Phil Hugo: Reading the landscape at 35,000 feet
I’m sitting on the patio enjoying a sunny day in January, watching Miss Maisie, the resident feline, as she watches eight to 10 squirrels run and jump and chase each other from trees to shrubs to fences. They remind me of sophomores playing tag during recess. It is difficult to know which is which.
I look up at the azure sky to the south and see a clear contrail from a jet plane heading west. I wonder about its departure and arrival points and the mix of passengers on board. What are they doing to pass the time as they sit back and relax, leaving the flight to, shall we say, Delta Airlines?
I don’t fly often but when I fly my wife Karen and I board the plane for our annual trip to visit our grandson Tallis and his mother and father, Chilali and Chris, in Logan, Utah. We cruise through security at Detroit Metro and land at the new Salt Lake City airport. What a beauty. One person can cover a lot of ground in just over three hours. As they say, time flies.
I’m an avid people watcher, and the same is true when I’m in the cabin of a Boeing 737. Passengers talking to family or strangers, watching a movie, reading, working on a sales plan or take a nap. If you travel by plane, you may recognize yourself in this realm of possibilities.
When Karen books our itinerary, she usually knows where I want to sit, but she asks anyway. “Window seat, left side, three or four rows aft of fender.” In a few clicks on the computer, everything is settled.
I prefer the window because I want to see what’s out there – to read the earth and skyscapes from 35,000 feet. On a clear day there is plenty to read for about 1600 miles. But the prologue begins while he’s still at the gate, watching the ramp workers do their job. You know the scene. The doors are closed and the pushback begins. Anticipation builds. As we drive, I watch a red-tailed hawk rush toward a patch of grass surrounded by sidewalks. Did he knock or was he hungry?
We lift off and I begin to read the ever-changing scene beneath me, getting smaller but stretching out to the distant horizon. Dead ends, schools, golf courses, I-94, lakes and rivers. 5,000 feet. 10,000 feet. Pilots build one side of a triangle that is virtually invisible. Vehicles become like ants. It is late July and the greenery of midsummer vegetation paints the land.
We hit clouds and the cocoon we ride in is shrouded in a gray and white blanket of water vapour. The view is closed. “What now, Hugo?” »
Well, I could peruse the official airline publication or chat with Karen, who’s conversing with an affable guy next to her in the aisle seat. He’s from Michigan, loves scuba diving, and is on his way to meet two brothers to go fishing in Montana.
With the clouds gone with the view, I turn to the folder screen to study the flight plan. Altitude, wind speed (front and back), distance to destination, ETA and more. Relevant information. I press the on-screen map, which shows our course and some terrain features. I’ll be tapping it frequently as we tick off the miles. We will cover six states during our trip.
The clouds lift and soon I see Lake Michigan dotted with watercraft, its shoreline in the grip of Chicago’s waterfront.
We glide through Illinois, bound for Iowa. If you know what to look for, it’s hard to miss the mighty Mississippi that borders both states, with its islands, canals and one of the many locks and dams. “Ol Man River keep rolling.”
I read once that Iowa is one of the top wind power states in the country. In the western part of the state, I see a very large wind farm, but I can’t discern if they’re working. Iowa, of course, is known for its corn production, and those turbines are surrounded by acres of corn and greenery.
I recognize Sioux City and we cross the Missouri River, also known as the Big Muddy, into my home state of Nebraska. I will consult my atlas to verify the location of its sources in Montana. One of my elementary school teachers didn’t believe me when I told him it was longer than the aforementioned river. She said that because it was a tributary, those numbers didn’t count. They do and it is.
There is a large area in the central part of Nebraska known as the Sandhills consisting of 19,300 square miles of mostly grasses with herbaceous plants and wildlife mixed in. It is the largest area of grass-stabilized dunes in the Western Hemisphere. With its beauty and solitude, it is more than just flyover country.
We cross the Wyoming border and I spot I-25 near Cheyenne. There are few big mountains in southeast Wyoming, but I recognize the Snowy Range west of Laramie where, in the ’60s, my late father and two of my brothers and I rockhounded. Memories.
We roughly parallel transcontinental I-80 which also runs alongside the busy Union Pacific dual carriageways. I see a train but who’s counting the cars? Not from 35,000 feet. If you crossed the state on I-80, you went through a very barren and desolate landscape. No majestic snow-capped mountains and evergreens. Rather sand and rock and mugwort, fatty wood and cacti that grow there. A land where pronghorns (they’re not antelopes), rattlesnakes and prairie falcons make their living.
Look at a map of Wyoming and you’ll see the Great Divide Basin, its existence made possible because the Continental Divide divides and encircles it. The little water that falls there does not flow. It evaporates, creating alkaline flats or leaks in the arid soil. It takes a discerning mind to appreciate beauty.
We cross northeast Utah and the pilots head south to Salt Lake. I recognize Logan, but alas, I don’t see a certain 5-year-old waving at us. I say a “Hi Tallis.” See you soon.” We are above the eastern bays of the Great Salt Lake and I study the varied colors of the watery palette.
We turn north and the familiar sound of the landing gear leaving the belly of the plane tells me that we are close. The rubber meets the track and we come to the door. Twenty minutes early. So much closer to smiles and warm hugs. It was a good ride.
One day, Karen and I will take the overland route to experience the country without flying over the Midwest. In Wyoming we will see the pronghorns low to the ground and I will stop to smell the sagebrush. For now, I’ll just read the landscape at 35,000 feet.
It’s an open book. I recommand it.
Phil Hugo lives in Lima.