Archive for September, 2012

My return from the high planes

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

[IMAGE] prairie dog

…click to listen:

…about the music

A very grounded Wyoming prairie dog.

I’ve achieved a “personal best” in my flying life; I can’t recall ever having to endure so many take offs and [phew] landings on so many planes through so many states within a ten hour period. In light of the Virgil Thomson/Gertrude Stein opera, “Four Saints in Three Acts,” I think I’m well positioned to compose a sequel titled, “Five Landings in Four States.” On four planes, no less. Because that’s the description of my travels home yesterday after a really marvelous week as composer-in-residence for University of Wyoming’s New Frontiers Music Festival, whose talented music department faculty and students made the entire, lengthy commute entirely joyful and worthwhile.

The people in Laramie are very, very wonderful. But the small town is in the grips of a geo-political battle, and suffers sadly from a bitter fight between the academicians at the university who announce their research findings on the altitude:

[IMAGE] 7200 feet

and those who staunchly insist that, in fact, Laramie is a mere 277 feet above sea level.

[IMAGE] 277 feet
Where’s Vanna White when you need her? They don’t need a vowel, but they could stand to buy a “7.”

Since the latter are under the auspices of the U.S. government Federal Aviation Administration and are in charge of the airport that hosts this signage, I’m inclined to side with them on this divisive community issue. After all, these aviation experts are the ones who deal with altitude on a very regular basis. Surely, they must be right.

So on Friday, I awoke before dawn on the high plains of Laramie, Who/What/When/Where/Wyoming (elevation 277 feet). I then flew to Denver, Colorado (the “mile high city,” although now I’m wondering if they, too, have a delusional university faction that randomly adds 7,000 and claims that the place is 12,430 feet high). Then on to Salt Lake City, Utah, after a gate change from hell that rivaled any Olympic long distance race without offering a gold medal, which I surely deserved. Ok, maybe just the silver. Yes, this is how I stay in shape. And next, Seattle Washington, my final state for the day, not counting “blotto.”

[IMAGE] Mt. Rainier
Blotto or not, I will never tire of the thrill of flying past Mt. Rainier.

Thankfully, I was among the fortunate holy anointed ones upgraded to first class on the major legs of Denver and Salt Lake. As for the other two: the little planes from Laramie and to the San Juans wouldn’t be able to differentiate between business and economy class while keeping a straight face. The choices would be more like, First Class = inside the plane, and Coach/Economy = have fun riding on the wing and please don’t forget to hold on real tight.

Of course my aerodynamic fun did not stop in Seattle: I poured myself, and the intrepid 22″ that follows me everywhere like a devoted puppy (or whiny, stubborn toddler, depending), into a van that shuttles about 20 minutes north from SeaTac to Boeing Field. And soon I was putt-putting my way in a flying Tonka Toy to the San Juan Islands.

[IMAGE] Leaving Seattle
The view from starboard, passing Whidbey Island, with Mt. Baker in the distance.

Landing #4 of 5 was on Orcas Island, which is not the island on which my coffeemaker or plastic dino collection is located. Part of the fun of returning home is that I never know until the propeller starts spinning whether I’m going straight to Friday Harbor, or making a stop elsewhere first. But the flight over the archipelago is so damn gorgeous, I don’t mind the extra putt-putt miles at all.

[IMAGE] Eastsound airport

The command center of Orcas’s airport, located walking distance from the center of its town, Eastsound, is comprised of a cute little house they earnestly call a terminal, and looks like the kind of place one would buy hay, fertilizer, and a few small tools to bring back to the farm. Or, like you’re pulling up at Aunt Emma’s to pick up some of her fresh made applesauce. Except that the plane pulls up much closer to the little house than you’d probably be able to pull up to Aunt Emma’s. And I think she has more security. The TSA has thankfully decided to disregard our little piece of quirky paradise, and thus a small bastion of aeronautical civility remains somewhere in the U.S. Besides, in a place with so few residents, there’d be something creepy about getting a pat down from your neighbor who lives just down the road.

[IMAGE] Eastsound airport
Gotta love the airport hippie flower-child sign.

Houseplants, a little hanging box for the mail pickup, and a nice porch, offer a homey touch to greet you here. Two friendly blue doors next to each other are importantly labeled, “OFFICE” and “TERMINAL,” while a small sign to the right reads, “PILOT/Fresh food Eastside of Terminal.” Which would be about 47 inches to the other side of that door: hardly far enough to cause one to work up an appetite. Is this the corner I need to peer around, like hide-‘n-seek, in order to find a pilot to operate the little Tonka Toy? And is all that fresh food they keep there reserved just for the pilot, or might it be shared– or at least rationed? I have no idea where they keep the stale food, but it’s probably just as conveniently close by. If they’re like me, they’ve got a compost pile behind the house.

[IMAGE] biplane
We enjoy all modes and colors of transport here.

Three of the seven passengers on this fully booked flight got off here. Then finally, it was up in the air again to reach my final destination, the fifth takeoff, fifth landing, and, what I feel deserves to be considered the fifth state of the day, San Juan Island.

[IMAGE] wheeee

[IMAGE] above Deer Harbor
Flying over Deer Harbor, into which I had sailed just the week before.

[IMAGE] above Friday Harbor
Coming in for a landing, in the bustling metropolis of Friday Harbor.

Awakening the next morning, I opened my eyes to a flock of starlings that were making their own touch-and-go landings and take-offs from my deck railing, without the involvement of the FAA or the TSA, much less the Audubon Society. I thought to myself, “these guys do this hundreds of times each day. Who am I to be such a wuss that a mere five times seems notable?”. I plopped my head back down on the pillow, closed my eyes, and thought about the inspiring week with my musical colleagues in Wyoming, that was totally worth all those newly collected boarding passes. The faculty made me feel exceptionally welcome, and the wonderful students made me feel like I offered something useful to them. But if only I could help Laramie with its serious elevation problem, and mend the painful strife in that charming town, well then, I’d really feel like I accomplished something meaningful! Sigh. A composer can only do so much.

[IMAGE] starlings
The Strait of Juan de Fuca defined between the Olympics and my birdie deck-orations.