Band on the Run: Trippin’ in O’Hare Airport

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

One of the big things that travellers often worry about is how to stay in shape while going from plane to highway back to airport to waiting room to plane to highway, etc. There’s a lot of sitting involved in travelling, especially when you’re going long distances, and sometimes it feels to me (someone who likes to run as my choice of exercise) that I am completely sedentary and blob-like for far too long.

Unless, of course, I am routed through O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, IL.

I’ve heard that this is the largest airport in North America in terms of square footage, but I’m having trouble supporting that with any source. Has anyone else ever heard that? I did learn that it is the second busiest airport in the U.S. and the second busiest in the world with over 76 million travellers through the airport in the year 2006. (source) Because so many flights come in and out of Chicago, there seems to be no logical reason for the placement of connections. They’re sometimes a full half-hour walk away and with delays, inclement weather and general O’Hare confusion, it’s not uncommon to miss one’s connection at this airport.

Even if you’re a runner.

This must be the largest airport in North America because I think I have walked the whole thing several times and I’ve had the blisters to prove it. I know now that being routed through Chicago will cure the “feeling-like-a-blob” blues. Especially today, when I had ten minutes to make it between terminal B and terminal C and had to basically run and walk at the same time while dragging my luggage and fellow travellers behind me.

There’s a causeway between these two terminals that amuses me. It’s designed like an eighties nightclub with neon tube lighting zigzagging across the ceiling and overall dim lighting in the tunnel to enhance their dance. They flip on and off like they’re on a slow strobe and the adjoining mirrors give the impression that there are even more lights going on than there are.

I know this is the airport’s attempt to install art in between the monotonous transfer between flights, but little did they know that they not only gave us a visual experience here, but they gave us a temporary exit from reality; an experiential gateway into what feels like another dimension.

An essential partner to this installation is the moving sidewalk that is installed here – two lengths of it – and perhaps you know what I’m talking about when I call these devices “trippy.” By this, I mean that it sometimes feels like I’m in another state of consciousness when I’m on them, especially if I’m also walking down them (not just letting them carry me) like I was doing today in my attempt to make the connecting flight. It is dream-like, as though you’re part floating and walking while also being swept across the floor towards the other end the way a camera zooms in and takes your eye with it without your consent.

Just head towards the light.

So put them together with the neon lights and it’s even more trippy. It suddenly makes me feel as though I’m under the influence of a reality-shifting drug and squashed into an all-ages travellers’ nightclub at which carry-on luggage is mandatory fashion. It was all I could do to stay focused and keep walking today without letting myself get lost in the colours.

I made it out the other side without disappearing into the illusion of it all, I’m proud to say. And, I also made my connection. The flight attendants with their colourful leis and big smiles had held the plane for the various delays that had already rippled their way across the entire airport. Our flight left about forty-five minutes after the schedule departure time, so I’m hoping that they also found the time to put our luggage on the same plane as our bodies. I guess we’ll find out when we land.

Maui, here I come.

I once had to stay overnight in Chicago because the President of your country down there had decided to spontaneously come to Chicago that day. This, of course, delayed all the flights (for security reasons) and made hundreds of people miss their connections. In fact, this was the information that we received from the Canadian aircraft that we were flying on because they had to delay their landing and do an extra loop around the city.

When we arrived at O’Hare, they told us that the delay was as a result of “inclement weather.” When I told these conflicting explanations to my friend in Chicago (who I phoned during my long attempt to find an alternative means home before giving up and heading for a hotel), she said: “The weather was perfect today here! And, yeah, the president was here too. They’re all such liars. They lie as easily about bombs as they do about the weather. What a joke!” I just sighed and didn’t feel any less helpless in the circumstance. I simply became part of a herd of discontented people forced to pay overpriced hotel fees and grumble under our breath about injustice.

(I did have some of the best vegan pizza that night that I’ve ever eaten. So, it wasn’t all that bad.)

Before the hotel decision, however, we had walked the whole of O’Hare airport being told to try various flights for openings to get us back to Canada. I believe that day that we walked a total of ten kilometres.

I think it was after that experience that I invested in carry-on luggage with wheels.

After O’Hare, I’m always happy to sit down again. Even if it’s in a plane while squashed into economy seating.

Now if only they could improve the lighting in the actual cabin. I’d love an optical illusion or two for such a long flight. I have many hours to go now.

Hawaii. Ten hours. Too much perfume. No vegetarian fare.

Where’s the flashing neon when you need it?