I don’t travel nearly as much now as I used to with a previous employer. I’m traveling back from a conference today (OK, I wrote this last week, but play along with me). I’m people watching, as usual, and generally enjoying the experience, hoping it will distract from the fact that I’m traveling alone. It’s not that being alone is depressing; I often travel alone and am quite comfortable doing so. Today, however, I prefer to watch others to not think about myself. Waiting at the terminal in Orlando gives me a chance to see families arriving that are excited to go meet Mickey, other families leaving that aren’t really getting along, groups of business travelers returning from their convention, and other kids headed home from a softball tournament. Soon I am missing my own family, and I realize this helps explain why some people who travel immediately end up in the frequent flier’s lounge knocking back bourbon, why seniors may decide to travel in tour groups, and why total strangers strike up conversations about stuff they never talk about. At times we are all alone, and an impromptu conversation with that stranger belies that fact, if only for a few minutes. Sure enough, after 10 minutes I’m talking with a woman who is a corporate trainer on her way back home to Wisconsin.
On the other hand, traveling alone can be a truly liberating experience. I’m walking a lot since I’m at a conference with no rental car, so I have good reasons (ok, excuses!) to have dessert at dinner. I rarely spend time writing at home, so journaling on the road is practically a given. I get to listen to my music for a change, so when I put on my “iCone of Solitude” (thanks, Steve Jobs!) I can break out my Lyle Lovett, Fountains of Wayne, or (I admit it!) Dolly Parton. (Yes, someday I am going to write about “Dolly Parton, National Treasure…but not today). It seems like I usually bring a tech magazine or IT periodical along so I won’t feel too guilty about ignoring work, but just never get around to reading them.
Once we get loaded I can pull my journal out and start writing again. I brought a laptop, but it’s somehow more rewarding to just use my pen and a bound notebook. The flight is on SouthWest today, and not only did I score a window seat, but my seat buddy is a shy 6 year old flying with her mother. The little one is obediently completing homework while her mom gently encourages and helps as needed. I’m enjoying sitting next to the child, I confess. My wife and I have twin sons, so getting to witness mother and daughter talking is refreshing. The child wraps up her studies and lays her head against her mother’s shoulder and starts napping, and it’s almost like hearing an angel sigh: all is well with the world, or at least well enough for now.
The plane is at cruising height now and the ground is mostly visible through the low clouds, and just seeming to creep by in the windless sky. The American countryside of the deep South can be an odd mix at times: farmlands and pastures transpose into a city, then a lake or bayou, and sometimes a peak will rise up before giving way to an evergreen forest. There are small towns interspersed with the landscape, and you can see the baseball and softball parks, malls, churches, and offices, and know that there are people down there that aren’t that different from you. After a while the landmarks drifting by are recognizable: the river below, the skyline to the north, and the highway in between gain meaning and I know I’m almost home. The horizon begins to tilt as the pilot dips the wing, and one bounce and tire skid later we are rolling across the tarmac to another terminal.
What is the meaning here? Maybe nothing at all, maybe it was just a pleasant day spent alone in an airplane with the phone turned off and a comfortable pen in hand. Maybe it’s a chance to recharge before going back to a job that’s not that great anymore. Maybe it’s a day to rethink priorities and realign dreams with reality. Maybe it’s the calm before the storm, or maybe just another day spent between airports. Either way, I know tonight I will sleep in my own home surrounded by loved ones and will wake up rested. Tomorrow will take care of itself, and remembering the smile of little girl comforts me. It was a pretty good day.