Flying 2,000 feet above the tundra on a partly cloudy day, the slant of the sun breaks across my face, and the proximity to the earth below is tangible and intimate. In good weather, everything below is visible.
The muted greens and yellows of grasses and small shrubs rise up slightly over the land; land that is not chopped up and taken over by the muddle of roads, buildings, and power lines; ground that still exists as unclaimed space, unconquered in a way, stretching out for miles and miles in every direction.
Flying this low is a sensuous activity, whirling out over the earth, close enough to see colors and patterns sketched into the land, far enough to detect movement of animals in migration. There is breathing room and a great sense of freedom in the experience of flying over
vast, seemingly empty space. Wide-eyed, I watch a herd of caribou glide in a northerly direction, then gracefully shift like a wave toward the east, coursing toward a boggy pond to drink.
The engine’s hum sounds like a lawn mower motor, typical of the Cessna 180, a small, high wing aircraft with ample horsepower and capable of many different arrangements of space. Today, the four seats behind me are removed and the space filled with cases of soda pop, mail, peanut butter, Pampers, and straw for sled dog bedding, all herded under thick nylon
nets. For villages only accessible by air or water, shortstops in quick planes are vital to the commerce and communication among residents.
On a typical jaunt, you never know who or what will share the space: a family attending a birthday celebration 50 miles upriver; evangelists with opened Bibles in their laps setting out to “save” a village; a petty criminal on his way to town for a court hearing; or, on one occasion a body was laid to rest in a coffin directly
behind my seat.
I am the only passenger on this flight and the monotony of the engine drone becomes a soothing comfort to my senses. We are aloft on a draft of wind that feels like waltzing or being lifted up on a swing and gently set down, rolling on the pitch and lull of soft air. The movement of clouds is reflected on a string of boggy ponds below, and a flock of snow-white trumpeter swans skims the surface before delicately touching down. My mind strays into
emptiness, as open and expansive as the unencumbered geography below. In good
weather, flying is the one place where clarity of mind becomes effortless. I can think up there; a sentiment I imagine is shared by many passengers and pilots who enjoy the intimacy of flying in small planes.
A fascination with flying first took root in my late teens when I saw the ocean for the first time flying over the Atlantic on a backpacking trip to Europe. As a young adult, having never left the Midwest, the experience was incredulous. Soaring through cloudbanks and seeing sky meet water in all directions was daunting and to my young mind, simply miraculous. That was and still is, an indelible image with a powerful message: the whole world lay before me and anything was possible. Travel for the sake of travel; explore for the sake of exploration. Doesn’t the sky have as many tangible mysteries as the oceans? Isn’t it embedded somewhere in our genes the desire to explore and understand the natural world below, as well as above our beautiful earth?
The strangeness of proximity and separation experienced from an airplane noted Charles Lindbergh was this: a destination is thousands of miles away and your proximity to the ground, only seconds away. Stranded between heaven and earth, romancing the air currents like birds, there is another world, with waves and vortexes of wind creating an invisible topography of the sky. I wonder if pilots see the elegance of this topography from their mind’s eye, when they are negotiating mountain passes or climbing to escape a band of turbulence, searching for calm air?
To be continued…..