A love letter to flying

Travel teaches self sufficiency. Leave your window shade open (and forget the haters). By Jason H. Harper

Over the Atlantic, beauty found

The setting: An Air France flight between Paris and New York City. Late winter. Almost 8:30 in the evening in France where I began; the middle of the afternoon on the East Coast where I’m heading. The Boeing 777 is 35,000 feet somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, putting its 380 passengers both everywhere and nowhere. A traveler’s state of mind, mostly.

I’m in an “A” seat, on the left of the aircraft. Nobody is sitting next to me. There’s nobody to disturb, nobody to care that my window shade is open, as I generally prefer it.

I get lost in a pleasurably terrible movie and then…

I look up and gaze through the window.


Nature is vibrant and alive and mystical — I'm awestruck in the true sense of the word. If there’s a god, she or he is evident in that spill of sky lava

Somewhere along our trip and my crap movie, the sun has set. I can’t see its orb now, anyhow. The clouds below us are gracefully lit, and look nothing so much as a glacier field in the Arctic. So believably thick as to clamber upon, with deep valleys and sharp-backed ridges. A glaciated fantasy, with crevasses deep enough to lure you into death; jagged peaks high enough to ascend and conquer.

On a scale of 1-10, this is a 3 for capturing the magic of the moment

But the sunset has done more than prettily light the clouds. In the place where the sun dipped below the horizon, there is a crazy valley of fire flaming through that illusionary ice field. The stratosphere is glowing like flame and embers, brilliant beyond belief. I can’t tell if the light is playing against the sea itself or the clouds or something else entirely. It is a delta of unknowable space, glowing and suffused with crimson.

I’ve experienced few things in nature as vibrant and alive and mystical as this miasma before me, and I am awestruck in the true sense of the word. If there’s a god, she or he is evident in that spill of sky lava. My words grasp and fail (and yet I try).

And more beauty still. Above that glow is the sky, a lovely robin’s egg blue, so sweet and clean that it makes me think of children’s laughter. I’d paint a wall in my house that color if the Pantone existed outside of this moment. (It doesn’t.) And then another layer of blue above that; more somber, darker.

Looking down above this entire scene is the slimmest sliver of moon. A crescent moon, so skinny as to only just have coming into being.

Jackpot. So many elements together. Insta, anyone?

I dive for my phone, of course. Turn it on, take pictures, lens smushed against glass. Try to capture the ephemeral. The moon is a smudge, the light a smear. The lens can’t begin to handle the complexity. The 15th picture in, I give up. I know better. This isn’t what a moment is about. I can’t live through a lens. I don't want to live through a lens.

I wish I could share the pilot's view. A heartfelt pilot knows they are crazily lucky to experience nature from up high. They see things we can only imagine

One time, on a flight between Singapore and New York, when all was dark in the plane, I suddenly awoke and opened my shade. We were at that moment flying over Alaska and 20,000-foot Denali. The mountain was so high that it seemed to graze the airplane’s belly. It was a stunningly bright blue day then, too, the mountains covered in crystalline snow. There was no hint of humanity. That’s been a decade ago; more even. But the image and its attendant feeling is still bright and fresh in my mind.

Today is like that too. Enough so that, when the crazy beauty passes minutes or maybe just moments — I grab my computer instead to try and capture it. Maybe that’s futile, too.

Two regrets. I wish I could have seen it out of the large window on the flight deck. Shared the view with the pilots and viewed that beauty head-on. I briefly considered making the request to a flight attendant. I think any heartfelt pilot, who knows that she or he is crazily lucky enough to experience nature from up high on any given day, would have appreciated the request. They see things we can only imagine. It’s a shame we don't seek out that wisdom more often. I fully realize that she or he would also have to have said no to the request, regulations being what they are. Shame, doubly, for all of us, I think.

The second regret? There was nobody to share it with. I like the anonymity of a plane, the cocoon of a long dark flight where you can feel your emotions keenly over a drink and a tear watching Love, Actually. But this was a human moment to be shared. I almost woke somebody up. How many millennium of humanity have dreamed of flying? Wondered what it is like to be above the clouds? And here we are, watching Deadpool 2 and complaining vociferously if anyone has the lack of consideration to keep their window shades open.

The natural world is beauty. That we’ve figured out how to conquer the skies — that too is beautiful. We can look onto sunsets at heights of which only a bird could fantasize. Both of those elements should be appreciated, the wonderment synthesized.

But maybe I’m just feeling a bit emotional up here, the effects of altitude and a long flight. But no matter what, I have the memory of my delta of fire and sliver of moon above.

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