December 8, 1999

I sat watching nothing happen. The instruments illuminated in front of me were frozen in the indications of a steady climb, only the altimeter hinted that anything at all was happening. The engine, propeller and airstream noises all held their steady notes and the view outside was an amorphous gray, the color of the inside of a cloud as it absorbs the two bright recognition lights that shine ahead of the plane.

For the moment I sat there, just as though I was minding an empty store, and I contemplated the sense of isolation when suddenly everything outside of the plane went totally black. It was as though I had been abruptly cast into outer space. Everything still looked, felt, and sounded the same, but suddenly I seemed someplace else.

It was only a split second before I realized that I had passed through the tops of the clouds into the blackness of a moonless sky above, but it takes only a split second to record an image that lasts forever. Slowly my eyes grew accustomed to the black sky and I admired first the brightest stars, and gradually all the stars, as they peeked shyly through the darkness.

Leveling off at 9000 feet, the only sign of life from below was the glow cast up through the clouds that laid above places like Binghamton, Sayre, and Ithaca. For a while I turned all the instrument lights off so that I could admire the sky, brightened with a fresh flow of winter air, and undiminished by competing lights from below. Orion was straight ahead, almost bright enough to be a distraction. The Pleiades was almost straight above, and the Big Dipper, in Ursa Major, was to my left. The stars were bold now, and I couldn't help feeling that the constellations spread through the sky above were strewn about as carelessly as toys in a child's room.

I could look out and see some old friends, stars that my kids and I had gazed up at from the ground so many times. I was alone though, in my small and noisy bubble of light and warmth, flying through the cold night sky, less than two miles from the comfortable surroundings of life on the ground. I was cruising through a land that was at once beautiful and exotic yet hostile. The surreal incongruities of so close yet so far, so familiar yet so alien had diminished , but they are never far away.

Two hours earlier I had been sitting on the hearth and basking in the heat of the wood stove behind me. The family was scattered through the house, settled into their evening. I gathered my bags, bade them goodbye and stepped out into the dark that had fallen hours ago, the day's slush now frozen and crunchy underfoot. The northwest wind even smelled cold, and it brought occasional spits and fits of snow.

The low pressure trough that had passed over us earlier in the evening was near Hancock when I caught up with it on my flight to Newark. The clouds that had laid like a carpet below me now billowed up above my altitude, swallowing me in their bumpy air. Nearing the other side of this line of weather, I could catch an occasional glimpse of lights far below me.

I thought of the simple beauty of evening at home, the smells of the kitchen, freshly shampooed hair, or even a pair of socks testifying to the completion of a long day's work. Evenings are a family's time to finish up the day and appreciate the simple things, like being warm, dry, and well fed. Looking down through an occasional rift in a stormy cloud though, the peace of the evening seems far away.

Approaching the metropolitan area, the sky was clear. The first wave of cold air had moved in, and the second wave was still back at Hancock. For miles around the city, the earth is carpeted with lights, and on this evening, they were alive with shimmer and vibrance. No individual light looked peculiar, but all together they twinkled like stars, refracting through the topsy turvy air densities caused by the sudden switch to winter weather.

The airport is a dark spot in this carpet of lights ahead, set against a backdrop of downtown Manhattan in the distance. As I land, the earth once again rumbles under the wheels and I taxi across the industrial wasteland of a big- city airport. Amidst the shimmering lights, a barren plain of oily winds.

What is real, and what isn't? What makes sense, and what doesn't? Flying gives us a look at nature and a look at man, a look outside of us and a look within. This inside- out look of reality tantalizes many of us; we can almost feel it, and almost describe it. We think, like gamblers, that next time we will be able to capture its essence and understand it; we will know its secrets. We are held captive to the thought of next time, and we cannot leave.

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