David Freed

THIS BEAUTIFUL PLANET

The flight was scheduled for five hours and 26 minutes, nonstop from Los Angeles to Newark. I wanted a window seat because, as they say in aviation, we pilots have enjoyed looking down on everybody else since 1903. But, alas, no such luck. My reservation was last-minute and the flight was full; the only available seat was in the middle, near the back of the plane.

Hunkered on the aisle, engrossed in a copy of People magazine and munching peanut M&Ms from an economy-size bag, was a formidable-looking older woman with short, spiky hair the color of some rare metal.

“Hi, looks like I’m in the middle.”

She heaved a sigh that did little to hide her annoyance at my arrival as she derricked herself out of her seat to let me in.

“Thanks,” I said.

No, “You’re welcome” or, “No problem.” No smile. Nothing.

The dude wedged into the window seat beside me was equally humorless. He was wearing a pinstriped, New York Yankees team jersey that hung on him like a tent. Baggy cargo shorts. Flip-flops. His wispy beard did little to camouflage his triple chin. He smelled of weed and barely glanced over as I settled in.

“Is it me,” I said, stuffing my backpack under the seat in front of me because the overhead bins were already full, “or do these seats seem to get closer together every year?”

A shrug was the extent of his response. We hadn’t even taxied from the terminal before he pulled down his window shade and began watching a succession of Adam Sandler movies on his iPad.

I can handle being trapped in an aluminum tube for five hours and change, contorted with scant legroom between two unfriendly, oversized people. Commercial air carriers—American carriers, anyway—have long regarded as cattle any passenger not paying first-class or business-class fare, and I long ago came to terms with that reality. In fact, I do some of my best writing on airliners, inspired by the views passing below. My second Cordell Logan novel, Fangs Out, was conceived in such fashion while on a flight to Denver. But what I have trouble understanding are travelers like my bearded seatmate. There we were, rocketing nine miles-a-minute across a continent that took settlers months to traverse in their covered wagons, and not once did he raise his shade to take in the panorama below. It might’ve been one thing if he spent the flight chuckling or even occasionally smiling at Sandler’s antics, but he did neither. Between napping with his neck craned back and mouth open, and his frequent trips to the restroom (which irked the woman on the aisle no end because she had to get up every time, as I did), he stared at that iPad without expression virtually all the way to New Jersey.

I don’t get it.

When I fly my own airplane, I don’t do a whole lot of sightseeing, either. I’m too focused looking out for other aircraft, checking my instruments to make sure I’m on course and at the proper altitude, and that my engine is running smoothly. Only occasionally will I allow myself the luxury of taking in the view. It’s a different story when I fly commercially, when I can sit with that window shade open and be reminded how lucky I am—how lucky we all are—to inhabit this beautiful planet.

From on high, there’s always some new vista to relish and some new horizon toward which to strive. How did we come to be? What is our place in the universe, our purpose here? These are the enigmatic questions I ponder as I look down. I have no answers beyond the obvious and the cliche: that life is to be lived in the moment, to be savored, before we’re compelled to move on to whatever waits for us beyond that final, hopefully far-distant horizon.

Don’t get me wrong. I dig mindless Adam Sandler flicks about as much as the next immature male (Truth be told, I actually prefer Will Ferrell comedies). But given the choice, I’d rather spend my time in that aluminum tube watching the sun set on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, or rise over the Great Plains at dawn. There are always rivers and highways to trace and towering, granite peaks at which to marvel. There are verdant forests and checkerboard farms and big cities and small towns. I always look for the airports. It can be easy sometimes to forget that it’s been little more than a century, in 1903, when two brothers, bicycle mechanics from Ohio, first achieved powered flight above the earth.

How fortunate we are they did.

Happy flying.

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