Arkansas … Saskatchewan … Nebraska … This progression of places formed an interlude in a game of geography used to pass the time during a 16-hour van drive from Nice, France, to Madrid, Spain. I took this ride with a group of rheumatologists and their spouses who were trying to escape Europe in the aftermath of the Iceland volcano. When Eyjafjallajokull spewed ash menacingly across the continent, I was happily attending a meeting on targeted therapies for rheumatic disease in a Mediterranean seaside town called Mandelieu-La Napoule in France.
The drive to Madrid was a desperate effort to get out of town as the options on Expedia either vanished in the onslaught of other stranded travelers or required a second mortgage to afford. On Saturday, anxious to get flights when our scheduled Sunday flight disappeared with the closure of Heathrow airport, my wife and I worked frantically on a computer in the hotel lobby. Although we overlooked a glorious panorama of the sparkling azure sea, we focused on travel, getting frazzled as we searched for bookings. We tried to purchase an itinerary from Nice to Madrid to San Juan, Puerto Rico to Miami to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, but, by the time we entered all of the credit card information, it was gone. Luckily, we hit upon a Nice-to-Madrid flight on Sunday and a Madrid-to-Philadelphia-to-Raleigh-Durham itinerary on Monday. We choked on the cost, but that plan seemed better than other available flights through Bogota, Colombia, or Singapore.
Logging off of the computer, we were reassured that we could get home, albeit a day late. My wife went to catch some rays, and I went off to the morning lecture, an elegant discussion of a new model for colitis caused by deficiency of a transcription factor called t-bet. The model provides a curious but fascinating demonstration of the interplay between the innate and adaptive immune systems in the pathogenesis of gut inflammation. Unfortunately, I had to abandon the lecture when word spread in the lecture hall that the Nice airport could close down because the winds in the upper atmosphere shifted and the ash was drifting south. If the Nice airport closed, we could not get to Madrid and we would be stuck on the Riviera for a long, long time.
One of my friends, who was also at the meeting, explored more exotic options. He located a private jet for a direct flight to the U.S. Although such a flight sounded rather cool, the price tag was well out of reach. Even if the Sustainable Growth Rate is fixed, rheumatologists live on E/M codes that will not fund a one-way ticket on one of Lear’s sleek new models.