America: The View from 2,500 Feet

From the window of a small plane, the country is a living Norman Rockwell painting

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From the time my husband was a boy, he dreamed of learning to fly planes. He finally indulged his passion some 13 years ago, when the moratorium we agreed upon early in our marriage of "not until the kids are grown" ran out. The day our youngest got his college acceptance, my husband announced, "I think I'll head out to Gaithersburg to take a few flying lessons."

We bought a single engine, four-seater plane in 2000, sold it when we moved to China to live for 3 years, then traded up to another used 2006 model on our return about a year ago. This plane, a Cirrus SR22, has won its place in my heart for the parachute that is built into the top of the fuselage. Even I, who usually ride shotgun, know how to deploy the chute in an emergency, one that might for example disable the pilot or the plane. I always sleep like a baby the nights before we fly, reassured by the fact of the parachute. Remember those little balsa wood toy planes with the parachute that gently and evenly lowers the whole plane if you drop it? That's the general idea of how it works on our plane.

capn-jim2.jpgOwning a plane is about the last thing I ever dreamed of doing, but I appreciate it now for its functionality (visit the grown kids at a moment's notice) and even more for the pleasure as well as the complete disengagement from everyday pressures that it brings to my husband. He's a natural flyboy.

It is hard to justify this plane economically, except if you start calculating the best-case formula for a trip that includes maximum number of "souls on board" (a term used in filing flight plans that always make me pause for a moment), price of last minute commercial air tickets, or driving time. Here's how a scenario like this works: four of us fly from Washington, DC, to Maine and back, costing about $500 in fuel (which is about $1.50 more per gallon than gasoline), taking about two and a half hours. Sometimes the flight is wonderfully efficient, like flying from Washington, DC, to the tip of Long Island, which would take God knows how many hours of driving. More often, it makes no sense at all, except for fun and mental health.

We have taken lots of flights by now, including a three-day cross country trip from our then-home in Berkeley to Boston, where we were delivering an offspring to college one year. We have flown to the Oshkosh Air Show, which is the Holy Grail of flyers' destinations (think Woodstock for 1960s hippies). We have also taken a number of milk runs to nearby beautiful places, like our recent trip to Portland, Maine.

Heading for Portland, the first interesting views over the Washington, DC, area look down on the Amish country of southeast Pennsylvania. If we fly especially low, say about 2500 feet, I can pick out horse-drawn buggies on the roads. Going north, Pennsylvania always surprises me for its reminders of the infrastructure that keeps our country organized and running: rock quarry after quarry, distribution centers thick with orderly swarms of containers backed up to warehouse loading docks, neatly laid out schools looking rich and privileged with football fields and baseball diamonds, nuclear plant towers spewing white plumes of vapor, shopping malls with outsized parking lots.

The beauty of America is astonishing from the air, and always makes me think the Chinese were right when they named America Meiguo, which literally means "beautiful country." They could have just gone with something that sounds close, like Ao-dah-li-ya (Australia) or for something less lovely, like Faguo, "law country," for France. Meiguo is flattering and apt. One early morning flying low over Iowa, I watched a Norman Rockwell painting come to life: a yellow school bus inches down a country road, pauses in front of a big farmhouse surrounded by an emerald-green lawn and white picket fence, then slowly starts up again and mosies along down the road.

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Deborah Fallows is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and the author of Dreaming in Chinese.

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