Planes, trains, automobiles. On hoof or on foot, by land or by sea. We move through the world encased in steel, protected by cushions, contorted into climate-controlled bubbles. Even when we walk, we often create our own soundscape and shut out others with the magic insulating properties of earbuds.
All of these modes of transportation get us from one place to another, but only rarely do we really notice the journey.
Yesterday, I made my way from Portland to Chicago via Salt Lake City.* On the first (very) early morning flight, I sat next to a tiny, somewhat wizened woman. She spoke no English, as her adult daughter explained to me in her own halting English. This was her first time on a plane. The older woman didn’t know how to use her seat belt or her tray table – something that I found strangely charming. She was a little nervous, but maintained her composure through a bumpy takeoff.
We took off in the pre-dawn darkness and there wasn’t much to see for the first 40 minutes or so. I edited a podcast on my computer – a process she found fascinating to watch. (And, ironically, one that I find incredibly tedious.)
Slowly, streaks of pink and orange started to lighten the sky as we flew east towards Utah. As the light grew, we caught glimpses of snow-capped mountains through the clouds.
Finally, we started a long, slow descent into Salt Lake City and were treated to one of the more spectacular views I’ve ever had on a plane. There was the hill-rimmed Great Salt Lake. Morning sun just kissed the snowy peaks with golden light, and their shapes were reflected perfectly in the still waters below.
It was breathtaking. I looked over at the woman next to me and she was staring out the window too. Both of us had huge smiles on our faces. Mother Nature was preening yesterday morning and we were both there to admire her.
A lot of people never look out the window of a plane, or give it only the most cursory, critical view. Maybe they’re scared of heights or just really tired, but they have no interest in things beyond their own seat. They spend their time traveling from point A to point B tuning out and turning away.
And that’s just fine. But I wonder if they know what they are missing?
Hearing the birds sing and the wind through the trees when you take off the headphones.
Feeling the rush of air and heat of the sun and smell of the pines when you cycle through a landscape instead of drive through it.
The companionship of standing on deck as a ship heads out to sea, sharing the last glimpses of the shore with fellow travelers.
The special gift of sharing a spectacular view while the rest of the plane sleeps.
We’re always going places, and we always have a choice on how to get there. Present. Open. Hurried. Resentful. Oblivious. Engaged.
I am all of these things when I travel (and all the rest of the time too). But I like the experience best when I choose to look for delight.
*It’s a sign of how much I travel that the first draft of this just said PDX-SLC-ORD.
Picture taken by me, with an iPhone,
through a dirty window and over the wing.
The effect is pretty abstract, but the reality had
a golden clarity to it that I will never forget.