Shuddering, I awake to a baby crying in the darkness of the airplane cabin. Here I am, 29,000 miles above sea level, and streams of civilization in an unknown part of middle America shimmer beneath. It’s negative 62 degrees Fahrenheit outside.
“Beautiful,” I whisper to myself, before turning upward. First a handful of stars peek out from the darkness, then more and more reveal their glistening bodies the harder I stare. The view is clearer than from any mountaintop.
Below, the yellow-green beams of human existence succumb at their edges to the emerging black holes of the Great Lakes. How fragile those hundreds of thousands of lives appear when trapped in their own galaxies, brilliant but separated from the greater orbs I know exist.
One of the best ways to get a sense of a place is from above. Taipei greeted me with horizontal rows of warm lights that would signify comfort from family, food and a congenial culture. Beijing thrust out foggy mountain cliffs straight from ancient paintings. New York always emanates home, and greatness. There’s the Empire State Building, there’s the Bank of America Building, there’s Jamaica Bay, there’s where I live.
The view from above reminds me I’m one in a hundred billion alive on earth throughout its long history. No matter how many have come before, each person has the privilege of the first time. Those are the moments to live for.
Live for that first glimpse of the Great Wall from the taxicab, or the first sight from the bus of the rusty red Golden Gate Bridge, both landmarks materializing out of textbooks and casual conversation.
The excitement fades after five minutes of climbing, or twenty pictures later. The complacent drivers know it.
Other times, the moment makes the view. No matter how dull the daily commute may have seemed before, that evening the George Washington Bridge glitters as the sun sets on an epic day of covering collapsing global markets. Across the river, a serene mix of houses, trees and pink sky reflect off glossy towers. And I’m speeding down the middle. Exhilaration.
Google Earth takes some of the wonder away. Aerial views of anywhere on earth lie one click away without the excitement travel brings.
But even that had a first time, when I was perhaps in elementary school. The blue globe spun on the screen and zoomed into Japan, Egypt, Texas—anywhere I wished to go. I saw deserts and oceans, and rows of houses like mine. That was when the world became flat.
Back in the airplane cabin, the baby falls asleep. I’m one of the few awake besides the pilot, who spoke kindly into the intercom earlier to explain why takeoff was delayed.
Stars above, stars below. Night flight.
“The villages were lighting up, constellations that greeted each other across the dusk. And, at the touch of his finger, his flying-lights flashed back a greeting to them. The earth grew spangled with light signals as each house lit its star, searching the vastness of the night as a lighthouse sweeps the sea. Now every place that sheltered human life was sparkling. And it rejoiced him to enter into this one night with a measured slowness, as into an anchorage.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry