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  • Paul Cumbo

Writing Altitude

Upon approach to Denver International Airport, as this Delta MD-90 makes a wide, graceful turn, a long arm of the snowcapped Rockies stretches out to the limits of my vision. The inner space above us is a deep, electric blue. Clouds, like wisps of smoke, could be five hundred feet or five miles away--with nothing for perspective, it's impossible to tell. Each of two turbofan engines slung beneath the fuselage, according to the aircraft profile, is right now generating 25,000 pounds of thrust, propelling the craft at its cruising speed of 504 MPH. Yet, despite the remarkable velocity at which I'm rocketing through thin air, the sensation is of smooth, uncannily slow motion.

I associate air travel with writing. I began my first novel back in 2002 at Reagan National Airport. It features a westward flight as the backdrop for its principal flashbacks. My second novel starts with a scene onboard a 737. Airborne writing is, for me, somehow liberating. It might be the motion. The momentum. The sense of hurtling somewhere at that remarkable speed. I guess it tends to drive a plot. Whatever it is, it inspires me.

Air travel is, for all the angst and frustration it seems to cause many people, really a fascinating experience. It has never gotten old for me, and I've flown a lot. Not the diamond-elite-every-other-day-business-traveler kind of a lot, no. But I've been privileged to fly more than most people have or will. And while this has afforded me varied low-to-mid-tier "elite" frequent flyer status, I'm not one of the hotshots the crew greets by name. Sure, I get upgraded sometimes, and I've spent some nice flights in business class...but not that often. I just happen to fly a lot, for reasons mostly related to my job and sometimes (although this is less the case than it used to be in my twenties) just the pure love of travel.

Recently, I found myself holding my seven-month-old son, finally having gotten him to sleep after more than an hour of restless, inconsolable crying. I didn't want to risk waking him up. Stuck, I started pondering an upcoming business trip. Increasingly bored but afraid to move from my chair, I began trying to list every flight I've ever taken. I'm sure I'm missing some--and I couldn't really recall more than a few before high school-- but my best efforts at an accurate tally came to 442 individual, 1-way flights (that is, a take-off and a landing) over the past 27 years, since I was 10. And a good number of those flights were long-hauls, either across the USA, or to international destinations in Europe, the Caribbean, South America, or Asia.

Granted, compared to the most frequent flyers, who might take that many flights in just a couple years of business travel, I'm a casual wanderer. I guess it's all relative--I feel like I've spent a lot of time on planes. Either way, here's the thing: flight has been frequent, but not so frequent that it has ever gotten old. Yes, there have been frustrating delays and cancellations. But that's an imperfection in the system or a circumstance out of anyone's control. Here's the thing, I suppose: flying has always been a means to an end; but it has also remained an end in itself. In fact, before I had a wife and kids, I would sometimes choose an itinerary that involved an extra stop if it would get me more miles and a visit to another airport.

A lot of people loathe airports. Like they're nothing but obstacles on the way to somewhere--crowded, uncomfortable, noisy hubs of confusion. And I don't deny they are usually crowded, confusing, and noisy; however, the noise is the type that--at least for me--fades into a distant, barely noticeable background hum after a few minutes. Airports have become considerably more comfortable over the past twenty years, but they're not too comfortable. Which is not a bad thing, really. After all, a little discomfort is intrinsic to travel. It keeps the traveler, well...traveling. It reminds us that everything is in motion. To me, an airport is a fascinating nexus of ambitions and trajectories, of intersecting purpose, of lives being shuffled in one great human mixing bowl--all surrounded by gleaming, aerodynamic constructs of engineering. An airport is a temple to human ingenuity and freedom--even if things get mixed up sometimes. Some of my favorites, for various reasons:

Exotic: Kathmandu, Nepal; Punta Arenas, Chile

Well-designed and efficient: Reagan National, D.C.; Detroit, MI; Phoenix Sky Harbor, AZ

Compact: Jackson, WY; Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic; Buffalo, NY

I love the way I can relinquish all responsibility in flight, knowing that I have no control. I love the incredible fact that I can wake up in the darkness of one part of the world and, by lunchtime, touch down in the bright sunshine of another. And I don't mind the close environment of a narrow body plane, even a regional jet. Maybe it's because I'm short--at 5'6", legroom isn't really an issue. Maybe it's because I naturally prefer to travel light, so I'm unencumbered.

Lately, amidst the harried weeks of prepping for the new school year amidst a few clustered business trips, I've been savoring Skyfaring - A Journey with a Pilot, by Mark Vanhoenacker. The New York Times Book Review called it "Superb...An elegant, nonlinear reflection on how flying on a commercial airliner--even while painfully folded into a seat in coach--can lift the soul." It's an apt description. Vanhoenacker, a career 747 pilot, manages to weave a fascinating tapestry of technical aviation jargon and introspective, lyrical meditation on the exercise of flight. Rarely have I been so impressed by an author's ability to convey technical expertise in such an artistic manner. My Honors sophomore English classes will certainly be reading the first chapter of Skyfaring this year, as it is a profoundly well-written essay. Especially these final sentences:

"...we are lucky to live in an age in which many of us, on our busy way to wherever we are going, are given these hours in the high country, when lightness is lent to us, where the volume of our home is opened and a handful of our oldest words--journey, road, wing, water; earth and air, sky and night and city--are made new. From airplanes we occasionally look up and are briefly held by the stars or the firmament of blue. But mostly we look down, caught by the sudden gravity of what we've left, and by thoughts of reunion, drifting like clouds over the half-bright world" (Vanhoenacker 17).

I think Vanhoenacker cleared it up for me. Perhaps that's why I like to write in the air: Because those hours are privileged and limited; because those hours suspend gravity's hold on my body and my imagination--and ideas are thus set free, "drifting like clouds over the half-bright world."

What do you think about flying? Love it? Hate it? Comment with your insights. I'd love to know.

Image from Google Images.


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