The ground slowly shrank away from his point of view. The world grew smaller, and larger. Soon enough, persistent strokes of white obscured the miniature world below. At first, it was still possible to make out a settlement or a landmark, neighborhood or the seacoast. But then even his keen eyes could not penetrate the thick paste of cloud. They rose like formidable mounds of fluff, great explosions of mashed potato. An expanse of the Great Barrier Reef with no sea. Just air, thin and wispy, riding the wind. Now above, with no ceiling and the alien landscape of the sky below, distance is relative. Only the plane’s wing anchors his thoughts as he gazes out in wonder.
Back in the cabin, the other passengers huddle together for the insular warmth of a shared human existence, lest the fright of loneliness in a broad space of emptiness encumber them with a sense of profound wonder. What use was there flying in an aeroplane if a man didn’t grow appreciative, understanding, confused and awestruck in the process? Thirty thousand feet above the land, he watches the world go white and blue and grey. The cabin might be pressurized against the outside, but he could still take it in.
Then the flight attendant asked him what beverage he’d like, and he chose tonic water. All the passengers were opening cans, stirring ice in their cups, munching thoughtfully on their complimentary gourmet nuts, or waiting impatiently for their share of entitlement. Outside this familiar zone, this comfortable space, the cloud shelf has melted sway to reveal the patchwork land below. The brown, green, red, tan, blue mosaic of the countryside. In between, there are still small lumps of white, but now they’re tamer, almost domesticated. A herd. These are the clouds people point and try to find shapes in. A duck maybe, or a screaming face. From this angle they look more like insecure brains.
With the relevance to people on Earth reestablished, the magic of the moment gives somewhat. It’s just a domestic flight, shuffling passengers from one city to another. Just an awkward rendezvous of citizens confined to cramped quarters and people in uniform who talk funny. It’s not the miracle of flight and the pinnacle of human transportation; it’s a matter of Coke versus Sprite, of Aisle versus Window, of budget versus luxury in this airborne bus. The journey is lost in the destination. Takeoff, turbulence, delays, tray tables, landing gear, local time, overhead baggage, they are all details in between the great A and B. The rush of engines, the constant consumption of jet fuel, the radio and equalizer of lights and dials in the cockpit. The wings on the stewardess’s pretty outfit, just beneath a neck scarf silently damp with the stress of performance. The lock and load of the lavatory latch. Details. All lost awash the worry of Alka-Seltzer and connecting flights. For these two hours there is a disconnection from the world. Above. But it is wasted…. Wasted.
He drifts off to sleep, only to wake up to the harsh thud of tarmac. Suddenly he was just a human, a citizen, just a passenger being ferried from one location to another. The plane door opened, depressurizing the cabin and releasing the beauty of the experience like carbonation from a soda bottle. He clicks his seatbelt like everyone else. He claims his trunk and walks outside of the airport, just a man.