You Could Be Anyone and Go Anywhere: The Beauty and Violence of Planes and Airports

This photo and all that follow are from Founders Plaza, overlooking Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport

Near Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport there is a park called Founder’s Plaza.  From here you can watch planes take off and land, you can have a picnic, lie on the grass and stare up at the sky, or close your eyes and listen to the thunder of jet engines and feel their vibrations course through your body.  I’ve seen couples in this park, families, airport employees, aviation aficionados, and, occasionally, police officers when someone has wandered too close to the security fence that separates the park from the airport. 

Sit on a bench here in Founder’s Plaza and you will see the entire airport spread before you.  From here the immense terminals, the control towers, the fat jumbo jets, the baggage cars, the ground crews and the runways take on the appearance of a miniature lego-set.  For a moment it stikes you that a child may well have assembled the entire contraption, but then the roar of jets taking off and landing dispells any such notion.

The planes come and go with such frequency that you might expect a collision here and there, a miscommunication that might place two planes on the same runway, one landing, the other throttling toward take-off.  Yet perfect order reigns here.  The catastrophe is a predictable non-occurrence for being always averted.

The airport screams destruction.  Close your eyes and listen as the smaller planes rev up, first with a metallic whine, then a high pitched screech, until finally they explode down the runway.  Close your eyes and you might imagine that you stand at the epicenter of a dozen earthquakes cascading outward one after another, flinging the crust of the earth skyward like a bed sheet flapping on a clothes line before a storm.

The larger planes are quieter to the ear.  They rumble like distant thunder and propagate their power through the ground, so that you tremble with them and glimpse through their dissipated vibrations a knowledge of destruction collared and tamed for human purposes.

You could be a passenger on any one of those planes going anywhere in the world, bound for London, Paris, Seoul or Istanbul.  You could be any one of those tiny faces staring out the window at the flatness that surrounds DFW International Airport, at the big blue Texas sky that hangs over fields of parched grass yellowed by winter.  Maybe you see home.  Maybe you see nothing more than a random airport fit only for a layover of minutes or hours, or even a day if the weather is bad elsewhere on your route, if the pilot has taken ill, or if your plane has suffered a mechanical failure.

You could be anyone and go anywhere.  And for the duration of the journey you could be nowhere at all, suspended in the netherworld between departure and arrival where only the roar of the engines, the vibration of your tray table, and the clouds gliding by remind you that you’re in motion.

 

Concrete Entanglement in the Lone Star State

You can read the identity of a place in its transit system. How people get around a city says everything about who they are, the nature of their relationships, their shopping habits, how they have fun, even where most of them come from and where they’re going. If someone asked me to choose one feature of Texas that is emblematic of its identity, I would point not to its capitol building, whose dome looms larger than that of the U.S. capitol, nor to cowboy hats or oil rigs or the ubiquitous longhorn. No, I would point to its highways that unravel outward from every urban center and ribbon the state from east to west and north to south. I would rattle off the major interchanges, the nodes of this sprawling vehicle transmission system: the “High Five” in Dallas, the I-35/290 interchange in South Austin, the Beltway 8 Interchange in Houston. These knots of crisscrossing freeways rise from the Texas landscape as cathedrals might in many of the world’s great cities. And although they may be primarily utilitarian, they are also a profession of faith in and allegiance to a way of life, to a culture of cars and commerce and absolute freedom of movement.

A degree of artistry suffuses these monuments to life by car, most visibly in the symbol of Texas chiseled repeatedly in the massive concrete supports that hold flyovers aloft. Whereas elsewhere one might best appreciate the scope of a metropolis from a hill or from across a majestic river or lake, here, in the Lone Star State, a similar view may as likely be had from an overpass climbing and curving several hundred feet into the clear Texas sky.

These interlacing symbols of the Texas state of mind are by no means static. They evolve over time, and new ones grow annually out of the earth, as if vast tectonic forces continually heaved them skyward like mountains rising from the plains. The beginnings of an interchange are messy. Sounds of jackhammers and earth movers fracture the air. Colossal concrete pillars litter the terrain and dust wafts in the wind. A cacophony of horns honking and brakes squealing forms part of this chaotic birthing process, until finally a finished work emerges and the vitality of a populace flows through and brings the steel and concrete giant to life.

To some the highways of Texas may be a blight on the landscape, walls of traffic and noise that segregate one part of a city from another. They foster anonymity, lack of cohesion and a feeling of perennial displacement among the population. The impersonality of urban sprawl prevented me from ever feeling kinship with the DFW metroplex. I was always a stranger here, and the city, a clumsy behemoth only dimly self-aware, never cared that I existed. Yet since I was a little boy growing up in Austin I’ve seen our sprawling highway infrastructure as representing possibility, vitality and the irrational exuberance of a state on the move. Driving I-75 through Dallas or I-35 out of Austin I felt as if I was joining a society of nomads thronging along an asphalt ribbon of nowhere, bounded by somewhere, leading anywhere, so that the highway was an interstice between states of permanence. As a tree-hugging conservationist I’ll always argue for more trains, subways and denser urban spaces, yet the cloverleaf interchange will forever remain an entrancing symbol of the frenetic energy of my home state.