The flight was from Denver to Aspen, where I was headed for a literary thing. The flying time was 25 minutes. The captain told us it would be bumpy the whole way. That’s when you know it will be bad — when the captain feels the need to warn you.
I used to be an anxious flier, but I have grown calmer with middle age. I figure: I can do anything for 25 minutes. I can cling to an armrest. I can stare out a window really, really hard. I figure: If my time is up, there’s nothing I can do about it.
So the captain was right about one thing. It was a choppy ascent, followed by dips in the clouds that separate you from your stomach for a spell. I try to keep my mind off it. I stare at the tips of the mountains, still veiny with snow in early June.
I went skiing once with my college boyfriend in Colorado. Wasn’t really my deal. I hated going so fast, the velocity required. I scooched down an entire slope on my ass, tired of picking myself up only to fall over again. The second day, I was sore in places I never knew I had muscles. When my boyfriend hit the slopes, I stayed in the warm wooded lodge drinking red wine and reading a book I had fallen in love with. That night, I cuddled with him by the fire and told him I might like to write a book one day. I was 20 years old. I thought these things were easy and inevitable like that.
“You can do anything you want,” he told me. And then he said, “Well, maybe not physical.”
It was meant to be funny, but it was a little bit mean, maybe because I understood it to be true. And it’s surprising how quickly I accepted it, this tossed-off joke, as my lot in life: I can do anything I want. (Maybe not physical.) And for years I was happier that way, curled up in the wooded lodge of my early 20s with my nurturing glass of Cabernet. It was not until I went to South America at 26, and began hiking, and swallowing fears, and letting my fingernails tear as I climbed up mossy rock, that I realized he had not been exactly right. I had strong legs and a willing heart. I just hated to ski.
The small and shuddering plane circles the Aspen mountaintops for a long time. A flash of lightning in my window. Never a good sign. Ninety minutes into our 25-minute flight, the captain comes on and tells us we missed our landing. The tail winds are too strong for our [something-something]. Point is: We’re being re-routed back to Denver. The place we came from. Ninety minutes of needless turbulence, I think to myself, as we stagger back into the clouds, which knock us about in an uncertain way. I guess flights are like this sometimes.
The thing is, you cannot do anything you want. For instance, you cannot fly to Aspen during a storm on a rickety plane. But if you stay patient, and don’t freak out, you can get where you want to go eventually. Much later than you hoped. (Six hours later, to be exact, on a rickety plane that will land in chilly sunshine.) But you get there, nonetheless.