I couldn’t tell you what time it was. Somewhere between one and four AM depending on the time zone. A silent flight cross country in the middle of the night.
It had started off bad. The seatbelt sign stayed on from Las Vegas to Nebraska, and somewhere over Colorado, I think we all thought we might go down. The rocking was incredibly intense; the flight attendants ordered into their seats. Someone was crying, but it wasn’t me for once. I held on to the arm rests, barely able to breathe in and out. A tiny part of me was almost amused – my flights with John are always calm. These terrible, turbulent flights only seem to happen to me when I’m alone. We dropped, hard – someone yelped. Again, it wasn’t me. I shut my eyes, thought of home, and just kept breathing.
It was over suddenly. We made it over the Rockies and as we flew across the Great Plains the shaking abruptly stopped. Everyone blinked at one another in the dark – did we make it? The flight attendants resumed drink service, and suddenly strangers were talking to strangers – sharing their stories of past turbulent flights, nervous laughter, deep exhalations of breath. We were okay. Just fine. The captain turned off the seatbelt sign, and everyone visibly relaxed.
I fell into a tense, uncomfortable sleep. Airplane sleep. It had been a long week, and I felt it in every fiber of my being. I tossed and turned, I couldn’t get comfortable… stealing sleep in 15 minute intervals. I awoke to see we’d headed north – an arc to New York City, somewhere over lower Canada now. Home felt decidedly closer. I stared out my window – strange lights spread across the horizon. Sunrise? I looked at the time, tried to deduce the time zone… but no matter where we were, it was still too early for sunrise. I watched these strange lights shimmer and move, slowly… barely. Just glowing. They really weren’t the right color for sunrise at all, actually. I suddenly realized what I was watching… the Northern Lights.
Instinctively I reached for my phone camera. My SLR was tucked in the bin above, so my phone would have to do. The rocking and shaking of the previous two hours disappeared. This moment, this unexpected gift that I very well could have slept through, made all of the turbulence worth it.
I clicked – a black photo. Repositioned, messed with the exposure as best as I could on my phone camera. Black photo. I tried taking video… video of nothingness… just the red blinking of the light on the airplane wing. This moment… I was losing it forever. I zoomed in. Black photo. My heart deflated. And then it sort of dawned on me… I wasn’t losing the moment because I was unable to take a photograph. I was losing the moment in my urgency to capture it.
I put my phone back in my bag and pressed my nose to the window, like a child. The Northern Lights glowed back at me… colorful and beautiful. Unexpected. The plane was silent and dark around me, except for the occasional exclamation of someone else who’d awoken, looked out the window, and spotted the lights dancing across the sky. We began to dip down again, our arc moving south… almost home now. The lights disappeared from view behind me, though I squinted through the darkness… still searching.
There is no physical record of this moment. I was alone, half-asleep, exhausted from an incredible week. But the memory is infinitely more beautiful than anything I could have captured on my phone camera. A reward at the end of a grueling day, a grueling flight. I did not expect to cross something from my Life List on my flight home last night, but I did. And it was just perfect.