No Exit: Guest post by Leslie Leyland Fields

I push through the doors of the Ted Stevens airport, the last door on the strip. I am late, of course, but I am not worried. This is ERA I am flying, after all. I’m just going home to Kodiak. No airport security, just fly through the check-in 20 minutes before the flight, show a boarding pass and ID and walk the tarmac out to the prop-winged bird. But it is Frontier Air now, I remember, yet another airline re-shuffle in these unstable times. I check in and find out that the Frontier departure gate for Kodiak has been moved and is now at the other end of the terminal. I buy some crackers for dinner and roll my carry-on down the new hallway.

The tunnel is distant, twisting and empty; it is Kafka-esque, I decide, and I wonder, as I’m eating my crackers and rolling my suitcase, if some grotesque metamorphosis is even now rearranging my cells. But when I reach the end, I change my mind. A sudden city of people has appeared, crammed and clustered in a narrow cell of a waiting room. They all look strangely settled, as though they’ve been here for an age. I decide Kafka is out—and Sartre is in, in this chillingly accurate replica of “No Exit.”

I find out the weather in Kodiak is bad. That the last two planes, the Frontier dash-8 and the Alaska jet both flew gallantly all the way to Kodiak, looped successive ellipticals, in hopes of a fissure in the impenetrable fog and clouds, then defeated, circled back. This city in the cell, then, is populated with returnees, Loopers, fatigued but dogged people, trying again.

I know that feeling. I’ve done the Kodiak Loop too many times myself in my 32 years here. (My husband may hold the record, though—five loops, five tries to Kodiak before he finally touched ground.) Tonight, I just want to get home, rest my swollen cheek and throbbing jaw, from root canal surgery done the day before, on my own feather pillow.

I sit next to two women I know. We compare weather reports from our families back home. All reports agree—the weather’s getting worse. Heavy rain, heavy clouds, heavy fog, and winds coming up. A voice from the ceiling speaks, “We’re waiting on the weather to board, ladies and gentlemen. We’ll see what the weather wants to do. We’ll let you know as soon as we know if we’re going.”

Debbie and Christy and I decide they should just cancel. We should all go back to our hotels, go out to a really nice dinner (Orso’s, say Debbie and I ) and return to Kodiak tomorrow—well-fed, rested, swooping home in a single declarative flight, no questions (will we board? Will we land?) hanging. Fifteen minutes later the voice announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, the weather has improved enough to launch. If it doesn’t get better while we’re flying, we’ll land in Homer to refuel, and then take another look at it from there. We’ll be boarding in just a few moments.”

We roll our eyes at each other. It’s good enough to launch, but not likely good enough to land. Neither place, Anchorage or Homer is home, but getting stuck in Homer is worse than getting stuck in Anchorage. We slowly reconstitute ourselves, get up and dumbly, reluctantly stand in line. We all know we’re players in Sartre’s theatre after all, but we have to follow the script. We have to try, at least.

On board, the seats are full. No one bothers to look out the cloud-blinded windows. My seatmate mutters to herself, “This is why I don’t live in Kodiak anymore.” I entertain Debbie across the aisle with another flight story, this one of a three hour flight delayed in Seattle, then an unexpected midnight landing and refueling in Yakutat, in case we had to circle extra long before landing. We don’t talk about the planes that have crashed.

Fifty minutes pass. We’re past Homer now, surely. We’re going all the way, then. We feel the plane descend, hear the engine straining at another pitch. The landing gear drops mechanically; my seatmate and I exchange hopeful, nervous smiles. All eyes strain at the windows, trying to pierce the curtains of fog. We lean forward in our seats, pressing toward home, but still no sign of earth below. Someone behind me, across the aisle says “Look! I see some cliffs!” Hope stirs , the plane buzzes louder, our stomachs drop, a runway appears and we fall onto it gracelessly but beautifully.

A few months earlier, while traveling home to Kodiak from somewhere far away, I limped up to the ERA counter at the Anchorage airport. Almost home. One leg remaining. I was tired. I handed my commuter coupon to the woman behind the counter. There was a problem. She studied my coupon, reads my itinerary aloud to herself, “Okay, let’s see, Anchorage to Yuck, Yuck to Anchorage”.

I looked at her through night-flight eyes, blinked slowly, incredulously, then asked. “What did you say? Did you just call Kodiak, yuck??”

She laughed unselfconsciously. “Oh yeah. We all call it that. It’s the worse place we fly. That and Dutch Harbor. It’s always causing problems—wind, rain, fog, so hard to get in and out of. What a pain.”

She did not consider the fact that I might live there. She wanted me to feel sorry for her.

I have ten trips to make Outside these next few months, for speaking and teaching. I try to show up on stage at conferences and colleges and perform as though whisked in by my own Lear jet. As though I did not miss my other connections because I couldn’t get out of Kodiak, as though I had not flown all night and the next day to get there. As though the passage from this island to the rest of the world were not exhausting and harrowing every time. I try not to talk about it, this endless subject. And I try not to feel like a martyr for living in a place nicknamed “yuck.”

I’m not always successful. I don’t want to play the martyr—or the fool. Kodiak Island is not a stage, but I’m acting out what is most of all, true in this world— we only imagine that we direct our lives. Our comings and goings, our entrances and exits are fragile, our intentions and desires controlled by winds and clouds and waters whose own travels are measured and announced, but largely unknown. I yield to this, in my own stubborn way, relieved to know the out-there world is so beyond my one self. I am glad to be here at all, to have any part to play in this stunning, wind-and fog wrought theatre.

I say that in my best moments. In my deepest heart, I want my planes to take off and land by my own perfect script. When they don’t, I know nothing else to do but this: to sit by the window, rehearsing my lines—again.

Leslie Leyland Fields is the author of Surviving the Island of Grace and Out on the Deep Blue. Her essays have appeared in “The Atlantic,” “Best Essays Northwest,” More Magazine, and many others. She teaches in Seattle Pacific University’s (low-residency) MFA program and speaks often at other colleges, requiring nail-biting flights off stormy Kodiak Island.

1 thought on “No Exit: Guest post by Leslie Leyland Fields”

  1. An excellent post, Leslie, on an aspect of place most people don't get. The waiting, the looping, the "you live there?" looks – I remember it all from my years in the Bush.

    That new airport tunnel – really, I do believe there's a portal to a parallel universe somewhere in there. And ten upcoming trips: condolences.

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