When I boarded the plane from Atlanta to Tokyo, I had never flown anywhere before. With all of my family and friends located no more than a four hour drive away, there had never been any need. But I had dreamed of faraway places for as long as I could remember. Anchor chains, plane engines, and train whistles – as George Bailey put it in It’s a Wonderful Life. Finally, the adventure was beginning.
I have now been on the road for over a decade. I’ve flown, hiked, driven, cycled, sailed – you name it – many thousands of miles. What I thought would be a trip of a few months turned into an opportunity to live abroad for a year or two. Before I knew it, years had passed, and I was still chasing a distant horizon.
In Deuteronomy, the Israelites, on the threshold of entry into the Promised Land, look back in remembrance to the very beginning of their journey. As I find myself embarking on yet another adventure, I likewise offer some random thoughts from the beginning of mine.
I like to think that I am an intelligent person. For example, I realize that the bold dark lines that demarcate clear boundaries between states on a map of the United States do not actually – physically – exist. They are a construct of surveyors and mapmakers, many times not even based on any particular geographical feature. However, I was for some reason taken aback by the fact that the view from a plane is not at all similar to what you see from your car window. When you’re driving, there’s always a bridge, river, mountain – something – to let you know you’ve crossed a state line. From the air, you begin to see how so much of what we think of as ‘real’ is just a figment of the imagination – a point of view, if you will. If you grow up in a small town, you tend to think of folks from the next county as peculiar, not at all like your clan. From the air, it’s hard to distinguish even one country from another, let alone a city or town.
The Mississippi River is not at all clearly represented on any map I have ever seen. On a piece of paper, it’s a simple line, drawn by an unsteady hand for sure, but still a line running from north to south, from the upper Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico. In reality, it looks like a python curled up in a basket, slithering wildly in the sun, folding back and forth in and upon itself, seemingly headed in no particular direction whatsoever, no hurry to get there, moving to the rhythm of an unknown charmer.
If everyone were forced to fly above Texas before deciding to move there, it would be the least populous state in the Union. Even by air, it is flat, depressing, and takes forever to cross. As an acquaintance of mine used to say, the land is of such poor quality you can’t even raise hell on it. I sometimes see property for sale there as cheap as $500 an acre – in my opinion, it’s overpriced by at least $475.
You can see the Rockies long, long before you ever get to them, and they are nothing short of impressive. I grew up in the Appalachians, and I still love them, especially in the autumn – but they aren’t really even mountains by comparison. This realization makes me strangely sad.
As we continue west into Arizona, the pilot banks the plane slightly to the right, his voice breaking in suddenly over the intercom. He advises us to have a look out the window at the frosty purplish scar on the landscape below. The Grand Canyon – a sight which, by itself, is nearly worth the price of the flight.
By air at least, California is as beautiful as Texas is ugly. The sun casts a golden hue on the Los Angeles skyline against the white and charcoal mountains to the east. We land at LAX, and already I feel I am in a third world country. Needless to say, it’s not quite as breath-taking on the ground as it was in the air. Other than at a NASCAR race, I have never seen so many people in one place wearing funny hats. It is my first true international experience. While waiting for my connecting flight, I order a falafel from a vendor in the food court, thinking it must be some kind of waffle. I am disappointed. I have since grown to love them.
The flight to Japan follows the California coastline, so I enjoy the view of the endless beach, then the teal waters of San Francisco Bay beneath the rusty colored Golden Gate Bridge. We continue north to Alaska and across the Bering Sea, where there is nothing to see from my window for hours and hours but snow and ice, blinding even in the distant rays of the sun. The computer generated maps on the back of each headrest show our path – across the international dateline, into Kamchatka, then the northernmost islands of Japan start to appear.
I am listening to classical music while taking in all of these sights, and I decide that no National Geographic documentary was ever more beautiful, more moving than what I have seen so far. I wonder why I am forcing myself into the unknown when there are so many undiscovered places for me back at home. I make a promise to myself that – at some point – I will come back to explore them.
When we enter the airspace of the larger Japanese islands, turbulence begins to rock the plane. It appears we will be landing in a snowstorm.
As Joshua said to the Israelites as they crossed into Canaan – better buckle up.
If you enjoyed this, check out americansecularist.com for my views on American politics, religion, and society.