“Pick any table you like,” said the waiter with a flourish. “This is a special occasion.”
Radiant, my wife made her way through two huge dining rooms, assessing mountain views through the chalet’s A-framed windows.
“This one,” she beamed, making her choice. “From here we can watch sunset illuminate Engineer’s Peak.”
We had arrived early for our long-awaited anniversary dinner, at a high-mountain lodge near Durango, Colo. After selecting the table, we wandered to a nearby alpine meadow before dining. It was an appropriately special place for us to share memories. Although our wedding itself had been tumultuous—the two families didn’t speak for nine years afterwards—our union was a happy one. I set my camera on a rock and we cuddled before it like newlyweds.
“This is so romantic, Greg!” said Jean, gazing at the surrounding mountains. “Coming here for our anniversary was a great idea.”
This trip had offered perfect use of an airplane. From Phoenix, we had first flown to Carlsbad, Calif., where a two-day meeting was spiced up by walks along Del Mar Beach. Following a night back home, we’d then navigated over high desert to celebrate our wedding anniversary in southwest Colorado.
Our first omen after landing was a good one—the compact car we’d reserved was unavailable so we got a Mustang convertible at the same price.
“This is cool!” said Jean, her hair blowing in the wind as we drove from the airport. Durango proved to be a magical place where kayakers run rapids through town on the Animas River.
Arriving at the condo we’d rented, I queried the manager about restaurants for our anniversary dinner.
“There’s a spectacular place north of here,” she said.
Spurred by descriptions of a luxurious mountain hideaway, I phoned for reservations.
“It’s our silver anniversary,” I said, “and we’re hoping for a special table.”
“We’ll make room for you,” responded the maitre d’ graciously.
Back at our condo, however, things didn’t go so smoothly. 3:00 a.m. found me outside in my underwear, pounding on a neighbor’s window until the loud music subsided. Rejuvenated by coffee the next morning, we hiked Native ruins at Mesa Verde National Park.
Assuming our neighbors would be more considerate next evening, we retired early. That was a mistake. When I phoned the manager at 2:00 a.m. to complain, I learned a valuable lesson about condo rental.
“Those are permanent residents next door,” she said, “so I can’t do anything about the noise.”
Discouraged, I made reservations at a nearby hotel. By now it was our anniversary morning, but little was on our minds except rest. Fueled by double cappuccinos, we managed a horseback ride, and then retired to the hotel for a nap—it wouldn’t do to be tired for our special dinner.
Sure enough, walking hand-in-hand that evening in the meadow, our sleepless nights were forgotten. We captured a final photograph before Engineer’s Peak, and then returned at the appointed time to the chalet.
“Do you have a reservation?” asked the greeter to our surprise.
“Yes!” we replied in unison.
To our relief, she motioned us inside. New concerns arose, however, at the dining room. For although our table was set and waiting, the large and elegant restaurant was otherwise entirely empty.
“No one else is here!” said Jean to the waiter when he greeted us.
“It’s been a slow season,” he replied. “There was no snow this winter for skiing. Frankly, the employees are concerned about their jobs if summer doesn’t pick up.” He smiled weakly. “By the way, we’re out of Bananas Foster this evening.”
“How fresh can the food be, if the place is empty?” I asked Jean as the waiter walked away. She shrugged, somewhat disappointed. “All I know is that Bananas Foster is my favorite dessert.”
Toasting 25 years together, we held hands in our own private restaurant as sunset tinted the mountains scarlet. That was the romantic part, but then came dinner. The prawns were burnt, Jean’s steak was barely palatable, and mine was inedible. I sent it back and ordered a veggie dish instead. The wait each time was interminable.
So much for the grand occasion I had planned. Exasperated, I excused myself to the men’s room. Upon encountering my own angry red face in the mirror, I reached to splash on cool water.
“Spluuutt,” belched the faucet as I turned the handle, splattering me with water from head to toe. Wettest of all was the sink-level crotch of my dress pants. After a moment’s astonishment, there was nothing to do but laugh. Given the air in the pipes, this place was so dead that no one had even used the restroom recently.
Battling mirth, I returned to the dining room. After one glance at my dripping figure, Jean burst into hysterics herself.
“You know what else?” she said, daubing tears of laughter. “I have an idea why the service is so slow.”
“Imagine the waiter going back to the kitchen,” she said, “taking off his server’s apron, putting on the chef’s hat, and….”
“You really think he’s doing everything himself?” I asked, incredulous.
“How could they pay anyone else on our dinner bill alone?” she said. “Maybe we could loan them bananas from our ice chest to make dessert.”
Between fits of laughter, we managed a final toast. Our anniversary dinner had indeed been memorable, though not in the way we’d anticipated. I should never have paid for that expensive uneaten meal, but visions of the suffering waiter returning home penniless were just too much to bear.
The next day, we rode the Durango & Silverton steam train, and then sampled a far better if less pretentious outdoor cafe. That was our last evening in Durango, but not the end of our adventure. Next morning we took off for Carlsbad, Calif., to the very airport we’d departed earlier in the week. Jean had advisory panel duties there, at another coastal resort.
This flying leg took us over stunningly remote country. Overflying stark Shiprock in northwest New Mexico, we traversed red buttes of the Navajo Nation, the green Colorado River, and yellow California sand dunes. In four hours aloft we crossed only three towns.
“What a wonderful way to celebrate our anniversary!” commented Jean, when palm-studded Pacific shoreline appeared beyond a final nondescript ridge. “We could never have done all this without the Flying Carpet.”
In one short week, we’d experienced everything from alpine glades to barren desert and blue-water beaches.
“Even that horrible dinner had its place,” she added. “This anniversary trip has been like our marriage—the ceremony itself was miserable but we’ve had lots of fun along the way.”
Author of numerous books and articles, Greg Brown is a columnist for “AOPA Flight Training” magazine. Read more of his tales in “Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane,” available through your favorite bookstore, pilot shop, or online catalog, and visit [http://www.gregbrownflyingcarpet.com].