A Year on the Ground: Abandoning air travel? Sticking to the ground? Am I crazy?

by Sallie Bingham

Racing by the turnoff to the Albuquerque airport, I jeer (in my head, sparing the Roommate reluctantly riding shotgun with Jack the puppy) at the ducks-in-a-line cars turning off, each one sporting a single head as in a two year old’s toy car, heading toward the mile of glinting metal and glass, the far-out parking lot, where I used to leave my car to avoid paying literally hundreds of dollars at the packed airport garage.

Beyond the garage, the familiar litany of irritations waits: the kiosks that have largely replaced desk personnel, and which routinely refuse my credit card or ask for airport acronyms only a terminal supervisor would know, the ridiculous security parade, where I numbly shed articles of clothing that have nothing to do with any imaginable threat (how long ago was the tennis shoe bomber caught?), the unexplained delays and cancellations, the miserably cramped seats, the disappearance of blankets and pillows, the outrageous sums charged for horrible snacks, and now even for luggage.

This time, I’m driving—1150 miles from my home in Santa Fe to my son’s in Los Angeles.

I began to fly twenty years ago, my children grown, my life in shreds. Leaving behind my earlier life meant leaving the east coast and its now repellant memories, but it also meant leaving all my old associations, professional as well as personal. As the silence of my new life in Santa Fe closed in, I realized I wasn’t ready to let go of everything and everyone I’d fled.

And so I began to fly. The distances seemed too great for any other form of locomotion.

At first, I traveled only for professional purposes; that seemed essential to my career as a writer. Then, there were children’s marriages, the births of grandchildren, and all the other family endeavors, including funerals as the older generation passed away, requiring flights half way across the country. There was also the excitement of air travel itself, the sense of privilege that an airplane used to bring: I was one of the elect, freed from the earth, if only briefly. The luxuriousness of airline travel twenty years ago, even in coach, added to that intoxicating sense of specialness.

Now, all that is gone.

Above my car’s windshield, a white jet vapor travels up the sky, and I remember when “jet travel”—the expression itself—evoked escape from this earth and its perplexities. Those were the years of comely stewardesses in designer dresses that stopped short of the knee, of champagne in crystal glasses on overseas flights (as they were called), and not just on Air France, the final bastion of civility that fell to corporate greed a couple of years ago, of flight attendants who sped you on what might even be your undelayed way with a reading of the gates for various destinations, of the dim and rapidly fading hope that air travel might replace in tone the train and ocean liner travel a gluttonous economy destroyed decades earlier.

The Albuquerque airport vanishes in seconds and now the big north-south interstate stretches out before us all the way to the Mexico border, carsick provoking in its heat stunned regularity, and I realize that the vague euphoria of lift-off—up, up and away!—can’t be replicated by grinding along these endless cement miles. Now, and for the foreseeable future, I am earthbound. I am on this earth, for better or worse, for the next eleven and a half months. A frightful sense of entrapment makes me catch my breath. Do I really want to forsake the air?


To be continued...


Sallie Bingham is a short story writer, novelist and playwright whose most recent book, a collection of short stories called "Red Car", was published in 2008 by Sarabande Books. Founder of the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Sallie Bingham Archive for Women's Papers and History at Duke University, she is an avid skier, horseback rider and ballroom dancer; she lives in Santa Fe with the Roommate, her eldest son, his wife and their two daughters and travels only when absolutely necessary.

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