From my window I watch the jets fly. Beyond and above the Empire State Building they criss-cross, taking travelers to nearby cities or distant lands, returning them home to New York. I can even hear the sound of the planes over the hum and buzz of the city – their hollow, lonely, but exciting drone.
As a child I used to count airplanes – 100, 500, thousands, for months and months – not towards any goal, just as an exercise in mind-business and world-engagement. Since planes were thrilling, catching sight of more and more of them seemed to mean something.
I loved the sight of airliners and the thought of people going to faraway places. I was fortunate to travel a lot as a child with my parents, and I loved the airport, the smell of jet fuel, the whine and hiss of the idling engine on the runway. A plane meant going places, whether I was aboard or just watching a tiny grey stick figure in the sky from my bedroom window.
This affection for airplanes persisted through adulthood. I stopped counting planes in the sky, and instead started counting on a future of seeing more and more destinations via plane. But 9-11 changed that. For a while, after air traffic resumed (following the attacks), planes in the sky evoked fear. That fear has faded, but so has the mental image of planes as wholly good, as simply exciting, as pure symbols and engines of adventure.
Today flying involves not only danger and discomfort, but guilt. The more we fly, the more we damage the Earth’s atmosphere and change the climate. Yet there’s no other practical way to get to distant countries, or even across these vast United States. So if we wish to travel, pollute we must.
So much has changed on board, too. Flying used to be a lot more fun intrinsically. Heightened security measures are the least of the inconveniences. Lack of leg room is the worst, with rows of coach seats now jammed so close you can’t even lean forward to give your back a break; try and you’ll hit your head on the seat in front of you (and once the person in front of you leans their seat back, forget about any relief from the claustrophobia). If the flight is longer than a couple of hours, we’re talking real discomfort here.
So, is the romance of air travel gone? Almost. But the appeal of travel per se doesn’t die so readily. And so, I imagine a new world, a world of leisurely travel by ocean liner and high-speed train – and why not airship? – a world where we all have lengthy paid vacations so we can afford to spend a month visiting foreign lands or traveling cross-country instead of cramming our adventures into a week or 10 days. (Hmm…sounds a little like France.)
In this new world, the terrorists have all been imprisoned, or seen the error of their wicked ways and been re-absorbed into normal society. This new world has room to stretch your legs, and sleeping cabins for long hauls. Hmm…sounds like the 20th century – the most murderous in human history.
Well, as Joni Mitchell said, we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden, wherever we may find it: in the past, across the ocean, or in our imaginations.