A reprint of a piece I wrote in 2007, from the archives.
Flying back from Memphis last night, we had completely clear skies. It was around sunset when we finally took off (~40 min. late), and full dark before long. I finished the magazine I'd been reading in the terminal, started and finished my other magazine, and decided I was too tired to fire up my laptop and continue working on my current project. I turned off the overhead light, and looked out the window.
I rarely pay much attention to the scenery I fly over. Usually, it's just clouds, and after the first dozen flights, clouds are pretty much all the same. The Caribbean is interesting, since it's shallow, but oceans are boring. Terrain out west is interesting, so when it's clear over the mountains, I watch them go by. For most of the land east of the Rockies, however, I usually just work or read.
Last night, though, I happened to look out as we were coming up on the major cities on the eastern seaboard. It was like I was coming out of deep space and entering an orbit over Trantor. Clusters of lights, following lines and curves and geometric patterns, some areas more densely lit, others more sparsely, but it was all arranged and artificial, as far as the eye could see from 25,000 feet. The night below me was completely lost in the interwoven fabric of gleaming lights.
Some cities favored blue and white streetlights, and these looked like chipped ice, dumped from a cooler after the beer is gone and the party is over, ice spread on the lawn well after respectable people are in bed, ice piled high on a warm summer night, with the bright light of a full moon reflected wetly from a thousand tiny, melting peaks.
Other cities used orange sodium streetlights, and these looked like wide pools of lava, shimmering and sparking through the darkened but as-yet-unsolid crust as they flexed and cooled, the deepest fury of the rupture from the white heat of the earth having long since been spent, and with a long, slow heat yet to give up to the night.
After a while, some clouds appeared below me, and they were like the finger of doom drawn across a page. Draped in dark shadows on their topsides above, lit from below in an orange, funereal light, they looked like the first sweet whiff of pestilence, announcing its arrival onto the scene as an unstoppable and implacable fact of your life, for whatever remains of your life.
And then the pilot announced our impending arrival in Philadelphia, and the spell was broken. The clouds became clouds, the cities below became merely cities, and I put my laptop away, fixed my tray table in its upright and locked position, and prepared for landing.