The Denver airport is depressingly unremarkable: another odd-shaped starfish of cavernous terminals. The primary distinguishing feature is the occasional balcony spanning the concourse. If you take the escalator up, you'll find yourself at a pleasantly quiet, removed distance from the crowded gates below. It's mostly empty, except for employees on their breaks, and you have your pick of seats overlooking the crush of travelers and rollerbags below.
Sitting up here, you become someone's dead relative, watching the earth with a mixture of judgment and regret. The regret is mild--I really shouldn't have gone with that breakfast salad from Quizno's, and what the hell is a breakfast salad?--and tempered by a pleasant and condescending love of what's going on below. Why are there so many pairs of sweatpants dyed to look like designer jeans? Is there some sort of rhinestone store somewhere in this terminal? How many blond toddlers can that one man have? And that fellow is dressed like a wizard, so, yeah...
It isn't long before you notice the terrified. When you start looking, and from this lofty vantage point, you see that there are more panicked travelers than you'd ever guessed, and certainly more than you'd expect for a Monday morning about as far from a holiday or a vacation as you could get. There are scores of people rushing, flushed, from gate to restroom to restaurant to departure board to unyet-boarding gate. They appear to be in pain, wearing their stress like another layer of bedazzled fake-denim loungewear. The fear is inexplicable but obvious; they stand clenched, as if, in one moment's distraction, the people-mover would carry them right past their gates, out of the terminal and into the cold blue air of disaster: a ten-thousand-foot drop, spinning jet engine, oblivion.
I understand. I really do. Yes, I sit up here on my balcony like a bemused and distant god, but I understand panic. I have spent hours in bed, worrying that my left foot is shrinking (seriously, all of my left shoes feel roomy, and I fear that I will enter middle age with one normal foot and a baby shoe). I have been late, or running late, and told myself that I would change my life, change everything, to just make everything come out alright. Panic beats its wings against my chest.
But now now, and never here. Laidover in another airport, which is every airport, I feel calm enough to sit in my unseasonable sweater and funny hat (one shouldn't judge unless they're willing to invite judgment) and imagine, presumptuous as only a writer can be, what must be boiling in those frantic bodies below.
There are women pressing their boarding passes like bandages against their chests; grandmothers crying into their pets' travel cages; men jogging along with three suitcases while their families struggle to keep up and keep from dropping everything and saying, "No, here, now." What is this? Is it the desire to have some control, some power, even when you have to give everything up to a grand and massive machine? It isn't easy to trust anyone, let alone strangers and their plans and flashing controls. Sure, it's their job, but that makes it routine, and we can't put faith in any routines but our own. And for most people, travel is the disregard of routine, whether for presumed pleasure or under obligation. A terrifying sudden crush of possibility.
I can't stop thinking of Elizabeth Bishop's great poem of the panic-inducing elsewhere, Questions of Travel. Bishop had a well-stamped passport and an understanding of how physical and emotional locations are connected. She understood disconnection, the moment of being unmoored, adrift. She asked, as it is impossible for some people not to ask as they shoulder their ways down escalators, "Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?"