Guantanamo Airlines

We could not have asked for a clearer day. The short hop between the Roanoke airport and Atlanta would be so short that we’d not be flying above the clouds–if there were any. And I had a window seat. This would most certainly be the shortest and must interesting flight of our long day getting to South Dakota.

This time, rather than taking the route over Smith Mountain Lake, the jet headed west. I twittered to Ann, the beginning of a long running narrative of our exact or expected location in the Google Earth Machine.”If I’m right, we’ll pass right over Goose Creek!” She yawned.

There was Poor Mountain, no fires in sight–finally–but the four towers I see from Route 460 told me exactly where we were. That would be the gorge that Bottom Creek runs through–pretty impressive relief in contrast to the gentler grades of folds a few miles west that held our tiny sliver of valley pasture. I never saw it, or the town of Floyd. My window seat, unfortunately, was halfway over the wing so I could only see what was coming, not what was beneath us in real time.

I lost my bearings for a while but picked up a river flowing generally north-south, winding its way through the hills it had cut into to make its course. Operating assumption: this is the New. If so, it will be moving toward headwaters in the Boone area so watch for Grandfather Mountain. Said mountain must have passed under the plane where i couldn’t see it.

“Eureka! Look, Ann, Linville Gorge! There’s Table Rock and Hawksbill. That’s Wisemans View. I’ve hiked every bit of that! And up ahead comes Lake James. Morganton must be thataway. This is incredible!”

“It all looks the same to me” she said with great disinterest.

There but for the grace of God…

After a three hour layover, I entered a state of confinement that, had I not paid such an astronomically high price for it of my own free will, it would have been considered torture. I mumbled to myself about a name-change: Guantanamo Airlines. And at 6’2″ and 175# I am not the largest person to ever be strapped into middle seat detention. I imagined the sides of the cube that contained me, 18 x 38 x 48 inches for four miserable hours. This is the first time I’ve ever NOT had a indow seat, but more and larger people pack fewer planes. Those in the future who can afford air travel, get your orange jump suits ready.

Even so, I tried to glance casually out the window past the face of the little schoolteacher-type woman who got but did not seem to take advantage of the window seat. Near the end of our incarceration, snow covered mountains began to appear though the tattered low scud of clouds. We’re not in Virginia any more, Toto.

Then the rim of a massive bowl passed not so far under tha plane and the ground ahead of it just as quickly dropped several thousand feet into a bowl of streets and buildings. Salt Lake City!

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Oh Fred you bring a smile to my face!The cross-country trip that brought us to our daughter’s wedding in California was spent following the progress of our flight on the little tv screen in the seat in front of us. My husband had packed a road atlas in his carry-on and by the end of the flight, all those around us were engaged in oohing and awing as we flew over the changing landforms. My husband and I will fight over the window seat on the way home next week. Hope the clouds cooperate!