You never really think about how big this country is until you need to get across it. One girl learns the hard way. A reader story.
O'HARE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT - There's a certain look people develop when they've been stranded indefinitely at the airport. Head lolled to the side, eyes blank and hopeless. A gait that slices sideways across the path of more hopeful travelers.
In the two years that I've lived in Seattle, I've seen my fair share of airline delays as I've zig-zagged across the country to visit my parents (in upstate New York) and boyfriend (in Texas). But today, as I spill into the airport with a "Canceled due to weather" text message cradled in my palm, I'm particularly disheartened to find myself greeted not by a lone, undead malcontent, but by a whole sea of shuffling, purgatorial creatures. Their frustration manifests itself in violent outbursts directed at equally demoralized airline workers.
Of course, this happens to be one of the few trips for which timing actually matters, as my brother is graduating from high school tomorrow. Yes, I knew that a stopover at O'Hare Airport of Broken Dreams was risky, but the ticket was cheap, and I gave myself a 24-hour buffer. Surely that left more than enough time to account for any travel crises, major or minor.
Or so I tell myself, as I bound fresh-faced into the terminal. Six hours later, I've joined the zombie hordes, shuffling from one gate to another to jockey for prime position on the standby list. I wasn't the coolest kid in high school, but never have I felt so uninvited to the party.
"Ma'am, this is Chi-ca-go O'Hare," says an airline representative, emphasizing each syllable as if we're going to miss one. "It's always like this."
My delusions of hope checked into the cargo bay of some airplane not bound to take off for days, I stand apart from the crowd, contemplating my own mortality. We could all die here, you know, caught between where we're going and where we've been. Perhaps we're already dead, in some kind of bizarre, Lost-like twist.
It's on a glass bridge between terminals that I finally lose my will to go on, stopping as I have many times now to glare out the window in search of the elusive storm. That's when I see it, speeding down the service road — a wall of black clouds, tendrils clawing toward the bridge.
"Boy howdy!" remarks a man in a cowboy hat. "Those are some big ol' clouds!" It's then that this zombie movie we've all been living becomes downright apocolyptic. Here comes the natural disaster that will be the undoing of us all. Everyone take shelter!
I return to my undead tribe, listening to rumors of fellow travelers who have abandoned the airlines for rental cars. Should we join forces, pile into cars together, and try our luck on the road? Or will doing so destroy all hope of ever receiving any reimbursement for our disrupted travel plans? I'm sure that the price of a rental car would be astronomical by now. Plus, what if my fellow car-mates wind up being mass murderers — or worse — have grating, high-pitched voices and a penchant for talking about themselves?
I start to feel like I'm playing Oregon Trail, overwhelmed by the sheer size of our country, a fact often forgotten in this age of flight. By what other means can I get home in time for my brother's graduation? Bike? Oxen? The Erie Canal? My own two feet? "Screw it," I say to no one in particular. "I'm taking the train."
You know things are bad when you place yourself willingly into the atrophied arms of Amtrak, where delays are inevitable and customer service is just that thing they do when they receive letters of complaint. The ride to the train station is harrowing in itself. A valiant, nearby cousin braves a tornado to drive me into the city (I didn't know the weather was that bad, okay?), and I witness Trump Tower lit by lightning to its steely bones.
Once on the train, I size up my neighbor. I don't know his real name, but in my mind I call him Milton because of his resemblance to the character from Office Space who's obsessed with his red stapler. I try to sleep, but the thunder is loud, the air conditioning is cold, and the only warm thing I've brought in my carry-on is a waterproof backpack cover. I tuck my flip-flopped feet inside. What arrogance to think I could catapult myself across this massive country wearing capri pants.
I end up passing the night fantasizing about the Tweets I'd publish if I had a smartphone, letting myself fall deeper and deeper into madness. (12:15 a.m.: That house about 500-feet from the track looks nice. Milton and I will disembark the train right here, thank you.)
For thirteen hours, I loop in and out of consciousness, all of it merging together into one semi-lucid nightmare. The blur is puncuated by the many notes and observations I'll carry with me into my work as a writer — images, emotions, and characters I want to mull over, play with, do something with. Though the misery isn't abating, I can't help but feel like I'm out there in the world again, rather than cloistered in my graduate school ivory tower. I am sensing, thinking, feeling — funneling the world through my pen.
Still, thirteen hours on a train is thirteen hours on a train. As the sun rises, the zombies of O'Hare reemerge to harass the train attendants, our anger having breathed new life into our undead limbs.
"Train's late," says the attendant. "Train's allllways late." Amtrak employees apparently receive the same customer service training as airline employees, which seems to consist of this one, unhelpful line.
"But I've got a graduation ceremony to get to," I protest.
"I've got a funeral," says a fellow passenger. Trumped.
Two hours before the graduation ceremony, I pull into Syracuse. It's another hour from here by car, and I'll need a frantic shower to get the trains, planes, and automobiles off my skin. But the ordeal is nearly done. Defying all odds, I have shot my final buffalo, forded my final river.
Do you have to tell? We want to hear it.