“Yes, Valencia latte and a bagel with cream cheese, please.” I told the woman at the coffee shop inside the Colorado Springs airport. My east coast self saw bagels and even with the presence of breakfast burritos couldn’t override the urge for glorious carbs and fat.
Finding my way to my gate, I sat down to devour the thing. I’d been awake for nearly three hours and had steadily been approaching “hangry” status for the past half hour. And there it was – my wonderful little lonely seat near the gate for all flights bound for either Atlanta or Salt Lake. The routine of popping in ear buds, pouncing my iced latte and housing a bagel kicked in.
However, unlike any other trip I’ve ever taken, this one was for work. This was completely unexplored territory for me, and suddenly, things like checking work e-mail and answering work phone calls which I had so mercilessly mocked before in places like Minneapolis and Hotlanta suddenly became incredibly relevant. It was a startling realization. I stared down at my iPad, which was serving a purpose outside of playing Netflix and Pandora for the first time ever.
48 hours prior, I was sitting at my desk, happily whittling away at what I was given in the clean confines of my cubicle, watching the snow float down outside and collecting on my Honda Civic.
We landed in Salt Lake rather peacefully, only for me to be dumped into the pool of commuter and short regional flights near the end of the airport. I don’t really mind people, I just couldn’t find the order in all of that chaos. I glanced at my watch – good, I have a solid hour to charge all my devices.
I looked around the room full of people as I squeezed in between a couple of people. This was always an awkward moment – when you have to ask partial permission to use half of an outlet that neither of you own but someone has claimed it first. They’re the alpha-electric owner in this district of the airport. Oh, she’s asleep, awesome.
The flight is getting ready to board and while I’m familiar with this whole process, I’m not familiar with what happens after I get out into the tube that routes us to our flight. By this I mean the semi-outdoor hallway that has signs displayed for each of the “gates” to the aircrafts. The process is exactly the same as any flight where you plane-side check your luggage, save for boarding the aircraft without a formal jetway and dropping off your carry-ons outside.
I handed the gate agent my boarding pass. She looked at me before handing the pass back to me and asked in whispered tones, “Why would you ever go to this place? This place is hell. You don’t want to go here. We’ll refund your ticket. We’ll give you a free flight. But whatever you do, don’t go to this place.” Just kidding – she smiled and told me to have a nice flight. I’m pretty sure it was less of a nicety and more of a mandate because they’d received complaints on this flight before.
I was flying for work, but as I boarded the plane, I can’t say I felt very important. I mean, I did feel big but only because the aircraft was a small Brasilia jet. A toddler could feel like a giant in one of those. No big thing – I was a professional. I’d packed all of my necessities into my carryon bag. No fees for checked bags. You’re welcome, work.
I’d flown short flights like this before, where you couldn’t take a carry-on, where it was a cash-only flight, and where they had to take inventory of who was sitting where for weight distribution purposes. What I wasn’t exactly prepared for were the propellers on the outside of the little turboprop and how loud they were as they were spinning. Or how that would continue throughout the duration of the flight. Or how the plane would glide left and right as it flew through the air.
The movies and little kids are wrong. The most terrifying part of a flight isn’t the beginning when you’re taking off and white-knuckling someone else’s hand or the seat arm. No. It’s when you’re descending and landing. It’s when the plane makes sudden drops or slips through large air pockets that cause intense turbulence that I get nervous. Sometimes there was a rhythm, but I’d venture to say that it was outright terrifying. The young girl sitting across the aisle from me, presumably to meet a parent or relative upon landing, was unusually calm. And I envied her.
About to touch ground, I could already see the mine. So much coal, so many parts of the strip mine exposed. It was breathtaking. This was ultimately why we were here. I’m not a diehard environmentalist, but even if you’re lobbying for coal, this is something you have to see firsthand to truly understand.
Sweating quite a bit and warm from the fear that the plane was going to crash, I got off the plane to pick up my checked bag and meet my co-worker, who I was there to relieve. Wind smacking my hair in my face, my suitcase unable to keep both wheels in contact with the ground and me realizing my hiking boots and plaid button up shirt and jeans made me stand out as a Coloradan in Wyoming – this was home for the forseeable future or until my company told me when they’d fly me home.
Meeting my co-worker for the first time in person, we drove to the work site. I already had my gloves, my steel-toe electrical hazard boots and my safety glasses, but had forgotten how uncomfortable all my gear was. It’d been a couple of months since I’d had to don any of it. I asked him about the job site, the people, the off-the-record stuff. All the answers were things I already knew. No surprises.
We arrived, signed in, and it was time for introductions. No one could have prepared me for the scope of this shop. Photos hadn’t done any of it justice. 100 ton cranes overhead, effortlessly moving parts of machines used to mine coal and oil. It was, perhaps, one of the most fascinating things I had ever seen. So many tools, so many giant industrial things, and it was a little dangerous. I loved it.
The entire shop was dirtier than I could have pictured from way back in my clean state of Colorado. Particles everywhere. A nice, thick film of dirty and metal flakes covering equipment like ash. I watched as one of the welders took an air-arc grinder to bevel plate and little orange sparks flew towards us. The synthetic Columbia snowboarding jacket wasn’t going to cut it. I’d have to get a Carhartt to both keep me warm and not get damaged by welding tools and the sharp edges of materials laying around. Incidentally, Carhartt hoodies and jackets are standard issue clothing in Wyoming – unless you’re a contractor.
The day was long – 12 hours or so, and we were on our feet for the entirety. It was exhausting and between inhaling particulate and cigarette smoke, my lungs were begging for air.
“Should I be worried about the air I’m breathing in here?” I asked my coworker.
“I mean, you’re going to blow your nose at the end of the day. And you’re going to blow some black snot. It’s a shop. You’ll be fine. It’s normal. Now put your ear plugs in.” I thought back to my concert-attending days as a youth where we’d go places and everyone smoked. The only difference now was that we weren’t inhaling cigarette smoke but metal particulate.
Line drawings, parts lists, equipment and tools I wasn’t familiar with – all hitting me at once. Things I knew nothing about, but things I would have to know like the back of my hand to do this job. I’d like to say that, on top of that, being female in that environment wasn’t going to make it any easier, but I’ll tell all of you right now – it had absolutely no bearing on my job. I wasn’t harassed. I wasn’t insulted. And it made me kind of happy because I had no idea what to expect.
The end of the first day approached. Time to rest, get up at 5 AM and begin official training for the next five days. Standing outside with one of the guys from the shop, I asked if this was home and if he liked it here. He exhaled some smoke, his breath magnifying the size of the cloud as I shivered in my thin hoodie. “This isn’t home. This is a job.” And he stared off into the gray sky, absent of sunset, unknowingly explaining in that simple sentence why everyone was here.