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My Last Blog From the Gulag

I’m calling this my last blog because it may be so. I’m not sure this aircraft is entirely stable. Oh, I know I said that last time, but this one is even more of a dog. When I got on, I noticed a pervasive scent—at first, I had trouble placing it, but eventually I remembered where I had smelled the smell before: on the 1979 Volvo that was my first car for the entire two days I owned it. It is the smell of antifreeze. I’m sure they probably had to de-ice the plane this morning, since there was a lot of frost, but that doesn’t re-assure me all that much.

Flying over this area Saturday night, it was too dark to see much of anything. Occasionally, I would see the familiar patterns of lights, first a few solitary ones, then a few lines of lights, spiraling in from several directions into the grid-shaped pattern of lights in the center. When we were about 30 minutes out of Billings, I began to see an interesting thing. We were still cruising at 23,000, so we were above the level of the cumulus clouds. They were dense at first, but later we started to descend a bit, and the clouds cleared, then disappeared entirely as we pierced the cloud veil. I knew this meant we were going to land soon.

I closed my eyes for a few minutes, and when I opened them, what I saw out the window made me think I was upside down. I actually reached up to touch my hair, to see if it was hanging downward.

Out the porthole window, below the plane, I saw stars. White, blue, orange, burning balls—both large and small. And there were clouds. Not cumulus clouds, which are the lowest clouds, the fluffy white “cotton ball” ones, but CIRRUS clouds. The wispy long narrow ones that grace the upper atmosphere.

I was upside down, looking up into the night sky at stars and cirrus clouds. Then, one of the stars moved slightly, and I realized I was looking at lights on the ground from some farms outside of the town. We were so close to the ground that the lights on the bottom of the airplane were illuminating THE GROUND. The cirrus clouds were banks of wind-blown snow that had accumulated and frozen in leeward hollows and in the narrow crevasses between choppy ridges of the hilly formation outside Billings known as the Rimrocks. A minute later we crested the Rimrocks, and the ground rose up to meet us.

This time, I’m on the opposite side of the plane, so I’m still looking vaguely south. We are flying over something that might look flat from this height were I not able to see the patterns of snow.

The windward side of a hill is always almost barren. There is a yellow-brown cast to the vegetation, flecked here and there with the silver of frost. The leeward side is always white, and so are deeper ravines, distinguishable as uneven scars on the landscape, filled with white and grey at the bottom, where the stream within them runs.

In the higher elevations, like we are flying above now, there are peaks and huge swaths of green trees poking out above the snow. We are over the Rockies, and there is an area ahead of us, which I can just glimpse, where the mountains are above the clouds.

I was going to listen to some music, but I have the player on shuffle, and—(she puts on her best Dave Barry Voice) I SWEAR I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP—the first song that came on was “Black Box part 1” by Recoil. Since it’s a song about seeing a plane crash, I decided to listen to the plane’s engines instead.

There is a big lake below us, too, with sheets of ice floating on it. There is hardly any snow on the land surrounding it, and at one end it turns into a river. I can’t see a dam, but it might be a reservoir. We must getting close to Western Montana by now. We’ve been in the air half an hour. South of me, there are two huge bowl-shaped valleys surrounded by peaks. I cannot imagine what the pioneers went through to pass these mountains on foot. In some places, there are rock walls so steep, even the mountain goats and big horn sheep must have a hard time navigating them. In other places, the timber is so thick that the ground appears black. Out the North window of the plane, there are peaks which look like Bob Ross made them. “Some happy little peaks. We’ll just put some white, and some blue, and just a touch of viridian on this palate knife, and we just” his hand pauses over the canvas “make a line” his hand swoops down and to the left in an arch, “and another” his hand begins at the same starting point, and swoops down and to the right in another arch, “and then we just fill it in.” He finishes the mountain, filling in its ridges with charcoal grey and Mars black.

One of the valleys below us is filling up with a town.

We’re going to Seattle first, then I’ll have another plane to Portland, so we must be over Eastern Washington. The Rockies have given way to much flatter ground, and I think I’ve spied the Columbia, running North-South. We must be somewhere near SpoCompton, but it’s on the wrong side of the plane, and would be obscured by clouds anyway. At least now my clocks are right again. I set my phone to PST before I left, so now it matches my ‘top.

I’m glad to be flying. Even though it terrifies me, and I’m always sure that *THIS TIME* the plane is really going down, It is fantastic to see the ground this way. I’ve always been fascinated with maps. If I’m flying over an area I am familiar with through the use of maps, I can tell exactly where I am. When I flew back to Portland from Oakland 4 years ago, I spent most of the plane ride telling the little girl in the seat behind me what mountains, lakes, and towns were which. She kept asking her mother, and her mother didn’t know. I thought maybe she wasn’t from around there, but then she told me she’d grown up in Oakland, then moved to Portland, and had flown this route many times to see her parents. I couldn’t understand at first why she didn’t know the names of all the features of the landscape, then I realized that to most people, these kinds of things are inconsequential. For the rest of us, they are everything.