We skim eastward, like a water bug on the surface of a river, the wide and bright blue expanses of the cloud-shrouded Pacific Ocean sliding underneath our wings as if we were the stationary one, not the ocean. Of course in the large machine within which our small metal and composite tube is a mere speck of dust, the ocean is in fact moving too, while the earth spins towards the darkness of night as it constantly falls sunward. Such a complex system is heady stuff to contemplate but can help pass the time out here in the space between where-we-were and where-we-will-be, as the hours slowly tick down towards our arrival.
The brightness of the daylight sun slowly loses its bite, and the harsh edges of the clouds below us soften. At 41,000 feet, we have managed to stay above the tops of the weather, but a confused jet stream has wandered back and forth across our track, causing near constant turbulence that has kept the seatbelt sign on for almost the whole flight. However, the forecast charts—still printed in paper form—and the ones and zeros that make up my iPad’s screen that currently depicts orange blooms of projected turbulence along our flight path seem in agreement that we will be out of the bumps soon.
The blue outside the cockpit glass deepens and takes on a hazy quality at the horizon in front of us, and I’m no longer sure if I’m looking at sky or ocean. I check the clock and see that we’ve been flying for just over three hours, and despite flying over the midpoint of our route a hundred miles back, today I am not feeling the downhill slide and sense of a speeded up flight that normally accompanies such a mark. I drink some water and roll my shoulders against the sheepskin cover of the seat. Out of the corner of my eye, I see our wingtip bouncing gently in the slipstream, momentarily reflecting the sunlight as the Earth’s own personal star rolls towards the horizon behind us.
Time slips along, much as we are—its speed and motion relative to one’s viewpoint. As the sun drops lower and lower in our part of the sky, below us, shadows start to form on the eastern faces of the clouds while unseen by me, it simultaneously breaks over the eastern horizon of the shores of South Africa. Pondering that conundrum, I watch out my side window as the shadows climb higher up the clouds, until they reach the tops, the puffy white forms slowly dimming against an ocean already dimmed in the fading light.
Ahead, the terminator line, marking the division between day and night, sweeps towards us like a fog bank, turning the world underneath it first a deep blue and then a deeper black. Due to a complex relationship between atmospherics and the incoming rays of sunlight, the line is about 37 miles wide. We are moving eastward at just under 500 miles per hour meaning that we cover the distance across the gray zone in four minutes. In that time we pass through a slice of the color wheel as the world outside goes from day to night, the sky rapidly changing from pale blue to deep blue to black, while a speckled wash of stars emerges out of the fading brightness of dusk.
At the middle of the crossing, when the center of the terminator line lies directly over us, the side window’s world view is split. To the west the dying embers of the day paint the horizon with a pale orange glow that fades upward into a deep blue sky, while below, the cotton candy-like cloud tops reflect the last rays of the twilight’s sun. To the east a dark line etches across the sky—where blue turns to black—while below it the clouds have disappeared into the invisible salt-spray murk of the ocean waters they drift over.
We finish the transition and fly onward into the darkness. The clock slowly winds down towards landfall and the earth keeps spinning beneath us. But in our metal cocoon of pressurized and warmed air, with no visual reference to an outside world, everything seems to stand still and I almost eagerly await the next gentle bump of turbulence to remind the world that we still exist.