On the rare occasions when I travel alone, I’m reminded of how much I love airports. I don’t mind the endless sitting and waiting. It’s not in my nature, but I actually welcome the chance to be still.
I’m most content with a full schedule, and usually found in motion or on a mission. I have never been good at resting, sleeping, or relaxing. Travel is my secret limbo where I allow myself to slow down. A place where I do not hold myself accountable to the tyrannical voice in my head that tells me to keep going.
My maternal grandparents lived just a few hours away by the ocean, and my dad’s parents had a summer place on Lake George. It made it so that every family vacation was a drive, not a flight, away.
I never went on an airplane, nor even visited an airport, until I was fourteen years old.
It’s hard to imagine these days, but I grew up in an era where most people travelled when they were old. If you were fortunate and planned well, travel was the highlight of the last stage of life that began after the gold watch and a retirement party.
My first flight took me to St. Simons, Georgia, to visit both sets of grandparents who were wintering in the same complex. I was in eighth grade, the last year of my bleak middle school run. I was that odd kid, the one that hovered on the outside ring and was picked-on more often than not.
I was underwhelmed that the ticket was just a piece of paper. I had envisioned a golden ticket like the one that let Charlie into the Chocolate Factory. My disappointment was soon replaced; as the fasten seat belt sign dinged off and the smokers lit up, I remember thinking that flying was what a fresh start felt like.
It was then that I knew I could choose to go anywhere and begin again.
Big things happen on the edges of airports – lovers reunite, grandparents meet grandbabies, business people put on the hustle, and vacationers and students come and go. But once past the ticketed-passengers-only gate we become equals, souls suspended, hovering just above real life, in travel limbo. We are not attached to anything more than what we can put in a suitcase, and for a brief respite, we’ll soon be a mile above the world’s problems.
It’s the spontaneous conversations that occur while waiting to board that I like best. If you are sitting next to me and you want to talk, I will gladly be witness to your story. I’m the person who really does wants to see the picture of your cat, the kids, or your garage remodel. When I’m traveling alone, I have the time and I’m truly interested.
Every once in a while I’m surprised with a confessional conversation that can only happen when you travel solo. The ones that occur on long evening flights. Except for the sporadic halos of light beaming down on the crowns of a few readers’ heads, the cabin is dark and most of the passengers are asleep.
It’s then when you discover that you’re serendipitously seated next to a person who could be a best friend if they lived in your city. You and your new limbo friend have to cram a lifetime of conversation in before you land.
What’s said in travel limbo, stays in travel limbo.
Of course most of the time when I travel, I quietly read and don’t bother anyone. Even then, just the notion of sitting alone among a plane full of strangers, being served terrible coffee and tomato juice, while flying through the air in a metal tube is thrill enough. It never gets old for me.
On my most recent flight alone, our plane was the last to land that evening. We were the only people walking through the terminal gate area, transitioning through the final hushed moments of travel limbo. I turned to take the elevator down to the curbside and was jolted by the light and all people waiting to be picked up, like baggage on the carousel.
In an instant, I was no longer in limbo.
Almost four decades separate me from my middle school misery, but I’ve never lost my initial reverence for the curative nature of a plane flight. Today travel is less escapist and more of a dive into the present, an exercise that holds the limitless potential of new people and places, the kind that gave me hope on that first flight to Georgia.
I took the photo on my most recent flight from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Austin, Texas.
Gosh, I loved this. Captured my thoughts exactly. My first plane trip was on a flight to the Soviet Union when I was 21. My non-traveling parents were proud but thought I was insane. All these years later, whether I am flying to Milwaukee or Budapest, I am quietly in awe of the experience. Thanks for putting it into words, Elizabeth.
Shelly, I thought about you when I was writing this piece. You are the only person I know who loves to drive people to and from the airport – for all the same reasons that I described. We have to do some traveling together once our nests are empty (or at least when the birds can come and go as they please). XO
Great post. Captured my feelings in an airport too.
Wonderful, wonderful essay! I remember what a BIG DEAL it was to fly when we were young as opposed to everyone jumping on Southwest these days. You are an insightful, terrific writer. Keep it up! It’s terrific!
Thank you, Lauren! Your encouragement means a lot to me. Looking forward to your birthday celebration this weekend!
This is so rich, I had to savor it before replying. You captured that space of anonymous amorphous limbo that is so inviting to some. I also don’t mind waiting in airports, though am no longer allowed to fly, for health reasons. But the feeling of freedom that comes with this mode of travel is inviting.
I loved the part about travel back in the day – reminded me of how Dotnbaker started circling the glove in search of that magical peace they never found. And even when I traveled with Baker one time (to Alaska!), there was a sense that it wasn’t real at all, that we were all made up and fussed over to be filmed and shown on the 7pm news….
You are such a good writer, wonderful thinker, and good mom, allowing us all a glimpse of you when you let the words flow. I thank you for this, for this continuing delight.
love to you and all, kat