Airplane travel is miraculous, providing astonishing convenience when compared to the Conestoga wagons that transported people across the American continent 150 years ago. I bet those early travelers wouldn't have complained about a 90-minute layover in Cincinnati, but we have different expectations today. We've grown accustomed to crossing the country in a few hours, and we don't like those hours.
Pioneers had it rough, no doubt, but they didn't have to endure the inconvenience and humiliation of TSA security. They might traverse only a couple of miles on a bad day, but at least they weren't tortured by Muzak the whole time. Parking was easier, too, but most importantly, there were no smoking restrictions. It may have taken six months to get where they were going, but they could smoke the whole time.
I'm not saying I'd prefer a Conestoga wagon to air travel, but it's close. I do opt for car travel if under eight hours. It's worth twice the time just to be able to smoke and carry a pocket knife. For longer trips, however, airplanes are necessary, and among their most despicable aspects is the prohibition of smoking.
That makes layovers supremely important, and I look for airports with smoking lounges. Smoke is essential after deplaning, and a layover is tolerable only if smoking is an option, but it seems like fewer and fewer airports provide that fundamental humanitarian service. Sadly, for example, the Tampa smoking lounge seems to have disappeared. It wasn't much — merely a wire cage mounted on the outside of the building 20 feet above the ground, but even that accommodation, leftover from the party days of the Spanish Inquisition, has been denied us. Similar smoking kennels in multiple airports have likewise been removed. Just as smoking on planes has dematerialized, so have airport smoking lounges.
Those lounges still extant are dirty, smelly, uncomfortable, and I love and cherish them. They are oases in deserts of tobacco intolerance. When I finally emerge from a plane, the only thing on my mind is smoke. I'll worry about connecting flights, gate changes, and boarding times after a pipe when my mind is better equipped for the challenges of modernity.
Of course, we all resonate with smoking in backcountry campsites with spectacular mountain views, or in two-level private libraries with opulent mahogany woodwork, leather-bound literature, and spiral staircases, or among other avid pipe smokers in virtually any social gathering (but especially at pipe shows). However, pipes can deliver satisfaction and comfort in even the most unpleasant environments, which includes the bane and burden of travelers everywhere, airports.
Travel is stressful, especially long plane trips and their collateral inconveniences: crowded lines of people waiting for ritualistic corporate and political indignities with pressurized impatience permeating the fabric of reality. It's psychologically exhausting. The world was once a civilized place where one could enjoy a pipe on a plane — something that reduced the stress of flying — but those days are as gone as Syrian Latakia. Enduring a crowded aluminum sky tube without a pipe is an affront to humanity. It isn't that I necessarily crave a pipe, but the oppressive psychological weight of knowing that I'm not allowed to have that pipe is objectively bad for my constitution. Most pipe smokers, I suspect, would cheerfully wear tee shirts with the message, "Don't tell me what to do." We value autonomy and individualism.
The professional term for the automatic disapproval of behavior-limiting rules is "psychological reactance." It's a primal response in the brain based on a fear of losing freedom. The more threatening a situation is to our autonomy, the more uncomfortable it becomes.
So those inevitable layovers in various airports can provide consequential stress relief — at least in those few airports that still think smokers merit basic human consideration, the number of which is diminishing. The Nashville airport still provides for smokers, last I knew, as does Las Vegas, Washington Dulles, Miami, and Atlanta. The trend seems to be for private lounges owned by cigar companies, though, and these lounges charge a cover fee of a few dollars. However, Atlanta is probably my favorite because it's still free and because Atlanta is such a hub of transportation that it's easy to route layovers there.
The Atlanta smoking lounge (there are two, I believe, but I use only one at a time) reveals no similarities to mountain-view campsites or two-level libraries but is nonetheless an oasis in an inhospitable desert of non-smoking desolation. Think back to the last time you were stranded and dying of thirst in the Sahara and happened across an old canteen with some water left in it. Did you complain that it was too warm or brackish? No, you appreciated that water. The Atlanta smoking lounge is a hot, brackish, stale canteen when you need it most, and it's delicious.
Speaking of water, the Atlanta lounge resembles a giant fishbowl; it is entirely fronted by glass, and the smoke contained within is the water through which we smoking fish swim for the amusement or horror of unsuspecting passersby, who often glance with distaste at the people within, and wave their hand in front of their noses if they pass too closely when the door opens. It's just a little more humiliation at the hands of social and political forces, and I don't care. It is my haven.
The glass doors open automatically to rows of connected plastic chairs, each with an overflowing ashtray of cigarette butts and ashes. The room is filled with smokers, some pacing, many scrolling through their phones, most seats taken, most faces moderately scowling. The aroma of the room is stale, not like bread smells stale, but like sweat and wet hay smell stale.
And never has a place been so welcome. These are my people, this is the oxygen that my constitution requires. I find a chair with less gum stuck to its seat than others and fill a pipe. That first light, that first smoldering of tobacco, delivers the best of all possible smokes. Maybe it has something to do with the contrast of experiences. It isn't the most inviting environment, but that smoking lounge has brought me some of the most enjoyable smokes of my life.
Sometimes the worst places to smoke can feel like the best.