April 24, 2008
Salvation for Air Travel Slaves
I booked 24 round-trip flights in the last five months. All together, it has been 62 different airplanes and an unfortunate number of airports. This is one of those unthinkable coincidences, a book tour hitting during a slew of writing assignment, while teaching a grad course at a university that is two airports away from my wife and two young sons whom I try to physically embrace at least once a week.
On the bright side, I've become an accidental connoisseur of airports.
Bangda, Tibet, for instance. Highest paved airport in the world at an elevation of 14,200 feet. Open just one day a week, the Bangda Airport looks like bombs went off inside office buildings, glass broken, doors off their hinges, a toilet shattered in the middle of the parking lot beneath the lonely red flag of the communist Chinese. For that one day, the Bangda Airport is a madhouse as people try to catch the only flight out of the northeast side of the country. Chinese immigrants look harried and irritated as they shove through round-faced Tibetans who are grinning as if they get the joke. The plane is a 737 and it has the gray sheen of an old city transit bus. We climbed over each other getting on, and when the plane fired up a profound stillness fell over the passengers, as if they were each meditating on all the mysterious parts of our airplane, willing them not to jiggle apart. The runway is three miles long, and the takeoff at that elevation seemed to require the fluttering of every prayer flag within a hundred miles as we rose through the saddles of 17,000-foot mountains.
Worse than O'Hare? Definitely not. In Chicago you sweat as you push your way through a multi-ethnic mob teetering on cannibalism. All human civility, 5,000 years of hard work, seems to go down the drain. Travelers and TSA officers spar with each other like a raccoons and weasels stuck together in a cage. Nobody says an honest please, thank you or, as they are always intoning in Tibet, dashee-daylay, walk in the light.
Las Vegas can be a surprising but slightly depressing pleasure where most of the people are drunk or absurdly giddy or terribly dressed. Meanwhile the pat-down at Newark is startlingly brisk, verging on a quick personal massage.
I take grace where I can. Atlanta has a reassembled dinosaur skeleton standing in the atrium. I like to linger before it, looking up to its mouth full of giant teeth imagining myself there 120 million years ago rather than the escalator-ridden space I am actually in. Denver International Airport turns out to be an aviary for wild sparrows, which are best viewed overhead in the food courts. Even in Missoula, Montana, as I wait for a series of hectic layovers, I calm myself by listening to the Threat-Level announcer, his voice like a chant down the halls of the near-empty terminal.
As payoff for the wait, there are certain flights that I must recommend. Though it is often cloudy between Chamdu and Lhasa, looking out the window you will be occasionally braced by a great thumb of earth and glacier rising 20,000 feet through the white rug of an Asian monsoon. Suddenly you find your place on the earth.
Any trans-Pacific flight is well worth the effort for those who are student of clouds. If you can swing it, make sure you are mid-ocean during a full moon when scattered clouds cast shadows across the liquid curve of the earth. Even a puddle-jumper from Moab, Utah, to Denver gives a dazzling show, climbing out of the polychrome desert and humping across the thick of the Rocky Mountains. When all else fails La Guardia will do, as your plane skims beside the perplexing gray towers of Manhattan.
Finally, there is one instance I must praise above all others. It is the logging flight back to Bella Coola through a cloud-shrouded inlet along the coast of British Columbia. The plane is a de Havilland Beaver flying slower than freeway traffic. Is heavy 1955 engine is mounted like a pinwheel at the front, the propeller singing loudly. The landing is a white spray of water that slows toward a dock where you off-load a few boxes, a couple loggers, an Indian family. There are no security officers, no carpets, no food courts. The forest is dotted with the white heads of bald eagles looking on with bored omnipotence.
Remember Bella Coola the next time you find yourself shivering under the air conditioning at Phoenix Sky Harbor while an armed guard is telling you to get back in line. Take some solace. We have not yet been turned into a race of maddened cattle. Out there somewhere is a person standing on a dock, peering down a misty fjord, waiting for the next flight to arrive.