Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Notes from the Airplane

I composed the following on the airplane. As much as I would have loved to pull out a laptop and peck away this piece on the plane, Deborah isn't in travelling shape and I wasn't going to saddle myself with a laptop on my flight, so instead I mentally composed this ... essay? Forget that I'm writing it on Tuesday, two days later. That's incidental.

I'm rising over Tucson as I compose this. Takeoff was painless, nothing more than sitting there while someone else does all the work. All our advances have turned taking to the air at great speed to cover even greater distance as easy as parking yourself and making sure your seat belt is securely fastened. The difficult part was back on the ground, when you stepped through the gates and left behind the place you were and the people you were with. Indeed, sometimes taking off is the easiest part of it all.

Below me stretches the city. Coming in, I was taken aback at just how spread out everything is and this impression hasn't left me in the five days I've been here. The city sprawls with a deliberate and controlled pace. Tucson is certainly the furthest West I've gone and the city has that underlying order that comes from being planned in the modern era. Other cities I've flown into and above typically have all the grace of a toddler's enthusiastic scribbles. Even DC, which was initially a planned city, quickly devolves into insanity when you look past the main urban centers.

But Tucson has the orderly grid-based city planning that I will always associate in my head with a properly running Sim City. In all directions stretches the city in an obsessively leisurely pace. The city could probably comfortably cover two thirds of the area it does and contain everything it has, but the space just helps justify its place in the world. And with the city ringed on all side by mountains, I can't really blame it for trying to puff itself up. Against the mountains, the flat southwest architecture feels flat and two-dimensional even from the ground, an impression that doesn't get any better from above.

From above the desert vista isn't nearly as impressive. Below--when you can see roads stretching far into nowhere and nothing, where the saguaro and agave begin to dominate, other plants too exotic and strange for me to identify--it seems as if wilderness is only barely kept at bay. But from above the grid looks like a net cast upon the ground to control and dominate it. From the air, the city is clearly the victor.

We're rising East along Broadway and I can't help but smile. In my time in Tucson I spent the majority of my driving in the city limits on Broadway. Such is a main street. And along it, I see the various places where I've been. From here I could nearly trace my path to every place I've visited. The plane banks slightly to the north before I can see Kristen's apartment, but I fly right over it as we continue rising towards the mountains.

Below me, I see the roads slowly fall away until there's little more than a single insistent highway making its way up into the foothills. As I look at the thin thread beginning to cut into the quickly rising cliff face, I realize that I know this road. Three days before Kris and I had piled into the Avenger I had rented to do a little exploring and ended up making for Mt. Lemmon.

The Catalina Highway goes into the Santa Catalina Mountains (surprise) and the road is like nothing I had ever experienced before. I had driven through the Black Hills some ten years before and the Appalachians a year or two before that, but this was like another world entirely. The desert below fell away and we were left with a two lane highway that snaked its way up the cliff face. Rounding blind corners with the valley right beside you is thrilling in a James Bond kind of way. I could almost imagine what it would be like travelling along the Alps. Those who have visited Europe may laugh, but for someone from the midwest the very idea of mountains are nearly inconceivable.

The plane is cutting straight up the side of the mountain, so from my seat I'm only able to see part of the road, but I spot the biggest vista point roughly six or seven thousand feet up. It was here that on our way down from Summerhaven we stopped to take a look around. There is an area with a sidewalk and rail but past the rail is a ridge of rocks extending out a few hundred feet. There were visitors perched on flat areas, a group of tourists right up front where the going is easy. And far at the end, younger teens scrambling over rocks to the very end, where the rocks drop off again.

It was here that I realized that even if she was wearing heeled sandals, Kris was three times as agile as me. On the way out, unfamiliar with rocky terrain, I had quite a time finding footing and making my way out to the rocks where we stopped and took in the view of the mountain below us and Tucson stretched out over the horizon. At that point the weather was warm (we were far too high for hot) and it was utterly quiet. There was a light breeze, but aside from that, there was nothing. No grasses, no bugs. Just the wind and the silent rocks. It felt as if the world below weren't moving, that up there was a place out of time. Descending as dusk neared did nothing to help that perception of timelessness while we were on the mountain.

My plane rises above the mountain and over the other side, where we fly into the mountains. On the other side of the Catalinas the clouds are heavier and hold the promise of rain. I'm fairly certain that the rain will never see Tucson. Tucson is supposedly in its rainy season, but in five days I saw one brief 45 minute deluge. And it was indeed a deluge, with the kind of rain that in Omaha would be accompanied with lightning and thunder and hail and all sorts of other insane weather.

But it ended before it really got going, and the whole area just as quickly dried out. The rainstorm was little more than a slight spritzing before the desert moved on with its typically arid self. But then, We've gotten more than double the rain to date in 2008 than Arizona is supposed to get all year, so I'm just lacking the appropriate context to appreciate what that rain meant. Seeing people huddled up to windows like the world was ending outside was rather surreal for something as every day as rain.

My flight is uneventful, despite some turbulence as we pass through those clouds that I saw before and the bigger ones after it that seem primed to build into a storm. And as I piece together the idea of this piece in my head (where it seemed much shorter than it's turned out to be so far) the plane passes far enough ahead to outrun the sun.

Afternoon gives way to an uneasy gray dusk in minutes. Which, writing this now, is indicative of returning. Under the Arizona sun, the sky seemed to be a bleached out void that stretched forever. In five days the city looked like five different cities under that sun, under the changing light of various cloud covers. And I can imagine that in the bright clear parts of summer when all the clouds flee and the sun shines the entire city takes on the slightly luminous quality of the unreal.

It's certainly sunny here. We haven't had bad weather. But the air is cooler and I feel it more than I figured I would. I won't even remotely say I was acclimated in five days, but I was certainly growing more comfortable with the climate. And here summer has seemingly lost its biting edge.

When my plane finally descended upon Omaha it was fully dark. We dropped through the cloud cover and spread out before me was Omaha in all its glittering glory. Omaha isn't nearly as big as Tucson, but it's twice as bright. At night, Omaha is a sea of lights, with street lights on every street and oceans of light coming from parking lots and stores and buildings. From above, blocks twinkle like Christmas trees and every major street is easily visible as it makes its way through the city.

I already knew that Omaha had terribe light pollution, but seeing my home city welcoming me back with all of its familiar light drove the point home. Two days before I was driving to dinner with Kristen, and the darkness was absolute. Street lights are reserved for only a few streets and as a whole the city is best described as dark. I drove the same street at night and then the next day and had I not been told I wouldn't have known. The street, only a few blocks from the main street of the city, was swallowed by a darkness so absolute the roadsides on both sides were swallowed up.

That darkness, in my mind, was reserved for only the most remote stretches of wilderness. But there it was, right before me, draped across the sprawling suburban area that I would discover the next day in broad daylight. Again I felt (as I still feel) that while in Tucson, it appears as though the city only barely keeps a wilderness more insistent and wild than any to be found in the midwest at bay. The great plains just cannot stand up to the desert.

Which is about what I expected. What I didn't expect, though, was how I would feel coming out of that landscape, coming out of that city. When I descended back on Omaha and returned to my home, for the first time I truly looked upon the city of my birth with something equalling at the least indifference and at the most ...

Well, I'm not sure what the most is, yet. But I know that some part of my mind is still staring in awe at the vistas I've left behind. And from here, where mountains are rare and moisture is in the air and the days feel cool though I know they aren't I can't help but think, with longing, on what I've left behind.

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