The View from the Middle Seat
What I learned about myself from seat 21E thirty thousand feet in the air.
I recognize that someone has to sit in the middle seats during an airplane flight, but I end up there a lot more than I'd like to. There are two reasons for this. Number one, I’m a nice guy, and number two, I’m cheap. When flying with my wife, she likes the window seat, and if I want to sit next to her (and I do), seat B or E is my designated parking place for the duration of the flight. And when I'm alone, I usually just can't bring myself to shell out the extra 35 dollars or so often required to reserve a window seat.
When possible, however, I do try to sit by the window on any flight out of Seattle, Washington, in which case a window seat affords immediate gratification seconds after takeoff. Looking down on the Emerald City draped in green all year round, a window-seater can view the waters of Puget Sound and Lake Washington with their lush islands dotting the azure water below. No matter what the direction of ascent, passengers can see watercraft of all shapes and sizes, from massive cargo ships steaming toward the ocean to state ferries transporting islanders to and from the city center, and sailboats breezing across Lake Washington, bound for no particular place at all.
The joys of a window seat don't end at the city limits. A few minutes into the flight the view out the window treats fliers to views of any number of mountain peaks rising from near sea level up to fourteen thousand feet in elevation. The view of Mount Rainier on a clear day is one of the most stunning sights you can get from an aircraft. If the plane's route is just right, fliers can also cast their eyes on one of nature's violent wonders, Mount St. Helens, with its jagged explosion-torn side displaying the remains of the 1980 eruption.
Traveling by myself on a recent flight from Seattle, I was assigned Seat 21E, a middle seat on the right side of the plane. I knew from experience that my only hope on this trip of seeing the natural beauty on the ground below was to stretch my neck as far toward the window as possible.
On this occasion, the city basked in the glow of a rare and beautifully clear day. The cloudless heavens above were as blue as the clear water below, and visibility was unlimited by any hint of haze. Even before I boarded the plane, I had already decided this was going to be one of those neck-stretching flights.
I was pleased to see that the newer aircraft I was on had a 3D maps feature as part of its seatback entertainment system. Once in the air I activated it, able to view in virtual reality all the labelled landmarks on the ground in every direction. As we neared the Cascade Mountains I switched it to cockpit mode and was able to watch what the pilots see in front of them. At that moment we were making a slow turn to the southwest, with both Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens looming ahead.
My heart beat just a little faster.
To my amazement, the man sitting between me and the window inexplicably closed his eyes, totally disinterested in the scenery. The young man and woman in front of me were more interested in one another than in anything outside the plane, and they began passionately and noisily kissing, while the obviously embarrassed outsider sitting next to them kept her face buried in a paperback, her window closed.
I stretched my neck to my right into the personal space of Mr. Dozing Window Seater in order to get a better view outside. Suddenly into my vision came what was undoubtedly the best image of Mount St. Helens I have ever seen from a commercial aircraft. The sun's morning shadows fell exactly on the right places to give it extra drama (as if the mighty mountain needed it). I picked up my phone (on airplane mode) and snapped several photos out the window past my sleeping seatmate. I kept taking photos until the mountain was well out of sight.
I looked again at the 3D map on the seatback in front of me and saw that Mount Rainier was, at that very moment, visible on the left side of aircraft. Glancing expectantly in that direction, I was horrified. From the exit row in front of me to the entire rear of the aircraft, every window on that side of the plane was tightly closed, allowing not even a ray of sunshine into the port side of the cabin. The window seat occupants were either glued to their phones, snoring, reading newspapers or watching action movies on their seatback entertainment screens.
According to the 3D map in front of me, the plane was making a rare and unbelievably close pass by one of the nation's most scenic wonders, being totally unappreciated by more than half of the passengers on my plane, some of whom probably paid 35 dollars for the privilege of sitting next to a closed window.
Only one thought occupied my mind at that moment. Why? Why were so many people voluntarily blind to the majesty only a short distance away? Were these people all regular travelers on this route who had seen this masterpiece of nature so many times that they had become jaded? Or were they simply unaware of the awesome beauty within their grasp? Or perhaps there really are that many people who just don't give a rip about staring in open-mouthed wonder and appreciation of one of God's most magnificent creations. I might understand the young couple's reluctance to cease their passionate activity in the seat in front of me, but what about everyone else? Wouldn't they want to put their movies on pause or tear themselves away from their phones for a few seconds to be reminded of how amazing this planet really is?
Once again I leaned forward to glance out the window on my right and was treated to more scenery. Just a few dozen miles in the distance was the majestic Mount Adams with its white glacier gleaming in the morning sun, and just beyond it was an equally stunning white-capped Mount Hood. Again I began to snap photos. I can’t wait to share these on Facebook, I thought.
Suddenly I paused and put down my camera. A troubling question entered my mind. While I had been taking pictures of these exquisite mountains, had I paused long enough to really look at them? Was I, in a way, just as guilty of not appreciating their beauty as the passengers with their windows closed? And what about all those times on the ground when I had been glued to my phone or iPad, oblivious to everything and everyone around me? There was that time at a restaurant where my daughter sitting across from me said, “Dad I’d rather have you here with us. Would you please put down your phone?” I thought again of my desire to post my photos on social media—so I can show the world what a great view I missed while I was taking pictures through a tiny viewfinder. Shouldn’t I have spent those 90 seconds gazing at the scene unfettered by technology? Wouldn’t that have been more rewarding than a few “likes” on my profile page?
Somewhere in the Bible there’s a scripture about trading the real thing for an image and worshiping the image rather than the genuine article. It’s not a perfect parallel but it got me thinking. How often am I interested more in the image rather than the real deal? How often did I view my kids’ birthdays and concerts and dance recitals through the viewfinder of a video camera in order to have mountains of 8mm tape to stash in a drawer? Sure, I’m glad I saved the videos for them, and I have watched them several times myself, but frankly I have more vivid memories of watching the events on a TV screen than I do of the events themselves. Too many times I have made the image the priority, and missed out on much that the real thing offered.
And it’s not just physical images that often take over. Mental images can get in the way as well. My wife and I recently took a train trip along the California coast and I confess that while I stared transfixed out the window at the powerful waves crashing onto the rugged coastline, I was also looking at my watch and thinking about the logistics of getting to our hotel. While I gazed at the brilliant red sunset near the end of our trip, I was at the same time planning in my head the events for the following day.
My wife once asked me, “You have trouble living in the moment, don’t you?” She is right. Too often, while I am in my Walter Mitty alternate universe, there is a much better world all around me if I would just open my eyes to see it.
So maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on my fellow plane passengers for ignoring the views of a lifetime. Maybe it’s time that I not only book a window seat on my next flight, but also try to book a window seat on my life. Maybe I should concentrate more on living “in the moment” instead of trying to save that moment for later with a photo or video or other souvenir. Maybe I should be concerned less with what's to come or what might be, in order to better enjoy what’s actually set before me. Heck, maybe I should even take a cue from the couple in front of me and savor more the company of the one I buy the window seats for.
So, I’ll apologize to my social media friends in advance, because I may not be posting as many scenic photos in the future. But you can be sure that it’s not because I have my window closed. No, I don’t want to miss a thing, even if I’m seeing it from a middle seat.
© Nick Walker 2018
What's your favorite view from the air? Any advice for me on how I can "stop and smell the roses" more in my life? Please scroll down to leave a comment below.