ILLUSTRATION BY HANNA BARCZYK
Faster and faster we go, and in what seems like the blink of an eye we are off the runway and higher than skyscrapers. We are wings glinting in the sunlight, a passing shadow on a field below. And I, flying alone, watching that shadow through a window, find that I suddenly have something exceedingly rare: time to myself.
On the ground, our time is rarely our own. Yet up in the air, away from instant messages, work calls, and the swelling laundry basket, our time becomes ours again—particularly for those of us who happen to be traveling alone. A solo flight is an opportunity to hatch ideas, delve into something new, draw, design, make plans, or meditate. It’s a chance to take a step back and consider how we’re living day to day, to think about the things that are meaningful to us and the things that aren’t. As a journalist, I’ve written articles on airplanes in half the time it would take to do so in my office, been inspired by photos in magazines I rarely have a chance to skim, and hit on solutions to stubborn problems thanks to the free time I’ve had to let my mind wander.
Gazing out the window at the setting sun, the cabin lights low, our thoughts drift to where we’re headed—or to where we’ve been. No one thinks it’s strange if we sit in quiet contemplation. Maybe we’re nursing a wound—or anticipating an adventure. Social scientists, like Elizabeth W. Dunn at the University of British Columbia, have found that there are benefits to actively anticipating experiences: It’s joy we can begin soaking up (by reading and learning about or imagining the things we’ll do at our destination) well before we ever board a plane. Even if things go wrong once we’re actually on the trip, the weeks or months of happiness we experienced while anticipating it can never be taken away.
These personal pursuits may imply that flying solo is solitary, although that isn’t necessarily so. When flying alone, I often have conversations with passengers and flight attendants that I wouldn’t when I’m traveling with companions. Once, I ended up seated next to a fellow journalist who lived in France, resulting in a flight spent much like an afternoon at a café, chatting about our jobs and cities. Another time, I found myself discussing books and the Financial Times with a seatmate I had long admired but never thought I’d have the privilege of meeting: the playwright Eve Ensler. How renewing it feels in an age of digital friend requests to have a spontaneous, engaging conversation with a stranger.
Flying alone to, say, Paris, I feel a particular kind of excitement, as if a chapter is unfolding, as if with every mile put between me and my hometown I am magically becoming more of who I want to be: someone with time to meet new people, see a foreign film, experiment with fresh ideas. Is it possible to step off a plane a different person than when you walked on?
I bat around this and other fanciful thoughts as I drift in and out of sleep. The voice of the pilot interjects. We are told to begin preparing for our arrival.
I hesitate for a moment, not yet wanting to put my seatback in its upright position and rejoin the world. Before long, there will be phone calls and messages to answer, people and taxis to catch. What awaits each of us back on the ground?
As the plane nears the airport, we fly over a patchwork of green fields. I can make out houses and cars. Soon, I will be in and among them. But for now I’m alone, relishing these last moments between cities, between clouds and freeways, higher than mountains, beyond evergreens.
Stephanie Rosenbloom’s first book, Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude, will be published by Viking on June 5.