Not to long ago, I flew from where I live now (Colorado) to where I grew up (Minnesota). I was excited about the trip for the usual reasons – a chance to escape the daily grind, as well as a chance to catch up with my family. I was also excited about the trip because I would be flying over the Great Plains, and the bird’s eye view of the rumpled lands below has always kept my attention. I love seeing where man has intruded and changed the landscape contrasted against where he really hasn’t. I love to follow the courses of rivers and streams, and notice the natural erosion patterns as they widen from higher ground to lower ground. I love the transition from west to east, as the land becomes flatter, more wooded, and dotted here and there with natural lakes.
The Great Plains has been well documented in the American psyche as “flyover country.” Which is to say that the typical person going from one metropolitan area to another by plane pays absolutely no attention to the land below them as they speed toward their destination and the people and tasks that await them there. It’s too bad. There are lots of interesting things to notice down there. Anyway, I was excited to get the chance to nestle into the window seat and spy on the planet from such a wide and unusual perspective. That is, until I realized I would be flying at night. Oops.
On the day of the flight, undeterred, I settled into my customary spot and enjoyed the ascent into the atmosphere. As the last rays of the sunset disappeared on the far western horizon, and the little towns of the plains appeared below like candles spread out on some vast table, I soon realized that traveling at night was going to be a rare treat. Flying over a big city at night is a dazzling (albeit somewhat troubling) show of lights and frantic activity on the highways, but flying over the Great Plains, it becomes clear that after 150 years of “settlement,” it remains blissfully untamed, and in my opinion, untamable. Beyond the tiny glow of the widely scattered towns, complete darkness reigns. The hand of man becomes absent, as if the vastness of the space itself became too great to overcome, and people retreated to their tiny islands of comfort.
As the plane descended into Minneapolis/St. Paul, an enormous glow, reflected off low clouds, preceded it. This is the type of place where most people live their lives, aided by the availability of the things we need everyday. The Great Plains will never become heavily populated, and so it remains a place in which to gain perspective on the limits, and the limitations, of our civilization.