“I’m headed to a cold place,” I explained my purchase to the lady behind the counter.
“Just take ‘em all,” she replied, dumping the entire box of air-activated toe warmers into my backpack.
“They just went on sale. Seventeen cents each,” she said. Forget the weatherman, the manager at CVS has declared winter over and done.
My Uber driver did not know the way to the airport, so I guided him with encouragement, “Now turn left, you’ll wanna change lanes now. Keep going, yes, that’s right.” Though I adopted the tone of a condescending kindergarten teacher, we never broke 35 mph.
At Dulles, the security line wrapped all the way to the escalator. In front of me, an adult woman fussed over her elderly mother, preparing her for the rigors of a TSA inspection and their upcoming 19-hour flight to South Africa. Stuck in line, they were forced to hear my rush of South African travel stories: “This one time in the Karoo . . .” They smiled politely and then got tangled up in security due to their many oversized cosmetics.
In the terminal a man asked me to watch his daughter for a few minutes and then left me before I could answer yes. I tried making conversation, but the girl was only nine years old and wary of me, a stranger. Yes, she was flying to Amsterdam to visit her grandparents. No, she did not speak any Dutch. Yes, she liked Holland. Her father returned with coffee.
“I have to work on the plane tonight,” he said, sipping his red eye.
I fell asleep over New Brunswick and woke up outside Wales with a crick in my neck. Even up in fancy pants Economy Plus, crossing the Atlantic made for a fitful night, like a grown-up slumber party spent on broken lawn furniture. I covered the width of an ocean while jackknifed across seats 24A and B, pulling at my square blanket, wondering if I was exposing too much of my lower back, fighting the impossible geometry of airline-issue bedding. Why can’t they just make the darn things rectangle?
But airline-issue blankets are square and the Earth is round, and to get where I was headed, I had to cross the same ocean twice—there and back, triple the distance—6,000 miles instead of just 2,000.
Some years ago, Air Greenland introduced a direct summer-only flight from Baltimore to Kangerlussuaq, but the planes stayed too empty and the route got shut down before anybody in America learned how to pronounce Kangerlussuaq. Now, to reach the world’s largest island, one must first fly to Iceland or Denmark, making this the longest, single commercial ticket I have ever flown, spelled out in a long chain of IATA airport codes: IAD > AMS > CPH > SFJ > GOH > JAV> JQA > UMD > JQA > JAV > GOH > RKV > KEF > IAD.
Sometime during the night I received a text message from Canada, telling me that I had entered Canada, which, being part of North America, counted as “home” with my premium phone plan. I deleted the text just as the flight attendant turned on the lights and spat into the intercom: “Hey folks, so the pilot informs me our water lines are frozen, so there won’t be any coffee for breakfast.” Nobody reacted to the bad news. Outside my window, the planet Venus sparkled white.
“God, the sky is beautiful,” I thought, watching the morning clouds light up with pink and orange. Europe’s sunrise is the big payoff after an all-night trip, followed by the comforting view of the hemmed-up shoreline of the Netherlands, straight as a ruler, with lines of white surf breaking against the sand. The land beyond was marked into perfect squares and outlined with the bronze and gold reflection of sunlight on the canal. Holland resembles a silicon microchip, I thought, watching the morning commuters zoom on freshly-tarred highways, subconsciously racing past our airplane as we touched down at Schiphol.
If God designed airports, they would all look like Schiphol: spacious bathrooms with sanitized toilet seats, shops filled with gouda and more shops filled with books that people want to read, and terminals that swim with that warm European aroma of coffee and pastry.
Copenhagen Airport smelled like bacon when I arrived, two hours later—Copenhagen the city of good-looking Danish people; Copenhagen that makes you reconsider your flower vases back home; Copenhagen that says you’d look better in black.
I spoke Spanish with the vendor on the street, I spoke French with the waiter at Hotel D’Angleterre, and I stared at Sweden for an hour, trudging the sandy shores of Øresund, wondering if one might really swim to grey and lonely Sweden—you know, if it wasn’t early March and freezing. I had only left home 15 hours before and already, I had lost track of the countries I had seen, heard, or considered in a day, and the next morning I woke up before my cell phone sang its tune, still in a daze and heavy with Weltschmerz.
My last plane was painted red, and since our arms were practically linked and we played accidental footsie for the next four hours, I thought it best to to introduce myself to the Norwegian lady next to me. Anna was going on vacation to the Arctic—she would go dogsledding that very afternoon! But also, she wanted to let me know that she was evangelical, and she beamed with the confidence and joy of someone who discovered religion late in life.
“I feel called to do a mission in Greenland,” she said, and I nodded back. I know what it’s like to feel called to a faraway place and to simply go there. For the next four hours we flew—flying the exact same miles I had flown the day before, completing my lengthy zigzag across the Atlantic.
Greenland is the epitome of flyover country: Everyday, more people fly over Greenland than actually live here—it may be the most forgotten country in the world. Occasionally, a pilot might say, “We are flying over Greenland,” or you might be awake when the map shows the little airplane cursor skimming across the bottom end of the island. Sometimes, you might even see the blinding white out your window, or the whipped cream topography down below. But now we descended, breaking through the cloak of white cloud and soaring over the deep cracks of the ice-age landscape and down into the long fjord, milky with blue-grey ice.
I stepped out the door and sucked the cold air into my lungs—so clean. Halfway to the airport, my pants had frozen to my leg hair. In less than a minute, I felt crippled by the true winter cold of the Arctic Circle, so that I stumbled forward and into the waiting doors where there was heat, and customs officers, and a duty free store selling black licorice by the kilo.
Bing! Welcome to Greenland, my phone texted me. My phone company was concerned that I had left their jurisdiction. I was no longer covered. I better call them on their free number—they said all of this in a text. So I sat down in front of the wall of windows at Kangerlussuaq, staring at the horizon of snowy mountains before me.
Britney of Springfield, Missouri was patient and kind on the phone, and even seemed somewhat interested when I relayed to her the story of the Great Cobra Scare of 1953.
“It happened right there in Springfield—eleven king cobras escaped from a pet store and were slithering all around Main Street for the next month. The police had to chase them down, but mostly it was the ladies with garden hoes who got rid of the snakes.
“Hmmm, I never heard of it,” said Britney. “So how can I help you?”
“Well, the whole reason I switched to T-Mobile is ‘cuz you guys promised me worldwide coverage,” I explained.
“Let me look up the country and see if it’s covered.”
“I was told “worldwide coverage” so that’s where I’m confused. I mean, I’m technically still in North America.”
“Then you’re covered, sir. All of North America is free—same as when you’re home.” She sounded relieved.
“Except Greenland, apparently.”
“I’m looking it up for you know. What’s it called again?” asked Britney.
“Green Land?” she echoed back, then laughed. “I never heard of it before. I gotta look it up. Where is it?”
“In North America. Above Canada—it’s at the top of the world, that big, white island. The white stuff is ice,” Now my voice had fallen to preschool teacher levels.
“Found it. No, you’re not covered. Any data used will cost you fifteen dollars per megabyte.”
“Fifteen bucks? That’s kind of ridiculous—I mean, who comes up with that number?”
“I don’t know sir, but might I suggest you put your phone in airplane mode and then find a good wifi hotspot?”
“Yeah, but then I’m just using my phone as a wifi device. I might as well be using a tablet or my laptop.”
“I’m sorry, Sir. We just don’t have a deal with that country—Green Land.”
“Well, you should say that then. T-Mobile should say, ‘Worldwide coverage EXCEPT Greenland’—or, ‘All North America is free, excluding the largest island in North America.’”
Britney did not offer to pass on my suggestions to the marketing department, and I accepted the fact that I would not have roaming data for my time spent above the Arctic Circle. There are worse problems.
“Well Britney, can you do me a favor?” I asked. “Get a world map out and find Greenland. I will feel better if you know where it is.”
“Oh, it’s beautiful. I’m looking at pictures on the internet right now.”
“I’m looking at it in real life,” I replied. “Greenland is beautiful—it’s snowing here right now. I hope you get to see it someday.”
There was a long pause—the silence of deeper thought and a few thousand miles between us. Then we said goodbye.
All travel is a gift, and this gift has led me back to Greenland—I took the long way, rubbing shoulders for a moment with dozens of my fellow humans, all of us dispersed into new moments that change with the moving sun—like rolling billiards on a green felt Earth, crashing into one another with a hollow clunk and spinning off at some new angle to another place in the world.
My new place is Greenland, where I shall live until I start rolling to somewhere else. It's really not so cold here, as long as you're bundled up well and have a solid supply of toe warmers, which I do. Enough to share with the good people of Greenland, where winter is still a long way from over.