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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I spent the night in an empty airport. It was a dream come true.

O’Hare turns into a one-person playground after dark

(Dani Choi/for The Washington Post)
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When you were a kid, did you ever dream about getting locked somewhere overnight? Maybe it was a department store dressing room, as you got entangled in a poorly chosen pair of jeans, or a corner of a museum where you were lost in your own thoughts and forgotten by the rest of your group. Maybe it was a train station, or — in my real-life experience — an airport.

When you’re young, there’s something romantic about being alone and awake as the rest of the world sleeps. You could do all the things you wouldn’t do in an uptight, grown-up world. You could skip. You could twirl. You could sing at the top of your lungs. You could moonwalk down hallways, slide down banisters and ride the escalators up and down while doing sweet karate moves. By day, these spaces are spoiled by hustle, bustle and good behavior. At night, the world belongs only to you.

At the tender age of 41, I finally got to live my childhood dream. I got to spend an entire night by myself at O’Hare International Airport.

On the night of Dec. 4, I missed my 7 p.m. flight from Chicago to my home in Baltimore. I was late by mere minutes and went through the standard range of air travel emotions: panic, rage, self-pity, hunger, then back to rage and, finally, acceptance. The next plane to BWI wouldn't be arriving at O'Hare until early the next morning, and no amount of grousing or glowering would make my consolation flight come any quicker.

The way I saw it, I had three options: I could curl up on the floor like a dog for a terrible, pointless night's sleep, sit at the gate and have a 12-hour tantrum or take advantage of my “extra vacation time” and make my own adventure.

As the daytime din faded into soothing silence, I realized I could do more than make the best of a bad situation. Without the mobs of pushy people, the halls of O’Hare began to feel like a cathedral that twinkled just for me.

My journey began as the final arrivals of the day touched down on the tarmac and the throngs of passengers thinned. My plan of attack was to aggressively hike from my Terminal 1 base camp to Terminal 5 on the opposite side of the airport, then mosey on back at a leisurely clip, stopping for anything or anyone that caught my interest.

The sounds of rolling luggage had stopped. Metal gates clanked shut one by one as stores closed down for the night. There were no grimacing travelers, but the politely smiling airport staff were all glad to trade some friendly words with a stranger.

How to survive 12 hours in an airport

I passed by a nearly deserted food court — a sight I've never seen before — and decided to grab provisions while I had the chance. I bought a large coffee at Dunkin' (the only place that stays open overnight), then grabbed a table, took out my laptop and wrote a scandalous short story. I've never even written fiction before; who knew the muses live in an empty food court?

My next move was to search for secret hiding places that could double as comfortable sleeping quarters, just in case my body decided it was too old for an all-nighter. I drafted a little map of them, and no, I will not share.

I passed through the Rotunda designed by glass-ceiling-shattering architect Gertrude Kerbis, which I had rushed through many times before without ever truly looking at it. I climbed up to the balcony, intending to slide down the banister, but found myself distracted by the dazzling strands of light that dangled from the ceiling. I lay down on the floor directly beneath them and saw a glistening golden eye staring down at me.

Soldiering on, I found a museum-quality fashion display made by students at a local design school and took my time appreciating their talent and hard work. I saw a Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat plane — a nod to World War II flying ace Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare — fully restored to its 1940s glory after being salvaged from the murky depths of Lake Michigan. Next to that, I found a wall of arcade cabinets, loaded with free airport-themed homages to Frogger, Pac-Man, and other classic games. I was terrible at all of them, but fortunately, there was no one there to notice.

Arriving at my home base of Terminal 1, I was greeted with a full-size copy of a mighty brontosaurus, cast from a skeleton housed at Chicago’s Field Museum. At museums, you are forced to keep your distance from legitimate dinosaur bones, but with airport-quality bones, you can get up close and personal. You wonder what that brontosaurus might have been thinking about before it died 146 million years ago, and how it might have felt about living in an airport. You wonder what the world might look like 146 million years in the future.

I descended into the subterranean hallway that connects both sides of Terminal 1. With long moving sidewalks and curving, candy-colored walls, the neon-lit tunnel feels straight out of Epcot Center. I rode back and forth on the automatic people mover, delighting in the corridor’s retro-futuristic vibe. It dawned on me that I was just like Jane Jetson, and it felt fantastic.

I arrived at my gate with a few hours left to spare, but I had no intention of letting the party stop. I broke out my moonwalking — one must seize the opportunity when presented with a freshly waxed floor — and threw in some rickety robot moves. I attempted a cartwheel and failed miserably.

I waved to all the security cameras, hoping that there was someone watching on the other side, having a good laugh instead of having another boring night at work. I drank more coffee. I wrote more stories. I sat upside down in a chair until I got a headache, just because I could.

I tweeted some of my airport adventures that night, hoping there might be one or two insomniacs that would keep me company. I thought little of the tweets when my flight took off at 7 a.m. By the time my plane touched down in Baltimore, they were going viral. As a writer, I would have expected this to make me happy. But when I realized my experience was resonating with thousands of people, I began to feel a profound sadness.

Was it really that unusual for someone to walk around an airport to see the sights? Has everyone grown entirely blind to the beauty all around us?

Has everyone grown entirely blind to the beauty all around us?

I’ve never been able to afford much travel, a story with which most working-class parents can sympathize, I’m sure. I’ve always viewed flying as a privilege. Sure, things aren’t quite as nice as they were during the golden age of travel, but it’s still miraculous that we can fly a giant machine straight into the sky, zoom through the stratosphere at 500 mph and touch down on the other side of the world.

Airports play a role in the adventures they bookend. They are part of the story — the same one you have been writing in your head since you were young. There is magic to be found in the wake of missed flights. The night is still, the crowds are gone and the world belongs to you.

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