I spent Christmas in Phoenix. It was wonderful and sunny and relaxing, with just a tiny bite of cold.
But I just need to say this: Get a window seat.
I had forgotten the wonder I held when I used to fly out to Phoenix when I was 10, 11, 14. How curious I was at what created the patterns and colors below me. But it all came rushing back.
The airport was strangely deserted the day after Christmas, and I had an empty seat next to me on the plane. It was a cloudless day in the desert. As the plane lifted off, it shuddered and gravity sucked at our feet. We trembled and struggled higher, passing over grids of houses. The smog obscured the far edges of Phoenix and partially obscured the mountains at the edge of the valley, and as we reached the east-most edges of the desert city, I saw empty cul-de-sacs, constructed at the height of the housing boom but never quite filled with houses. Then civilization receded, the ground spiked and jutted, and the plane lifted higher and all that was left were dark lakes pooling in the center of ridges, carved by millennia of rivers running over the sand.
As we continued east, a dusting and then a blanket of snow appeared. The world turned black and white, with aspens freckling the white canvas. The day was clear and there was no sign of human life save a single road running straight toward the horizon, or an occasional grid created by what, I don’t know. It was as if we had left our earth behind and found ourselves on a different planet, the one that Native Americans had lived in centuries ago.
I had “White Christmas” stuck in my head, so I put on M83 and allowed myself to fall into a complete reverie for hours, watching the world go by, literally, my face pressed to the window.
M83 – Lower Your Eyelids To Die With The Sun
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The landscapes reminded me of the book that I gave my stepdad—who is a photographer—for Christmas: Leave No Trace: The Vanishing North American Wilderness. It features photos of glaciers, estuaries and mountains from a plane. I hoped my stepdad had a window seat in his plane and his camera ready. (You can see his pictures of Denali here.)
All I had was my iPhone, and I pined for my real camera, which at least has a zoom. I used Instagram to color-correct some of the photos, and then gave that up when I realized the intense blue of the sky and white was just fine.
The horizon was so far away and so flat I wondered if I could see Mexico from the plane. The shadows pooled so blue on the backside of veined mountains they looked like opaque lakes, or pieces of sky fallen to the ground. I watched a small plane pierce straight up into the sky, leaving a trail of white condensation behind it, then slowly curve backward, glinting in the sun, like a person diving in exquisite slow motion off of a cliff.
The mountains fell away with a sharp cut, and we passed over farmland, betrayed by the edges of wheel-shaped fields, pressed together like poker chips on a table. The wheel shape allows long sprinkler systems to pass over the field from one center point, creating a mid-century modern pattern on the ground. They went on forever, miles and miles of discs as far as the plane-elevated eye could see. Fly-over states indeed.
From the east, a front of clouds greeted us, turning yellow, peach and pink as the sun died behind us. By the time we arrived to the clouds, it was dark outside and the lights were just winking on below us outside of Chicago.
Long, meditative moments like this bring me back to myself, and remind me of all the amazing beauty in the world.