I watch the plane line up on the runway, after watching a line of other plans take off and land on our way there. When the plane turns, I look behind and see a line of waiting planes, lights blinking, full of more people wanting to get somewhere else. The plane lines up and we begin to take off, the force of the engines pushing me further and further back into my seat until I feel as if I’m plastered to it.
Then we’re up, tilted sharply, nose pointing to a cloudy sky. We climb higher over Atlanta. A million—no, a billion—lights look like tiny fires below, glowing red and yellow and white. Pockets of light, that’s what they are, some pockets larger than others. It’s beautiful, to see how the ground below looks so much like a night sky. The freeways could be miniature Milky Ways, and the clustered lights could be clustered star systems and constellations.
We climb higher. The clouds from Tropical Storm Lee have already made it to Atlanta. They’re white and puffy, and cover the sky, hiding any glimpse of the universe. Rain is clearly visible outside as streaks of thin white water, flowing by so fast at our speed that individual drops don’t even stick to my window. The lights of the plane reflect off the milky clouds surrounding us and look like lightning.
Finally, we’re above the first set of clouds. There are more above us, fluffier, but grayer. Below it’s a sea of watery foam, gray and white and murky. Only little circles allow a brief glimpse of the city below that I’ve just left. Another set of clouds waits above, and my plane bravely faces them and climbs into them, higher, higher.
Encased in white, we fly on, the seat belt sign remaining lit, a glowing reminder that flying can be turbulent. We fly on and on, surrounded by nothing but white, and the view is rather gray. Yet, it must still be light out, since I can see the clouds as white and not hidden in the blackness of night.
As we fly further north, we break above that middle layer of cloud, to ride just above them. Now I can see a reminder of sunlight, far off in the west, a hint of dark blue and white and a very small tinge of pale yellow. The clouds below and to our sides now look black, wisps of dark gray and black against the remaining bit of light. Still more clouds wait above my plane, hiding any possibility of seeing the wider universe beyond. It’s disappointing, but I may be able to see more as we fly further north, away from the storm for a time—at least, until the storm travels further north.
(20 minutes later)
Now I can see some stars. The plane made it past those pesky clouds blocking my view, and I’m glad for it. Now I can see the sunset, way off on the horizon in gradations from pale, pale yellow to blues to the blackness of space. Teeny stars peek back at me, though I can only see a few. They form the Big Dipper right outside my window, and I can barely see that much. Off in the distance, so far away that I know it’s not from any plane, I see the glow of lightning below. It won’t touch us, but it’s there, and very briefly turns the far-off darkness white. The clouds directly below have cleared away, and in the darkness I almost missed the faint glow of some town far underneath us. Now the only clouds are those off on my left, far enough away that they shouldn’t even come close to touching my plane. It grows darker, and as it does, the Big Dipper grows more visible against the veil of night, and a few more stars peek into existence. This view doesn’t compare to the view I had of the starry night while on the ground in Sedona, but it is beautiful in its own way. Darkness now engulfs the plane—I can see nothing but the flash of the plane’s lights and the Big Dipper.
(About 15 minutes later)
A storm is off to my left. I saw it on the weather map earlier when I checked in Atlanta. The lightning is so beautiful. It lights up the blackness of night so magnificently, so briefly, that I can’t help but stare and wait for the next strike. A storm is not ever something I would want to fly through, but from this far away, it’s captivating. On the far end, in front and to the left, lightning strikes every five to ten seconds, fading after only a quick strike. But the middle of the storm is what captures my attention. That’s where the most brilliant strikes are, the ones that last two to three seconds and light up the clouds so bright that I can make out the details of the pillar inside. White and pink, the sky is lit with electric fire. Not even the city below, with its glowing orbs of light and glimmering cars, can match the sight of the lightning.
I have a case to make against cities: the light pollution of that place blocked out my remaining view of the lightning, turning the sky a hazy orange.
We begin our descent. As we dive below the clouds, I see a sight I didn’t expect: the half moon. It shines above like a blessing or benediction. I didn’t even see it when the plane was above the clouds, so I have no expectation of seeing its glow now. But it shines as bright as the clouds and light pollution will allow, and as we dive lower and lower toward the ground, the moon is veiled behind the layers of clouds until it disappears. I look for something else in the sky, some hint of lightning or moon, but the flashing lights of planes become the new stars until they, too, are veiled.
The plane slows, and I am pushed forward. As we land, I feel like I’m sliding out of my seat, and I’m grateful for the seatbelt holding me in place. Now the world around me is back to normal: glowing lights and cars and people.
I leave the plane and the terminal behind and all I can say as I return to DC is this: humidity sucks.