Even after all these years I am a kid on a plane. I clamor for the window seat and poke my face to the window during takeoff and landing. Every time I am awed by the immensity of our earth; every time I am awed by how small airplanes render our cozy home and its seven billion people.
This week I enjoyed my longest flight ever; New York to Hong Kong, sixteen hours with the sun on my left shoulder the entire way. I probably didn’t make any friends in route; while everyone else shuttered their windows to watch movies or snooze in the pretend dark, I kept mine open to compare the view against our animated navigation map. Perhaps I should have shut my shade and pulled out my blanket, I was dog tired, but fancying myself as both Admiral Perry and Charles Lindberg was too exciting.
According to any flat map Hong Kong is straight line from New York through LA and Hawaii. But since the earth is a sphere, I figured we’d veer north as we flew west, cross over Canada and Alaska and then down Japan. I never guessed the pilot would head straight north along the seventy-fourth meridian, a line through Quebec, Newfoundland and Greenland. Apparently the shortest distance to traverse our full twelve hour time zone change goes right over the North Pole.
Glaciers emerge three hours into the flight; immense, endless mountain peaks cradling hundreds of feet of snow, so white the sun burns them pink and blue with streaks of orange flame. Five miles above the surface, at 600 miles per hour with a strong tail wind, the plane floats above a buoyant mist. I stare for hours from my magic carpet of hulking metal. The snow never ends. The daylight never ends. I know intellectually that these glaciers are melting, fast, due to humans spewing carbon from our machines, even this very plane. But flying over miles and miles of blinding white, it is unfathomable that these ice mountains are contracting; they seem rock solid.
We pass Godthab, Angmassavik, Godhavn. Place names more than actual places. My eyes burn from the glare; I force myself to shut them. I rest maybe half an hour until, like a child anxious for Christmas morning, I return to my view. I may never get this close to Santa Claus again.
We are over the heart of Greenland. My flight screen displays no place names, there will be no evidence of humans until we descend the other side. The sun sits square in my face, ten degrees above an amorphous horizon of grey blue clouds and sky. The wind has risen; literally, the cloud mass that was beneath us is now right at my nose, whizzing by. I can feel our speed.
The north coast of Greenland approaches. My map reorients to display a top down view of the earth. It is weird to see our location pinpointed in relation to London, Caracas, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Los Angeles, places that could not be connected from any other perspective.
The Arctic in spring is like a gigantic unglazed urn, putty color with myriad tiny surface cracks that spread into jagged rivers of black surface water. Winter’s solid ice is already breaking up. The interface of the Arctic Ocean to Siberian land mass is amorphous; the two vast expanses merge beneath a blanket of ice and snow. Eventually the ice gives over completely to huge swales of snow; hundreds of miles of merengue unfolding beneath us.
We fly over land for several hours before I see the first indication of human intervention – razor straight power lines or pipe lines that cut through the snowy forest. Another hour passes before there is a road, and not until we are over China can I discern fields and farms.
According to a clock the journey takes sixteen hours but in fact a daytime flight over the North Pole lapses independent of time. The sun is fixed; we are suspended in a perennially late afternoon. Sunset coincides with our descent into Hong Kong.
I left one of the busiest, densest cities in the world and disembark into another. Hong Kong is thick with people, towering buildings, and noise. I navigate customs, board the train into the city, transfer to the subway, and drag my valise three blocks to the hotel. It is hot and crowded. I think perhaps my journey over the arctic was a dream. Until I unpack. My clothes are so cold, so stiff I need to warm them with my hands before they will conform to a hanger. The outside temperature at the pole was 69 degrees below zero and my belongings testify to that extreme.
The Endless Arctic