In late July, I was laid off. Three days later, my girlfriend and I called it quits.
I'd had better weeks.
In the past, faced with this kind of wholesale change, I'd drowned my sorrows by overdosing—on television. There's nothing like three straight hours of Battlestar Galactica to make you feel single and unemployed. Eventually, bingeing always makes me want to escape from the escape, at which point I re-emerge.
But this time, television wasn't enough. I was too worried about paychecks to get comfortable on the couch. So I decided to embrace a different kind of escape. Suddenly untethered, I felt free to leave New York. For a while. To go nowhere in particular.
Rather than sit for hours in front of the television, I had a new plan. Sit for weeks inside an airplane.
The goal: to visit 30 airports in 30 days.
Admittedly, this was unnecessarily idiotic. Airports are universally reviled. They're full of bad food, arbitrary security rules, and stale air. The planes are little better—uncomfortable seats, no personal space, and yet more stale air. No person has felt better getting off a plane than they did getting on.
But if unemployment is supposed to be good for anything, it's for chasing dreams we otherwise couldn't. And for reasons far too masochistic for even me to understand, going to 30 airports in 30 days had become my dream.
I should mention that I'm prone to peripatetic episodes. Well, I'm prone to planning them—executing them is another matter. In 2009, I convinced my (former) boss that it would be a good idea to fund my summer vacation. Soon, I had a modest sum for expenses, a one-way rental car to the West Coast, and a mission to report on how stimulus funds were being doled out across the country. Two weeks later, I was drained, standing in the shower of a Days Inn for 45 minutes, head against the wall. When I try to be a nomad, my eyes are always bigger than my stamina.
When JetBlue announced a monthlong, unlimited pass called "All You Can Jet," I took it as a challenge. Somebody had to call their bluff, to be the glutton at the buffet. And, as a newly unemployed (ahem, freelance) journalist, that glutton should be me. I was going to use the pass to see America. Or at least her airports. The central question: What can you learn about airports and the state of air travel from flying far too often to far too many airports? Or, to put it more personally: How long would it take until I found myself standing for 45 minutes in an airport fountain, head against the jets?
So, after spending $700, I had the right to fly as many times as I wanted between Sept. 7 and Oct. 6. (A cheaper, more restricted, version of the pass was available for $500.) Those 30 days are some of the slowest of the year for travel companies. Families have exhausted their vacation funds over the summer, and there are no long weekends to exploit. Because the flights still have to take off whether or not there are people onboard, JetBlue is willing to lose money on the program. (It won't reveal how many passes it sells, though it's safe to assume it's at least in the thousands.) All parties are just filling excess capacity—JetBlue on its planes, the travelers in their wanderlust.
The publicity that comes with it is also nice. NPR, the New York Times, and travel blogs have all run stories about the program. Inevitably, the coverage reinforces the image of JetBlue as the fun, innovative budget airline, the one that thinks of things AirTran, Southwest, and the others don't.
A week before I left, I went to a friend's housewarming party and told her my plan. I expected blank stares, mocking laughs, and warnings about deep-vein thrombosis. Instead, my friend pointed to the corner, where a guy named Anoop was sitting. A friend of a friend whom I had met once before, Anoop told me this was going to be his second year with the pass. I asked him what it was like last year, and with Silicon Valley earnestness he told me it had been a "profound" experience, mainly because of the strangers he met during the month.
"You're going to the meet-up?" he asked with expectation.
Pause. "What meet-up?"
Then Anoop took out his iPhone and introduced me to 505 of my newest best friends.
Movies like Up in the Air have suggested that flying is an inherently lonely experience—when you're not attached, you're not invested. But All You Can Jetters refuse to hew to the Clooney cliché. When the pass was offered last year, AYCJers organized themselves on Facebook, Twitter, and Meetup.com, figuring out ways to hang out even after they left the airport. Uprooted from their home communities, they decided to build their own on the go. As of this writing, 6,978 people are fans of the AYCJ page on Facebook. Five-hundred and five are members of the AYCJ group on Meetup.com. And there are hundreds of tweets that use the #aycj hash tag.
And so, one week before setting off, I find myself at Flight 151, a kitschy dive bar in New York, with a few dozen strangers. We are embarrassingly multicultural. I keep searching the room to see which liberal psychology professor has assembled us for one final, grand experiment in community building. Diverse in race, temperament, and socioeconomics, the thing we share most obviously is a plan to travel for traveling's sake.
I make the rounds to investigate the competition—if I'm going to be an idiot, I might as well be superlatively idiotic. Admittedly, it would be tough to top Terminal Man, a guy who, in 2009, used the AYCJ pass to fly dozens of times but otherwise never actually left the airport. (He blogged about it for Wired.com.) I'm quickly introduced to Terminal Man's rival, a gawky twentysomething with braces, who told me he was just finishing up a documentary about his AYCJ experience last year—28 airports, 30 days.
"Are you only sleeping in airports?" he asks. I tell him no, I'm not. "Oh," he says. Never have I felt so guilty for trying to sustain my sanity. I'm reminded of a line from poet Jack Black. "No, you're not hard-core/ Unless you live hard-core."
A few days later, I'm deciding what to pack (a week's worth of T-shirts, underwear, and socks; two pairs of pants; one pair of shorts; sandals; shoes; a rain jacket; a sweatshirt; and a button-down flannel shirt) when a friend sends me an e-mail. Earlier in the week, we had been idly talking about things that are overrated, and she said she had once written a blog post about her top four, but she couldn't remember what they were. Now she has found her list:
- Buffalo wings
- Self-imposed loneliness as route to enlightenment
I reply: "Will offer a full report on No. 3 in a month."