It is mildly unsettling how relieved I felt when I walked through the glass doors of Seattle Tacoma International Airport last week. The slick floor and high ceiling; the hustle of people not wholly sure where they should go; the easy pace of check in, ID check, electronics removal and body scan – they all felt oddly like coming home, even though I was heading out.
Humping my pack through my last couple weeks in Turkey with a sinus infection in tow, I wanted nothing more than eight consecutive nights in a familiar bed. But once in Washington (State) half-unpacked and settling in, I was uncomfortable with my….stability. And cold. So I’m setting out on a wander again, one last hurrah through the East Coast and then a month in Sevilla, Spain, which I was loathe to leave back in February.
I first remember flying through SeaTac when I was 8. My best friend had moved from the Bay Area up to the San Juan islands, and my parents gave me a birthday present that, in retrospect, probably made me part of who I am today: a plane ticket to fly alone up the coast to see her for a week. I remember nothing of the flight from Oakland to Seattle. What I remember is the layover.
Back in the day when solo child travelers were few and far between, I was something of a curiosity, like tropical fruit brought from far-off lands to the cold recesses of England way, way back when. For three hours, I sat on a stool behind the counter of the small regional airline that flew from SeaTac to the islands in twin prop planes of fewer than 10 seats. Flight attendants and counter agents came to visit from the center section of the departures hall, where big airlines had multiple personnel at the counter, way, way down to the far end of small airlines and cargo companies. While I may have been the attraction for them, I couldn’t be bothered with their kindness, because I was entranced by the desk agent checking in flights before mine, entering secret codes in green type onto the black screen of the computer, and radioing down to the tarmac, an underground tram ride away at the north satellite, where the small planes arrived and departed.
Some people hate small planes and find them terrifying. I couldn’t be more the opposite: I never get over the thrill of them. My father flew one when I was younger. I’m sure it wasn’t 100 percent cake and roses, but I remember loving flying with him, a hop to Bakersfield to check on a hospital he was managing, or all the way up to the San Juans, a long day of counting swimming pools by the houses below, watching urban areas change to trees, and mountains, and at last, Puget Sound. I love no small plane more than the float plane, and it seemed appropriate that I took my first of 47 flight legs of my around-the-world trip on one of these, from the San Juans into Seattle.
My week away didn’t end as well as it started: on the ferry back to the mainland, my friend’s mom asked me where my ticket was. I have no idea what I said in response to her, but inside, my gut sank south as she frantically searched the car, because I could clearly see that plane ticket, its flimsy paper layers backed in red carbon ink, sitting on the bedside table next to the bunkbeds a ferry-ride away. A new ticket had to be purchased, though this was back in the day when the old one could be redeemed for the proper value once it was turned in.
Regardless, that trip was the first of many I have taken to visit this same friend, who has lived in Korea, Japan, and many states, and recently returned to the San Juans with her husband and kids. And it was the first I remember of passing through SeaTac, which has changed considerably with the times.
SeaTac is a good airport to call home. It’s modernized – clean and light, it continues to remake itself to keep up with the pace of air traffic and the demanding needs of the modern traveler. Taking a cue from Austin, the main terminal now features local musical artists playing acoustic entrées to accompany whatever you grab from Ivars, or the brewery, or the competing coffee trio of Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, and Dilletante. Like SFO, SeaTac has started installing water-bottle refill stations near the drinking fountains for those of us who fear that reef of plastic bottles taking over the world’s oceans, and multiple recycling containers throughout the terminals.
Exhibits focused on local artists are sprinkled throughout the terminals in case you have time to stop and look a little.
If not, most of them have a bar code you can scan with your smartphone for more detail later on. The shopping is a dangerous combo of items you may actually need (a jacket from ExOfficio, perhaps?) to crafty arts in Firefly or local souvenirs from the newly opened Sub Pop store (though one could argue Sub Pop merchandizing in SeaTac marks the moment when Sub Pop jumps the shark).
Though these creature comforts are more meaningful to me now than they were when I was eight, what I loved about SeaTac on this particular trip may just be the same thing I love about traveling in general: that feeling of camaraderie, of complete familiarity with total strangers. In this case, on a gorgeous Seattle day of sun after four days of rain, it is the people who pass through the gate area in SeaTac for a DFW flight – their LSU shirts and Longhorn gear, their well-crafted look (except for me, and the skaters who clearly are from the PNW), and the slightly southern air of it all that reminds you where you land it will be…well, warm and familiar in a different way, even if you don’t know where you’re going.