It had been clear and cold when we left Detroit, and I could see the ground from thirty-three thousand feet all the way until we reached the Rockies. Iím beginning to associate that view of Earth with all the maps I look atómostly on the Weather Channel, watching the progress of weather systems moving across the Great Plains into Southeast Michigan. The five-hour flight to Seattle seems more like teleportation, the way it used to be shown on Star Trek. One slowly dissolves in one place and then slowly assembles again in another. Somewhere along the flight, I set my watch back three hours, beginning to dissolve.
West of the Rockies, clouds hide the ground. Iím already anticipating my arrival, wondering how complicated it will be to find the Kitsap Airporter that will take me to the park-and-ride lot where my daughter will meet me. I donít think much about home now. Iíve left Judith and Tasha back at the departures drop-off with a quick kiss goodbye. Tasha had watched me through the window of the van as Judith pulled quickly away, waved on by the security guards. I made it through airport security, thoroughly inspected and scanned and patted for weapons. All that was behind me now.
First Mount Shasta and Mount Hood appears in the distance to the south, poking up through the clouds, and then the sad profile of Mount Saint Helens, her once proud profile sagging to one side like a person with Bellís Palsy, struggling to look normal, the way she is inside. Her deformity seems even more pronounced when Mount Rainier suddenly passed by close enough, I think, to touch her with our wingtip. That mountain always takes my breath away, whether Iím seeing her from the air or rising out of the haze in a golden afternoon from across Puget Sound.
Iím spending a week out here, visiting first with my daughter Shirley in Port Orchard, then across the Sound with my sister Wilma in Bellevue. The trip will be full of nostalgia for me. Fifty years ago, I was stationed nearby on a little island just north of Admiralty Inlet, the mouth of Puget Sound. I had left when Shirley was barely two, turning my back on a relationship that had become unbearable, but also leaving one that I would mourn for thirty years. Now, I never lose my gratitude for a second chance to know my daughter. She has become one of my dearest treasures.
The aircraft banks right, and I look down through the tiny windows on the other side of the cabin to the top of the overcast over Issaquah and up toward North Bend and the Cascades. Then we level off and drop through the clouds, the engines slowing and quieting, the roar of air past the windows becoming a whisper. I can see the Sound now, and try to pick out landmarks. The city appears, really a cluster of cities surrounding the placid waterway. Another bank, this time into the base leg of the landing pattern, and showing us the intricate lacework of Greater Seattle. Thereís the Space Needle, a tiny childís toy from this height, and the two floating bridges across Lake Washington. My ears feel the increasing air pressure as we descend toward SeaTac. A part of me is amused at my own rising excitement. Iíve made this trip countless times before, but each time the experience of landing here is breathlessly new.
By the time weíve reached the limits of the airport, everything is swishing by at an ever-increasing speedóparadoxically, as our airspeed drops to a mere one hundred and fifty miles an hour, at which our tires will screech their greeting to the pavement and we will be pulled against our seatbelts by the brakes.
"Welcome to Seattle, ladies and gentlemen. The temperature outside is a misty fifty-seven degrees, with good weather promised for the afternoon. Please remain seated until the aircraft comes to a complete stop at the gate." My thoughts are brought back to the inside of the airplane, a plastic-lined tunnel holding a hundred people, all anticipating the signal to unstrap themselves and dash forward to crowd the exit, eager to finish the teleporting process and appear whole once again in a completely different place. At the top of the ramp, there are no crowds waiting as there used to be, eyes searching for loved ones, shrieks of greeting and great hugs. Only the carpeted quiet of the terminal and the ever-present, all but unintelligible public address voice reminding people to not leave their bags unattended.
I look out the big windows at the mountains, lightly snowcapped in the distance. Iím in a different world now, made of memories and anticipation, holding my emotional breath as I walk, stiff from five hours of sitting, toward the subway to the baggage claim carrousel. I picture Shirley, her hair still golden and falling over her shoulders, driving toward our meeting place, talking to her own daughter on her cell phone, immersed in her life even as she prepares to take me into it for a few days.
Weíre climbing fast, heading east over the Cascades, up through layers of cloud. My head is full of memories, memories of yesterday and the days before, memories that replace, for the moment, those of fifty years ago when I first left this land of water and mountains and dampness and people I had come to love. I take out my camera, still full of pictures of family, and grab a shot of mountaintops peeking through the clouds below me. The wingtip waved, ever so gently, beside me, lifting me with thousands of pounds of other people, their luggage and the machine itself up to its rightful place five miles above the steady, solid earth.
The flight is heading for Paris, with a stop in Detroit to discharge passengers like me who donít want to endure an additional eight hours of sitting in one place, eating cold sandwiches and dozing under headphones playing music we canít hear through the roar of six hundred mile-an-hour wind past the thin skin of our aircraft. Across the aisle I can faintly hear people talking in French. Wonder where theyíve beenóvisiting long-lost daughters and neglected grandchildren, or seeing new great-granddaughters for the first time, snapping photos of them in their Halloween costumes? Parlez-vous Puget Sound?
We had left SeaTac a little after noon, and already the sun is getting low beside us. On my side only the waving tip of the wing is in sunlight. Below, a purple haze is beginning to hide the farmhouses and little towns. Iím thinking about Judith again, and about a poem I wrote years ago about returning from another trip and feeling the connections between people represented by lights far below my airplane. I drink a glass of wine and watch the shadow of the fuselage on the wing traveling slowly outward then back as the autopilot corrects our course across South Dakota in a long arc northward then southward toward Detroit.
Lights are beginning to show below us. The sun still throws its shadow on our wing, but itís dusk down there in Dakota. I set my watch ahead to Eastern Time, and Iím aware that I donít know what time it is here in the sky over Sioux Falls. The captain tells us we may arrive early, but might have to wait to get into our gate. Judith will be waiting in the car outside the baggage area, for she canít get through the security gate. Tasha will be with her again, ears up, scanning the faces looking for mine.
The lights below are brighter now, a thin tracery of lighted streets sometimes connecting the towns, nerve pathways alive with messages back and forth in this eight thousand mile diameter brain. In the distanceóI canít see the horizon any moreóa lighted dome glows red. A sports dome, I surmise. But huge. Maybe they make them bigger out here in the plains, pulling together thousands of people from miles around to hear music or see spectacles, perhaps to make up for the isolation they live in. A river is visible beneath our wing, not by light but by its absence, a black smear across a field of tiny lights.
I wonder how many email messages await me on my neglected computer. I have a newsletter to compose and send out as soon as I returnótomorrow, for sure. But I think of Judith and home and sitting in front of the television participating vicariously in other peopleís pretend lives. On the phone last night we said we missed each other, and I want to touch her face again.
The red dome has grown in the distance, and I realize that itís the full moon. In a few minutes it has become round, risen above the invisible horizon. For the rest of the flight it hangs there over the engine of the airplane, casting a reflection on the smooth curve of the wing. I watch it for a long time, and catch a glimpse of Lake Michigan in its glow. Looking down, I can see the lights of Milwaukee and its black shoreline. A single steadily moving light crosses by below us, another airplane traveling from someplace unknown to another someplace, its pilot undoubtedly aware of us above her, both of us connected by the calm voices of air traffic controllers in rooms far away from either of us, watching our passage in tiny lights on their radar screens.
The engines slow, and the pressure in my ears tells me weíre descending. The flight attendant asks us to put our seatbacks in the full upright position and stow our belongings under the seat in front of us. The book Iíve been reading off and on through the trip goes into my bag. I stretch my legs and my back as much as I can in the tiny space, and take a few deep breaths.
We bank sharply to the right, and the moon retreats quickly out of sight. I can see the lights of Detroit now, and search out the sweeping arcs of the Ambassador Bridge. We turn more as the pilot steers us toward the still-distant runway. The familiar grind of the hydraulic system announces that our flaps are down, and we slow perceptibly. With the heavy clunk of the landing gear Iím reminded of watching the spread web-feet of geese approaching the water. A final flap of wings to brake forward motion, and the feet dip daintily into the pond. Our touchdown is not so graceful, but smooth enough. The thrust reversers roar and the passengers all lean forward, bowing in unison to the spirits of speed and return.
Once released from the aircraft, I limp up the ramp to the gate, my legs cramped from five hours of disuse, and then I phone Judith from a pay phone. She says sheís circling the terminal, not permitted to stop and wait for me, and afraid sheíll miss me in the ten-minute loop. I laugh and say Iíd wait, and she says sheís missed me. Sheíll continue to circle until I get my bag from the carrousel.
Tashaís tail is wagging furiously as I open the door and lift my bag into the van. She wants to lick my face but knows that isnít allowed, so licks the air instead. Iím not so reserved with Judith. The security people are motioning for us to move our car.
As we make the circle one last time, I look at the moon, bright over the runway lights, and think of home and dinner and the glow of return.
Donald Skiff, 2001, posted April, 2005