Sunday, February 3, 2019

Considering the Joys of Air Travel

I have not enjoyed flying on commercial airlines lately but that wasn't always the case.
rainbow, San Francisco International Airport
Rainbow, San Francisco International Airport
The first airline flight I took was in 1961, from Cleveland, Ohio to Albany, New York. (On Mohawk Airlines: any of you remember them?) I was thrilled. Not just getting off the ground, but seeing the land from the sky. My science class had taught about river meanders, and there they were, spread out below me! I thought, "if only geography could be taught with airplane trips."

rivers and lakes from the air
Very old photo, see the meandering streams?
winter in the Midwest from an airplane
Meadering streams, U.S. Midwest in winter
As I flew more, I lost that initial sense of wonder, but still liked the adventure of it: going somewhere else, unpacking plastic-wrapped dinnerware and napkins, eating airline meals from a compact tray. I admit the food was mediocre but I was an uncomplaining eater and the novelty topped the quality of the food. The miniature wine bottles were so cute!

Recently I've become jaded: airline flights, bah! Another commute to the airport to wait in a security line, hastily remove carefully packed things for inspection, hike to gate, wait some more, be packed into dense seats with lots of strangers....

So I am writing this post to remember the wonders of air travel.

Flying remains remarkable. C.J. Cherryh, in the dedication to her book of short stories, Fractured Light, commented that every time she flew, she thought of all the people of history who would have given so very much to fly above the ground. She's right. Up until recently, people looked up at the birds and marveled. We should all look down and marvel, each time.

I can still play junior geographer and spot landscape features that are invisible from the ground.

I will try to enjoy airplane food and its clever packaging: it hasn't changed as much in 50 years as I have.

Then I need to remember the places I've seen from airplanes. I have never been to Greenland, but I have seen it from the air.

Greenland from the air
Greenland from the air
I haven't seen the Himalayas, but I flew from Dunhuang to Xi'an in China and what stretched below was probably just the foothills of that great mountain range, but memorable nonetheless.

western China from the airplane
western China
And of course, flying gets you places. If I had to drive and take a ship to China, there'd be 18 1/2 hours of driving--two days minimum--to San Francisco and at least 24 days on the ship. So I would spend most of a month getting to a Chinese port and another coming home. Would I have done it? Maybe not.
Shanghai, China
Shanghai, China
Certainly I wouldn't do two such trips in a year, and yet I've been to both Asia and Europe in a single year.

Some places worth seeing are very scattered. Without flying, I would not have seen Dunhuang and Lijiang in China, and probably not Darwin and Alice Springs in Australia; those cities are hundreds of miles from the capital and main ports.

Dunhuang, China
Dunhuang, on the edge of the Gobi Desert
pool near Alice Springs, Australia
Pool in the West MacDonnells,
near Alice Springs, Australia
Looking at that list of the benefits of air travel, I wonder that I am tired of it. I conclude that familiarity can render quite wonderful things uninteresting. I will try to be less jaded.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist


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  3. flying used to be a real treat- there was less security and the airlines treated passengers, even in coach, like special people.
    now they treat us all like possible security risks and the flights always seem crowded, over booked and underserved... it's not us. it's them.