I arrived in Burlington on the deep-vein-thrombosis express from O’Hare in Chicago. Commercial air travel — particularly in the cheap seats — after spending several weeks in Montana, is like returning from deep space and hiding under the sink. Big Sky spoils you for being pinned against the exterior wall of a hurtling tin can, inhaling pre-breathed air while secretly praying the shrieking 3-year-old demon three seats up across the aisle will have his vocal cords surgically removed by the flight attendant.
Transitions are perhaps our most difficult thresholds. Change would be fine if it didn’t, well, alter too many things. We become used to our own stuff, and as we do, those things become our circumstances and compromise our ability to tolerate anything else.
Our predictable life is generally tolerable for some reason, even if it’s not great. Challenging as it might be, we take comfort in knowing what’s about to happen, even if it might be awful. Think long-term relationship or the Stockholm syndrome. Being firmly tethered to the earth falls into this category.
Air travel was pretty terrible to begin with but somewhat tempered with awe: “Wow, I can’t believe this thing is actually off the ground” or “Look, it’s the Grand Canyon” or “the Gateway Arch” or “Donald Trump’s hair,” whatever. You get the point.
Once you get used to defying gravity and looking out the window, though, the physical, emotional and logistical reality of modern travel takes hold. You begin not caring or even thinking about the usual catastrophes, obsessing instead about whether you’ll make your connecting flight, if claustrophobia can literally kill you and why you paid an exorbitant amount for an experience not unlike being buried alive. Given your comfort level, you wonder whether Dick Cheney might just pop out of the loo and begin interrogating you.
Then comes lunch. If you’re unlucky enough to be aloft for more than 90 minutes and were too preoccupied, rushed or anxiety-ridden to notice the airport food court where you could have purchased a perfectly edible sandwich, burrito or mushroom pizza packaged for flight, you’re in for a rare treat. Absent any pragmatism on your part, you’re now faced with a variety of shrink-wrapped boxes of food, packaged to be impervious to thermonuclear war, containing such delicacies as cheese food in plastic tubs with little fork-shaped sticks — hummus in a tube and cat crunchies on which to spread it is billed as “The Mediterranean Plate.” The old standby mixed nuts taste like dirt and arrive hard as pebbles, petrified sufficiently to arouse an orthodontist.
I notice that the airline has obviously lifted the draconian criteria regarding age, height and weight for flight attendants. This gratifies me, at least at first. I can overlook being spoken to like I’m hovering between a day care and a nursing home. These restrictions seem primitive and utterly without merit until said attendant falls asleep in an unoccupied seat, remaining there for the duration of the flight, unmoved even by the still shrieking banshee in 21B.
When people say how much they like to travel, I suspect they mostly mean being other places than where they usually hang — seeing different people, places and things. It’s difficult to imagine anyone actually enjoying getting from point A to almost anywhere else in the universe. And the more interesting and exotic your destination, the more likely that getting there will be memorable if only for the abuse, neglect or inconvenience along the way. If any of our in-flight experiences happened in a classroom, the teacher would be obligated to appear at a social services hearing, but since we paid, the rationale is more like “you asked for it.”
Two years ago, I watched one of those big departure boards as the last leg of a multiflight, cross-country trip ebbed away before my eyes, as if someone at an auction were outbidding me at every turn: late, later, latest, canceled. After two hours in the erroneously labeled customer service line, aching more from the granite floor than any hike I’d taken on the two-week trip, we found ourselves eating macaroni and cheese at 1:45 a.m. in a Holiday Inn Express with busloads of other soundly defeated travelers.
It was pushing 3 a.m. when we finally hit the rack. After what seemed like 45 minutes of Ambien-induced sleep, we were prodded awake; herded past vats of canary yellow scrambled eggs; and loaded, nodding, into a minivan that I thought for an instant might be destined for Chicago’s famous stockyards — one final indignity.
But, no, our metaphorical dismemberment was mercifully complete, and the rest of our journey went as scheduled, albeit 18 hours late and symptomatic of having been mugged after a methamphetamine binge. As I doddered, bent as a giraffe with whiplash, toward the car, dreaming of my own bed, vowing to never board a plane again in my life, my wife, paging through a travel magazine, was saying something that sounded like: “Where do you want to go next?”
If I hadn’t had a firm grasp of the door handle I might have fainted.
Walt Amses is a former educator and writer from North Calais.MORE IN Letters
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