As one might expect, the final two weeks before our departure from the U.S. were a blur.
We’d booked and paid for Thor’s flight which created the backstop for everything else we were doing.
We had our visas in hand.
We had a buyer for our motorhome but were waiting for the dealership to cut us a check.
We’d pared down our belongings to a tiny fraction of the things we’d once owned.
Now it was time to put all the pieces together and head to Europe.
It all sounded straightforward enough, but like so many other parts of this process, things quickly became very stressful and very expensive.
Not that we can point the finger at any one particular member of our family for these moments of stress and outlandish costs:
In order to import a domestic animal into Portugal, the animal must have an up-to-date rabies shot and a European-compliant microchip. When we were on the East Coast last Spring, we took Thor to our D.C. vet and asked her to take care of both these things.
That was the easy part.
The hard part is that, within the ten days prior to your flight, you must take your dog to a “USDA-certified” veterinarian who must certify that your pet is healthy, and verify that he or she has been properly chipped and vaccinated. The USDA certified vet must then upload certain paperwork to the USDA system, after which a USDA staff member prints it out, signs it, adds a magic stamp, and mails it back to you. You must then carry this magically stamped paperwork with you on your flight and, upon arrival in Lisbon, hand it to the vet who works at the airport.
As you can imagine, this 10 day turnaround causes an immense amount of stress, especially because the 10 days includes weekends, but the USDA is only open on weekdays (and we had even less time because of Labor Day.)
There are about a million ways for it to go wrong, and if you don’t have the paperwork in order when you land, you and your dog are gonna be turned right back around and sent home.
In order to reduce the likelihood of a screw-up, many people flying from the northeast opt to use The ARK at JFK Airport to handle the certification process.
The ARK is a private company that handles all kinds of animal import and export and they know what they’re doing. They seem to have a direct line to USDA and are able to address issues quickly.
Given how much money we’d already invested in Thor’s transport, we quickly decided to go with the pros.
Unfortunately, because we were staying at my dad’s house 2.5 hours away, we needed to drive down to New York the night before the appointment and stay in a hotel.
Even more unfortunately, after spending all that time in the car, and all that money on a New York hotel room, the appointment was a total joke – the vet literally didn’t touch Thor.
His assistant scanned Thor’s chip, the vet, sitting at his desk, commented that Thor was a good looking dog (which is true), he signed the papers sitting in front of him, and then said, “you’re all set.”
No physical exam, no temp check, no look at the gums, no listen to the heartbeat, nothing…
While walking us back to the front desk, the assistant told us he would upload the documents to the USDA site and we should be able to pick up the finalized paperwork a couple days later.
Then they handed us a bill for $600.
Six. Hundred. Dollars.
It’s such a racket.
Between the costs of the vet, the hotel, and driving down to NY and back, it cost a fortune – all to have a third party say our regular vet had done her job correctly.
Luckily, on the positive side of our bruised and battered budget, the following day, we took our CRV to Carmax where we sold it for a couple hundred dollars less than we bought it for 3 years prior (thank you, supply chain issues.)
Inasmuch as dealing with the RV dealership was a nightmare, dealing with Carmax was a breeze. We were in and out, check in hand, in about an hour.
On Friday, September 9, we packed up our rental,
and drove toward New York once more, this time stopping at the RV dealership to harangue them about our missing money, before continuing on to stop at ARK to pick up the fancy paperwork
before heading to our ultimate destination – the small, surprisingly cute town of Morristown, from which Kevin and Thor’s flight would take off on Monday. We checked into yet another hotel and spent a relatively low key weekend in town.
On Monday, I watched Kevin and Thor’s tiny plane take off, before returning our rental car and walking back to our hotel.
Then, I thought their plane crashed.
An Anxious Night
I was occasionally checking in on their flight via FlightAware when I noticed their plane had gone off the planned course.*
But I figured it was just the pilot routing around bad weather.
I started poking around the app and noticed there was a screen that showed all the flight’s data. Numerous tidbits of information put out by the plane were captured in these tables and graphs. And it all updated every couple seconds.
But then I noticed the information stopped updating.
And as I sat there watching, the screen kept refreshing, but there was no new data coming in.
So, to recap: their plane had gone off course and then all the data stopped.
I kept watching it, closed out the app, restarted it, watched it some more… but there was no incoming data.
I tried my best to not overreact, but I had an overwhelming sense of dread.
I started clicking around the rest of the app and noticed another page that showed what appeared to be summary data of the flight:
This page seemed to be updating, although it looked like the planned duration of the flight was an hour less than it was supposed to be, the plane was traveling much slower than expected, and it seemed, to me at least, to be flying at an extremely high altitude.
But at least it showed something.
It was a huge relief, but where was this data coming from? And if there was data for this page, why wasn’t there data for the more detailed pages? And why did this information look so inconsistent with what was expected? What the hell was going on?
More importantly, how do you figure any of this out when you’re sitting by yourself in a hotel room in New Jersey at midnight?
Fortunately, RV life brought us some great friends and it occurred to me that one of those friends might be able to help. We only met Melanie and Cameron once several years ago, but have stayed in touch, and it occurred to me that Cameron had recently obtained his private pilot’s license. I reached out to Melanie and shared with her what was going on. Cameron took a look at the info and quickly explained that these flight tracking apps are notoriously unreliable. He looked at the data that did exist and said that, while he couldn’t explain exactly what had happened, he didn’t see any major cause for concern. They then told me about the time this exact thing happened while Cameron was doing one of his solo test flights.
It helped a lot, and it helped that, as Melanie and I were texting, the one page with data continued to update.
As you can probably gather, their plane did not crash. Indeed, as I continued to check (I wasn’t sleeping much anyway!), the flight data suddenly began again and everything was normal.
By the time I checked the next morning, the big gap in data was glossed over and they were safely on the ground.
Later, I asked Kevin if anything weird had happened on the flight – bad weather, turbulence, pilots running around the cabin looking for the plane’s manual…anything???
Nope! He and Thor snuggled up and took a nap and he had no idea anything was amiss.
I swear, when we die, I want my gravestone to say: “She worried…” and Kevin’s to say “…so he didn’t have to!”
I’d asked the folks at the front desk of our hotel what my options were for transport to the airport and the attendant handed me the card of a local taxi driver. She said other customers had used him and he was good.
When he arrived, I noticed his taxi was pretty dirty, and there wasn’t enough room in the trunk for my bags. It was piled high with a spare tire, tools, and various other stuff. Not exactly the professional service I’d expect from a branded cab service, but whatever. How bad could it be?
As we were heading out, he told me how he was driving on his toy tire because he’d blown his regular tire earlier that day (hence the tire in the trunk). He complained that his passenger at the time had tried to help him fix it, but caused more damage, so now he had to bring the car into a mechanic.
As we drove down the highway, suddenly we heard a loud bang, prompting my new friend, Eric, to launch into a 5 minute string of F Bombs.
He had now blown the toy tire.
He pulled over to the side of the interstate, exited the car, walked around it, and paced back and forth, all while yelling and swearing.
After several minutes of this, he apparently remembered I was sitting in the backseat, came over, opened the back door, took a deep breath and said: “It’s all good. You’re gonna be fine. You’re gonna be totally fine.”
Followed by more F-bomb fueled pacing.
A few seconds later, he came over and said he would call me an Uber to get me to the airport. I said that sounded good.
Having, at this point, surmised that I was on my own when it came to maintaining my safety, I exited the cab and walked up the hill on the side of the highway.
As I was standing there contemplating how I had, once again, ended up standing next to a highway as traffic zipped by, he came over and said, “the Uber was messing around, so I’m working on getting another driver. It’ll probably be about 20 minutes.”
The Uber was “messing around?”
A couple minutes later, between his calls to various mechanics and tow truck drivers, he came back again.
“OK, my girlfriend is gonna come pick you up.”
“Yeah, she lives right off the exit and she’ll be here in a few minutes. I promise it’ll be fine.”
So, as I’m sitting on the side of this New Jersey highway looking at my broken down taxi with my melting down taxi driver telling me his girlfriend (who he’d previously mentioned did not speak a word of English) could pick me up, I had a dilemma: On the one hand, I was pretty sure getting in a car with a stranger, in Newark of all places, was a bad idea.
But, on the other hand, this would eventually make a great story for the blog and I kinda needed to see it through. (Seriously – this thing doesn’t write itself. I need material.)
Fortunately, when the girlfriend showed up, Eric decided to come along with us, so all three of us took a completely silent ride to the airport.
It was so awkward.
But… I made it to the terminal, managed to get our giant duffel bags onto a cart, checked everything in, and found my ride:
My flight was smooth and featured a beautiful sunrise and spectacular cloud formations… Hell, there was even a tiny rainbow.
Even better, once I got to Lisbon, I sailed through immigration, baggage, and customs before jumping in a Portuguese taxi to begin a whole new chapter in Europe!
*If you’re an eagle eyed reader wondering why the screencaps show PSM as the originating airport, it’s because they were doing some sort of construction project on the runway at Morristown and the pilot couldn’t fully fuel up for a transatlantic flight with a shortened runway, so he flew to Portsmouth first, fueled up, then headed across the ocean.