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Know the West

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