A few summers ago, while at a brunch in Marin, a gentleman I had only just met offered me an afternoon plane ride. He was a retired lawyer and enjoyed any excuse to pilot his small plane. My friend Paul and I had nothing scheduled that day, so figured why not.
After some debate about where to fly, north, south, or east, we settled on Mendocino, about halfway up the coast to Oregon. Within minutes we were bundled into a Beechcraft Bonanza and rattling off an absurdly short runway into the open sky.
It was a spectacular day even by California standards as we swooped along the pine-clad rocky coastline and buzzed hermits at a hidden Buddhist monastery. After what seemed like only a few minutes we were mingling with the tourists in Mendocino, a colorful seaside village which plays the role of "Cabot Cove, Maine" in "Murder She Wrote." Then we were back in the air, once again hugging the coastline at about 3500 feet. This time (on the basis of a coin toss) I got to sit up front with the pilot.
Up to this point the adventure had been pleasant enough, touched even with a bit of magic. After all, it is nothing less than magic to pick a direction at a whim and quickly land hundreds of miles away in a remote place with a different climate. And even the dullest of cornfields are lent a certain majesty by a lofty perspective. But ours is a generation of routine fliers, so comfortable in the sky that we often prefer bad in-flight movies to cloud canyons or city-street antfarms. It's true that small planes are more exciting somehow, just as a motorcycle on a windswept road is more exciting than the steerage section of an airborne greyhound, but it is still, after all, just flying.
Then something happened. The pilot swung the yoke into my lap and said "Here - you fly it for awhile."
The change, curiously enough, was a subtle one. It turns out that flying a modern plane is so easy that pilots can (and sometimes do) fall asleep and awake hours later to find themselves over open ocean. All I had to do was hold the wheel steady and keep an eye on the horizon. Flying is easy - it's the landing that's hard.
So began my impromptu flying lesson. I banked a little to the left and then a little to the right. "Now try lifting the tail..." I pushed a button a little too hard and we began to dive at rather a steeper angle than is generally recommended. Paul clutched his seatbelt and reflected (I suspect) that if my flying ability was anything like my driving ability we were all in serious trouble. But not to worry: I pulled out and climbed back up to 3500.
Up ahead was Bodega Bay, and it looked inviting enough, so I decided to fly right down the middle of it. And now I began to understand that the difference between passenger and pilot, subtle enough in its outward appearance, is actually quite profound. I was, for the first time in my ordinary life as a traveler of the air, something other than baggage. I had the power to choose. I was flying!
At this moment I knew something I had long suspected: that birds, when they think of us at all, must regard us as a kind of worm. Big worms, too big to eat at one sitting, but worms nonetheless. We wriggle through the mud of our pathetically limited two-dimensional world, and proclaim ourselves lords of the planet when, in fact, we can't even see over the next bump.
Flying, then, is nothing less than the experience of a new dimension. I felt like one of Edwin Abbot's Flatlanders: lifted up into a world I could barely comprehend and then set down again to rave amidst my unseeing neighbors. I handed back the controls and we swooped between the towers of the Golden Gate just as the fog was rolling in, skipped across Alcatraz and Angel Island, and landed with a little hop back where we started.
And now, months later, I am a changed man. I don't think I'll be signing up for flying lessons anytime soon; I have enough expensive habits as it is. But now, when I look up into the sky, I see it not as a rather extravagant ceiling, but as a conduit to other places. I see that it's easy to get from here to there. All you have to do is fly.
Photograph by John Cartan