Making friends at 30,000 feet

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I had just taken my seat in Dallas, waiting for the plane to fill before completing my journey to Sonoma. As I sat folded into a window seat, I asked the flight attendant if the flight was full. 

After looking over the flight dossier, he informed me there may be an open seat in the emergency exit row, but those seats were typically obtained through an additional fare.

“I didn’t pay for one,” I answered. “But can pay in the form of being a capable and willing passenger in the event help is needed.”

A few minutes later, I was stretching in the additional leg room that came as a perk of my “upgrade.” 

It was a two-passenger row, and for the majority of the boarding process, it appeared I might have the good fortune of being its lone occupant.

Not that I don’t like people, but compacted into a tube at 37,000 feet, I also enjoy a few extra of my own. My dream was not reality, however, because just before the doors closed, my row mate arrived. 

He looked like a nice enough guy. He was on his phone finalizing his weekend plans during the critical period of pre-flight time that determines if you exchange pleasantries or carry on about your merry travels with so much as a head nod.

This particular leg, the last in my travels to races in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series, appeared to begin with the latter. We buckled in preoccupied in our own respective worlds. 

The icebreaker came in the form of (what I believe to be) one of air travel’s biggest social faux paus. The guy across the aisle kicked off his Skechers and left his dogs free to air out in the stale recycled air of American Airlines flight 200. 

“What is with some people?” my neighbor asked.

It was a risky inquiry: I’m either with the idea of barefoot flying, or I’m not. In this case, I was on his page. 

It opened the door to some fun conversation. Timmy Richards was his name, and like me, he’s been to many parts of the United States. It turns out, music, not racing, is the primary purpose of his travels.

Timmy doesn’t work in music, but travels to different festivals and shows in his free time. We talked of our upbringings - his in Kalamazoo, Michigan, mine in Indiana. Our taste in music is different, but our childhoods were similar. Timmy grew up with older siblings, as did I. He was instilled with Midwestern values, like those placed in me at a young age. 

He told me of his journeys across America in his supped-up van, of the deserts of Utah and New Mexico, the greenery of the Oregon coast, the open space in the Interstates of the Plains. I told him about smelling the purity of the air in New Hampshire, the size of the sky in Montana, the haze of the ubiquitous fog that crests the mountains of the Carolinas. 

A strange thing happens when a plane reaches its gate. Typically, you stand, awkwardly wrestle your bag from the overhead bin, follow the herd single-file into the relative abyss of an awaiting terminal and the partner of your previous hour’s conversation fades into the landscape of shops and Hudson Newsstands, only to join the previous night’s dream as a hazy recollection of your short-term past. 

On this night, Timmy and I traveled together to baggage claim and the rental car facility. If you’ve flown to San Francisco, you know that’s a journey fit for Lewis & Clark. 

Jake QueryTimmy came with me because I offered him a ride into San Fran on my way to Sonoma. It was on the way, and I figured it might save him some bucks in Uber fees. 

Navigating my way up the 101, I learned that Timmy was going to visit a friend he’d met at a music festival. Not someone he grew up with, not a dormmate from college, not a sibling living across the country. A friend. He’d met at a festival. And now, was going to visit. 

I dropped him off at his destination in the dark of a late San Francisco night. We took a quick picture (right), and I went on about my way to Sonoma. 

As I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge and embarked upon the conclusion of another season of Indy car racing, I thought of what makes it such a fun sport to follow. The people. People that come from all over the country, with a common bond among their passion. 

I’ll probably never see Timmy again -- sure, we’re now “Facebook friends,” but for a brief time the routes of our journeys intersected on the same corner. And, in a time where people seem as divisive and dismissive as ever before, we found two strangers can find common ground and learn a little bit from one another. 

I enjoy every weekend of travel with the Verizon IndyCar Series, because I try to soak in the best that each stop has to offer. And, in this case, it was about again seeing there are a lot of cool folks in the world. 

I just wish it didn’t take a guy kickin’ his shoes to kick things off. 

From the fans