In Chicago, you come in over train tracks. In Charlotte, hills and green. In Las Vegas, you come in among the garish lights and replicas on the Strip (Sphinx, Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower) and can tell from the air that this isn’t a place you belong. In Philly, if the pilot knows what he’s doing, you glide in past the neon Liberty Bell on the outside of Citizens Bank Park, home of the Phillies. (The Eagles stadium is there, too, if you go in for that sort of thing.)
I’ve been on planes more times than I can count. I always listen carefully to the safety instructions, though I can recite them by heart. Before takeoff—I can’t help it—I picture fiery crashes. At least it will be quick.
In Phoenix, you come in to mountains. In Minneapolis, lakes. In Spokane, fields. In Peoria, fields. In Detroit, fields. In Denver, mountains. In Chicago and Philadelphia and Boston, lights, far as the eye can see.
In her book The Fun of It (part autobiography and part history of aviation), Amelia Earhart writes, “For the moment all I wished to do in the world was to be a vagabond—in the air.”
I prefer the window seat so I can watch the land unfold itself, reveal its two-dimensional topography. For the longest time, I didn’t realize the huge shadows on the ground were being cast by clouds.
In New York? Even more lights, I’m sure, though I know only what it looks like to arrive there by train.
My two early memories of plane rides are eating some version of a McDonald’s Happy Meal my grandmother had pre-ordered, and not being able to pop my ears. After a few excruciating flights, someone bought me flexible, hollow tubes with ribbed ends that I was instructed to screw into my ears before takeoff. They were supposed to help regulate the pressure. I don’t remember if they worked. At some point I learned to pop my ears by chewing gum, mouth opening wide like a series of mechanical yawns. Now I can pop my ears without gum, with my mouth closed.
I never relax until the plane levels out at 10,000 feet. Once we’re in the air, I’m captivated by the clouds. Despite the fact that we see them almost every day, they remain such alien beings. They can seem so substantial, but when flying through them, they reveal themselves to be no more than fog. When Amelia wrote about flying over dark clouds that resembled landmasses from above, she referred to their shadow geography.
The roots of aviation, as Amelia notes in her book, lie in ballooning, the history of which stretches back centuries. The first manned balloon flight, made by the Montgolfier brothers, took place in 1783 in Paris. Joseph Montgolfier described the practice of hot air ballooning as putting a cloud in a paper bag.
I don’t know what it’s like to land in Paris because I came in via the Chunnel, which runs under the English Channel, direct from London. When we came up from below, I searched the sky for the Eiffel Tower but it was nowhere in sight.
One side of the plane always gets a better view than the other, especially when landing. But it’s difficult to know which side that is unless you’ve flown the route before. For no reason in particular, I usually sit on the left.
I once told someone I do my best writing on planes. The only writing Amelia did on planes, so far as I can tell, was recordings in the official logbook. Reviewing the logbook for the Friendship, where she was the first female on a transatlantic flight, she notes, “I…find I mention clouds more often than anything else.”
Though we spend so much time gazing upward, once we’re actually in the air, don’t we spend most of our time looking down?
The saying about their silver linings, she warns, is pure fiction. What else does she tell us? Marvelous shapes in white stand out, some trailing shimmering veils….The clouds look like icebergs in the distance….Behind, the mass of soggy cloud we came through, is pink with dawn….At present there are sights of blue and sunshine, but everlasting clouds always in the offing.
What is your shadow geography?
Idaho, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming. States I’ve only driven through, flown over. States of big sky and bigger clouds. Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee. Country of vowels, of opening and closing your mouth.