge door, she cursed, then marched on. I followed closely behind.
Somehow, she knew exactly where to find the customer service desk, where she opened negotiations with other travelers waiting in line. “Where are you going?” she demanded. They rattled off cities—Portland, Los Angeles, Denver. No one was heading anywhere near Monterey. The odds seemed increasingly stacked against us, but for Eleanor, every roadblock presented an opportunity to hatch a new plan. While I nursed my headache—surely, I was no help at all—the wheels in Eleanor’s brain were turning.
A soft-spoken airline representative informed us that the next flight to Monterey would leave the following afternoon, and that she would be happy to arrange our hotel accommodations for the evening. Eleanor didn’t so much respond to that remark as plow over it with a rhetorical bulldozer. “No, we’re not staying here tonight. We’re getting on a flight to San Francisco.”
The representative returned to her computer to see what was available. Sure enough, there were two seats on a plane to San Francisco that would depart in just a few minutes. Eleanor announced that we would take them, free of charge, then turned to me and made an offer: “I’ll drive a rental car from San Francisco to Monterey if you keep me entertained.” The trip, she said, usually takes close to three hours, but she could probably do it in two. I nodded.
I could have spent the night in Phoenix; my friends in Monterey could have waited for me. But, I thought to myself, I’m supposed to be a competent adult now, and competent adults find ways to get where they want to go no matter what the airline and the world hurl at them. By joining Eleanor, I at once surrendered and seized my independence. I knew hardly anything about her, but I trusted her deeply. I was already hooked on the high of Eleanor’s world, where everything would work out because she would make it so.
A poor soul in a Harvard sweatshirt sat between us on the flight to San Francisco. Diet Coke in hand, Eleanor riffed to him, unprompted, about the peculiarity of our upcoming road trip together, and how she didn’t know anything about me other than my name and destination. Eleanor didn’t put her phone on airplane mode, and she didn’t make it more than a page into a magazine article before turning to the next. She greeted her own jokes with a thick, treacly laugh, and she had a habit of muttering to herself under her striped shirt collar. She avoided eye contact, but she seemed addicted to building conversations, to nursing and cracking them with her stilted tensions.
We reached the rental car desk around midnight, late enough that I didn’t object when Eleanor rescinded her offer to stop at In-N-Out Burger. I consoled myself with a limp avocado BLT from an airport joint. Eleanor had booked the car in advance, while we were boarding the second plane.
From the passenger seat, I directed her out of the airport. The rental car’s weak lights barely carved a path in front of us. My friends in Monterey were asleep, undoubtedly tired from their foray in the national parks; a key to our Airbnb awaited me in a lockbox. My suitcase was stuck in some western city. My phone was dying, then dead. I felt my excitement evaporate. Now, we were alone on some highway with a famous name that I couldn’t remember.
She soon got sick of changing the station and turned the radio off. To break the silence, I joked that I hoped Mariska Hargitay wouldn’t have too much trouble solving the case of my murder. Maybe she would enjoy investigating this progressive hitchhiking scenario: Instead of a gruff, male townie who dismembered his fourth blond ingenue, Hargitay would find a middle-aged, female entrepreneur who disposed of a pesky Ivy Leaguer. Eleanor laughed, and then we plunged back into silence. I broke it again by asking who she was and what she did.
Eleanor ran a successful stationery start-up, but her love life was in shambles. Her trip to New York had culminated in drinks at Balthazar with an old flame, a WASPy hedge-funder whose family tied him to the East Coast. She was relieved to be in California again—she’d moved from Austin just months earlier—but she had no hedge-funder here, or anyone at all. I don’t remember her age, but I know that she was old enough to feel immense pressure from her contemporaries to settle down.
Eleanor’s quandaries eventually became more puzzling than entertaining. I wanted to offer advice, or at least express empathy, but I couldn’t. By the time we neared Monterey, around 3 a.m., my responses were empty.
It should not have been a great shock to me that beneath Eleanor’s competent exterior was a woman who felt her life was in disarray. Indeed, if I had given it some thought, I might have surmised that people like Eleanor often wear their competence like a mask, albeit subconsciously. I might have taken some comfort in the knowledge that my small incompetencies were not some red flag signifying a total and inescapable ineptitude—that I wouldn’t be excluded from adult life just because I couldn’t yet jostle my way across the country like Eleanor.
There is pain in learning that adults aren’t always competent, but there’s satisfaction, too. The pressure is off. Eleanor didn’t have the answers, and neither did I—and that was alright, somehow. Should she move east and chase the hedge-funder? Had she been right to move to San Francisco? And which exit do we take again?
Enjoy leafing through our sixth issue!