A Moving Walkway to the West

I had just flown from NYC to Denver and there was a layover of a couple of hours before I was to catch a flight for Salt Lake City. This was a time that I expected to spend aimlessly wandering the airport or reading, with no idea that there would be very much out of the ordinary in the Denver airport save a view of the mountains, if indeed that was even to be the case. It was, in fact, much more of a view, a presence, than I was expecting, rising in the distance like a sheet of cold ghosts hemmed with ice and blue fire.

I left the gate that I was going to depart from in a couple of hours, and started to wander, as I thought I might, only now I was walking with purpose, keeping an eye gazing out the window, searching for a more expansive view, a look that might encompass more space, more of the west.

I had flown over the Rockies once before on a trip out to San Francisco, looking down from 35,000 feet, but from that height everything becomes flat and featureless, and there is really not much of a sense of being out west, of traveling across the landscape of lonesome ghosts and dreams and spirits, the world of seemingly limitless imagination and desolation and power that I first saw as a child on family cross-country trips, and then returned to on two separate occasions as a young man, spending two summers in Colorado, one in Fort Collins and one in Alamosa.

But whatever my expectations were when I landed in Denver, I certainly was not prepared for what amounted to a kind of slow motion flight inside the airport, when I was immersed in a pool of faint, distant music, swirling in a repetitive mythic massage of the unconscious that drew me into a numinous underworld, riding on a moving sidewalk while listening to hypnotic chants, sleepwalking in a world of timeless callings while I was gliding like an uncoiling dragon’s tongue in a glass building at the edge of serrated peaks and green fields, where the Rockies' spine flexes up in an unfurling wave beneath a white bank of clouds.
Some of this, no doubt, was due to the altitude. I was light-headed, almost as if my head were a helium balloon attached to my body with a string.
This did not, however, occur to me until much later. Maybe the fact that I did not think of it could have been part of the oxygen deprivation itself, but pursuing the causes of a bout of dreamy forgetfulness in a 46-year-old man on a business trip, when the person doing the pondering is the same person who is feeling goofy, especially at the very moment of dreaminess—the circularity in itself is enough to make one dizzy.

After wandering around the concourses of the airport for half an hour or so, poking around in a bookstore, grabbing another in the endless cups of coffee that fill all my waking hours, but still meandering with an eye toward the window, trying to find an angle that would afford a better view of the long range of white-capped peaks, I had found a ramp that took me up to another level which connected to a glassed-in walkway six to eight stories above the ground, actually arching over a runway of sorts.

Planes taxied underneath, or, more accurately, didn’t quite taxi so much as slowly roll from one part of the airport to another, but directly underneath the walkway. There were two moving sidewalks in one enclosure, a kind of arching tube of glass and steel supports, and they were moving in opposite directions.

Here, finally, was the view I had been looking for, a place to surrender to the spirit of the west, to open up to the shadow play of campfire smoke and beating wings and waves of migration and the slow rhythms of beaver tails slapping blue water in high country ponds. Well, actually it was a moving sidewalk in a steel and glass archway at an airport, with airplanes gliding underneath, and with the Rockies in the distance, but I was thinking about all that stuff about migrations and campfire smoke and beaver tails and who knows what else. Remember, I had just come from sea level and was gliding through the airport in the mile high city on a moving sidewalk. Welcome to the future, sir.
Part of this otherworldliness was also due to faint but clearly audible Indian music. Not Calcutta Indian, but Mandan, Chippewa, Apache kind of Indian. Chanting, skin drums, ancient songs, or at least what I took to be old songs, the soundtrack of this part of the continent before the white, European incursion. Of course I have no way of knowing how authentic it was, or how representative of pre-Colombian culture, but the fact that I don’t know for sure about the pedigree of the music doesn’t change the effect that it had on me. I was gliding slowly on a moving sidewalk in a glass walkway looking out at miles of mountains, and listening to voices from the distant, even primordial, past—or the simulacrum of voices from the past—that were coming from somewhere I couldn’t identify, from speakers that were hidden from view. This was also, oddly, the only part of the airport where I could hear this music. The music was faint, but it was ever-present, indeed omnipresent, an auditory hologram, equal in intensity everywhere in the arching, lofting white-walled plaster space of the terminal that framed the distant mountains through the glass of the walk-way.

It was like looking out from the inside of a bone.


Steve Newton is Associate Professor of English at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, where he also directs the Writing Center.  In 2005-2006 he was a Fulbright Scholar in Austria.

Category: Airports

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