I like flying, I really do. My mother agrees with me. We talked about it in the car on the way to the airport—she was nice enough to agree to pick me up and drop me off.
For me, I love the aerial view. Just love it. Don’t care if it’s cloudy or sunny. If it’s sunny then I have an unimpeded view of the ground and I can track the changing watershed basins, transportation networks, topology, geology, and ecology right beneath me. When we’re close to the ground I analyze the connectivity of classic cul-de-sac suburban neighborhoods and compare them to the connectivity of the older, denser neighborhoods that you find closer to city and town centers. I try to guess which highway that is (probably the accursed I-81). When we’re higher up I try to recognize landmarks such as lakes and mountain ranges. Flying out of the airport in Burlington, VT provides an amazing view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks. Far below, tiny pools of water shimmer like coins, scattered at various elevations throughout the mountains, are testament to the legacy of the glaciers that shaped the landscape of the Northeast 12,000 years ago. If it’s spring or fall, I can see the changing seasons illustrated in the graduated amounts of green on the ground as I travel south or north. That was obvious today. Traveling from New York to DC, the white crusts of ice on ponds and rivers disappeared, exchanged for a faint fuzz of green shading over the farm fields.
If it’s cloudy out, once the plane rises above the cloud cover, I put on my polarized sunglasses (a necessity for this; otherwise, it’s just too bright to make out much detail, and probably bad for your eyes to boot) and attempt to puzzle out the topography of the clouds. There must be more atmospheric instability over there to the west, where the clouds are roiled and rising, as opposed to the other clouds which are smooth and scalloped and static. I know less about atmospheric science than I do about geography, geology, and ecological communities, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to apply my limited knowledge and having fun with it.
Having this level of intellectual stimulation, combined with the excitement of turbulence and the involuntary gasps of breath and speeding heart rate that comes with it, makes flying pretty much the best roller coaster ride I can imagine. (Obviously the excitement fades if you’re on the plane for more than a few hours, which is why I can’t in honesty extend my praise to international flights to, say, New Zealand–the thing I remember most about that flight is when a poor suffering 6-month-old baby puked on my bag.)
My mother, on the other hand, mentioned that she doesn’t mind having layovers in airports because she enjoys people-watching. Of course she does, she’s a people-observer and people-interactor by profession–she’s a registered nurse (shoutout to nurses! one of the most under-appreciated professions in the country). To me, the clothes, bags, languages and movements of the mass of people passing through an airport form a sort of cultural topography that the geographer in me itches to map somehow. Do people from different countries tend to congregate in different areas of the airport, what are the customs around sharing phone charging outlets, striking up random conversations, etc. Right now I’m at the Washington Dulles airport, staring more or less directly at an older balding white guy who has a ton of musical electronic equipment out and is bobbing his head and singing along to something, while a troupe of black-veiled Muslim women herd their children down the concourse behind him. Flight for Riyadh is leaving soon. Rarely do you see such a concentration of diversity, and the combination of people in an extreme hurry with people who are idling hours away, like me, is especially amusing to watch.
To top it all off, the musician I saw at my friend’s house last night sang a really sweet song of his own invention about the magic of kisses in airports, so I’m happily thinking of that right now. Thanks, Old Man Luedecke, for that. I promise I’ll buy some tracks, once my wallet recovers from this little jaunt. In the meantime, maybe some other folks want to check out his stuff? If you like good folky-style songwriters, you will not be disappointed, I guarantee.
All this, and I’m not even halfway to Austin.