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July 06, 2009

Flying Blind

It's a good thing Samuel de Champlain didn't "discover" Burlington by plane. The map-making explorer would have been sorely disappointed — like I am, every time I fly — to find today's pilots have totally abandoned the tradition of identifying the nation's most distinctive geographical features. On a recent Delta flight from Atlanta to Burlington, there was not a word from the flight deck until we were about to land. Weather? Wind conditions? Temperature? The voice on the P.A. joked about our destination with a reference to Sasquatch — did he mean Champ? Did they even know where we were going? No one else on the plane seemed to care.

I'm the annoying passenger who doesn't lower her window shade when they start the Jennifer Aniston movie. That's because I'm looking down on America's farms, forests, suburbs and strip mines — in amazement. Admittedly, it helps me get through the anxiety of being trapped in a tin can at 35,000 feet. But I also really like geography; I'd drive these distances if I had the choice. I settle for the map at the back of the in-flight magazine and, with crude calculation, try to identify major landmarks such as New York, the Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi River, Mt. Hood and the Continental Divide. A pilot used to come on to corroborate the big stuff — the Grand Canyon, for example — but now the flight deck is strangely silent.

Is it an anti-terrorist thing? Or did too many passengers complain about interruptions to the in-flight entertainment? It's no wonder Americans can't find Iraq on a map. Or anything else, for that matter.

Learning about Champlain and his adventures has made us all a little more aware of our unique geography in Vermont. For him, keen observation was a matter of life and death. I think we could all learn a lesson from this dude who discovered the place. Wendell Berry said it so well that Chris Bohjalian quoted him recently in a Free Press column. "If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are." Delta Uniform Hotel.

We spent this past weekend visiting friends and family on the other side of the lake in the Adirondacks - Chateaugay Lake, Vermontville, Saranac Lake, Lake Placid - but as always we took our time following the most meandering and indirect but practicable routes. You'd think I'd be indifferent to the mountain views having grown up in rural Vermont, but the lush, rolling, vibrant greens and blues still get me all twitterpated!

The one time I flew British Airways, many years ago, they had TV monitors that showed the plane's progress on a map in real time. That was awesome.

How many people do you think got Delta Uniform Hotel? Quite clever.

I think today's pilots are completely consumed with making sure they're turning the planes around fast enough to make the airlines a profit that they're not really all that worried about giving you a geography lesson.

File this under things we used to love about air travel. It'll sit on the shelf next to tours of the cockpit, plastic pilot's wings for kids and "complimentary" snacks.

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