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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Flying on a jet plane (or: who say's your mind can't wander)

So here I sit and 37,000 feet, my powerbook on the tray table (no longer in the upright and secured position), my headphones plugged into it's sleek side, and mount Rainier slipping it obscurity behind the plane. The soft rumble of the plane fades into strains of random techno beats, creating a deep rooted noise - not merely unwanted, but inescapable. Thankfully my allergies are no where as bad as they were yesterday, but I still have a snuffly nose, and raw nostrils. I'm not entirely sure if the cold cone of air blowing at me from the vent above makes me feel better or worse.

The seat next to me is vacant. The flight was sold out, but not oversold enough so the plane has two empty seats. I suppose I should consider myself lucky to have gotten it. Then again I suppose I would have been luckier to have gotten one of the few free 1st class upgrades. The seat in my little 747 here is not terribly cramped, but the extra leg room is always nice.


I fly over Montana. Looking down I see grasslands. I see farms. I see very little. I find it humorous that the midwest gets offended when people from either coast call them the "fly over states". When you fly over a coast you see things. Sprawling cities, glistening highways - progress. When you fly over the middle of the country you see expansive nothing - mile after mile after hundreds of miles of green-brown land. Nothing of note save for the occasional mountain or river twinkling below.

Now don't get me wrong - I'm not trying to say that being a fly-over state is necessarily a bad thing. I personally could not live in a place without the hum of a city - the vibrancy of humanity washing over me. I know a good number of people however who prefer a vibrancy of a different sort. The vibrancy of nature, it's beauty and splendor has a call for many. Even I who don't particularly like spending extended times out in the wilderness appreciate it's need. The environment is an important asset, and the only one we really can't replace!

Even aside from the splendor of nature the midwest states provide a significant portion of the food that I eat every day. The leather I use to wrap my laptop in when not in use (Ahhh natural shock protection) probably came from a cow grown in one of the states I now fly over.


A short while later and several chapters of my book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" (Cory Doctorow) the flight still is only halfway through to completion. I had forgotten how boring flying can be - no network access, no cell phones, no contact with the outside world. Just me, my laptop, a good book, and some surprisingly uncomfortable seats. As I look out my window I still see the barren flat land that is the midwest (mideast at this point?). The grey-brown wasteland stretches out as far as the eye can see, occasionally punctuated by the square patterns of a field, but for the most part raw grazing land for cattle and wildlife. It's amazing to think of the microcosms that exist below - blurred together into a formless mass by the thousands of feet thick steel walls of my pressured cabin separating us.

What of that farm over there? Yes - that one, with what I would guess to be wheat. Who is the farmer that owns it? Where is he right now? What is he doing? Is he toiling away in his field, making food for the writhing mass of American excess? Is he comfortable in a ranch-house, having workers or machines tend to his crops?

What of the farm itself? The 1000's of animals, millions of insects that live there, blissfully unaware of me hurtling along through the sky above them. What of the billions (trillions?) of bacteria that take residence in each insect - aiding it's systems, helping it digest nutrients and living off the richness of it's host. The delicate ecosystem living in balance (or forced into balance depending on the farmers views on such thing), unaware that it exists to be cut down, processed, and then served to people who don't even know where it came from.

It's funny the thought train that 37,000 feet can bring about. When your mind has nowhere to go but outside the plane; none of my usual networked distractions; somehow I start to think about the mundane - notice and appreciate the details.


And now I'm torn. I was just drifting off into thought and I asked myself the question: is it better to drive home to visit my parents in Walla Walla, or fly to visit them in Minneapolis - all from a transportation perspective. Driving home takes somewhere between four and five hours. I'm at the helm of my car, and can't do much other than listen to music or watch the scenery. I am however in control. I own my own route, my own destiny, and I can stop wherever I please and stretch my legs or explore the countryside. Driving for those four hours takes somewhere on the order of $30 in gasoline.

On the other hand flying is the ultimate out of control experience. Its faster, but you don't have any options. You get to the airport, stand in lines. Get poked, prodded, and treated like cattle. You sit in a narrow uncomfortable seat and whisk through the sky at hundreds of miles per hour. There are no rest stops, there is no checking out the town you just flew over. You pay through the nose (nearly $300 for this flight) and all you get out of it is the travel.

I guess the preferred method of transport is highly dependent on the locale you are going to. If it's nearby of course you would drive (Seattle to Portland for instance) - but if it's far away (Seattle to Minneapolis) then it makes more sense to put up with the indignities and discomfort of flying to save oneself a four day drive.

Now the question really comes to point when you have a midrange distance to travel. What if I'm going to Walla Walla? Then a plane ticket only costs $125 round trip, and the gas costs around $60. For paying twice the price I get there in about 1/8th the time, and barring bad weather have a decently smooth and comfortable flight. Perhaps I'm old fashioned - I drive more often than I fly. I'm really not sure why. Perhaps I like driving down the freeway, window rolled down and wind rustling through my hair. Perhaps I like stopping here and there, snapping a photo or two along the way. Perhaps I like having my car with me in Walla Walla.

Perhaps I'm just a transport luddite?


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