Thursday, July 24, 2014

In the Desert

I've written before about what an inveterate window-looker I am on airplanes. Just this week, I've had the chance to spend over 11 hours with my nose smashed up against the double-paned plexiglass as I flew cross country not once, but twice.

On shorter flights, it's relatively easy to figure out where you might be, but that's not always the case once you get over a couple of hours. Throw in some cloud cover and you've got nothing more than educated guess about what that landscape below might be. When I was a kid, the pilot was always very informative, often pointing out landmarks below as we flew past them. I saw the Grand Canyon from the air long before I ever peeked over its rim in person, and I knew it was the Grand Canyon, because the pilot told me, dammit.

In later years, I was fascinated by those flat screens in economy class that traced our route across the Atlantic, but that was in back in the day when everyone had to watch the same movie when you flew, and then only if you rented the headset. These days, many planes have wifi, and with internet access you can track your flight on your phone. That was not the case with either of the 737s that I flew on this time. It was all up to me to reckon our location.

In general, I think I did a pretty good job, using the huge, obvious things to guide me. We didn't fly over the Grand Canyon, but I could see the Rockies and the Great Salt Lake. On the way out there, I also saw something really strange in the Nevada desert.

It was like this giant circle made of concentric rings with an opening in the middle that had some kind of tower or structure in the center. It was so odd that I took a few pictures of it with my phone so that I could identify it later.

Today I was planning to listen to some podcasts I as we flew. I had Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, some Slate Gabfests, and This American Life, and about an hour and a half in, I decided to catch up on the Writer's Almanac for today. Just as Garrison Keillor said, It was on this day in 1847 that the Mormon leader Brigham Young led his people into the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, I looked out my window, and there it was, the Great Salt Lake!

I gasped as Keillor continued, He was leading a group of Mormons from Illinois to find a new settlement in the West where they might not be bothered. Brigham Young had gotten sick during the journey and was being carried prostrate in a wagon. But when they reached the edge of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, the wagon stopped as it came to a natural lookout point. According to legend, Brigham Young was able to describe the scene below without looking. Then he sat up and looked out at the valley and said, "This is the right place. Drive on."

To be honest, from my point of view, the place did not look that welcoming, but it was really cool to be able to make that judgment in person.

Following that amazing coincidence, I turned to the latest issue of Saveur Magazine that I had also downloaded before my trip. I was swiping through, reading with interest a tale of Swedish midsummer celebration and the story of a woman who lives on an island in the Penobscot Bay during the summer, when the next image I saw was...

concentric circles in the desert!

It was an article about the Burning Man Festival.

According to their websiteOnce a year, tens of thousands of participants gather in Nevada's Black Rock Desert to create Black Rock City, dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. They depart one week later, having left no trace whatsoever. 

Question? Answered!

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