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About half an hour out of Bangkok, we were soaring at 30,000ft and I looked below: green, tree-covered hills undulated endlessly, impenetrably, to the horizon. After a while the hills gave way to an expanse of watery fields, with here-and-there solitary brown-roofed huts set among the green. Emerald paddies spread like a glistening carpet and larger settlements appeared; a cluster of a dozen homes, then two dozen, with black smoke pluming from a field. Then a thick brown river serpentined through the scene. I looked at the route map and estimated our location: that must be the Mekong!
Soon the landscape changed again, a series of crenellated green mountain ranges with valleys filled with cottony mist. A thin brown trail threaded over these peaks, and I wondered who made that trail, and how long ago and who walks it now.
The mountains ended abruptly and we flew over more green paddies and brown hamlets, then a long thin string of sandy beach appeared, a borderline between land and water. Then we were over the blue-black surface of the East China Sea.
The Earth was unfurling before my eyes.
Time passed and we passed through time zones. The world outside turned dark, and perhaps 30 minutes later, a glitter caught my eye. In the infinite darkness outside there was a constellation of lights. I looked at the in-flight map: Cheju, Korea!
The magic of the moment filled me: the Earth was unfurling before my eyes.
One of my most poignant memories from childhood is my first visit to Disney. But what I remember isn’t the Matterhorn rollercoaster or fairytale castle attractions. The experience that remains etched in my brain half a century later is the much simpler Peter Pan’s flight. With my mom, I clambered into a two-seat gondola whose sides were open to the air. We fastened our seatbelts and then the gondola moved from the light of the outside world through thick doors into utter darkness. Suddenly, just as Peter Pan did when he took Wendy and her brothers to Neverland, we rose magically into the sky! And when I looked over the side of the gondola, I could see far, far below a cluster of tiny houses that were lamplit from within. We were flying!
It was one of the most magical experiences of my life.
That’s part of the allure of flight for me, the perspective it provides on the planet.
The other part is the perspective it provides on me. Soaring above the bonds of Earth somehow liberates me mentally, allowing me to soar above my everyday bonds as well. Being aloft offers a different view of the urgent concerns, restless desires and overwhelming deadlines that plague me on the ground.
Being aloft offers a different view.
Blissfully unplugged – I religiously follow a personal ban on in-flight wi-fi – and wrapped in a cocoon in the clouds, I’m beyond contact for three, or six or 14 hours, and I use this as a precious gift. I write in my journal, read a book or simply let my thoughts wander. Away from the incessant pull of emails and meetings, text messages and social media distractions, I find peace – and I often find new solutions to impediments that had stopped me 30,000ft below.
Occasionally these two perspectives come together. A year ago, I was flying from San Francisco to Washington DC. I had spent the previous two years working on a collection of my own travel stories and essays, and I had reached the point where all that was left to do was to decide on the anthology’s name. Unfortunately, I had procrastinated on that momentous decision so long that I had literally reached the deadline: by the end of the six-hour flight, I had to have chosen a title.
I tried one title and then another and then another. Nothing seemed right. Finally, somewhere over the Midwest, I decided to give my weary mind a break and opened my window shade. A vast checkerboard of green-and-brown fields spread beneath me, recalling similar checkerboards I’d seen a few months earlier over France on a flight from London to Nairobi.
That memory triggered another from the same journey: after soaring over the fertile fields of Europe, we’d moved into thick clouds and for a while I couldn’t see anything. Then the clouds had cleared and suddenly, as startling and enchanting as that long-ago view of lamplit homes, I saw the boot and toe of Italy distinctly visible in the blue Mediterranean below. It was as if the map of the world had come to life beneath me.
The enormity of the world and the wonder at its core – the wonder at the heart of my wanderlust – fill me.
We flew over the Mediterranean and suddenly below appeared a sea of brown: the endless striated, streaked, pocked and ribboned sands of the Sahara. As we travelled for what seemed like hours over that enormous, dry-baked brownness, I wrote in my journal, “Are camel caravans plodding through these sands even as I fly over? Is a blue-robed Tuareg looking up at me even as I write? The enormity of the world and the wonder at its core – the wonder at the heart of my wanderlust – fill me.”
I leaned back in my seat, somewhere over Ohio, and thought: wanderlust.
Suddenly it made perfect sense: That was the spirit I felt over the Midwest and over the Mediterranean. It was the same spirit I’d felt decades before in Peter Pan’s gondola. The world spreading beneath me was a place of infinite possibility, encounter and illumination. And it was the emblem of my life, the way of my wanderlust.
The Way of Wanderlust! That was the just the right title for these tales from my wandering life.
Sometimes flight confers an uncanny clarity at 30,000ft.