The nowhereness of airports

The way air travel has devolved says something awful about humans.

 

I was sitting in a hard, spine-crumpling seat in an airport somewhere, one of the seven I’d pass through during a four-day journey from my current residence in Bulgaria to the East Coast of the U.S., and eventually on to my hometown in southwestern Colorado, thinking about the insipid quote I’d seen on a poster in a dentist’s office: “It’s the journey, not the destination, that counts.”

I think it was the Charlotte airport, but I don’t really know. It just as easily could have been Hartford, or Newark, or Dallas-Fort Worth. They all are populated by the same categories of humans: Dudes in suits striding purposefully along gleaming floors, coffee in one hand, roller bag in the other; families in flip-flops staring at the flight monitor, trying to remember whether they’re going to Cozumel or Cancun. Bleary-eyed trans-Atlantic travelers wearing neck pillows, disheveled hair and drool on their cheeks, stumbling into steely faced folks at the bar who throw back vodkas regardless of the time of day.

“Hey!” I wanted to yell. “It doesn’t matter where you’re going. All that matters is this — The Journey.” But I kept my mouth shut, because terrifying people in an airport is a federal offense. I, of course, was one of these people, a melding of the neck-pillows and vodka-guzzlers, caught in a stagnant eddy in a sea of constant movement, drifting through the liminal space between the Starbucks across the hall and the first McDonalds I will see upon disembarking from my next flight, a few hours and a thousand miles away.

It wasn’t always like this. I grew up in the rural West, where air travel was severely limited, if you could afford it. Our journeys occurred on different scales of time and space. I rode my bike around my hometown and the nearby hills, hiked into mountains and along canyon bottoms. My family spent weekends chugging around the Four Corners in one decrepit car or another, perhaps most memorably an old International Harvester pickup. My brother and I rode in the back, rain or shine, wind whipping through our long, bowl-cut hair as we inhaled the scent of piñon, the electric-blood whiff of first rain on hot pavement or sandstone and, of course, burnt oil.

After we pulled over and set up camp, maybe in Utah’s Canyon Country, I’d stop and look up whenever I heard the dull roar of the jets flying overhead, glimmering like little diamonds in the deepening blue as they caught the day’s last light. And I’d imagine what it must be like up there, to fly so fast and so high and to land in some exotic place like Los Angeles or Phoenix. I felt a sense of envy, a longing for that vast unknown.

The Durango, Colorado, airport.

I finally experienced the inside of a commercial airplane when I was 17, flying from southwestern Colorado to Tucson, Arizona. As we lifted off, the landscape — so familiar to me from my relatively slow, earthbound travels — opened up below me, the San Juan River cutting an emerald incision through a gently undulating khaki-colored carpet. I felt like a god, able to take in so much country at once and yet oddly detached from the two-dimensional scene below. Where was the warm wind, the sense of coming up over a hill and seeing the ominous shape of Shiprock jutting into the blue, the wind in my hair, the competition with my brother to spot the first saguaro?

A few decades later, I moved with my wife to Bulgaria, a lush and fecund land that is worlds — and several airports — away from my arid home. Now I endure the security line ritual several times a year, the jostling of the boarding lines, the herding into the plastic seats, followed by the blast of life and smells and humanity, the chatter of other languages and the shock of another land when I finally exit the airport shuttle on the other side, in Rome, Budapest, Athens.

Most airports have huge windows, but they might as well be video monitors looping the same images. Waiting for flights, I spend hours staring at the baffling flatness of the runways and taxiways, the metal and plastic tubes stuffed with humanity, falling from the sky or launching into it, set on repeat. I no longer wonder at the lack of topography, of vegetation, or even of birds. Airports are placeless; there is no there here. And the airplanes that ferry us from one to the other defy place and time, striking us with the malady known as jet lag, which we treat as a minor discombobulation, but which is in fact a symptom of the violation of our animal understanding of the world.

And yet, salvation awaits at the end of the journey. On the last leg of my latest Bulgaria-to-Connecticut-to-Durango odyssey, the plane finally dropped below the cloud cover, giving me a view of my homeland. We flew over its tree-studded mesas and snow-covered mountains, past curtains of precipitation falling from dusk-lit clouds. I looked below and anticipated the moment I’d finally step off the plane, into a place where you can feel the sun on your brow, the earth under your feet and catch the aroma of sage on the pushy spring breeze.  

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...