Every time I fly back from a trip home to southern California, which I seem to do in fairly regular three- or four-month intervals, I take the same flight. Not always the same number, I suppose, but the same flight path, the same rituals, the same trip: a Southwest flight from Burbank to San Jose. It’s about an hour gate-to-gate — forty-five minutes in the air — or just about long enough for the flight attendants to sprint down the aisle and throw peanuts at me before we start our descent. It’s a great flight, Burbank may be the easiest airport in the world to fly out of, and Southwest is pretty cheap. So why would I ever change the itinerary?
The one thing I do change, I suppose, is the side of the plane that I sit on. Most of the time this comes down to where my carryon fits, since Southwest has this (possibly Marxist?) no-assigned-seats policy, but it gives me dramatically different views of southern California as I leave. When Southwest takes off from Burbank, the runways point south, so the plane has to wheel around after takeoff to avoid taking us all to Tijuana or — god forbid — Long Beach. That means if you sit on the left side of the plane you’re on the outside of the turn, and there’s a brief moment after the wheels retract and before the plane starts to bank that you can see the Los Angeles skyline emerge from between two hills that separate the valley from the LA basin, sliding into view as the plane rotates. The LA skyline isn’t a skyline that rushes to the water, buildings elbowing each other out of the way in a rush to reach the shore; there’s no precipitous architectural cliff that tumbles from the city into the ocean, like the canyons of New York or San Francisco or Boston or Seattle. Like everything else in Los Angeles, the skyline is sprawling and bizarrely positioned, spikes of steel and glass that rear out of the middle of, well, nowhere really and stretch towards the sky, metal fingers jutting from the impossibly flat sea of the basin like a slowly sinking ship. Then the plane starts to bank and LA is swallowed by the sky, sometimes smoggy and gray, sometimes clear and cerulean, but always hungry. By the time the plane levels out it’s hills and farmland and sometimes the coast until the pilot announces the descent back to San Jose.
On the right side of the plane, the inside of the turn, the views are very different. Burbank looks like a grid of gray roads and grayer buildings, and when the plane starts to bank your eyes are drawn to a cemetery, the lone patch of green seemingly for miles. The cemetery is beautiful in its own way, as individual plots blur and smear into a greenish-gray hole in the city, but it’s certainly not as striking as a skyline. The cemetery always makes me think about who’s buried there, under the shadows of countless flights, the eyes of innumerable passengers — voyeurs, always looking at the stones, but never able to read them. Then the plane starts to level out and it’s hills and farmland and sometimes some mountains until the pilot announces the descent back to San Jose.
As for the landing, well, I’m usually too immersed in a book to notice anything until wheels hit tarmac. Maybe the next flight I’ll pay more attention, but that would involve changing my mental itinerary.