28 June 2007

From A Distance

I always sit on the aisle. It’s a knee thing you see. Being over six feet tall, most airplane seats are pitched too close for comfort. Pitch is the distance between rows, and in most coach sections it is well under two feet. At least half the time the person in front wants to snooze so they recline as soon as possible. There goes another two inches.

On the aisle I can stretch out a leg now and then, but on my recent trip I was confined to inner seats mostly and I have a pain in the ass, literally a pain in the ass (right cheek) to prove it.

But because I took too much time buying my seats to and from Portland OR, I had little choice. One great exception was on the leg from Portland to Denver Monday afternoon. Graciously relocated from the back to the front by the gatekeeper, I had a window seat with lots of leg room.

I love window seats when there is something to see, and flying over mountains is the ultimate something worth seeing.

If people can be divided into those who seek the sea and those who seek the mountains, I am the latter. (Although I do love the water as well, which is why the pacific coast is heaven from my point of view.) And nothing is more thrilling than seeing them from above.

With my headphones on, listening to the pilots chatter I was enthralled.

First of all there was the take off and turn out from Portland, which is a city set between hills and the Willamette River. We circle to the north, going over Vancouver Washington, so I can see back to the airport and the city. Ahead I can make out the slopes of Mt Hood. Craning to see out the opposite side of the airplane I can see Mt. St. Helens to the north, and as we climb the sequence of dormant volcanoes that march up the coast. Each stands alone, part of what makes it clearly volcanic and not part of a range, and each has a crown of snow.

Hood has a tip and Helens does not. Makes me wonder when that will change. Hood is far enough away for Portland not to be demolished by lava or pyroclastic clouds (I believe that’s the name for the avalanche of superheated dust and rock that can roar down from a volcano). That’s what demolished Pompeii and Herculaneum. It may also destroy Seattle as Rainer is as close to that city as Pompeii is to Vesuvius.

Despite our speed we pass Hood slowly, it’s peak wreathed in cumulus clouds. The land is deep green, the pines like grass upon the ground. I saw it up close while I was there, smelled the distinctive Northwest aroma of the conifers and other evergreens. I could get very used to this. Have tried in fact, but never persuaded a church in the west to offer me a job. Sigh.

Climbing as we go, the land east of Hood quickly gives way to brown, and the land below becomes a living map. I can see how the western hills and mountains truly rob the interior of water because the color changes so quickly.

Below me the Columbia River is our guide, we literally fly above it. The gorge comes into view near Hood, and the Dalles, whatever they are, but I know from the weather maps on TV that this is where they are. Here is where the ecosystem changes and only the areas near water show strong green.

I see a road than snakes up from the green coastal hills and then, cresting the last ridge, descends in wicked car commercial curves to the riverside. My wife would hate that drive.

Towns become schematics of roads and squares and details fade to abstractions of shape and form. Passing into Idaho and Wyoming (based on perceived time and distance) true mountain ranges rise up, their rocky ridges cupping snow in crevices shadowed from the sun. I see the lifeless tips above green slopes that then flatten into semi arid valleys. Lonesome roads, the only one is a vast valley, move with defiant straightness until the land demands they curve and bend.

The mountains resemble nothing so much as a blanket left crumpled by a giant who has left his bed. The folds and shapes are identical, though made over eons not moments. How marvelous to see proof that the laws of physics are true for a baby in a crib as well as millennia of geology.

Somewhere in western Wyoming, perhaps not far from Thermopolis where we paused some years ago on a land journey, I see the remains of some volcanism. It is dry and sere here, and the land is splotched with black that looks like spilled ink. Not merely like, but exactly like. The spilling pattern is precise, only this time it is the earth itself that spewed this stuff and let it flow. The boil it lanced is also visible, like a pock mark on the skin. There are almost no roads at all here, there being nothing to do to and perhaps the land itself refusing to permit passage.

On the far horizon I see a line of haze that bespeaks the arrival of Denver, smog, plains. We are held a few minutes over the front range, and I savor the close up view at our lower altitude. As we approach, a vast grey black patch indicates where the thunderstorms are. Tiny flicks of lightning occasionally brighten the edge near the ground.

If the mountains are imposing, the size of this storm dwarfs the mind. I cannot find its edges and it exceeds my view. My mind now turns to the trivial and terrible tasks of missing flights and finding passage home. Tomorrow’s flight will be over the great flat plains which are truly magnificent but better beheld from the ground. That will not be my vantage, though.


ms. kitty said...

Wow! I loved your description of the flight between Portland and Denver, a flight I've taken many times in the 34 years I lived in Denver though my heart was in Portland. It's been a few years since I took that trip, since now I am privileged to live in the NW once again, but every detail really spoke to me.


Ruth Bruns said...

I think you saw the road from the Columbia River up to Goldendale WA where I live now; it's called the Maryhill grade. ("Dalles" is supposed to be French for "rapids", and The Dalles is the name of a town.)
Didn't get to Portland GA, but you are definitely on the list of folks I would have loved to see.

WFW said...


I have pretty fair sense of direction, and this road was on the south side of the river entirely. Which makes ti Oregon all the way.

Missed you too. Stay in touch.