The Delta Embraer E75 from Reagan National begins its descent, and from my window seat I watch us settle into the thin layer of altostratus clouds covering central Florida like batting, diffracted and billowy, perfect mirror-imaged moguls repeating themselves as far as I can see. Soft rays from the five p.m. sun contrast the clouds and the blue sky, but we pass through quickly and everything below is muted aquarium blue, and blurry, like looking up from the bottom of a swimming pool. This is Orlando, the Orlando Airport specifically, and my three nights at the Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport Hotel (prime location within the airport!) are appropriate, given this is the last leg of my two-month trip and here too is where it started. The Orlando airport is Biosphere east, its giant windows and Macaroni Grill and hotel bar sporting too few barflies and too many Wrangler and polo shirt clad Grainger Industrial Supply salesmen small consolation for the sixty-something hours I spend within it. A flight should end in an adventure, not a cage, and the delicious snack mix upon which I gorge at the bar does not fulfill my need for adventure, or the potential for danger, not just the threat of broken bones and bruised egos and humiliation but also the kind emotive, that sensorial overload we earn from placing ourselves in positions unfamiliar. Adventurous my work trips are not.
G.K. Chesterton wrote that the danger of the modern person is his constant effort to escape from the street in which he lives, and that were he to be snowed in, with his neighbors and immediate surroundings his only stimulant, he “should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known.” G.K. overreaches, and his early 1900’s didn’t have the luxury of today’s air travel, but his sentiments remain true: we delve not into our neighbor’s business, ostensibly out of respect but really because once we learn of that wilder world, we still have to face our neighbors in the morning, and wouldn’t that get awkward. But when your flights end in taxis, and domed airports, and city sidewalks, you take your adventure as it comes.
Nashville at night, to paraphrase Shawn Mullins, is far more Los Angeles than Grand Ole Opry, despite it being the home of modern country music, the proof in the glut of decorative, Crayola-box spectrum piebald cowboy boots and bought, not won, belt-buckles; embroidered, rhinestoned cowboy shirts more Affliction and Ed Hardy than Pendleton and Sheplers. And boobs. Boobs everywhere, huge, fake ones, spilling from spaghetti strap shirts and protruding out the front side of back-less dresses, on all ages, 16 to 60, inappropriately large when they should be average, or smooth and taut where they should be leathery, Tennessee such an unhealthy (third in obesity!), unathletic state to have so many giant breasts on Time for Timer bodies. Nashville also has, I suspect, more people per capita who talk to themselves. Loudly. No timid under the breath commentary here, and your presence is more likely nuisance than potential audience, particularly for those crazies lingering west of the railroad tracks running under Broadway; a stark juxtaposition to the itinerants on the east side, some brilliantly playing guitars and fiddles, or white five-gallon plastic buckets and accordions, mandolins and melodicas for whatever money you’re willing to throw down, metal or paper non-discriminatory.
Across the street from the Sheraton I pause to hear a young man give his testimony to a mix of itinerants and groupies, black and white, backpack-laden and homeless, some crammed at his feet like a mosh pit and an equal amount strewn across the plaza like morning-after red Solo party cups. A city bus roars by, denying me the opportunity to hear the preacher give his take on the role of wife, but at the same time a disheveled, scholarly looking man approaches me from the sidewalk, cigarettes and keys in one hand, newspaper in the other. We listen to the preacher for a few minutes, then talk ourselves, about Jesus, and wives, and bluegrass music, loudly enough that we get shushed by a half-asleep vagrant, until the man tells me he’s locked his keys in his car, and could he just borrow a few dollars for the bus and I realize it’s all a ruse and as epical a beggar’s pitch I have ever heard.
In Reagan National I pass Laura Bush and one of her twin daughters, the two of them focused, a string of dark suited men both in front and in back, a silent, woolen pinstriped elephant walk; on a flight to Phoenix I witness two robust twenty-something black women, obviously on their first flight, vociferously and adamantly refusing to part with their bags which the flight attendants want to check; as clear, I think, a manifestation of black mistrust of any sort of government bureaucracy as one could ask for. The black women’s resolve outlasts the flight attendants devotion, and they keep their luggage.
On a flight to Kansas a couple behind me talk to their young child, non-stop, explaining every detail, the finer points of acceleration and lift, depriving him of any element of surprise, or the exhilaration of flight, likely creating apprehension where there may have been only joy. Explaining how 80,000 pounds of alloyed aluminum defies gravity sounds sketchy to even my ears, and it must be gobbledygook if you’re two, so why not just let the kid enjoy the ride? I find hope for them when they discuss, at length and after smacking their son’s hand for smacking his own mother’s hand, their suspicion that “perhaps we’re sending the wrong message.” Realization late is better than realization never.
Leaving Detroit a middle-Eastern man – Yemeni, in fact, which turns out to not be a state-sponsor of terrorism – moves up several rows in order to sit across from me, in a row of empty seats, him wearing a thick winter jacket despite the stiflingly hot preflight airplane air; he looks from front to back multiple times, nervously, apprehensively, each one of his looks making me, in turn, more nervous and apprehensive. He spends too much time in the bathroom, and upon return begins to pray, semi-prostrate on the seat-back tray in front of him. This causes me such consternation that I lift the arm rest, unbuckle my seat belt and turn slightly towards him; I will not let him leave his row if it appears he’s making a break for the cockpit. And though I like the idea of hero, I’m more lover than fighter, so I instead engage him in conversation. He is neither bomber nor one-way pilot, but rather a Detroit gas station attendant on his way to Yemen to visit his three children, last seen more than two years ago, and he produces pictures of his two daughters and son. The eldest daughter, surprisingly, is the object of his most affection, and he pauses at her photo the longest, a Disneylandish five by seven picture of the girl standing, arms crossed, with her own airbrushed headshot in the upper right corner. Shame, I think, on me, and I wonder if any of the 9/11 terrorists had saccharine pictures of lovely daughters in their wallets.
From Orlando to Philly a precocious girl next to me asks me to smell the feet of her stuffed Minnie Mouse (I do), then peppers me and everyone else around us, for the rest of the flight, with all forms of the word “irritate.” She uses it correctly, if not gratuitously. She’s irritated, her father is irritating her, she doesn’t mean to irritate me, the air is irritatingly cold.
From Hawaii to DC I sit next to another daughter, this one a laconic college senior returning from a trip with her inversely verbose mother, them discussing the daughter’s future but the latter dominating the conversation. She solicits my opinion routinely; she wants her daughter to be in “policy,” but the daughter, wearing too-tight jeans, a long sleeve mock turtle with a peach colored button up sweater and a strand of pearls, just wants to write. She is uninspiring, and I wonder at what age the prematurely mature turn from precocious to simply boring.
In a Philadelphia airport hotel bar I witness a female bartender taking absolutely no shit from the Korean couple who own the bar, first exasperating the husband, then pleasantly taking my order for a beer (“another Sierra Nevada honey?”), then exasperating his wife. It becomes apparent the bartender has only worked here a few weeks, and I do not know how it can last too many more.
From Denver to San Francisco I read that the world still thinks America is the coolest country on the planet; boarding a plane in Seattle I overhear an older woman, fumbling with her dated cell phone over the tops of her glasses, ask her traveling companion “how do I put this thing on vibrator;” on the way to Kansas City a meticulously manicured male flight attendant hits on me, casually dropping my name during his rounds: “can I get you something to drink Joe?” Beat. “That is your name. Isn’t it?”
My cab driver from Incheon International Airport to my Seoul hotel is an American citizen; Mr. Kim – all Kims and Lees in Korea, no Hatfields versus McCoys here lest the country eat itself in genocide or mutually assured destruction – is 41, but has spent the last twenty years of his life on America’s west coast after spending the first twenty here. He left his fifteen year old daughter with friends so he and his wife could come home to take care of his ailing father, and he tells me, salaciously, that though his wife was born in America, her “body is all Korean.”
The flight to Korea chases the sun for the duration, mirroring the revolution and defying darkness; the return flight counters it, defying time (I leave Seoul at six pm on Friday, and arrive in Seattle at 1230 the same day).
Gone: the resetting of watches upon touchdown. Cell phones are tethered to satellites, and watches will be gone from the civilized world soon enough, at least for practical purposes, serving instead as they do in the Third World, nothing more than a bauble, a Swatch Watch for the 21st Century.
In Seattle, a friend’s beautiful downtown wedding is juxtaposed with listening to a convicted triple-murderer, being prepped to testify for the government in a trial against a co-conspirator, complain about his haircut. I crack a joke about the difference between a bad haircut and a good one (two days), and am later horrified at my detachment in the presence of bona fide evil.
I find that flying more often makes it harder, not easier, a subconscious recognition, perhaps, that my odds are decreasing; particularly on takeoff, where I start to imagine the plane nose-diving into a field, or houses, or a river, and I wonder if I will close my eyes during the fall or keep them open.
While waiting for my ride in the Incheon International Airport, I meet 32 year-old Keshab Raj Sapkota, an American Soldier as of one year ago and a Nepalese citizen the 31 years prior. He taught social studies in his hometown of Butwal until he won a proverbial Golden Ticket, a free path to American citizenship, just one of about fifty thousand annually out of nearly fifteen million applicants in the Diversity Program. Keshab had a point-six percent chance to win this Green Card Lottery, and after spending about six months at Ft. Benning, Georgia, here he is on his way to the 2nd Infantry Division at Camp Casey, Republic of Korea, to be an air conditioner repairman in order to provide for a better life for his wife and daughter. Such are the things that make us American, and I think, perhaps, America is the coolest country on the planet, in spite of it all.
 Gold to Mississippi, Silver to Louisiana
 When I’m slow on the draw, and I need something to chaw, I hanker for a hunka cheese. When my ten gallon hats-a-feeling five gallons flat, I got something planned, which is little cheese sandwiches. When my get up and go has got up and went, I hanker for a hunka cheese. When I’m dancin’ a hoe down, and my boots kinda slow down, or any time I’m weak in the knees, I hanker for a hunka, a slabber slice a chunk of, a snack a day’s a winner, and it won’t spoil my dinner, I hanker for a hunka cheese.