If you squint, the people going through security at Denver International Airport look like ants foraging at a buffet. As travelers endure the seemingly endless serpentine security lines, their gaze is fixed on their cell phones; they look nervously at their watches; they hope against hope that somehow the lines miraculously speed up, so they won’t miss their flight.
Last Friday marked the beginning of Thanksgiving travel and well over 150,000 people---not counting airport workers---filled DIA. It’s going to be like this---and worse---until Sunday night when the first big winter holiday travel spike ebbs. Of course, the nation’s airports won’t be the only place where travelers are jockeying for space. Highways will also be filling up. In fact, every mode of travel will be taxed. People will be on the go.
Thanksgiving travel at DIA will include tons of in-bound travelers---especially young people---coming here to take advantage of Colorado’s big early season snowfalls. Colleges will also be shutting down for a few days and students will be crossing paths as they either return home or head home for the holiday. Add to this equation service members, business travelers and the rest and---viola!---it’s the holidays!
For Skip Vanderbach, the next week will find him hosting hundreds of perfect strangers---brothers and sisters, to him---at DIA’s USO lounge. “We know it’s going to be busy,” said the retired Air Force veteran. “We’ve been known to handle 700-1,200 people in one day.” Contributing to Vanderbach’s crowd and responsibility will be scores of Air Force Academy cadets passing through DIA as they take their first break since mid-summer when they arrived in Colorado Springs.
Vanderbach’s USO lounge provides an oasis for active or retired military along with their dependents. “We have TV, Wi-Fi, computer access, they can store their baggage, there’s a kids’ area,” he said as he prepared for the rush. The lounge also gives guests a quiet place to monitor flight boards and keep track of their flights. Food and drink---all free---is also provided. But these---the holidays---are not normal times and a few outside partners, including Southwest Airlines and the American Legion, have pitched in with additional food, drink and snacks.
The USO, in business serving the military since 1941, also has a center at the U.S. Customs House in downtown Denver. It’s located at 19th and California. What makes it unique is that the travelers here are usually recruits waiting to take the oath before shipping out to basic training or are here to address a medical issue that needs resolution before they can officially enlist.
With a strong economy and lower gas prices, AAA projects that this holiday will be the busiest since 2005. By Sunday night, it predicts that 42 million people will have driven fifty miles or more for a visit; 4.2 million will have flown; another 1.5 million will have taken a train or bus for the holiday.
And while reunions and family gatherings are what Americans do this time of year, the distance separating loved ones today is not the same as it once was. The internet has changed all that.
Broomfield resident Carla Padilla will be reuniting with her daughter for Thanksgiving. “I think we will both be very happy to see each other,” said the single mother. The pair has been apart since August when daughter, Lily, left for Sarah Lawrence College in New York. But geographic separation is no longer what it once was for the Padillas or for millions of other families living apart thanks to things like cells phones and webcam connections.
“I talked to Lily almost every day,” said Padilla. They’ve also stayed in touch via Skype, an internet application that allows both audio and video communication. While technology has not eliminated the melancholy of not being near loved ones, it has somewhat softened the blow. “I met some of her friends via Skype, saw her roommates and watched her walk to class,” said Padilla.
But the one thing technology cannot do and may not ever be able to deliver is subtle nuance that, perhaps, only a parent can see. “I think one of the biggest changes I will see in her is her independence.” The reunion, however brief---her daughter leaves back to college on Saturday---will still be priceless. “I think we will both very happy to see each other,” said Padilla. “I look forward to hugging her and touching her face.” A simple and tender thought that, perhaps, lessens the stress of holiday travel.
As DIA’s trains arrive at the main terminal, people stand behind the barriers holding signs affixed with names alerting incoming passengers. Others hoist balloons or hold bouquets for their arriving loved ones. Across the way Reverend Ruben Villareal has arrived in plenty of time to pick up his son, Josiah, who’s been away at college in Tennessee. He sits quietly but with a direct line-of-sight in case his son arrives early. He’s composed, yet excited. He’s anxious to see the son he sent away last summer.
“A lot has happened in the two or three months since he’s been gone, inside of him. I can see that. I can hear it in his voice over the phone,” said Villareal.