Traveling Mercies

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It’s 5:30am Salt Lake City time. I’ve only been here for twenty four hours and jet lag has already sunk her cruel teeth into the back of my head. I’m wide awake. I’m sweltering. It’s 26 degrees and the sun hasn’t even come up yet. Seems like a good opportunity to write my first American blog.

Yesterday almost killed me. I’m not sure whether I’m getting too old for this kind of long distance jet setting but 26 hours with two bags crammed full of books felt less like luxury travel and more like penance for past sins. I’ve always loved airports and airplanes for many of the same reasons set out in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club: single serving friends, anonymity, transience. However, I like to take airports at my own pace; half an hour for coffee, an hour at the departure gate to read a novel and scrutinise my fellow passengers and then board the plane as soon as is human possible so there’s plenty of room to store my luggage in the overhead bin which is actually positioned over my head and not fifteen rows further down the plane. Yesterday, (and I have no one to blame but myself for this), I had less than 2 hours between each of my connections and because I was traveling on Labor Day, (no “u” in Labor as the Americans invented this holiday and therefore retain the right to spell it as they see fit), and the airports were all stuffed to the gills with returning long-weekend vacationers, this made for a mad, sweaty dash between terminals with dozens of books in tow.

In Dallas, after running from the plane to Homeland Security so fast the heat and humidity gave me heart palpitations, I made the front of the Visa checking line, only to be scuppered by the six, (no exaggeration at all here), elderly Nicaraguan women in wheelchairs who were whisked to the front of the line in order to confess that their hand luggage was stuffed full of strange South American vegetables. Because of the vegetables, I made my Dallas connection with mere seconds to spare and had to endure the shame, (for I’m usually an extremely conscientious flier), of being paged to the gate; that annoying last passenger who’s holding the entire flight back. I had to make the walk of shame all the way down the aisle past row after row of glaring American faces. I’m not sure if it was punishment or fate which allocated me the back seat for the flight from Dallas to Salt Lake City. Regardless, there was no hope of sleep for the seat wouldn’t recline and between the crazy, two-hat-wearing lady to my right and the Austrian man in front who, for 3 solid hours repeatedly asked his neighbour the English words for a truly bizarre list of German phrases, ( raised flowerbed, sirloin steak and Egyptian being amongst my overheard favourites), it was impossible to drift off. Arriving in Salt Lake City airport, it was something of a relief to see the familiar late 70s carpet and the spattering of Mormons and returning American soldiers who always seem to be lingering by the baggage carousel. It had taken 26 hours from my front door in East Belfast to my bed, (with its beautiful 100 year old patchwork quilt), in Heather’s apartment, and I’d felt every single one of them.

All complaints aside, I do love traveling alone. There’s a space which always opens up inside my head when I’m in an airplane, hanging between here and there, and it’s less cluttered and more honest than anything I can approximate when I’m anchored to a specific place. Somewhere over the Atlantic I had three new ideas for stories. I didn’t have to wrestle for them as I usually do. They just popped into my head like half-remembered dreams and I quickly jotted them down for later consideration. I always have me best ideas in transit, but I’ve learnt that if I don’t record them they tend to slip down the side of the seat and never make it off the plane. I read a lot. I always enjoy reading more when I travel. With no distractions and a huge chunk of guilt-free time- time which cannot be more usefully spent on house cleaning or sending business emails- it’s easier to focus on a book and relish the act of reading more than the drive to get a book finished. I noticed people. Traveling alone is a fabulous way to be legitimately nosy. I always tend to be hypersensitive to the people around me when I don’t have anyone specifically to distract me, and there were definitely some interesting characters on yesterday’s flights. Finally, I took some time to anticipate. It’s going to be a big adventure and while it would be easy to get swallowed up in the giddiness of travel and Dylan and open roads, I don’t want the little things to get swallowed up by the bigger picture. So, as this journey begins I look forward to the small pleasures and experiences: American breakfasts, warm weather, time with old friends, at least 14 separate bedrooms I’ve never seen before, any number of airport revelations. I’m glad to be here and already breathing more deeply.

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