Day four. Blue, blue sky. Tipped my head up, hoping to get a gritty taste of microscopic volcanic ash. Give me sign that you're real, I thought. Mass migration stories. Britons on the move by taxi (John Cleese paid $5,100 for a 900–mile cab ride from Oslo to Brussels), by train, by ferry, by bus. There was the story of the enterprising Brits trapped in a seedy hotel in Rome who pooled their money and chartered a bus for a three–day grueling bus ride to Calais, France, where they were hoping to hop the ferry to England.
This is the day I hit rock–bottom and the concierge found me crying in the hall. "I just need to get home," I sobbed. I tried to book passage on the Queen Mary 2. Looked for rides on freighters. Do you know how few choices there are for a transatlantic crossing? Got pissed off because the British press didn't give a rat's ass about Americans trapped in their country. That government made plans to send British war ships to France to pick up stranded travelers. I emailed the American consulate in Belfast and asked when I could expect an American war ship to pick me up. I didn't hear back and am probably on the kind of list you don't want to be on when you travel for a living.
Day five. Blue, blue sky. Rumor had it that fine volcanic ash was falling in Northern Scotland but I needed proof. I was starting to view the volcanic ash cloud as mythical. This was reminiscent of the build up to Y2K. I had to go on–line to check satellite images otherwise my mind went directly to weird conspiracy theories that had kept 150,000 Britons trapped overseas and was costing billions of dollars and may lead to the eventual collapse of several airlines and the Irish economy. I kept checking the Belfast International Airport website to see if planes were flying and read cancelled, cancelled, cancelled. It was Tuesday and my flight had been rescheduled for Thursday. There was a rumor that the volcano's output was weakening. I drove up along the coast to visit the Giant's Causeway, a wonderful geologic formation of basaltic columns then got sad because it reminded me that there was an invisible ash cloud above me. Give me a sign, I thought. I drove back along the coast road and realized that I could drive and look at the scenery at the same time. I threw caution to the wind and tried to listen to the radio as well.
The hotel staff looked at me with pity in their eyes. At this point they all knew me. They knew what I'd order for breakfast and that I'd need a big pot of coffee while I looked at my maps. My room was starting to look like a dorm room with papers, books, and food strewn about. I didn't care. The doorman gave me directions to reach the one laundromat within a forty–mile radius. Is it that obvious? I pondered the idea of checking out apartments for rent.
A break in the ash clouds
Day six. Blue, blue sky. The winds in the atmosphere shifted and there was a buzz that Irish airspace would open later in the day. The press was going after the Volcanic Ash Alert Group and Britain's Civil Aviation Authority saying they had been too cautious and that they are responsible for the chaos that's paralyzed Europe. The ash cloud people stick to their guns and say they know a lot more about volcanic ash now than they did five days ago and that it's their job to keep the public safe. I didn't know what to think.
I checked the airport website and my flight for the next day hasn't yet been cancelled. And as I looked out the window and wondered what to do, I saw a plane fly by. It was just a little plane and it was flying low over the lough but it was a plane. And I stared at it. Then I opened the window to try and catch the sound of the plane. I could hear a faint hum behind the songs of the magpies and chiffchaff and thrushes. The staff was now all smiles and said they would have their collective fingers crossed. The concierge gave me her home phone number in case there was anything she could do to help me get ready to leave.
British airspace opened later that day just as the war ships reached Calais. People lined up—there was a pecking order with medical evacuations and multi–generational family groups taking precedence. I sat out in the garden and basked on the uncharacteristically warm Irish spring day and stared up at yet another blue sky. I watched hooded crows and magpies and jackdaws fuss around the flowering apple trees, and I thought about how my time in Ireland had changed in the past week—I had gone from driving around the country searching for a story to being trapped in the middle of the Big Story that transcended borders and required you to suspend disbelief and rely on images from space. A big story that had people scratching their heads and pulling together to solve the problem of how to get from A to Z.
I got on a flight from Belfast to Newark the next morning and had a few unsettled moments. I mean, what if we did fly through the volcanic ash cloud and our engines stopped? And I know I wasn't the only one thinking that. There were little nervous laughs up and down the line as we waited to board the plane and lots of stories circulated about how many times people were delayed and what they did during their forced grounding. We all felt so important about having a shared experience based on something invisible. We probably felt as important as the people who stockpiled food before Y2K.
Rachel Dickinson writes for a number of publications including The Atlantic, Audubon, and National Geographic Traveler. Her latest book is Falconer on the Edge: A Man, His Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West.
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Other Europe travel stories from the archives
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