“From airplanes we occasionally look up and are briefly held by the stars or the firmament of blue. But mostly we look down, caught by the sudden gravity of what we’ve left, and by thoughts of reunion, drifting like clouds over the half-bright world.”

~Mark Vanhoenacker, Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot

The first time I traveled by plane was in June 1972, just after graduating from high school. I had won a spot at the National Speech and Debate Tournament and a trip for my coach and me to the tournament’s host school, Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

There were no direct flights from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Winston-Salem, and we changed planes in Washington, D.C. on the way there and in Chicago on the trip home. Today I go out of my way to find non-stop flights and the most stress-free-sounding routes from home to wherever I’m headed. But back then, how I would get to the tournament didn’t even enter my oh-so excited, first-time-flying self. I was simply thrilled that I was going. Thoughts of travel routes or possible delays or lost luggage never entered my mind.

Oh, to be eighteen!

I chose the window seat on every flight and took pictures of the scenery below with my Kodak Instamatic camera. I’m certain that my coach Mr. Stanford found my enthusiasm amusing, but he never let on or made me feel like the unsophisticated traveler that I was. He allowed me to take in everything I was experiencing and treasure the views.

Chicago in the distance. June 1972.

Although my method for choosing flights has changed dramatically over the years, my choice of a window seat has never wavered. And neither has my desire to photograph the landscape from 30,000 or more feet. There’s something calming about seeing where I’m headed, even if the ground below is a blanket of clouds. And when the plane begins its descent and the clouds drift apart, the magic of where I am reveals itself.

There have been memorable landscapes…

The fields of Siem Reap, Cambodia, gateway to Angkor Wat. November 2023.
Farmlands spread out like a patchwork quilt near Berlin, Germany. June 2023.
Getting ready to land in the most wonderfully unusual world of the Galápagos Islands. May 2022.
Emerald hills and distant mountains in Quito, Ecuador. May 2022.

And unforgettable landmarks…

So close to London that I felt as if I could reach out and touch the bridge. June 2023.
A favorite view of home from the sky, San Diego at takeoff. November 2019.
The surreal feeling when the Suez Canal, which we had crossed by cruise ship just two weeks earlier, appeared outside my window…
Egypt's Pyramids Viewed from a Plane - the modern postcard
…and the spine-tingling moment when the pyramids suddenly came into view on our way to Cairo. November 2019.
Sydney’s sail-like Opera House roof beckons just beyond the city skyline. January 2018.
The stunning beauty of landing in Lisbon is still imbedded in my mind. May 2016.

And sunrises so beautiful that I couldn’t take my eyes away from the window.

Sunrise over the Midwestern U.S., heading home from Cleveland. March 2020.
Sunrise over the Pacific Ocean, heading home from New Zealand. February 2018.

Traveling by air has clearly lost some of the luster that shone so brightly when I boarded that plane in 1972. When planning a trip, we now transform ourselves into amateur detectives, sussing out connections and ticket price options, crossing our fingers that our choices won’t result in delays or even worse, cancellations. It sometimes feels as if the journey itself has been relegated to the back of the plane while the destination sits in first class, ready to make a beeline for the door as soon as the aircraft lands.

But I like to think that my first-time-plane-traveler self is still somewhere deep inside, getting a thrill out of seeing where we’re headed. When moments of frustration or disappointment start to crop up, I hope she’s there to help me remember why I’m traveling on that plane in the first place. And I hope she will remind me of the secret she discovered on her first flight all those years ago:

That oval piece of glass with the pull-down plastic shade is literally a window to the world.

24 Comments

  • Lovely outlook and great shots Mary. I really enjoy the amazing views from up high and I too find myself taking beautiful pictures of the landscape below or just the clouds with the plane wing juxtaposed for an other worldly scene.
    We leave for Lisbon tomorrow and other than being in packing hell we’re very excited.

    • Thanks so much, Lauren! I know what you mean about having the wing of a plane in a photo…it’s such a unique perspective and a fleeting one, too. Have a FABULOUS time in Portugal!! I look forward to hearing all about it when you return.

  • Oh Mar this is wonderful and as always has left me in chills! I so remember you going to nationals but not that it was your first plane ride. And, now, I’m struggling to remember mine. Have to ponder this one. Unforgettable however was my first road trip to Chicago with a dear friend. Hello King Tut! (:

    • Mar, I am curious to know where your first plane ride took you. I imagine it was about the same timeframe as mine. So happy to know you enjoyed the post! And rest assured that if I ever write about memorable road trips, our Chicago King Tut adventure will lead the list! 😊

  • Love the perspective. I remember the thrill of flying as a child, a bright shiny new toy. The thrill now is the excitement of experiencing new places and people. Still exciting, just different.

    • Great to hear from you, Josh! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I completely agree that the excitement at this stage of our travel lives is more about where we’re headed and who we’ll meet. But I still love looking out that window!😊

  • I loved re-living your travels through this lovely post and accompanying photos, Mary. It’s totally impressive, but not surprising given your penchant for organization, that you were able to put your hands on your first in-flight photo from 1972. Thanks for keeping us entertained with your writing.

    • So glad you enjoyed this, Dixie! This is the only photo I have from those first flights, and I’ve kept it carefully preserved in an album. But as you can see, it hasn’t aged terribly well. Ironically, I think the old black-and-white photos hold up much better than the early “modern” color attempts. I did love that Instamatic camera, though, especially with that square flash bulb that turned when you took a picture!

  • Mary,
    Of your many artful and informative posts, this is perhaps the loveliest. It captures perfectly the wonder of a rookie flier and the struggle to keep the romance alive all these years later. E.B. White would have been proud to have written such an essay. (I recommend to you his piece “The Railroad,” (1960). Yours is just as elegant. I stand in awe. (Love the photos, too.)

    • Oh, Steve, I have no words. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m incredibly touched by your beautiful comment and humbled to be mentioned in the same thought as E.B. White. You are too kind, and I treasure your words. Now I’m off to check out “The Railroad.”

  • Mary, this is a beautiful piece! I remember taking my grandmother to the airport in Sioux City, Iowa, for her first plane ride. I can see her walking out to the plane in her dress, heels (always a sensible height!), and white gloves. Thank you for sharing! Peggy

    • So nice to hear from you, Peggy! Many thanks for the lovely comment. I love the story about your grandmother’s first plane ride – white gloves and all! Quite a tribute to how special air travel once was.

  • It’s so easy to get caught up in the “sussing,” and in the often chaotic airport rush and forget about the experience of flying.

    My first flight by myself was likely in 1960 from Miami to Pittsburgh to stay with my grandparents. But reading your lovely post reminded me of my evolution as a traveler, from a little girl who wanted to fly to a fearful new mother who tried to fly the plane from her seat. But now, I’ve begun to re-appreciate the view from the window. And after this reading, I certainly will, in new ways. Thanks, Mary!

    • Sue, I can so relate to your comment about being a new mother who wanted to fly the plane from your seat! It’s almost as if that unbridled fearlessness of our youth performs a disappearing act when we become parents. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here. I’m happy to hear that you’re back in the window seat enjoying the view!

  • What a great post, Mary! I waited until I could read it on my desktop and see those wonderful images in glorious technicolour. Though I don’t like to be “hemmed in” by the window, I crave those amazing views. I’m now on my fourth read of your post, savouring the details down there below!!

    (I am also a fan of Mark Vanhoenacker’s book and must have given it to almost every friend at some time – doesn’t he capture his love of flying well?)

    • That’s so lovely, Gill…many thanks. Four reads…I’m honored! 😊 It made me smile to know that you’re a fan of Mark Vanhoenacker as well. He is such a glorious writer, and yes, captures his love of flying so beautifully I have his “Imagine a City”ready to read in my Kindle and am curious to see how it compares with “Skyfaring.”

  • I’m glad someone else loves the window seat as much as I do. I have taken photos over the years too, but most are of clouds and features below that I always mean to look up afterwards but then (usually) forget. Especially when flying from the New England to the west coast.

    Some memorable views I remember in general were of The Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, coast of Greenland, and flying over the Alps. Nowadays, seems like most window seaters have the shades closed.

    • Kathy, thanks so much for sharing your memorable views! It’s fascinating to me how images of those special places remain alive long after a trip, even if we didn’t get a chance to take a photo. I know what you mean about the closed shades…and I admit to peeking sometimes if the outside scenery beckons!

  • I think my first “solo” flight overseas was when I graduated from high school in 1975 and went to Germany to visit friends … a gift from my parents. The excitement of that adventure still pops up when we are set to travel.

    Like you, I go out of my way to find nonstop flights. And like you, I am a “window-seat person” … unless the seating is three across. I love taking photos of the scenery as we take off and land … a last glimpse of home and a first glimpse of wherever we are going. You also never know if what you see then will be there next time … as the case was with the Twin Towers in New York when we flew by them on 10 September 2001! Despite the frustrations that can accompany air travel these days, I’m still excited when the travel day arrives … and have learned to take it in stride when “things happen.”

    • It’s great to hear from you, Erin! We definitely share a love of taking photos from the sky. I agree that it’s so important to take advantage of the moment – I’m sure those images of flying over New York the day before the 9/11 tragedy never really leave you. And having the excitement of your 1975 trip still stirring inside when embarking on a new journey is such a treasure. I look forward to hearing where you’re headed next!

  • Dear Mary, this made me think of my own first trip when I was maybe 10 or 11 from KC to Tulsa in a small private plane. What an adventure to see my aunt and uncle. I loved your proposal to think about that first flight and it was even more fun to guess the location of your photos before I read the caption! I am an aisle person but you have made me rethink that choice. Thanks for a wonderful post and to Herb for highlighting your wonderful talent.

    • Wow, Julie, that must have been quite the first plane trip – I can just imagine the excitement of your ten-year-old self! Thanks so much for sharing and for your lovely comment. I love the idea of guessing the photo locations before reading the captions. Herb is more of an aisle person, too, although I sometimes think he’s just being generous so I can get my window fix! 😊

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *