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New World View: Flying Over the Smoky Mountains

by Fred First

She couldn’t have known how essential a window seat is for me on my rare air travels. But then again, since the Newark to Seattle leg will be the second longest flight in my limited wanderings, maybe my daughter, who booked these flights, has saved me from the inevitable neck pain that comes when I obsessively watch whatever is to be seen out the nose-smudged porthole windows at whatever altitude we’re flying. Even clouds are good. You never know when a sudden opening might reveal a stunning vista of crop circles! I have to look, I have no choice.

But on this future trip, if by luck of the draw, I find myself on the aisle side of the fat lady who could care less about the view, that will just make me more appreciative for those times I pick my own window seats for the education their vistas inevitably provide, the most memorable example being the Charlotte to Saint Louis flight a couple of weeks ago. It offered the ultimate plane-window learning experience: flying over the Smokies on a clear day in spring.

From 30 thousand feet heading west, the mountain chains that make up the Appalachians are more long than wide. Civilization’s encroachment north and south brings a rising tide of roads and structures pushing in among plowed fields and young forests of the valley foothills that green upward to the bare branches of the crests still waiting for spring to reach them. From the altitude of flight, the mountains lose something of the vastness one feels on the ground, enveloped by and looking up from them.

As we travel west of Asheville, this gentle rise and fall quickly changes. The reach of wooded landscape broadens to tens of miles, crests rise higher, and their slopes become more challenging to hold Swiss chalets on the steep mountainsides, though some are determined to try to make that work, and build there, regardless. Anything for the view, largely now of other Swiss chalets.

And finally, below us, there are only forest-cloaked mountains, not quite as far as the eye can see, halted In the urban haze to the north by the pseudopodia of Knoxville that trail east and west through the Tennessee Valley. Filling my porthole view, an impressive Appalachian expanse flows past us for some minutes, even at 500 miles an hour— the roadless wilderness domain (and the occasional access roads, all of which I’ve traversed at one time or another) of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Newfound Gap, Clingman’s Dome, Cataloochee, LaConte, Cade’s Cove, Charlie’s Bunion–all of those once-familiar places creep into view, far below us, the actual territory and not the map. The real thing does not feel real, suspended fleetingly in a metal tube above so much familiar landscape I had once wandered. The alien-familiar geography moving too soon out of sight below us might as well have been a hologram of the Smokies I had loved and known well when we lived in Sylva. Could that have been twenty years ago? Time, too, has slipped by, around or within us, in its ghostly, unfathomable fashion.

Springtime fills the broad coves and uninhabited rich valleys, the vast variety of hardwoods showing off their yellow-green early leafery. Pines on western flanks speak of a history of fires. A frail tiara of dark evergreens, spruce and fur, crown the highest peaks. They persist as remnants of an ice-age forest that once spread across much lower elevations this far south, back when a colder, glacier-dominated climate prevailed. Sadly, these cold-adapted relict forests are destined to disappear forever as valley temperatures warm sooner and rise higher as global climate heats up, eventually pushing these mountain conifers (and associated amphibians, invertebrates and flowering plants) into the history books.

As usual, I was giving a running travelogue of all this to my magazine-absorbed seat-mate, gushing in tones not unlike the ravings of one who has just encountered in person a life-long hero at arm’s reach. How could she not be as heart-thumpingly exultant by virtue of this reality show below us—this real earth, these coveted places of the heart, our mountains!

I should know by now. I’m an odd sort, with a love affair for this stunningly-magnificent planet, a passion that to some, maybe most, seems on the lunatic fringe. I guess that’s what 40 years of biology-watching, wildflower photographing, pond-water microscope exploring, tree-hugging and the occasional day of quiet solitude over decades in and near nature will do to a perfectly normal brain.

So I’m wondering if the large lady between me and the porthole might be willing to change seats if I look sufficiently pitiful, especially as we descend among the snow-capped volcanic mountains that surround Seattle—and if I promise to keep my high-altitude geology-and-botany fan-boy adulation to myself.

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