The Country from the Air

By Sam Thoburn (University of California, San Diego, USA)

San Diego is a long way from most places, and this year in America is precious time to be used diversely, so in the last three months I have flown more often than ever before in my life. And when I fly, I usually fly at night. That hasn’t been a conscious choice, but it has held true for the past few months. A break has come in that pattern now, though, and it has left my nocturnal partiality as nothing at all.

For Christmas and New Year, I was in New England with my parents and my brother. It was a lovely fortnight in a corner of this country I have never seen before, and I tried not to take it all for granted. I was disinclined to leave for home, if I may so call California after three months here. The journey back over the country and into the sun was in unusual daytime, and it was in two stages: Boston-Chicago, Chicago-San Diego.

On the first leg, early in the morning, I saw nothing through thick layers of cloud and sleep. The Midwest and its flat plains of crops were invisible from 34,000 feet, our cruising altitude. I read between naps, the personal screens showing only paid programming after taxying (and not being inclined to pay for Spongebob). Coming in for a soft landing at O’Hare after three hours in the air, we found the product of the cloud cover: heavy rain on the tarmac and slick-hooded runway workers.

The second flight was delayed and I waited at the gate, watching a talking-heads show about Taylor Swift’s career, eating a sandwich that covered my lap in crumbs.

That latter aeroplane was packed. There was some confusion as we boarded; double-booked seats and misprinted tickets for Boise not San Diego and dogs unwilling to leave their seats. I was in the back row (where I like to be, unharried, and not imposing on anybody when I recline my seat) and I had the window seat.

For hours there was nothing to see but the wonderful niveous down that clouds form when seen from above. No longer inclined to sleep, though, I kept looking, waiting for a little more. The first announcement the pilot made in midair warned of imminent turbulence as we passed over Denver. That shook a lot of people awake. I like turbulence; it reminds me, on a long flight, that I am defying physical laws, suspended in the sky unnaturally and wonderfully; it shouldn’t be too easy. But on that five hour flight, I found that that reminder need not be physical. It can come, too, in the view from a small porthole window that you crick your neck to look through.

The clouds thinned out as the plane stopped shaking, and I saw Colorado below. I have never been to Colorado, so my only expectation was to look down on snowy mountains. And it must be that from such a distance, such an impersonal height, stereotypes are made, because all I saw were mountain clusters peaked in glowing white: the Rockies.

Mountains became rarer as we moved along, and instead there was more level ground. A plateau hundreds of miles long, a vast once-brown mesa, dusted in snow. State lines not being visible from the air, and my US geography being rudimentary, I took the sight of snow to mean that we were still over Colorado.

The plateau dropped away into a sheer river gorge, shepherding water down from more mountains in the far background. I could see not only its great depth, told in long shadows at its most impressive point, but its origin upriver, too, as a shallow cut in the rock. On the high ground between the forked branches of canyons, there were squares of I cannot imagine what crop laid out in perfect squares and inlaid with concentric circles of winter furrow. These fields too were white in places.”We’re almost there,” the pilot said then, “and if you are lucky enough to be on the right-hand side of the plane, you’ll have a wonderful view of the Grand Canyon this afternoon. They had snow here just last week.” Arizona, then.

We followed the course of rail and road lines—forced across the country in a strangely straight line, with nothing to navigate around—until they stopped or turned at sharp angles to keep from falling into that ravine. I have never stood on that precipice myself and taken in the view for myself, and perhaps my foreignness showed; all my mind could conjure, as we crossed over the edge and I first faced that gaping monument, was that the rock I saw was as red as Manchester brick.

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