First Flight: How Travel Helped Me Grow Up

The cold snapped at my calves, which were covered only in panty hose and exposed beneath the hem of my coat. The wind gushed and ushered me into the airport terminal entrance and my parents, who were both damning the weather under their breaths, were right behind me. I had never seen a moving walkway before, but I was about to step onto it. I had never been on a plane before, but I was about to step onto one of those, too. I had received a ride home to Ohio for Christmas with a friend, but the holidays had blurred into the horizon behind me, as they do, and the solo trip back to New York was before me.

My father, who at that point hadn’t been on a flight since his honeymoon, tried to comfort me as I hugged him goodbye.

“Everyone does it. It’s easy. Just read the signs,” he told me.

Flushed over with naivety, my heart was racing. I pursed my lips, stood tall and did as my father had instructed; I read the signs. Although I didn’t have enough money to buy anything in the airport, I had dressed up in an outfit I perceived to be elegant, under the impression that only rich people flew. Once I boarded the plane, I listened attentively to the flight attendant’s emergency instructions, begging my brain to record every single word, just in case. When she was done preparing me for the worst, I flattened my face against the cold windowpane and witnessed the world shrink beneath me for the first time. I imagined what childhood must have been like for my friends who had been flying since they were babies. They knew what French sounded like in elementary school. I envied their world-weary nonchalance as they described the long airport security lines, their disdain for the airplane food and small seats as they shared their summer stories. They were boarding planes by themselves in high school for spring break. I felt poor and inadequate by comparison. I was determined to stay silent beneath my headphones rather than risk admitting to the person beside me that I was on my first flight.

When I arrived at LaGuardia, I stepped outside feeling different somehow. I had quietly moved through a rite of passage. Adulthood wrapped around me like a soft blanket, soothing with the strange comfort of the unfamiliar. That pride vanished on the train ride back to my dorm and in its place moved an unshakeable knowledge of what else I had yet to do. I felt crushed by the weight of my own ignorance. I had never eaten asparagus or cherries that weren’t out of a jar – my list of edible food was laden with high-fructose corn syrup and embarrassingly short. I had never seen the Pacific or the desert, the Redwoods, or any mountains other than the old and low ones I grew up in, the Appalachians. Aside from a short trip to Toronto with choir in high school, I had never left the country. I could not even guess which languages were being spoken around me during my first few months in New York, nor did I know the difference between Islam and Hinduism or Judaism and Buddhism. I recoiled at the thought of myself, doe-eyed and dumb. I felt like a child and I thought like a child, but I promised myself to become as absorbent as a sponge, to seek out that which did not first seek me. I swore to myself that I would, somehow, learn about the world. A decade later, I’m not sure I would recognize that version of myself, but I’d like to think that if I met her, I’d give her a chance to learn from me and I from her. After all, intrigue is not marked by the experiences we are given, but rather by those we pursue.