Travel Trauma Narrative: Going to Leeds through Winter Storm

We went to Leeds, England last week for a wedding. Getting there was an “adventure.” We were booked on US Air 734 from Philadelphia to Manchester on Thursday last week, departing in the evening for the overnight flight.

With more snow in the forecast and a light couple of inches on the ground by noon, we left Carlisle with plenty of time to drive to Swarthmore, where we had arranged to leave our car with our friend and colleague, Peter Friedrichs, and his wife, who live about 7 miles from the airport.

Getting to Swarthmore was fine. Roads were mostly clear and traffic moved smoothly between the storms. All day we kept checking on the flight and it showed a planned “on-time” departure at 8:45 p.m. Peter dropped us off curbside at the terminal about 6:30, in plenty of time for the flight, and as it was just starting to snow again.

The flight was very lightly booked so the check-in and security clearance process went quickly. Then came a long wait at gate A25. The plane was already at the gate and a small crowd had begun to gather. A family with two young kids, a hand full of other travelers. all nervously watching the status boards and checking the US Air website and wondering aloud if we would actually leave as the snow continued to fall. But it was dark outside and we couldn’t really tell how fast the snow was falling or how quickly it was accumulating or surely we would have been quite pessimistic about a departure that night.

An earlier flight to Madrid at the next gate had boarded and the doors had closed, but the plane sat at the gate for a couple of hours, which was not a good sign. Yet our flight was still listed as being “on time.”

Around 8:00, when we should have been starting to board, the gate agent announced that we were waiting a captain, and apologized for what she expected to be a few minutes delay. Twenty minutes later they announced that the captain had arrived at the airport and would be on the plane soon. The projected departure time was changed to 9:00 p.m. We waited. Snow continued to fall.

Around 9:00 they announced that the snow was coming down too fast and the flight was cancelled. At the same time they cancelled the Madrid flight and began to deplane the passengers.

Dutifully, we called the rebooking phone number and were, of course, put on hold. For a long time. Eventually, calling on two phones, one of us got through and rebooked us for the same flight on the next day.

Meanwhile the agent announced that baggage could not be unloaded from the plane due to “the life-threatening risk” to the ground crew from the storm. I thought that was perhaps overstated a little. Bags would be rerouted according to the rebookings. We need not worry about them — they were securely “locked” on the plane for the night.

After rebooking, we walked a very long way through the terminal to the ground transportation center. Peter had asked us to take a cab back to his house if we were stranded rather than expecting him to come back through the storm.

The line for cabs was long. It took an hour or so to reach the front of the line, then the first two drivers refused to go to Swarthmore. Most were only taking passengers to Center City. Finally a driver agreed to take us, and we got into the cab. After pulling away from the curb, he announced that he would charge us a flat fee of $100. Judy protested, he said it was 27 miles, we said, no more like 7, then he admitted there was “an error in the GPS” and agreed to $40.

We had not realized how fast the snow had been falling. It was a good foot deep — officially there were 11.6” in five hours, and a total of around 15”. The airport roadways had not been plowed, I-95 was almost a foot deep, and the cab must have had bald tires and — of course — was rear-wheel drive.

The ride was harrowing. Every time we had to stop for a red light, it took many tries to get moving again. His attempts to reassure us were not convincing. It was a white-knuckle ride. Eventually the driver turned up an untraveled residential street with a slight grade and we got stuck in the midst of an intersection. Really stuck, back against the curb, sideways, in snow a good foot deep by then.

He told us the GPS showed we were within two blocks of the address in the 200 block of Swarthmore. We abandoned the cab and started to walk. After about a block and a half the street looked unfamiliar, so we called Peter from my iPhone. We were at the intersection of 2nd Street and Folsom. We said we were within two blocks of his house, but he responded saying he had no idea where we were, that none of the streets we named was familiar.

Eventually he found us on Google Maps and asked if we could see a commercial district a block east of us. Yes, there is a bigger street and some lighted signs. He directed us to a Wawa store (like a Seven-Eleven) that was a block away, and told us to wait there while he dug out his car. We were nearly a mile and a half from his house, walking with our carry-ons, and without gloves or adequate boots. In essentially a blizzard. Though snow a foot or more deep.

We found the Wawa and determined that it was open all night. It was good to be in the warm Wawa and hard to imagine walking a mile and a half in the storm. Peter called back to say he needed to get out his snowblower to get the car out and we should hang tight, but it would take a while. By then it was approaching midnight.

We told the story to the Wawa clerk between customers. A regular came in for his coffee and she told him our plight. He had a four-wheel drive Ford Explorer and offered to drive us to Peter’s. While he went out to clean out the back seat, the clerk assured us he was “a good guy,” a nightly regular, who worked as a bar bouncer and could be trusted. We called Peter to say we were on the way.

Our rescuer returned to the store and we could see though the window that he was getting directions from the clerk. They turned out to be wrong — there are two different Swarthmore Streets in the area, alas. The cab driver was correct that we were only two blocks from Swarthmore and Second Streets, but it was in the wrong town.

Eventually my iPhone found us and provided a map to the correct address. The Good Samaritan, Perry, turned around in a bank parking lot with great difficulty, nearly wiping out a power pole in the process as the car slid sideways.

But we were then on the right track and got back to Peter and Irene’s just as Peter finished snowblowing and the storm abated. Of course we had no spare clothes, toothbrush, or razor, but after a good strong double whiskey (Knob Hill), we turned in and slept peacefully.

The next day we hung out, did some work, consulted with Irene about her religious education work, and dug out the three cars. In the afternoon we took a stroll to Swarthmore village, and after a lovely supper, Peter took us back to the airport.

The kindness of strangers and the generosity of colleagues who look out for each other made up for the struggles. We were relatively calm and relaxed, knowing somehow that it would all turn out OK — and make a good story.

Again on the second night, check in and security went smoothly, though with two-days worth of travelers on one flight, the gate crowd was bigger and included many of the same folks who we had sat with the night before.

Soon Wendy and Bud and Mary showed up at the gate. They were also on there way to the wedding. We could not find the photographer, Matt, despite having a photo of him. He was there — we just missed him. And there was another couple on their way to the wedding, but we didn’t recognize them until we arrived in Leeds.

The flight boarded on time, and then we waited a half hour for passengers from connecting flights, and eventually departed the gate about a half hour or more late. Next we taxied to the deicing stating, which took at least an hour and once we were actually at the station, it took nearly another hour before they were able to fully deice the plane and prepare it for takeoff. This was the longest deicing I have ever experienced, and I think the captain was also surprised by it from the tone of his updating announcements. We finally took off about three hours late for the 6-plus hour flight.

We arrived in Manchester and immediately after landing were directed to the side of the tarmac because the tower had observed smoke from the right landing gear. The second officer explained that they were quite sure it was nothing more than residual deicing fluid and that some emergency vehicles would arrive to check it out. Seven fire trucks and several other vehicles sped up to the plane and after inspecting the landing gear, escorted us to the far end of the terminal building where we deplaned down the long steps and boarded shuttle buses. Alas we were sitting at the back of the plane and were among about half a dozen people who were not able to squeeze onto the shuttle and had to await the arrival of another bus.

But once we got to the terminal and walked it’s length, we were admitted to the country.

This being Europe and not the US, things work. The train station is at the airport terminal. The trains run on time and are neat and clean, if a bit tight on space for luggage, being designed apparently primarily for commuter rail.

An hour and a half and half a dozen stations later, we arrived at Leeds Station, took cab to Weetwood Hall, the conference centre and hotel where the wedding was held. It was lovely, well worth the effort to be there, and we were happy to celebrate with Meredith and Johnny as they were wed.

Alas we had lost the day we had expected to use to explore Leeds and wound up not leaving the hotel except for a brief walk around the neighborhood until Sunday.

The return trip was smooth, uneventful, and on time. The way travel should be. On the cab at 6:30 a.m., with luggage in laps, on the train at 7:23, and at Manchester Airport in plenty of time to check in for the early departure and return to Philadelphia. Home safely just ahead of the next storm. After a quick stop at the grocery store and fetching our dog Maya from our friends, we fixed burgers and beers and tumbled into bed early for a good sleep.

We’re expecting a heavy ice accumulation tonight on top of a bit of cold, crusty, frozen sleet and snow that came down late last night. The air pollution levels have been high all day and it’s dark, gray, and foggy with spitz of sleet and freezing rain. More to come in a couple of hours according to the forecast. Comfort food tonight (mac and cheese).

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2 Responses to Travel Trauma Narrative: Going to Leeds through Winter Storm

  1. Norman Green says:

    Duane and Judy, we knew that your journey had been difficult, but did not realise just how harrowing it was! It was great to meet Meredith`s family and friends and for you all to join us in the celebration of her marriage to our son. We hope that your next visit to the UK will be a little less frantic and that you will have more time to enjoy the local attractions. Feel free to pop in for the traditional cup of tea and an English cream scone.
    Best wishes, Bev and Norman Green

    • Duane Fickeisen says:

      Thanks. We so enjoyed being there and wished we had more time in Leeds, so someday perhaps we will pop over for a cuppa. We were happy to join the celebration with the newly extended family and to meet Jonny and his family and friends.

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