From down here they seem so far away–those two-hundred souls vacuum-sealed into an aluminum fuselage and shot across the sky. And maybe they are up there thinking the same about me and the few microscopic hikers whose bright shirts can be spotted on this tiny trail in the vast expanse of Arches National Park. Maybe some girl at a window seat has paused her movie to look down, marveling at so much rugged, rocky emptiness then seeing the wriggly trail and thinking how could anyone survive in such hot, hard terrain? How did the first people even get across?
I bet she’s thinking that way because it is the way I thought when I was the person in the sky and my own flight was passing over, headed home to Des Moines from California. I imagine her eating pretzels and drinking Sprite out of a clear plastic cup. I imagine her about to go back to the screen in front of her—unpausing Marriage Story with Scarlett Johannsen and Adam Driver, who are drifting toward a very urban modern-day divorce, split between the skyscrapers of New York City and the concrete sprawl of Los Angeles. However, I’ll bet she is thinking, as she turns back to that screen, Amazing–there is still this ginormous area, so rugged and undeveloped that you can actually get lost in it.
It is hot down here. Really hot. 105 degrees hot. Which is why my wife and I have taken shelter in the shade between two boulders, huge mushrooms of reddish sandstone perched atop a plate of more sandstone. I am drinking from a water bottle because I’ve been told to stay hydrated. I am not conscious of the heat like I might be in the Midwest, where you can feel the corn perspiring as you jog out of town and enter one of those gravel corridors between walls of vegetation. I am not sweating, and my lungs feel light. But I’m drinking because my wife insists, “Don’t be stupid. You need to stay hydrated.”
I tip my head back to take another swallow, and there it is: the contrail, so perfectly linear, so machine-made. I suppose I was hearing this jet already, just too accustomed to the sound to register it. But now, I can see the silver speck and its long thin vapor trail. Those travelers are so far away, it seems. Six miles high? Maybe seven? However, it occurs to me that, in the 1300’s or 1400’s when Ute hunters came creeping through the sagebrush with their bows, hoping to take down some antelope, those airborne travelers were much, much further away. And when the Franciscan Fathers Domínguez and Escalante came trekking from Santa Fe in 1776, at the same time the American colonies were gaining independence from Britain, they didn’t hear or see jets. That’s for sure. And when the Mormons arrived in 1847, pulling handcarts from Illinois, they weren’t hearing any jets either. In fact, the first commercial jet airliner was still a century away, which is a lot further than the standard flying altitude of 32,000 feet.
Wendell Berry once went hiking in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, now over fifty years ago, and because he heard a jetliner, he had a terrible vision of how much nature had changed in his lifetime. Before he was borne, “the continent was still covered by a great ocean of silence, in which the sounds of machinery were scattered at wide intervals of time and space.” But by the time of his hike, Berry could see that America had become covered, instead, “by an ocean of engine-noise.” He saw that he did not live, like people of old, on little islands of machine-made civilization. Instead, wilderness had been reduced to islands, and those little shrinking places were surrounded by an ever-expanding man-made environment.
Back in the Midwest, on certain winter days when I am driving down the highway, I become aware of jet contrails because they are more visible due to the frozen condensation behind the engines, and I actually start counting. I think my highest number is 15, but on almost any day I can see at least two or three contrails. No surprise, I guess, given that there are 90,000 flights in the air every day now, crisscrossing the globe.
Is there anywhere they don’t go? I’m not sure, but I do remember personally flying past Mt. Everest on the way to Nepal and I remember thinking, Hey, someone might be standing on the peak right now, savoring his or her moment of grand accomplishment. Someone may have just joined that elite mountain-climbing club, going where almost no human ever goes, and that person may be looking over at us, flying five thousand feet higher and sipping Chardonnay, and if so, what is that climber thinking?
To be honest, I was glad to see Mt. Everest from the plane. Now I could say I had actually seen it myself. But it also felt wrong, too easy really—like something I had purchased without earning.
Others were getting up in the aisle and taking photos, but I didn’t. I think I knew instinctively that Everest would never be Everest if seen from so far above.
Here, though, in the shadow of these boulders, where the Utes used to migrate through and where 18th Century Spanish explorers came along and then a 19th Century intrepid American named Frémont who lived before the era of cameras and could only record notes to take back to the waiting public, here I take out my little digital camera. I aim it up, and click.