By Sandy Compton
Just so you know, even if there’s nobody on the ocean to experience the waves, the waves are there. From 30,000 feet, whitecaps are still visible. And there are some big ones.
As we make our way at 600 miles per hour toward the Hawaiian archipelago, a freighter appears to starboard, giving a sense of scale to the world below. If it’s headed for Hawaii, we’ll get there long before — days in fact.
We live on an amazing world in an amazing time. I can haul myself out of bed in Montaho, land of not-quite-eternal snow and ice, at 2:30 a.m. — all flights to attractive destinations leave GEG at indecently early hours — and be in the tropics 11 hours later.
Jules Verne wrote Around the World in 80 Days in 1873. A century and a half later, with the right plan, it’s possible to travel around Earth in 80 hours — on commercial flights. Our warplanes and astronauts can do it in less time, but most of us aren’t Top Guns or John Glenn. We’ll have to stick to slower methods. Still, 80 hours is 1/24th of 80 days, and that increase in speed was accomplished in that same 150 years. To put that in perspective, between the invention of the wheel and the invention of the automobile was 6,000 years — 40 times longer. From humans harnessing fire to the internal combustion machine: 200,000 years, maybe much more.
Verne’s hero, Phileas Fogg, used extraordinary measures to circumnavigate the globe. Anybody with a credit card can do it now, but they won’t be attacked by “ferocious Indians” in the American West or save a beautiful woman from being burned alive in Asia. Fogg’s trip might have been more fun. Or more exciting. At least, he didn’t have a screaming 4-month-old and her distraught mother with him. They happen to be in the seat in front of me. The tradeoff is that my window seat has an empty one next to it. Elbow room.
The last time I was anywhere near this line of flight was 50 years ago and the plane was not a Boeing 737 MAX8, but a 707, proud flagship of Pan American Airlines. It was a flying cigar tube by today’s standards of wide-body jets with six-across seats.
The air travel industry has changed a bit since 1973. There were 100-plus folks lined up for the Spokane TSA check-in at 4:45 this morning. The efficiency with which we were processed was heroic, but almost 22 years after 9/11, they’ve had a lot of practice.
There have been few masked passengers in terminals I’ve traveled through — fewer than 10%. COVID still lurks around the edges of our lives, but the adaptable human species has relegated it, if not to history, at least to the sidelines. It’s still a good idea to take precautions, maybe even get vaccinated. It’s your health, after all. Phileas would have more likely contracted typhoid or malaria on his journey, but we have figured out how to deal with those, as we are figuring out how to deal with COVID.
Our flight in 1973 featured a hot meal, well-prepared. This flight features a snack pack with Wheat Thins (luckily one of my favorites) some fruit gummies (not so much), and the standard Southwest Airlines pouch of pretzels and crackers. I have no recollection of what the price of our flight was in 1973, but my guess is that, adjusted for inflation, my “Wanna Get Away” tickets cost much less than the ride in the 707.
I seldom tire of looking out the window on a flight, but I expected that I might get bored of just the ocean for my view. However, the scene below is an intricate mosaic of blue and white. It looks to me like the sea is full of thousands of floating patches of melting ice. They go on to the horizon, emulating breakup on an alpine lake. Later, it will look like we are flying upside down under a cloud-flecked sky.
The child has quieted. Dad has her now, and mom is relieved. The flight attendants bring the next course, beverages of our choice, free unless you want alcohol added. Our modern metal-and-plastic galley sails on — the passengers don’t have to row — lifted by the laws of aerodynamics and human genius. We take all this for granted, or many do, but it occurs to me that Verne, even with his rampant imagination, could not have foreseen how the world has changed since his Phileas Fogg left London for London in 1873.
We’ve figured out a lot since then. Maybe in the next 150 years, we will stop legislating issues that are personal matters, reel in the arms industry, regain a sense of civility, quit chasing unattainable lifestyles and learn to get along with our neighbors by applying the golden rule.
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