In Auburn there’s a tiny local airport a few miles outside of the city. It was replaced my sophomore year by a bit less tiny local airport nearby, but the old one still functions as a practice field for the aviation students.
It’s tucked away from the main road by pine trees and fences. I’m fairly certain that most people don’t know it exists and I think it may be illegal to go there unauthorized. But on the corner of a two-lane road that runs behind it there’s room to park a car right on the edge of the runway. So the law wasn’t much of a concern.
I don’t know much about airports but this one seemed more colorful than most. Rows of tiny light bulbs lined the tarmac, beckoning planes to come with their flashing yellows and blues and greens. Despite the many evenings I spent there, I never learned what the chaotic rhythm of the flashing corresponded to. I liked it that way though. There was no need for reason at the tiny airport.
My friend Abby and I used to park there at night and smoke cigarettes on the roof of her Honda, asking questions and guessing futures and throwing regrets into the wind as the lights carried them away. There was something about the steel of the car roof against your bare feet and the sleepy swirling of smoke around you that made the world seem much bigger and words feel much fuller. Like promises spoken or prayers offered or secrets told came out with the grace of a hymn and the boldness of Taps.
But silence felt stronger there, too. The night sky could still your tongue with both reverence and wonder. As if the world was only meant to be this tiny airport – the only movements the comings and goings of the tiny planes that lived there – and the only changes the intermittent flashing of tiny indecisive lights. Like you were standing on the outside, – your only purpose just to watch. You had nothing to take and nothing to give. And damn sure nothing to say.
A different night some friends came to kidnap me from studying and we went out looking for a story. Dusk had just settled and the lights at the airport were starting. Impulsive and restless (and ignorant of federal laws) we decided to jump the fence and see what was out there. We walked to the dead center of the runway and layed down on our backs, staring at the sky and watching for planes. The four of us shared a cigarette and someone turned on some music. I can’t remember what song was playing but I remember thinking that it was the right song – the perfect musical bookends for the moment. The right tone to match the weight of the asphalt beneath us. The right melody to dance with the lights all around us. The right hook to match the excitement and fear of the thought of a plane coming down over us. It was the kind of moment that you think should be in a movie or a book until you remember to just feel lucky that it’s actually your life.
And other times I went alone. Just to sit or to cry or to pray or to read.
I broke up with two different boyfriends at that airport. I cried over mistakes, dreamt about the future, and asked God for grace and forgiveness and help there. I read books in the daytime and drank wine in the nighttime and laughed and wept and worried and forgave. All on the corner of a tiny road at a tiny airport in a tiny town.
My therapist called it an escape for me. And I guess in some ways it was. But escape seems to carry the wrong connotation – I wasn’t leaving anything. I was getting there. I spoke more freely, felt more deeply, prayed more honestly, kissed more passionately, trusted God more abandonedly. There was a richness and a certainty and a fullness to it all. Like crimson noses in the winter and melting popsicles in the summer and Patty Griffin in the depths of sadness and fear fit perfectly in the moments of the tiny airport. More perfectly than those same elements anywhere else.
It was the perfect backdrop for the sparkles and shadows of life. Or at the very least of college. And I should very much like to go back there some day.
Until then, the goal is to find my new tiny airport in Dallas. Or rather, its equivalent as I imagine that’d be hard to come by in this city. So along with simply an indulgence in nostalgia, may this serve as a PSA that I am in the market for a new tiny airport. A new place to feel small and young and divinely cared for in the midst of the madness of being a human.