I’ve expressed it before (again and again and again, in fact), but I’ll say it again: I’m completely fascinated by the many layers of a place — the stories that happened there, events that changed the world, the natural wonders, quirky trivia, all those dark stages of history — all of it.
In fact, I could probably express this same idea again (and again and again and again, in fact) and repackage it in endless ways and never get bored.
But you might.
Then again, this is my little playground for thought, so why hold back?
K, I won’t.
It happened last weekend. Again.
This one was the largest the state had ever seen, and 26 people were dead. A gunman had entered a tiny church in the tiny town of Sutherland Springs, just 90 miles south of my home in Austin, Texas, and suddenly this tiny dot on the map was flashing on screens across the world.
The killer lived in New Braunfels, which lies halfway between Austin and Sutherland Springs. I’ve been there a couple times, once to splash around their water park and another to attend the annual Wurstfest, where crowds gather to eat sausages, drink beer, and be merry.
I couldn’t help but wonder, what’s the closest I’ve come to crossing paths with the guy? Was he at the Wurstfest? Did we wait in line together to go down one of the busy waterslides that day at the waterpark? Surely he’d been to Austin at least a handful of times. Has he been to the gas station near my apartment? Or passed by me while I was walking to work?
Why go through such a morbid thought experiment anyway?
Everything under the sun …
The point is that we can never know the immensity and variety of stories that surround us, and I can’t stop thinking about what else is in my own backyard, so to speak. Sure, I gave a particularly dark example, but it extends to the pursuits of Nobel Prize winners, entrepreneurs, authors, podcasters, newscasters, and the rest of them. They’re all somewhere on Earth, right now, crossing paths with folks like you and me.
Some places are hotbeds for such stories.
I recently picked up a weekend job at the airport in Austin, where my role is to more or less direct travelers to the right lines to go through security. Looking at the steady stream of thousands of passengers, my imagination runs wild. Everyone who leaves Austin (at least via airline travel) passes through this point. I like to imagine a little red trail spewing from everyone’s path and wonder how all that traffic adds up, where it clusters, and where lines cross — superstars on their way to gigs at the “live music capital of the world,” renowned authors finding their way to book festivals and readings, sports teams getting ready to rumble, and business honchos off to make billion-dollar deals and (who knows), ultimately redefine the products we’ll someday own.
Airports would be a beacon of red signifying to the heavens, “the people are here, and they’re all in the middle of a story, many of them connected to yours.”
I’ve only gathered a tiny sampling of those stories’ content, but I know so much more is out there.
For example, actor and comedian Kevin Nealon passed through the line the other day. I’ve seen the guy on TV, and just like that, he was walking in front of me. I’ve met some LA folks who are so, so over anyone who gets giddy over stargazing, but hey, it’s interesting when something or someone you only know in theory is suddenly standing before you. In the GIS field (Geographic Information Systems), they say that “everything is related to everything, but closer things are more related.” I’d say closer things are also more meaningful, so when an actor who never crosses my mind suddenly crosses my path, his existence and story become more meaningful to me. Perhaps that’s why I’m so enthralled by this idea of place. We know the Earth is filled with billions upon billions of stories, but most of them mean little to the average person — not because they lack meaning, but they lack a known connection.
And place is one thing that connects them all.
The most memorable was a guy who interrupted me while I was in mid-conversation with another passenger. “Please, I’m trying to catch a flight to California and I’m running late.” He looked distraught and hopelessly stared toward the stagnant zig-zagging line ahead of him. “My dog was murdered, and …” He paused and tried to gather his composure. “I’m really having a hard day, and, and I need to get to my family and … can you just tell me what to do?”
I offered my condolences and encouraged him to skip ahead. Most travelers have been late for a flight before and will let someone pass if they look desperate enough. If anyone deserved a pass, it was this guy.
He thanked me and proceeded ahead. He really did look distraught, and I couldn’t even understand everything he was saying in his mumbled state.
“Dog was murdered …” I kept playing it back in my mind. “Dog was …”
Did he really say dog?
The word “Daughter” spilled out of my mouth.
I think he might have said ‘daughter.’
His story suddenly weighed heavier on my heart. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I now know this was only hours after the mass shooting that had just happened within a 90 minutes’ drive from us, and surely at that very moment, dozens of others were frantically rushing through security at airports around the country, devastated by the loss of a loved one in a place so close to home for me, yet across the land for them.
All connected to a place, saturated in stories we cannot see, but they’re there and I know it, and so I’ll never stop wondering what’s out there.