Field Tripping By Kate Drabinski

Field Tripping: Fitbitting Across America

City Paper

I’ve spent a lot of time in airports in the last month. And I mean a lot of time. It’s not like I’m one of those business travelers who has medallion status and gets to do everything first, or one of those people with matching luggage that organizes things. Truth be told, I don’t even have a separate bag for my toiletries, instead hoping the ladyfriend packs a toothbrush and trusting that wherever I’m staying will have toothpaste, soap, and shampoo. But here I am, at the end of 2014 with a whole bunch of plane trips in a month, and the only way to make this feel kind of OK is to treat each airport like a field-tripping destination of its own.

That’s been absolutely no problem, thanks to my new Fitbit. Yeah, I got one of those things, against my better judgment. I am obsessive-compulsive—have been since I was a toddler, according to my mother, who tells stories of my odd crawling habits that only make sense now, in the context of the elaborate system of walking I’ve created for myself over the years. The system is concerned mostly with treating both sides equally, which means the same number of steps, the same pressure on both feet, and if I step on half a shadow with the ball of my right foot, you can bet I’ll be stepping on half a shadow with the ball of my left foot, too. Think that whole “step on a crack” business, on crack. There are a ton of rules I keep mostly to myself, and I’ve learned to manage my compulsions so I can walk down the street without the weird hops and skips that punctuated my nervous childhood. Now symptoms emerge rarely, usually when I’m anxious. Like when I’m traveling.

Given my history, I’m probably the worst candidate for a Fitbit, a thing you’re supposed to wear all the time that logs every step (using magic, as far as I can tell) and keeps a log of how far you’ve walked by the minute. Seriously, you can look at a graph that shows you how many steps you took between 9:08 and 9:10 a.m. It’s my perfect nightmare, and wearing it has transformed my airport stops into step-gathering arenas.

My first stop on each of these trips has been BWI, of course. That place has figured out that a lot of us are counting steps, and they’ve installed a “cardio trail” in the Southwest terminal. It’s a 20-minute 1K walk that’s really just a few signs posted along the walk down the terminal, but those signs and the Fitbit transformed what would have just been a walk to my gate into a journey of 1,320 steps, only 8,680 to go, past the pretzel place and the doughnut store and the “Mexican” restaurant that is part of that terminal’s day-drinking siren song. Ordinarily I might have stopped to sample the local delicacies, but the Fitbit also calculates “active minutes,” minutes spent walking without stopping, and I could feel the compulsion to keep striding. Think of the numbers.

And then there was the Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP) airport. This place is huge, the Jupiter of Midwest airports, its mall the swirling eye at the center. All I saw were steps and steps and steps, so many steps. I had 90 minutes, and I was going to use every single one of them to pump up my numbers, especially since I was in friendly competition with some fellow Fitbitters, because the thing allows you to rank yourself against your friends—a fantastically terrible idea for the competitive nature that hangs alongside my OCD shit. I was off, pumping my arms, pausing to sync my Fitbit with its app every 1,500 steps or so. I passed the same pretzel stands and doughnut emporiums you can find in any airport, but I was also forced to pass up MSP’s flashing arcade, its fancy restaurant that serves asparagus and brie sandwiches and boasts a wine list, that shop that sells all moose-themed stuff, and the bookstores that just sell books. If not for the Fitbit, I would have spent that layover just sucking down wine at the ritzy spot near my gate, but instead I got so many steps. 

Then there’s the Boise (BOI) airport. This is my home airport, and it’s gotten so much bigger since I flew away permanently in 1993. It’s added a whole wing, I swear, and now there’s a McDonald’s in there and everything. It seemed a lot bigger, though, before I started measuring steps. The walk from the gate to baggage claim to my mom’s minivan wasn’t even 1,000 steps, and on the return trip, I had to do six laps of the entire airport, including the sad little gates downstairs for Alaska Airlines, just to get 5,000 steps in before my 6:15 a.m. flight back home by way of Salt Lake City (SLC). I got maybe an hour of sleep, and what I really wanted to do was doze off in front of the gate, but no, there I was, lapping the airport, counting steps, running up my numbers. It was exhausting, but the Fitbit makes its own demands.

I hit SLC with under 5,000 steps to go to make my daily goal, but that place is pretty tiny too. I longed for MSP’s miles of mall and its corridor of employee-made art, but no, I had to walk all the way to the end of the opposite terminal, down the steps, three laps around the small circle of regional airline gates, back up the steps, and to the end and back of each terminal branch just to get in shooting distance of my number. I got a phone call from my brother just before I decided to settle down and eat some oatmeal and drink a bloody mary. Great, I thought—I can pace back and forth in front of this restaurant, pick up some more steps. After breakfast, rather than get another drink, I zipped up to a different bar for a second—pick up another 250 steps, I thought to myself. 

And then I was on the plane home, dozing off in my seat, not looking forward to my flight to St. Louis a few days later. I decided to turn off the Fitbit worry for the week, and I am filing this column on Christmas from a couch. It’s noon, and I’ve only logged 523 steps, cruising toward a third day of under 10,000 steps. Writing that out fills me with anxiety, of course, but I think I’ll see if I can rummage up a whisky and coffee or something to tamp that down. I didn’t really get a chance to tour SLC’s airport on my way here, so maybe I’ll make up the steps on my way back home.

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