Purgatory: Delayed Flights, Airport Captivity, and Holiday Travel

The hanging bird sculpture thing at SEA AirportWhen I booked my ticket to see my family in Florida for Christmas, I knew the travel experience would be a little mind-bending. The only workable itinerary I could find left Seattle at 6:10 am on a Sunday; as that would be long before the light rail started running, I figured that meant a good five or six hours spent lingering in SeaTac, wraithing about until I could finally get on my plane and snooze my way south. As it happened, my kind-hearted neighbor gave me a middle-of-the-night ride to the airport, sparing me the hall-wandering I’d pictured.

That and using my Global Entry card to zip through the pre-check line were the sole bright spots of the day. And I started all of this with so much hope; I read this before I left and thought, Yes. Yes, I can do that. And I think I want to be that woman’s friend.

holodeck artThis looks like a game Q would use to prove a point to/torment Picard. It is, rather appropriately, just outside security at SeaTac.

Early in the morning, when the ultimate bleakness of things had not yet revealed itself, I started a little narrative that I thought I’d turn into a pithy blog post. Sample entries:

3:15 am: The United desk finally opens. Everyone is too exhausted to have any reaction to anything. They should spray tranquilizers from the ceiling like soma; flying would be easier for literally everyone.

3:45 am: I make the strange yet sort of logical choice to sit and wait for the pre-check lane to open, rather than going through the not-very-long regular security line.

4 am: I’M IN.

4:08 am: I’M OUT. And all my shit stayed in my bag, and my shoes stayed in place, and I felt less like cattle than I have during any TSA interaction for the last 12 years. Could this be love?

4:45 am: I am plunked by my empty gate. People are beginning to be animated, a change that lines up nicely with the Coffee Bean and Starbucks gates going up.

Cute. Optimistic. A touch banal, but I was operating on zero sleep after about 20 hours of being awake, so that’s to be expected.


  • Alaska caused my arriving plane to be late.
  • My late plane caused me to miss my connection to Fort Walton Beach in Houston.
  • A Florida storm caused at least half of the subsequent Fort Walton-bound flights to be canceled.
  • IAH Airport’s excruciating program of adult-contemporary holiday renditions from a darker ring of hell inspired mass homicidal ideations.
  • United‘s dire understaffing caused hundreds of people to stand in line about five times longer than necessary as diligent, unsupported employees untangled mass mayhem caused by terrible corporate choices, weather, and fate.
  • A solid 12 hours of travel process nested in approximately 30 hours of nearly continuous wakefulness caused me to touch the edges of my usually boundless sense of humor.
  • The whole ordeal caused me to write a freaking novella in response to United‘s chirpy request for customer feedback.

Pant, pant, pant.

I talk to you from the other side, clearly. It’s the only way it could be  – by about two hours into my seven-hour stay at IA-bloody-H, I’d lost the ability to create words and could only half-assedly read and watch bursts of Adventure Time – between bouts of furious texting to anyone who would listen to my pain.

scary magician art at seatacConcourse D, SeaTac. More terrifying up close, as it is life-sized.

For once here, I lack a pithy aside or a warm observation. It’s two days out from the day itself; I am still flattened from the experience. This is not a story; this is a hand reached out to all the other people who get devoured for a few days or a week by family travel, travel that is completely unlike anything else undertaken by those of us cut by wanderlust. We go to places we would not ordinarily go, perhaps under any circumstances, except that people we love choose to live there, and so we choose to use some of our limited and so very important vacation time and money to go see them. And we hope that this regular journey is read as the profound, bone-deep, unshakable expression of love that it is. I know it is for me, and I also know how lucky that makes me.

pillsI took this picture at SeaTac too. (I took no pictures in Houston. Some things are better left undocumented, dissolving in the memory with time.) I think whatever creative team came up with this needs to live a little, or perhaps to get better pills.

Whether you’re snug in your own home, crouched on the guest couch at a family member’s place, or making an easy commute to your parents’ house a mile from your own, I hope this finds you well. I hope you’re in a good place, a safe place, and that if you can’t be happy today, you can at least feel secure. If things aren’t happy for you, take a little solace in this and know that it’ll pass.

I’m with you in the suburbs
          where you’re madder than I am

I’m with you in upstate wherever-you’re-from
          where you must feel strange

I’m with you in your abandoned hometown
          where you laugh at this invisible humour

We all get there eventually. And the only cure is leaving, again and again, after we gain, one more time, the clear understanding of what caused us to flee in the first place – and what causes us, over and over, to return. The joys and sorrows, the obligation and choice to oblige it. The peculiarly reassuring alienation that can only come with returning temporarily to a place you left behind.

I got here. And on Sunday, I’ll boomerang back – minus the purgatory, one hopes – and time will flow forward again. For me and for you.