It was a late-afternoon departure from JFK to LAX that would have us flying into the sunset. As it turned out, I had an aisle seat. But I knew I could still lean over enough to catch some sight of the expanses below. And I imagined that most of the people on the plane—families and tourists coming and going for the holidays—would be looking out to enjoy the scenes as well. But on takeoff all the shades went down, plunging the cabin into darkness. The passengers put on their headphones, plugged into the screens on the seat backs in front of them, and remained thus entranced for the next six hours, tuned into the flashing two-dimensional world of TV and movies. Others preferred their iPhones.
I felt as if I were in a flying tomb or part of a sensory deprivation experiment. How could all these people have so little interest in viewing the landscape from 30,000 feet? Could they really not care what was out there? After all, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote back in 1939, “The airplane has revealed for us the true face of the earth.”
A cross-country flight can make real what one has only read about: John McPhee’s basin and range, Ed Abbey’s red-rock canyonlands, John Wesley Powell’s Colorado River.
No matter how often I fly, when I look out, my forehead pressed against the window’s upper edge, I’m always amazed at how flat the flatlands are, how gnarly the canyons, and how spectacular the shimmering mountain snows. I’m amazed to fly through rising cumulus and to track the shadows of drifting cirrus. If the skies are clear, they give me a chance to review the places that over the years I’ve traveled by road or on foot and make me realize just how many places I still want to see.
The view from the air puts the landscape in perspective. Amelia Earhart once said, “You haven’t seen a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky.” I would say you haven’t seen a river until you’ve tracked its meanderings from the sky. A cross-country flight can make real what one has only read about: John McPhee’s basin and range, Ed Abbey’s red-rock canyonlands, John Wesley Powell’s Colorado River. From 30,000 feet the lessons of geology and natural history are evident. One can appreciate the vastness of the terrain over which the pioneers persevered on their way westward, marvel at the massive reservoirs and the irrigation circles that green miles of the plains. One can also wonder at the dubious ambitions that left behind bone-dry salt lakes, abandoned agricultural fields, mined mountaintops, the cross-hatchings of oil and gas exploration roads, the plumes of forest fires, the spread of desert cities with their mazes of subdivisions, the sprawl of Los Angeles, which looks from the sky like a landscape of gigantic circuit boards.
This winter I was particularly eager to get a look at what I’d seen only on the news—the frozen expanses of the northern Midwest, the drought-stricken West, the diminished snowpack in the Rockies. But with the plane in darkness I had no chance to see anything at all. If it were overcast I would have been happier, since I could say I wasn’t missing the view. But when I walked back to the flight attendants’ station to peer out the small exit-door windows I could see that the skies were clear.
As the hours passed I found myself checking our progress on the screen map, trying to picture what the scene below would look like. I imagined the looping rivers as we crossed the plains, the mountains on the northern horizon. Passing over Grand Junction and following Route 50 west toward Moab, in my mind’s eye I looked down over the Great Basin with its treeless plateaus and the wondrous fractal topologies of their eroded escarpments.
But everyone else sat in darkness, occupied by their screens. (I had a glimmer of light—and hope—when the young woman in the window seat in my row opened the shade a bit to look out, but she quickly shut it when she caught a look from the woman seated between us.) These days we’re able to be in our own world wherever we go, because we can carry it with us. But it’s too bad if it allows us, when there’s so much to be seen, to remain otherwise in darkness.