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Tom Ross: Santa drove an Alpine taxi

Holiday trip from Maine to Steamboat stretches over 81 hours







Santa arrived at our front door at 1:10 a.m. Dec. 25, and he looked a lot like Randy Hurley. Come to think of it, Santa Hurley’s sleigh looked a lot like a big Alpine taxi.

The gift that Santa dropped on our doorstep was the best possible – our son, Austin, after an 81-hour odyssey, had barely made it home in time for Christmas. He was only 60 hours late.

In the interest of accuracy, Austin, 22, did not spend 81 hours traveling. And it wasn’t like he spent two nights sleeping in an airport terminal. There were many well-intentioned people who did their best to help him along his way.



The big New England snowstorm that disrupted Austin’s itinerary caused him to spend two nights with a former college classmate in Boston – they spent Dec. 23 knocking around Cambridge and Harvard Square. It could have been a lot worse.

Still, Austin’s trip home lasted longer than a cross-Atlantic flight to Sweden in October and qualified as a holiday travel ordeal. If nothing else, it eased my own guilt about my rare trips home for the holidays.



Austin’s journey began in a heavy winter storm just outside Stowe, Vt., where he had been coaching Nordic ski racers. He set out in a team van for the Portland Jetport at about 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 21. He needed to be in Portland in time to catch a 5 a.m. flight to Atlanta.

First, he had to pilot the van over Franconia Notch and through the White Mountains in the strengthening storm and down the winding Kancamagus Highway into Western Maine.

As bad as the driving was, the roads became worse inside the Portland city limits.

Only the major arterial roads were being plowed, Austin said, and the secondary roads were covered in 18 inches of snow. Three times, he stopped to help push other motorists who had become high-centered.

After landing a $50 “distressed traveler discount” at the airport Comfort Inn, he set his alarm for 3 a.m. and grabbed a couple of hours of sleep. By the time he arrived at the check-in line just before 4 a.m., there was already a long line of stranded travelers and no aircraft waiting at the gates. All of the planes departing from Maine’s biggest airport for the next several days were full.

He grabbed a Concord Trailways bus that delivered him to South Station in Boston, where he hung out for about 36 hours. He and his friend got up at 2:30 a.m. so that he could get to Logan International in time to catch his next flight in the pre-dawn of Christmas Eve.

Nobody enjoys arising at 2:30 a.m., but the $450 travel voucher Delta Airlines had issued him buoyed Austin’s spirits.

Delta, which had originally booked him on the flight from Atlanta into Hayden, now promised to deliver him to Cincinnati. From there, Northwest Airlines was to carry him on to Minneapolis, in time to catch a Northwest Airbus due to arrive in Hayden at 1:06 p.m. It never happened.

A mechanical problem in Cincy eliminated the 70-passenger jet that was to carry him to the Twin Cities. The first plane was replaced by a 50-passenger jet, and Austin was among 20 passengers bumped from the flight by one of the same computers used to calculate Bowl Championship Series football rankings.

Using his considerable powers of persuasion, Austin convinced the gate agent to book him on the last seat of the day from Cincy to Denver, and even grabbed the last seat available on the United mainline Airbus from Denver to Hayden. It was due to arrive in the Yampa Valley before 9:30 p.m.

At home in Steamboat, Austin’s mother put Christmas Eve dinner on the way-back burner.

Yes, he made it to Denver before 7 p.m. But the agent at the gate could not find his name on the manifest, and despite the printed itinerary in his hand, they couldn’t print him a boarding pass. They wouldn’t let him board the last flight home.

Helplessly, he watched his last best chance to make it home on Christmas Eve – three days late – back away from the gate.

Ironically, his black ski bag either made it on the United flight or had arrived in Hayden on an earlier plane. At any rate, it was hand-delivered by a courteous Steamboat local who was out working when he could have been at home celebrating Christmas Eve with his family.

It was Austin’s mother who sprang into action and saved Christmas by calling the taxi company and booking Austin a seat on Santa Hurley’s sleigh.

I can imagine that many of you have stories of grueling travel that can top this one. But for us, it was an unforgettable Christmas homecoming story.

– To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com


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