I step off the airplane and wait for the other missionaries. Dry air fills my nostrils and lungs, drying out my nostrils. The distinct smell of Utah’s dry mountain air overwhelms my senses. These sights, sounds and smells are so familiar, like a vivid childhood memory. I feel at home here in the desert mountain valley, where the air is hot and dry, unlike the wet air of the Midwest that drenched my face during warmer weather. Here, where the air dehydrates my skin and the moisture wicks from my pores, I feel at home.
Tie tightened up against my neck and overfilled backpack on my back, I walk out of the terminal into the sea of faces - traveling to and from the valley - on vacation, working, getting away, running away. We are coming back. We are here to stay.
Many smiles greet our familiar neckties and black missionary nametags as we walk through the airport. I can only describe the feeling of seeing those radiant blue-brown mountains out the airport windows to my left as a surreal yet blissful dream. I gaze at the endless hills, a welcome sight as I wait for the other missionaries to finish up in the restroom. Ready to go now, we shoulder our bags and move slowly to the security checkpoint, still half expecting to wake up from a familiar dream. People on the other side of the glass wall move uncomfortably through metal detectors as we walk towards our families, friends and futures.
A TSA employee in a blue shirt and black pants sits and watches the incoming and outgoing passengers. His bearded face peers this way and that, watching for any threats. We stride past him, joyful at the thought of our nearness to our families. Black stairs, rotating downward, greet us and invite us to come down – seeming to promise a new beginning, begging us to meet our waiting families. The swooshing of the escalator seems to say, “come down” as each new stair appears.
I pause. People – family, friends, strangers - wait on the floor below. My heart rate increases and beats against my ribs. My palms perspire. As thoughts of the future fill my mind I want to turn around and get back on the airplane, go back to what I have been doing and where I have been living. At the same time I also want to go down to loud, excited cheering and warm embraces. I feel uncertain: stuck between two worlds now meeting like the bottom of the escalator meeting the floor beneath. I stand still and listen to the swooshing noise of the never-ending steps.
My feet take control and guide me down the escalator into the crowd below, holding signs of welcome and shouting with joy. The first man to reach the floor below, dressed in camouflage, is swiftly embraced by a tear-stained blonde woman, accompanied by cheering and clapping. A smile erupts on my face and tears flow down my cheeks as I see my family standing in front of baggage claim. My mother is in front of the crowd, also smiling and crying. The luggage makes its rounds on the stainless steel carousels and businessmen grab bags and head into another day at the job. Not us though. We do not follow the other passengers to the rotating luggage carousel; instead we hurry towards our loving families who stand, anticipating our long unseen faces. The signs, the hugs, the “Welcome Home!” are just for us. I have seen this very scenario play out many times here in this airport – crying family, loving hugs, welcoming signs and loud cheering – but it was always for someone else, some far off stranger returning from a far off place. But this time it is for me. I reach my family. They wrap me in a warm but wet blanket of hugs and tears. The faces I haven’t seen in so long, the mountains that longingly called for me, the warm embraces I yearned for, all have called me home to this moment.