The differences between my fellow airplane passengers and me began to enumerate right around the time I admitted I needed to call this kind of jet-setting work—life on the road as a clinician—something else.
I have since sobered up to the reality that a traveling horse trainer shares very little, if anything, with those on bona fide business travels. I guess that leaves us among a marginal group maybe best called obscure career travelers.
To start with, there is the issue of in-flight seat price and privilege. Those company men and women sit much closer to the front of the plane in seats like La-Z-Boys, placidly reclined with carbonated beverages already cupped in their smooth hands before the rest of us have wrestled luggage overhead and squished down on to our tiny cushions. By comparison, the rest of us are sweaty and frazzled. A carbonated beverage will not make its way to us without an equation of smooth air, flight duration, and benevolent attendants.
Then there is the difference of attire between the bona fide business folks and we obscure careerists. The front-of-plane folks, making their way to fancy meeting rooms instead of dusty arenas, appear as buffed and clean as mannequins. Everything about them looks pressed, tidy: shirts fronts, hairstyles, cuticles, handbags.
In contrast, my finest work outfit, consisting of jeans, polo shirt, and paddock boots looks unkempt. And while it was crisp clean when I took it from the closet that morning, my jacket usually bears several horse slobber streaks from a quick stop at the barn en route to airport. My paddock boots have lost the ability to hold a shine when polished, and I would not know the first thing to do with a designer handbag.
When I was growing up, I often watched my mom swing her suitcase in to the trunk of her car and head off to teach at stables around New England imagining the glamour of her excursions. I thought about the novelty and energy of each new location, how her life on the road seemed so exotic. My childhood imagination put it on par with being a traveling performer of sorts. I assumed my mom, like the business travelers I wrangle my suitcase past looking serene and content in their on-board La-Z-Boys, was wined and dined every night. I figured she slept on silky sheets after working all day with courteous students.
It turns out I misidentified the glamor in my mom’s travels. She herself was an obscure career traveler, meaning that, as I do today, she slept in strangers’ basements, barns, and an uncanny number of sheds. She drank coffee, occasionally palatable and accompanied by food, and then walked out to an arena to spend all day on her feet teaching a rainbow of personalities.
Eventually, she got to put her suitcase back in the car and come home. She showed up looking pensive, exhausted. And her weariness, I have discovered, did not come from staying up too late in a fancy hotel room surfing entertainment options. It came from swatting away the smelly barn dog nosing her legs under the host’s dinner table, from endless hours on her feet and breathing arena dust, from feigning politeness through fatigue, from navigating students’ moods: grouchiness, emotional bursts, distractedness.
All these years later, I can see my mom’s—and now my—career for what it truly was: incredibly hard, often gratifying, but decidedly not fancy. Perhaps the airline industry has not yet thought of this, but I would like to propose a new seating section for those of us who desperately need to get off our feet and hold a cold beverage before everyone else. Right behind the big comfy recliners up front, I want to see a few rows of seats for those of us with a few wrinkles in our trousers and very rough cuticles. Bring on the obscure business traveler seating area.