YOUR FLIGHT IS CANCELLED.
The airline travel alert popped up on my phone as soon as we landed in Charlotte and a cellular signal reconnected me to the world. It was the last leg of a long journey home, one I felt lucky to squeeze in before an impending blizzard would paralyze my town three hours away.
The airline, in all its wisdom, defaulted me to a flight the next morning.... after the blizzard would be well underway....when the roads would be treacherous. I rolled my eyes.
Before we reached the gate, I checked every airline for flights that night. Zero.
As I raced through the terminal, I fed details to my favorite travel site, hoping to find a rental car, despite the growing number of canceled flights popping up on the departures screen that hung above a crowd of travelers. Then I clicked “reserve” on the first option I saw.
Feeling relieved and a little clever to have found my way out of the stranded masses, I strode up to the rental car counter, greeted the agent with a smile and confidently delivered my name. He clicked away at the computer, looked up and said, “I don’t have a reservation for you.”
“No, no, that can’t be right,” I said confidently, with a dismissive little laugh. “Look, I have it here.” I showed him the screenshots of the reservation I had just made.
“You booked with a third party so that hasn’t even hit our system yet,” he replied. “I don’t have a reservation for you and I don’t have any cars. Sorry.”
My desperation grew. If I didn’t get out of Charlotte that night and beat the snow, I wouldn’t get home for a couple days. It wasn’t the worst thing, but I had no interest in an expensive, out-of-town stay without airline compensation. I looked at him pleadingly.
“But there is a car service you could hire to drive you. It’s $400.” He didn’t see my eyes widen as he wrote a name and phone number on a piece of paper, which I promptly stuffed in my pocket, the price rendering it useless.
I headed across the rental center, checking one company after the next.
No. No. And no.
Then I stood in one last line, my final hope to get home. In an effort to swoop in and grab one of the last cars, I went online to check the same rental company. Nothing available. Again. My shoulders slumped in the now useless line, my mind racing for a new solution.
A train, I thought, but the schedule showed there wasn’t one out until morning. And even if I could get close to home then, the snow-covered roads would make it impossible to go the rest of the way. I sighed, then looked back at the growing line and met the eyes of a man standing behind me. With graying hair, he looked a few years my senior. Perhaps a business traveler.
“There are no cars,” I said flatly. “Sold out.” Then an idea hit. “Where are your heading?” I asked him.
“Me, too.” I felt the rush of new hope. “There’s a car service. It’s four-hundred dollars. We could split it and it wouldn’t be much more than a one-way rental.”
He looked at me as if sizing up my proposition. Then, with a shrug of his shoulders, he nodded. “Yeah. Okay.”
I stuck out my hand. “I’m Tracy.”
“Dave,” he replied. “Nice to meet you.”
I called out to the line, asking if anyone else was heading our way and was met by blank stares. People walking past looked at me, too. No takers. Out of everyone in earshot, the one guy going to Raleigh just happened to be next to me. I looked up and whispered a silent thank you.
By the time we were ready to set off, the rental agent had sent two more stranded travelers our way, asking if they could share the ride, too. Four unlikely people joined by a common cause: desperate to get home before the storm.
I climbed into the Suburban with Khalid, the driver, and three men I knew nothing about. But the journey changed that. As each one let his phone go dark, conversation began, first about how lucky we were to find a ride, despite our unlikely circumstances. Eventually, each spoke about his life.
Tony, a mid-thirties father of three, opened up first, telling us about his family’s roots in Korea and China. By the time he finished, he flashed a photo of his kids and told us about them, too. Josh, a newlywed who looked to be in his late twenties, spoke next, talking about the snowed-out convention he had just left, his job, this young man speaking like a philosopher of sorts, reminding us a couple of times that life unfolds just the way it’s supposed to. And then Dave, my line-mate from earlier, told us about his daughter who hopes to become a cop and his son who decided at fourteen he wanted to be a Marine. Even Khalid chimed in, telling us about immigrating from Lebanon and his son, the financier. I listened to their stories, realizing we probably wouldn’t have even spoken to each other if our flight had taken off that night, strangers standing alone rather than being united by our circumstances.
By the time we pulled up at our original destination, the Raleigh airport where our cars and rides home awaited, we were strangers no more, but compatriots who had overcome adversity together, a common goal binding us. This is what hard stuff does when we seek to work together, when we need one another. It opens conversation and connection. It brings something extraordinary from adversity. And it leaves us on the other side of it, delivered to our warm beds as the first flakes fall, relieved by the outcome and richer for the experience.