Travel Through the Eyes of a First-Time Flyer
Leah Walker July 23, 2012

Friday afternoon I arrived at Bush Airport with just enough time to get through security and board my plane for LaGuardia. My eventual destination was Boston. I was flying on a reward ticket, and it was cheaper to connect through New York. This was great in theory, but then I realized I had to leave my terminal, get on a bus, and go back through security in order to catch my US Airways connection into Boston. Hmmmm….that seemed like a lot to do in my 41 minute layover. What a headache. I certainly was not a happy traveler.

After some choice words, I took my exit row aisle seat. People continued to file onto the plane, and I realized it was going to be close to a full flight. Despite the passengers piling in, I was stretched out and comfortable. Would I be lucky enough to have the middle seat open? It certainly was looking like that would be the case.

Just before the door shut, a group of six women were huffing and puffing their way onto the plane. The group filed past me, and I breathed a sigh of relief. To say these women were oversized would’ve been an understatement. Just as I claimed the middle armrest, I felt a tap on my shoulder from behind. So much for the prized middle open seat.


She was dressed in black jeans with a bit of stretch to them.  The chartreuse cotton shirt she wore was pressed just so. She wore wedges, red lipstick, and her short, black hair was fresh from the beauty shop. She was ready to hit the big city, but I could tell she wasn’t a New Yorker. I watched as she tried to figure out the seatbelt and DirectTV. As she wrung her hands and fiddled her feet, she closed her eyes and moved her lips as if she was praying.

I’m normally not one to chat with my neighbor, but something about this woman made me want to speak to her. I explained the TV and how to swipe her credit card. As we taxied along the busy Friday runway, her eyes became saucer-like. I asked her name and where she was going.

Sharice was headed to New York City for the first time with her sisters for a girls’ weekend. It was also Sharice’s first time to fly…54-years old and never been on a plane. I’m not sure what shocked me more, the fact that she’d never flown or that she was 54.


She was distraught, and I knew she needed help getting through the flight. I couldn’t imagine why her family would let her sit alone. I told her exactly what was going to happen, and I talked to her about altitude and how her ears may pop. She certainly didn’t know what to think about that. I walked her though the take-off process, but I’m not sure how much Sharice even heard. She was very concerned that the flight attendants weren’t buckled up yet.

I noticed a bead of sweat running down the side of her face, and I changed the subject from flying to her hometown. I found out that we were both from tiny places, so we talked about grocery shopping at the Piggly Wiggly, having no movie theater, and the best things to eat at a Dairy Queen. Basically, I wanted to keep her mind off the fact that she was about to be hovering above the earth in a metal tube.

I offered to buy her a drink, but Sharice told me that she didn’t cuss, drink, or smoke. She went on about how in her house everyone must abide by her rules, and before we knew it, the green trees blurred past and we were rising into the clouds. Looking out the window, I pointed out Houston’s landmarks. I could see the tension and stress escaping from her body. No longer did she fiddle her feet or wring her hands. A deep breath was released, and Sharice settled in for the four-hour flight.

We chatted a little more, and Sharice told me that the furthest from Houston she’d been was Florida. It took her a day and a half bus ride to get there. I was curious, but she wanted to know about all the countries I’d been to and what they were like. Amazed that I traveled so often by myself, she asked questions that I hadn’t given much thought to anymore. Travel is now inherent.


I put on my headphones, but kept an eye on her. I watched Sharice as she observed everything that was happening. She was taking it all in; she didn’t want to miss a thing. This was something she’d waited 54 years for, and she was obviously in sensory overload. The wonder in Sharice’s eyes was that of a child. I thought back to the first time I flew; I was four. I’d been flying for 34 years, and I’d certainly seen places that she’d only heard about. This fact bewildered me.

As we began our descent, I put up my headphones. I’d gotten her through the takeoff, but I knew the landing could be just a scary. I asked Sharice about her plans in New York. Lots of sightseeing and shopping were on the agenda as was a trip to the Apollo Theater. I talked to her about the CityPASS and the hop on-hop off busses. I’m not sure she was really paying attention. We had a tiny bit of turbulence, but I’m sure to her it felt like we were going to fall out of the sky. I explained about turbulence and how the plane is designed to withstand it. The death grip on the armrest ceased.

Sharice wanted to know about the New York subways. Someone told her to buy gloves, wear closed-toed shoes, and bring a newspaper to sit on. I threw my head back in laughter; I simply couldn’t help myself. I explained that most alarming thing about the subway was the smell of urine and maybe a few rat sightings. Since I was right about the takeoff not being frightening, Sharice took my word on the subway, too.

I loved listening to her talk about the New York trip. It was something truly special to her, and with each comment, I watched her brown eyes dance. This was the trip of her lifetime. I decided that we all deserve to have at least one trip of a lifetime, and I’ve been fortunate to have many.


As the New York skyline came into sight, I pointed out famous landmarks just as I had in Houston. I built up the city, and told her that it is everything and more than she could imagine. I could see excitement building in her eyes; the fright had been bullied out. The captain announced that we were arriving 20 minutes late, and I made a flippant remark about missing my connection to Boston. This concerned Sharice much more than me. This wasn’t my first rodeo; I knew I’d get the next hour’s flight.

The wheels extended and she flinched, but quickly was back at ease when we hit the runway. We were safe and sound, but instead of jubilation or relief, Sharice looked disappointed, like a kid whose quarter had run out on a ride.

It took 54 years for Sharice to set foot on a plane, and she lamented that fact as we taxied to the gate. A whole new world of possibilities opened to her in four short hours. She talked about all the places she’d wanted to go, but didn’t because it would take too long by bus.

She had an epiphany, and I was happy for her. I wondered if she’d actually follow through on her words and embrace this new sense of freedom. Sharice even talked about wanting to get a job as a flight attendant. I chuckled to myself and was proud at the same time.


I gathered my stuff and stood in the aisle ready to sprint to my gate. I knew I wouldn’t make it. I’d just have to figure things out once I deplaned. Sharice stood up and gave me a big ol’ bear hug. She squeezed me tightly and thanked me profusely. I’d gotten her though the flight, something that she was obviously dreading, but it was me that should have been thanking Sharice.

I’d been reminded how glorious and exciting it is to get on a plane bound for unknown places. Flying isn’t just a means to an end. It’s an adventure within itself. I’d forgotten the joy of airports, planes, and even security, but seeing it through Sharice’s virgin eyes renewed my love for the process of traveling, even the frustrating parts.


I didn’t make my connection, but I did get the next hour’s flight into Boston. Things didn’t run smoothly on the way back to Houston either. My US Airways flight to LaGuardia sat on the runway for two hours before being sent back to the gate and ultimately canceled. I’d been up since 4:00 am. I was tired and hungry, but I wasn’t put out in the least. Thanks to Sharice, I’d been reminded that every part of travel is an adventure.

I was able to rebook a direct flight to Houston for no additional miles or money. Sometimes it’s about being open and staying positive. While others on my same flight were griping about missing this or that, I took it in stride. Besides, what could I do besides roll with the punches?

I wish I’d see Sharice again. I’d give her a big ol’ bear hug. I’d tell her that I was proud of her bravery and admired her newly-developed sense of adventure. Then I’d ask her what she thought about the New York City subways and if she plans on pursuing that career as a flight attendant.

I’d let Sharice know that I made it to Boston. I’d tell her about Beacon Hill, the Old State House, and Fenway Park. I’d go on about the lobster rolls, raw oysters, and cocktails I’d devoured. Then I’d assure her that travel opens our lives up to a world of possibilities, and that it’s never too late to get started. I’d tell her of the love I’ve found and the life-long friends I’ve made as a result of my travels.


Sharice took the opportunity to express her gratitude, and I’m saddened that I didn’t do the same. Unfortunately, she’ll never know exactly what she did for me. A person who’s barely been out of Texas taught this seasoned traveler to open her eyes and take in every single aspect of travel. I wish I could thank Sharice in person for breathing fresh life into my travel spirit. She reminded me that it’s not just about the destination. The journey is pretty damn entertaining, too. I’ve just got to be open to experiencing it.

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Luxe Beat Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don't extend to speaking French. Yet.


  1. Leah, how kind of you to talk Sharice through her nervousness! Most people would have just put on their headphones and tuned her out, leaving her to worry alone. You’re a travel saint!

    You’re so right about flying being an adventure. I often look forward to flying just as much as visiting the destination to which I’m traveling. I’ve flown since I was 6 weeks old, and over 500 times, yet I still view the act of aviation with a sense of boyish wonder. It KILLS me when people don’t appreciate the marvel that it is. :-)

    1. You’re too funny, Paul. I’m not sure I’ve ever been called a saint. BUT, I’ll take it from you. Kidding…How could one not be compassionate to another during such an obviously frightening time? I love your enthusiasm for flying. I still claim that my favorite place on earth is IAH Terminal E, even though flying hasn’t always been what I looked forward to most. That’s changed…for now. Let’s hope it sticks.

  2. Love this post Leah – so well written, it’s as if I’m watching a movie! Well done for inspiring another person to travel too – it really is the best thing in the world!!!

    1. It’s your favorite? Thank you! It’s not the most personal or meaningful that I’ve written, but it did help me reflect back on the experience with Sharice and learn from her. I think that was pretty great.

  3. Leah, I LOVE this post. I think sometimes we do take things for granted when it comes to travel. I’ve been flying since I was 11 (so 14, almost 15 years), so I’m pretty used to it now of course. Hopefully your tales will encourage Sharice to try something new and that it opened up a whole new world of possibilities to her.

    1. You’re such a sweetheart, Tom. Thank you. I’m with you. I hope Sharice does hop on a plane bound for her next dream destination soon. I hope she sees everything she’s ever wanted to see and still revels in every little detail of the journey no matter how many flights she takes.

  4. What a beautiful story! We often get caught up in travel and how used to it we become that we forget what it’s like for those first-timers. It was great that you got to talk her through it, I’m sure she appreciated it.

    1. I agree, Erin. We travelers often get caught up in all the stuff that travel entails and forget what it was like when we first started. I know she appreciated what I did for her. I have the bruises from her hug to prove it. :-)

  5. When I was in Rotterdam, there was a 20+ yr old Ukranian girl at the hostel. It was her first time out of the Country, she was wide-eyed and told us excitedly of her first impressions of the soaring City Skyline. I remember being puzzled, as Rotterdam was flattened during WWII it didn’t have that impressive a skyline. Then I caught myself, of course its all relative.

    It made me realise what I love about travel, the constant novelty. We get reminded of the wonders that are present all around us because we see them through fresh eyes. Its like being a kid again. It made me not feel so bad about being a late bloomer to things, as long as I arrive at the experience eventually and taste that feeling.

    1. Gosh, you are so right about it being relative. I used to think Dallas must have the tallest buildings in the world. I also believed that Atlanta must be the biggest city in the world. Then I traveled. Chicago, NYC, Tokyo, and Beijing put them all to shame. It’s all about perspective. And what you say about arriving at the experience eventually is so true. It’s not when you start. It’s the fact that you started at all that is the most important thing when it comes to traveling.

  6. Wow what a story. I know how easy it is to complain about airlines/airports/the travel shuffle in general but I rarely stop to think about how fortunate I’ve been at such a young age to be able to do it at all. I love the message here: never take anything for granted, and it’s never too late!

    1. You hit the nail on the head, Amanda. Those of us that get to travel are so fortunate. Sometimes I forget that others either haven’t had the chance or haven’t taken the chance to get outside of their little world. I think about when I meet people who are more well-traveled than I, and I am curious and often amazed. Imagine if you’ve never seen anything beyond your area code? I’ve met kids when I was teaching that have never been out of Houston. It never ceases to amaze me. Yes, we are fortunate.

  7. What a lovely post. It just shows what a kind and inspiring person you are. Most people would not bother helping this lady out – I am delighted you have, but also that you took some time to reflect on how fortunate you are. Life is about these little things.

    Delighted to be with you on this journey that we call life. Many congratulations on your 100th post, what a milestone!

    1. It is I that am happy to have found you, Ana. Thank you for the congratulations. One hundred posts certainly sneaked up on me. Life is about little things, as you say. I hope that most people would have done the same thing as I did. Perhaps not, but I try to treat people the way I’d want my mother to be treated. After seeing her struggle in the last few years of her life, I am hypersensitive to reaching out to people who might need some assistance. I certainly wasn’t always that way.

  8. That is so sweet of you to help that lady Leah. God put you on her path and he knows that you are kind-hearted and generous!

    It was a wonderful opportunity for you to appreciate the traveling experience from a different perspective! As I read it, I felt as if I was an observer and right there on the plane with you two :)

    Love the cloud pics! I love the window seat and admire the planet from above…

    Glad to hear you made it to your destination and it will be a flight that you will never forget.

    Many blessings!

    P.S: Congrats on your 100th post 😉

    1. Yes, it is a flight I’ll never forget, this time it will be for a good reason. :-) To say you felt like you were on the plane is probably the highest compliment you can give to a writer. I’m so glad this post did that for you. Sharice had a good heart, and people like that are easy to reach out to. In her frightened state she gave me perspective, which I sorely needed. She helped me as much as I helped her.

    1. Thank you, Katherine. I always try to snap a picture from the plane when I fly. These are just a sampling of the ones I could easily find. I love you can tell from my site :-)

      1. Yeah I love clouds too. Way too many photos of them on my computer! It’s great to be reminded how fun the jounrey is sometimes. I have to say I still love airports and flying. The run up is always stressful and I’m running around like a blue arse fly but the minute the plane starts to taxi away I’m having fun. I hope you do run into Sharice again – would be awesome.

        1. Yes, I’m a huge ball of stress until the plane actually is in the air. I’m totally fine after that. I love being in a plane; it gives me so much time to simply think.

  9. Leah – this must be one of your most beautiful posts. What an amazing story! It goes to show that nothing should be taken for granted, not even routine. As someone who loves every step of the journey, given my love affair with everything “jetting around” – I enjoyed reading about how the airport experience and flying itself is an adventure, and not just whatever happens after arrival. I hope Sharice had the best of times on NYC!

    1. I sure hope Sharice had the time of her life, and I really hope she got to sit by someone that helped her though the flight home. Who knows? She may have already sent in her flight attendant application to United. Thank you so much for the sweet words about this post. So much of life is an adventure, yet we often become numb to it because of the routine. Perhaps that’s why I love travel so much. It shakes up my routine. Ironically, I let my travel become routine, which is the exact opposite of what I want. My next flight is in August, and I plan on tuning in instead of tuning out. Who knows what I’ll see or experience?

  10. What a great story! How awesome of you to help out your neighbor. My grandmother didn’t fly until her 70s, and it’s cool to see things through the eyes of a first-timer. Sometimes when I fly, I try to imagine the flight through the eyes of someone from the 1800s, when flight was just a crazy dream. It makes you appreciate the little things!

    1. You’re too kind, Scott. I’d love to know what your grandmother thought and felt. I’m not sure that either of my grandmothers ever flew. I like that you think about people from the 1800s and their reactions to flying. What an imagination you must have.

  11. Correct me if I am wrong, but Sharice reminded you to stay adventurous… and I hope Sharice stay adventurous in New York, no drinking, cussing, or smoking – she knows it is New York, right…

    stay adventurous, Craig

    1. Why yes, Craig, Sharice was spreading your motto without even knowing it. I didn’t want to put her off the city too much before she arrived. Who knows? She might be cursing up a storm with a cigarette in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other right now. Travel has a transforming way about it.

  12. love this! tomorrow morning i am taking a pair of gloves, closed toe shoes, and a newspaper to sit on with me on the subway. if anyone asks, i’ll look them in the eye and scream “IT’S FOR SHARICE.”

    it sounds like it’s what she would have wanted.

    1. I’m going to need a photo of this to believe it. Actually, video would be best. I expect you to really scream it too. Of course no one will give you a second glance.

  13. Having had more than one unknown seat partner either fall asleep on my shoulder or spill their tomato juice on my lap, I’m usually the “my headphones are in, please leave me alone for the love of God” type of flyer. Next time I encounter a Sharice, though, I’ll be sure to show a tad more in-flight camaraderie.

    1. I’m with you, Steven. I usually just pop on my noise-cancelling headphones and escape into my own world. I’m glad I didn’t this time. I would have certainly missed out on a valuable lesson.

  14. So true! I don’t know when it happened, but at some point in time flying became a nuisance to me instead of an exciting part of the trip. I distinctly remember being thrilled about the little bumps on a plane trip to Russia as a teenager because they reminded me of being on a ride at, say Six Flags. I remember how excited I was on my first few flights to Egypt because I thought eating the food on the plane and being able to watch a movie was soooo exciting. Thanks for reminding me of that!

    1. I still get excited about watching movies on planes. I never go to the theater anymore, so it’s where I catch up on all the latest releases. :-) I really like it when my stomach does flips with a bit of turbulence. It reminds me that I’m alive.

  15. I was 11 years old when I took my first flight. It was a flight from Myrtle Beach to Atlanta My dad won a Father’s Day trip on the radio to see the Braves play. I even went to sleep on my first flight. I didn’t take another flight again until I was 20 years old. That time, I went to Estonia.

    I used to enjoy the flying experience. I still get a little excited when I fly. However, there’s much more stress involved then there used to be. I hate cancellations and anything that messes up my trip, especially when my schedule is disrupted. Sometimes, it’s fine and I am OK with it. Other times it annoys me. Like Sharice, there are still times I get nervous too because I don’t like turbulence.

    I’ve never been to NYC so that’s one thing Sharice has done that I haven’t. I’ll make it there one day and try to remember the tip about the rats and urine in the subway.

    1. Eleven to twenty is quite a long time to go between flights. I’d be willing to bet that it seemed like your first time. I find it pretty funny that you didn’t just take a flight within the US, for your second flight ever. Instead you flew all the way to Estonia. Talk about jumping in with both feet, Jeremy. In my 34 years of flying, I can’t remember ever missing a flight or being delayed so much that I missed a connection. This was my first time. Had I not met Sharice, I probably would have flipped. There’s no need to dwell on things out of my control, I figured. Instead, I just spent my time finding a solution. I sure hope I can keep this place of zen in all of my upcoming travels.

      New York is an amazing place, and I couldn’t think of a better city for Sharice to start with. It took me nearly 30 years to get there, but I long to go back. I’ve been in the spring, but I want to experience it during the fall, winter, and summer. I have a feeling it takes on different personalities with each season. I hope you do get there soon, Jeremy. Like I told Sharice, it is everything and more than you can imagine.

  16. You reminded me of a domestic flight I took years ago in the US when I (happily) found myself sitting next to a truly stunning girl. As we started down the runway she gripped the arm of the seat and with it, my hand… something of a conversation-opener.

    It turned out she was a model – on this occasion heading for a photo-shoot in Florida – cursed with a real fear of flying. She tried to avoid flying when she could, but in her line of work it was impossible to avoid it altogether.

    Like you with Sharice, I ended up talking her through every lump, clunk and bump of the flight. :)

    1. Lucky you, Alastair! How often does one get seated next to a model? :-) I’ve never been that fortunate. Although not a model by any stretch, Sharice was a pleasure to sit by. She had a light within that radiated and drew me in.

  17. Great post Leah! Over time I’ve come to love the whole process of flying, from waiting and people watching at the airport to watching outside as the plane takes off and lands, checking out the scenery in awe. It never gets old. I sat next to someone on their first flight a couple of months ago. They were in their 20’s and were very nervous. I didn’t interact with her as much as you did with Sharice, but I told her what to expect a few times during the process and I’d like to think it helped. :) To flying!

    1. I love people watching, Aaron. The airport offers some of the very best opportunities. I’m sure your seat neighbor appreciated your help. It can be such a scary experience, and I’d hope someone would do it for me if I were afraid of something.

  18. Very kind of you to help the newbie out. This post reminds me of my first time flying and how scared I was. Nice to think back on those memories as I read your narrative on her virgin flight.

  19. here’s to the journey, my lovely friend! great story about Sharice. you are a good woman, Leah, to distract her. she’s a brave soul to be open to such a big adventure herself. 2 gals after my own heart i’d say :)

    xo – lola

  20. It’s so true that every part of travel is an adventure. We are so blessed to be able to travel and it’s always nice to have a little reminder of that. I hope Sharice continues to explore our world and that we come across many more Sharices in the future :)

  21. While I’ve been traveling for the better part of 10 years, I’m now on the road with my boyfriend, who has recently popped his travel cherry since we met three years ago. He’d spent winters in NZ’s far north, but never sought out the snow, so therefore had never experienced snow before. On our cross-Canada roadtrip, we found a pile of not-yet melted snow, and I had as much fun taking photos of him frolicking, and jumping in the snow as he did experiencing it. I kept saying it was “not nice snow” because it was old and crusty, but to him none of that mattered.

    I love experiencing other people’s firsts, and having the chance to be a part of making it memorable, just like you did for Sharice.

  22. That was such a lovely thing you did for that lady. I had my (now ex) boyfriend on my first flight (which was from London to Sydney – I don’t do things by halves!) but I’ve been nervous flying alone since then and always hoped that someone sitting near me would notice and give me a bit of encouragement. I’m less of a nervous flyer now though.

    You’re also right that flying opens up so many more opportunities and is an adventure in itself. I always think my holiday starts at the airport, not when I arrive at the destination.

    1. First flight was London to Sydney?!? You go!It’s good to know that you’ve managed to get past that fear of flying even just a little bit. It can put such a damper on the start of a wonderful trip.

  23. My best friend has never been on a plane before and I hope someone will take her under their wing like you did with Sharice when she does finally get to fly (if I’m not with her, though I hope I am because I would love to see the look on her face during turbulence lol). I never flew much until the last 5 years when I started traveling alot, I had flown all of twice (and only short domestic flights, when I was 6 and 14) before I went to France in 2008 when I was 19. Since then I’ve flown at least once a year long distance and I love it! Can’t wait to fly again in a few months :)

  24. A beautiful story, I think Sharice was lucky to have you sit next to her, but at the same time you were lucky to meet her. It’s wonderful to meet people who challenge our routines and habits, who view things for the first time so we can be reminded how that was again. This story brought a tear to my eye – thanks for sharing this :-)

  25. Leah- I LOVE this post! I read the whole thing and couldn’t look away! This is a great article! One of my close friends will be flying for the first time and it’s incredible how easily we take not only our travels, but the journey there for granted. It helps to have some knowledge, stay ahead of the game, and know when to freak out. Is it embarrassing that I cried reading this? I haven’t sat next to a first timer before but when you form a great relationship with someone your sitting next to you sometimes look back and think what if I had her/his email?
    One time Jay and I actually went out with a girl we met on a plane going to Istanbul, Turkey. We always leave time for discoveries and adventures!

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