The prospect of flying reduces me to the state of a kid on Christmas Eve. And that’s not just a metaphor, either. The night before I fly, I’m lucky to get five hours asleep. By halfway through the night, I’m awake and almost twitching with excitement. Usually, I get up earlier than I planned, and reach the airport sooner than I intended, too. Whether I’m leaving home or returning, my anticipation is the same.
By the time the plan starts bumping along the runway, my excitement is at a pitch. I love the way that the plane accelerates, then seems all at once to leap forward into the air. At the exact moment of takeoff, the plan seems to quiver with its own excitement, and its ascent seems act of will rather than physics.
Whenever possible, I book a window seat. If the windows opened, I would undoubtedly hang out one like a dog – never mind that I’m at 39,000 feet. Something about seeing the earth spread out beneath me like a diorama is endlessly fascinating to me, no matter how often I fly. Perhaps the slight feeling of giddiness that accompanies the sight adds to the excitement, the feeling that I could step from cloud to cloud to get a better view.
The view from a plane always reminds me of the Challenger map of British Columbia that could be viewed from several different levels at the annual PNE fair. However, the view from the plaen is even better. I remember the trips I used to take from Vancouver to Berkeley, and watching the gradual shift of the vegetation from rain forest greens to semi-desert browns.
On other trips across the continent, I remember the American mid-west as an endless stretch of quarter section farms that varied only in where the home section was on the farm. Every now and then, I’d pass over towns, every one of which seemed to have an oversized cement football stadium. On those same trips, I caught my first glimpse of the Mississippi. And, on one memorable occasional flying to Phoenix, the pilot diverted the flight to give us a view of the Grand Canyon in the early morning light.
Last week, I flew to Calgary just at sunset. At first, most of what I could see out the plane window was blue-purple mountains and forests surrounded by fading patches of snow, and surprisingly few lights. Then, as the dark settled down, the pattern on the ground below became more abstract, the division between the landscape and the snow blurring. Eventually, it settled into a pointillism of snow on a dark background. Gradually, lights appeared as we approached Calgary, springing up in greater and greater numbers until all I could see was a chaotic array of lights. I had a book open, but I spent so much time lost in what I saw below me that the flight attendants had to call me twice to ask if I wanted a snack and a drink.
Descents are a gradual, reluctant return to reality from the mesmerism produced by the view out the window. If I am outward bound, my thoughts leap forward to what I expect from the trip; if I am returning home, I start anticipating breathing air that has the proper amount of moisture in it.
The actual moment that the wheels touch the runway seem another act of will, an act of controlled violence, even with the most skilled of pilots. As the plane slows, it seems to fall asleep. By the time it reaches the gate, I am ready to burst out of its corpse and back into mundane reality.
I keep telling myself that such reactions are out of place in someone who can no longer pretend to be young. Enough travel, and I’ll grow out of them. However, I haven’t fallen into sedateness yet. Each time I fly, I am excited as the first time, and I don’t doubt that I’ll be just as excited the next time I fly.