UP THERE –  The earth from the air         1-21

We are flying above the empty center of Greenland.  At the plane window I study a place untouched by time, fractured and empty.  The island is huge, cold beyond my grasp.
The ice is four kilometers thick. If Greenland’s ice all melted, worldwide sea level would rise ten meters.  Has anyone walked on the ice cap or camped in the blue and vacant wilderness?  The unseen air sweeps long scarves of mist round the shoulders of summits.  Down there, the world is pure landscape.  Not one mystic sits in solitude.
As a traveler from a far place, I see in the vast solitude a heart-stopping beauty.  This unknown zone appears like an alien world in some distant galaxy.  It leaves me wondering at the very existence of such a place on earth.  Behind me, a young man says, “It looks like the ice planet from Star Wars.”
And it does.  Brilliant sunshine shapes each curve in snow as pure as a bleached satin sheet, its drapes linking nameless points. The country lies frozen into solid waves.
Glaciers, like vanilla ice cream in a bowl of stone, tumble off the western edge of this small continent.  The ice crashes down into deep sea fjords, carved long ago and lonely.  High above these round-bottomed valleys filled with blue-black ocean, a recent snowfall has sprinkled white flour over rims of reddish rock.

On long flights, when nearly everyone aboard is sleeping or reading or watching a movie, you will find me looking out at the world, tingling inside with a childish delight.   I am a geography fan, and I like my maps alive.  Cursed with this fascination, people like me arrive at their destination exhausted by the excitement.  We don’t sleep like normal humans, when the world itself is spread out below in all its glory.
The video map says we’re just north of Gotthaab, eleven kilometers up.  It is minus 50 degrees outside.  From the other side of the plane, the fjord country appears lit by a star so white it seems it can’t be our own sun.  In a deep, sea-canyon the white scuffs of two motorboats stand out like comets in the darkness of space between steep walls.
It seems I’ve always been fanatic about a good view.  Flying over water for hours and hours at age ten, I gazed through the little window for half the trip, amazed by a land made of puffy clouds.  Once, in all that time, I saw a tiny ship on the dark wrinkled surface far below.
Flying across America at age 19, my nose pressed to the glass all day, I marveled at the shapes of the country — brown canyons of the desert West to the horseshoe curve of Niagara Falls.  Later that same summer, the snows of the Alps rose up to meet us as we lifted out of Geneva.  My fascination with the world seen from above has never slacked.
Now I count coup like a Dakotah tribal warrior, claiming like real victories the places I’ve seen but never touched — Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and the Western Aleutian Islands on a flight east from Japan — the green sugarcane  fields of Cuba flying from Lima to Miami.  My eyes found the Fiji Islands beneath a sunset bigger and redder than any bonfire of the vanities.  That evening, the full orange moon rose into the shadow of Earth on the night of a lunar eclipse.
Crossing from Athens to Qatar, we flew over the Empty Quarter of Arabia, all sand and stone and heat.  And Iceland, now there’s a sight, black volcanic earth and white peaks of distant ranges.  The farms spread to the edge of tall cliffs that fall to the cold sea.  It’s a country no place like home.
On a clean June day, flying north to Alaska, every hidden highland pond and every inlet between Seattle and Anchorage drew me into wilderness fantasies of the green forests on the Northwest Coast.  On our way south again, we had the Queen Charlotte Islands with our lunch.
You might guess I wanted to be a pilot. But I got only as far as ground school.  Maybe it’s a good thing they don’t let me fly.  Sitting in the cockpit, I’d find far too many distractions to properly mind my business.  But if ever I’m offered a chance to sit up front, I’ll take it.


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