Later on Tuesday, Madison -
Once I was on the plane and we were up and away, I remembered how much I like flying. I mean it. I think it’s one of the most magical experiences a person can have. I always look out of the windows and it always makes me feel that I live in a wonderful and diverse world, and wonder about the people living below in these places that I’m flying over.
It helped that it was a clear day for much of the journey. We started out by flying more or less directly north up Scotland – I remember last time we flew across the Atlantic, the Highlands astonished me by their apparent emptiness. Presumably the settlements are just too small to see from that height, but the mountains and forests look completely uninhabited. There is still some snow on the higher mountains. As we passed over the north coast I saw some amazing sandy beaches lit up by brilliant sunshine.
Then it was largely empty sea for a bit, with more cloud cover, and I had a bit of a nap until we passed the south coast of Greenland. We also passed slightly south of Iceland, but I didn’t see it (cloud cover plus being asleep) and presumably we were not within range of the volcano. Greenland was deeply impressive – knife-edged peaks with snow clinging to the creases and grey-green vegetation, sloping down to bays that were full of fractured ice, looking like roughly-ground rock salt.
Then it was nothing but sea (with a few icebergs) for a while more, during which time I watched Up In The Air. I won’t write a critique, but I thought it was pretty good – the story seemed to avoid the clichés I thought it might fall into. (It is also a reassuring film to watch if you are in the middle of a complicated air journey, because it is about people who do this all the time and does not show them missing any connections or having any serious travel-related frustration. And there are no plane crashes. It did strike me as a little odd to watch a film about air travel on a plane, but when else am I going to get the opportunity?)
Film over, we were over Canada and I watched the rocky bits of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia give way to an amazingly human-created landscape that seemed to have created to be viewed from the air. Lots and lots of long, narrow, pale yellow or green fields, running exactly east to west. I suppose that the land boundaries must have been determined by someone in a surveyor’s office with a map and a ruler, and then they worked out where the field boundaries were. I think it must look a lot different from the ground.
Once we got over the American border, fields were squarer (though still equally rectilinear) and the ground wasn’t quite so flat. I had thought of New England as being relatively crowded (as American landscapes go) but there were still huge swathes of what appeared to be untouched woodland, especially on the hills. Occasionally you could see what must be a ski slope in winter, but currently just a few stripes of grass leading down a mountainside. There are also a lot of lakes, all of which looked brilliantly blue as they reflected the sky.
As we started to descend I could see more detail of American towns – the most prominent landmarks from that high were athletic grounds. I could often see several running tracks per town, golf courses, and parks with fan-shaped orange areas which I think must be baseball diamonds (I’ll find out). As we started to descend towards Newark I could sometimes read the words on the local football field, such as “Go Wildcats”.
Newark itself looks remarkably like the town you used to get playing the computer game “Transport Tycoon” – rows of similar-looking buildings side by side on streets in a grid, with shallow pyramidal roofs. I’m sure the effect was heightened by seeing it from above, but it was quite striking. As we came in, I could see the towers of Manhattan off to the left, including the Empire State Building, and that arch-shaped bridge that you see in films with all the girders.
The airport experience wasn’t exactly as magical as the flight. I was a bit anxious about making my connection, but I had no problems going through immigration or customs, apart from slow-moving queues and a long wait at the baggage carousel. In fact I think I got the cheeriest immigration guy ever – he was young and jolly and made jokes, not at all like the stereotype!
There wasn’t quite such a good view on the flight to Madison – the weather had turned a bit cloudier – but I did get to see the Great Lakes and discover why they call them that. Imagine if you were exploring and came across a lake that size! I wonder if early explorers thought they’d reached another coast.
When I got off the plane it was extremely hot – even hotter than in Newark, where I had melted more than slightly as I was jogging through the airport. But I managed to find the bus stop without too much trouble and made conversation with a very pleasant PhD student who was also catching the bus back into town. Various people on the bus complained that it was slow and roundabout, but it seemed perfectly efficient to me.
The only flaw in my plan to walk from the bus stop to my hostel is that as soon as I got off the bus, it began to rain. First just a few drops, and then about as hard as I have ever seen it rain (with the exception of the notorious Oxford Punt Incident, maybe). So I dived into a Starbucks, which is where I’m typing this. The menu in American Starbucks is not the same, and iced, unsweetened green tea costs $1.55 – bargain! (This may not sound awfully palatable to those who do not like either green tea or iced tea, but I was desperate for something cold but not sweet, so it fitted the bill very nicely.)
The rain seems to have abated. Off to find the hostel!
I had no trouble finding the hostel, and have now called J by Skype to let him know I'm OK. I haven't used Skype over long distances before, but it seems to work!
And now I'm going to sleep. Madison is six hours behind the UK, so the 25th of May has been going on for rather a long time as far as I'm concerned. Night night!