I’d forgotten that when air travel lasts about an hour, it can actually be enjoyed. Specially on a clear, sunny day, sitting near the window, with no one occupying the despised middle seat. With the pilot choosing a slight variation of the itinerary, so more of the California coastline is visible/visited during flight. With an iPhone in hand, airplane-mode turned on and sound effects muted off so no one hears the camera’s phony, and I don’t mean phone-like, but fake click-clicking. And no, my electronic device, never endowed with an ON/OFF button anyway, won’t endanger my co-passengers. Its connective aspects were disabled during takeoff which is why the first image I can photograph is the one below showing three of the Channel Islands off the coast, just east of Oxnard. The plane must’ve been serviced recently because the window is clean and visibility extends for miles. We’re not at a high enough altitude to get a sense of Earth’s curvature but it’s gratifying to see the islands of Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel calmly float on the Pacific Ocean.
On this flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the Pacific beckons lazily, with the mildest of water currents, a few token clouds and an interesting enough topography to discourage me from seeking entertainment with a crossword puzzle or a book. I keep looking out the window, enjoying the quickly changing views and the games sunlight is playing with water. Once the first photo is taken, it’s inevitable that others will follow, the camera focusing my gaze and helping see things more succinctly.
Here they are, the images shot during my two most recent flights.
There are many communities along the plane’s path from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Some are larger, with clearly defined layouts, their nodes and arteries, their roads and building structures following an urbanist’s meticulous designs. Viewing them at this sort of remove lends an anthropological bent to the observation. How many people live in each town and which are the public structures, the schools, hospitals, shopping centers? Which enclaves are apartment building blocks and which are stand alone homes? How would life in this town be different?
There are other, much smaller communities scattered here and there. Are they hamlets of habitation for the hermit-like, perhaps? On prior trips, particularly when driving on the Pacific Coast Highway, I’ve often wondered what the people living in some of the more remote places do for a living or entertainment. They’re surrounded by natural beauty, granted, but their sociability quotient must be low, given their obvious disinterest in further and more exhaustive contact with others.
The flight attendant dispenses peanut/pretzel packets and the minimalistic glass of re-hydrating fluid of choice. He barely has time to collect them back in a trash bag when my ears start popping, the pilot announces that we’re getting ready for the descent, and the Fasten Your Seatbelt sign is now back on. That this announcement almost catches me by surprise contributes greatly to my enjoyment of the flight. We’re about to land and I haven’t even glanced at my watch once!
The view that presents itself next is always my favorite part of preparing for landing in the San Francisco International Airport (SFO). We’re above the southernmost part of the San Francisco Bay, just north of the city of San Jose, where myriad salt marshes and ponds create an unusual hydro-scape. The salt ponds end up having various colors, depending on the amount of evaporation already occurred and the mineral and impurity content of the resulting salt. Today, the path of the plane, the time of day, the light, and its angle are all cooperating to showcase this part of the Bay.
Multitudes of tidal wetlands and saline creeks interweave and create a natural tapestry unlike anything else. Wouldn’t it be magical to hover right above here for a while and watch it change color and shape?
Even stripped of color, the whirling shapes are fascinating, winding in and out of water, splicing it and interlacing within it. Nature paints images that we then infuse with meaning and flavor, our eyes providing the frames for these scapes.
Too quickly the colorful bayscapes are replaced by Foster City with its radial structure and canals, and its name inscribed in a salt marsh. Man-made order imposes itself on the bay.
Parched with the relentless dryness of the San Gabriel Valley and in an attempt to have visual proximity with water, I once called Foster City home some fourteen years ago when I first moved up North. This planned city, built in the 1960s on engineered landfill, had come to replace another patch of salt marshes in the bay.
The plane is now descending rapidly and there’s time for one last look at the bayshore of San Mateo.
The plane taxies briefly on the tarmac. Fellow passengers and their zeal to deplane as quickly as possible take center stage, detracting from the beauty of the natural landscape around us. I’ve arrived at SFO.
My stay will be short as I’m here to be with my sister and her family, as well as my parents who are themselves preparing for travel. Their trip is much longer, though, and my Mom half-jokes about getting into a tunnel with a faint light at its far away tail. A light that serves as a reminder of their trip’s eventual end. The first leg will take them along an elliptical path from SFO to London where with a few hours of connection time they’re hoping to continue with a second leg all the way to Beirut. Compared to all that, the flight I’ve just been on is not even a minor blip. But I’m here, and while I’m here, there’s packing to help do and farewells to make. Long hugs and kisses to exchange while we all start missing them before they’ve even left.
Once again, I’m in an airplane. It’s time to head back. Once again I get lucky with a clear, sunny day, and an unencumbered window seat. Initially we head north and by the time I’m allowed to take photographs, the plane is flying high above the San Francisco Bay. Today this area denies any knowledge of fog and is resplendent under the sun.
The plane turns around and heads south, flying above the peninsula. I can almost make out my sister’s home. I’m reminded of the joy with which my nephews and niece would point out a plane in their sky, proud to have found it when they were toddlers, following its path with an extended finger.
We keep gaining altitude and the San Andreas Lake becomes visible. The reservoir sits atop the eponymous fault that splits California into two tectonic plates. But we don’t like thinking about that, so I waive the thought away, focusing on the different colors of the three bodies of water that are visible: the bay, the lake, the ocean.
Zooming in on Pacifica with the help of my camera the ocean’s surprisingly greenish hue seems even brighter while the waves are even more vigorous.
A final glance at the San Francisco Bay Area (notice the colorful salt marshes and ponds again) and we’re off, away from water, flying mostly inland.
A massive mountain range dominates the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley, which lies further inland, with the geometric shapes that define it denoting fields of different vegetation. Drive southward on the Interstate 5, and these mountains will seem to loom for an eternity while you cross the immense valley. Today, their appearance is thankfully much briefer.
Momentarily the landscape changes and we fly above some colorful mountains. There must be different ores painting the mountain sides in shades of reddish yellows and ochers. I start wandering again about all the roads that cross these difficult to reach areas. Why were these roads paved? Who comes here? What do they do?
Soon the plane reaches greater Los Angeles. At this altitude, it’s difficult to discern private front/backyards or pools, but there are little packets of prominent green that signal either cemeteries or patches of miniature Scotlands where golf is played; two area of communal respite in this city of unending traffic flow.
The tall buildings of downtown LA rise up higher, juxtaposed against the single family houses that make up a lot of the city’s sprawl. Today, Los Angeles denies all knowledge of smog and basks under the sun just like its sister city in the North.
The plane gets ready to land in the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). My (mostly) photo-narrative ends here. The voyage is done. And you’ve seen all twenty of its images. Couldn’t help my bias for the San Francisco Bay Area. You do agree with me, I hope, that it is the more captivating of the two locales. Even when only viewed aerially from a plane and without involving any bridges at all.