Monday, March 29, 2010

Cloudy Beauty

We've all been there. The winter overcast that just hangs in the sky, blotting out the sun and hovering barely over the rooftops, sometimes just lying there and sometimes swirling and churning with the promise of some kind of deluge, be it ice, rain, snow or a combination of all three. "The Gray Days" they are sometimes called, adding to the misery and depression of an already ugly day. Oh woe are we bemoan the multitudes, when will it ever end? Is there no beauty left in the world, we ask, as we trundle to work listening to traffic reports and ever more worrisome noise from the stock markets.

What a fantastic day for flying! There are simply very few sensations most people can experience that bring a feeling of escape, a rush of breaking free and a true aura of getting away than breaking through a layer of clouds on "climb-out" from the airport. The rush from racing down the runway, the tickle in the stomach at lift off, the mystery of what lies above and beyond the clouds and, finally, the burst in to pure sunlight, blue sky all around and the endless horizon all add up to an uplifting thrill ride, something out of seemingly nothing in the everyday routine of going from A to B.

I can't remember when it was but seeing my first airplane soaring through the air was a life-changing event for me. Actually flying for the first time nailed the love of flying home and breaking through the clouds has always been the signature moment of the entire experience. It says beyond a shadow of a doubt that there has been a change from the familiarity of being on the ground to the alien, potentially hostile yet stunningly beautiful world of the sky. We are visitors to this place for only a little while, the length of that flight and no more. Enjoy it while you can.

Of course, an monotonous stretch of clouds from beginning to end can be about as thrilling as two weeks of open ocean with no ports of call to break up the routine. There is nothing good about flying over the Alps, knowing that they are right below you but covered in that once thrilling and now obstructive layer of clouds. Stars in the night sky, holiday fireworks or the urban lights of a major city are also fun things to see but that also means that once the big breakthrough has occurred the clouds that said you have slipped the surly bonds of earth will be left behind with each additional foot of altitude and increase in speed.

Taking off from San Francisco and heading out over the Pacific probably offers the best combination of all of these things. On a perpetually foggy morning and flying in something the size of a 747, there is the dramatic take-off over Highway 101, entering the cloud layer above Colma and South City before the breakout to the west of Twin Peaks with the Transamerica Tower, Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge exquisitely framed by parting clouds as the coastline recedes ever smaller in to the distance. Bali high!

None of this really matters, naturally, if you are the kind that prefers an aisle seat.

Gotta go.

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