How could so much change in only six years? I had flown before, many times. Between 1968 and 2008, I lost count of the times I swallowed down excitement as the plane lifted me toward the sky. Airports were the threshold of adventure, the place where infinite possibilities scrolled down the flight departures screen.
But in the intervening years since my last sojourn, I settled firmly at my desk. My adventures became mental journeys into the pages of my writing. I’m comfortable here with my dogs, the woods, my bed.
Okay, I’m getting old.
So when my friend Ginny extended her invitation, my immediate response was anxiety. Could I sleep well on an unfamiliar bed? What about air travel in these days of crazy passenger outbursts and terror threats? Did I really want to go?
My two older children live on the West Coast. I hadn’t seen Ginny for years, and her invitation made me contemplate not only spending time with her and seeing my kids, but also absorbing myself in that uniquely California environment of salty, kelp-flavored air and laid back attitudes. Of course I wanted to go, but couldn’t I please just instantly appear in Santa Cruz instead of going through the journey?
After weeks of increasing anxiety, I hardly slept the night before my departure. What if I didn’t arrive at the airport in time for my flight? What if I forgot to pack something important? What if there were problems with the flight? By the time I parked in the economy lot and hurried across the vast expanse of asphalt, my pulse hammered in my neck. Breathless, I scanned my ticket barcode to print out the boarding pass then mounted the escalator.
Swallowing over a dry throat, I handed the attendant my ticket and identification, moved forward to the screening line, and took refuge in the actions of those ahead of me. At least I could follow their lead. Carry-on luggage on the conveyor belt. Backpack with my purse inside. Take off shoes. No, attendant said. I didn’t have to take off my shoes, courtesy of the first attendant’s notation on my boarding pass which, I assume, had to do with my age. What are the characteristics one must exhibit at the Northwest Arkansas airport to qualify for remaining shod through security? That and another hundred questions and worries flooded my mind as I accompanied my baggage along the conveyor.
“What liquids…(blah)?” The uniformed guard’s words rolled over me as I tried to remember what I had packed. At the last minute, I had abandoned all hope of forcing my thick crème rinse into the tiny travel container. It globbed up at the rim and cascaded down the outside of the container. So I had stuck the entire bottle in my case. Hadn’t I read somewhere that larger containers were okay?
At this point, my voice had become husky and I shook. It wasn’t like they were going to take me outside and shoot me for packing an oversized container of crème rinse. But it was expensive. Other travelers piled up behind me while I tried to make an intelligent decision. The options for keeping it meant paying $25 to check my bag or walking back across the north forty to my car. No, I’d have to give it up. I watched my nearly full bottle of organic hair product land in their disposal bin.
That was only the first of a day of indignities. Maybe growing older and even more rigidly set in my ways preordained that travel by public conveyance would unfold as a series of rude shocks. Jostling in line to board. Wading to the next to last row of seats. Cramming myself into a tiny seat by a window—which I would have chosen if I had been willing to pay the extra money—but facing out over the wing, which I would not have chosen. Enduring the mind-boggling cacophony of human voices shouting over the engine noise as we made the short trip to Dallas-Fort Worth.
By the time we arrived at DFW, my back had spasmed in my effort not to rub against the passenger in the adjacent seat. Clearly comfortable with air travel and close association with whomever, she spent the trip jawing with the man across the aisle, her conversation frequently punctuated with loud laughter. That her leg touched mine or her elbow periodically brushed my arm seemed never to appear on her personal radar.
I live in near total isolation on an Ozark hilltop. I see more deer than people. Coyotes routinely howl at my back fence before disappearing back into the oak and hickory forest. Driving into town for groceries and random errands usually results in a hasty revision of my ambitious to-do list so that my time amid busy streets and crowded store aisles is reduced to only the most urgent items. I return home annoyed and clogged with Other People’s Energy.
Now, barely started on my journey, my back aching with don’t-touch-me tension, I hurry along the wide corridors of DFW’s Terminal C to find the trolley that will whisk me to Terminal A. I dodge businessmen and women wheeling fine leather cases, families straggling with children, retirees looking faintly lost and grumpy. After a fast jerky trolley ride clinging to a grab rail, I descend into Terminal A. Even greater throngs greet me there.
I’m hungry and wander along the crowded corridor. McDonalds swarms with customers, deterrent enough even if I could choke down the food. Starbucks isn’t lunch. I don’t want seafood. Taking a tentative space in the line at TGI Friday’s, I’m soon seated facing out over the hive activity in the corridors and presented a menu. After a heart-stopping moment of sticker shock, I order a cup of broccoli-cheddar soup for $7. It comes with four saltines.
Okay. I can do this. Refreshed from my cheesy lunch, I soon board the jet bound for San Jose. Blessedly, I am not seated in the back or over a wing. Cursedly, I am the first aisle seat in the three-seat side of economy class, meaning the aisle jogs right there as passengers move through from first class. Each passage jostles or brushes me in some way. Plenty of leg room, but since there are no seats in front of me, the tray table folds up from the chair arm. Which would be fine in a perfect world. However, I admit to a less than trim waistline and so the table fits snugly across my midsection. Embarrassing and uncomfortable. I drag out my book and try to concentrate on the lovely biography of Doc Holliday.
An hour into this three and a half hour flight, my back is killing me. The friendly lady on my right enjoys a gin and tonic while reading her Kindle. She’s relaxed and her arm touches mine. Her knee touches mine. My need not to touch someone else is so ingrained that I can’t relax even when I tell myself to get over it. Even when she’s asleep.
With perhaps an hour left in the flight, I lurch to the bathroom at the back of the cabin. Here, for a brief blissful moment, I am alone. But these hours of being crammed into a metal box with a hundred other people is taking its toll. My back muscles have seized. My head aches. My nose has become stuffy with breathing recycled air. The thoughts and emotions of a hundred other human beings have invaded my consciousness. Let me out!
Finally the jet screams down the runway and slams to a halt at Gate 18 of SJC. The blessing aspect of my seating reasserts itself as I follow first class passengers on an early disembarkation. I hurry down the terminal’s long passageways to emerge blinking into the bright San Jose afternoon. The air smells of ocean. Moments later, my daughter calls and then appears to pick me up in a borrowed car.
Strange how children always look the same and yet, at least initially after a long absence, appear as strangers. We plunge into happy conversation as if it was yesterday instead of 28 months since our last meeting. I luxuriate in the absence of strangers and the comfort of a well-padded car seat.
The drive over the mountains along Highway 17 is curvy and steep, plagued with heavy traffic. Soon she turns onto a side route that leads into Soquel over the old San Jose Road. Her smile and the sound of her voice are beautiful.
The rich odor of pine sap and eucalyptus starts to clear my clogged nose. The narrow lane winds along sharp inclines cut into the face of newly minted earth—slabs of granite bedrock under hulking chunks of sandstone pushed up from the ocean floor as recently as the last three million years. Even after two years of drought, native vegetation maintains a stubborn gray-green grip on the land, all subordinated to the towering redwoods.
We talk about her flight from Oregon, her plans. The eight days we’ll have together. This is more like it. I have survived. I am here.