The Sliver of Light (That Reminded Me Why I Love Travel)

If you love to travel you’ve probably also spent a fair bit of time philosophizing on the art.

All long-term travelers eventually ask themselves questions like: “How do I define what I love so much about this?” “How do I explain to a non-vagabond the fact that colors seem more vivid, smells more powerful and tastes more rich when I’m on the road?” and “Should I wash this?” (If you have to ask, the answer is probably “yes”)

As these introspective souls get a little older, another question might sometimes sneak into their minds: “is travel still just as important to me as ever?”

That’s a question that I’ll sometimes force upon myself. The fact of the matter is that I know the answer, but I like to challenge myself with it. Especially when I’m feeling road weary.

Planesunbeam350It’s a question that was running through my head on a recent flight from Munich to Los Angeles when the flight attendants requested that all passengers with window seats close their shades.

The shades snapped shut, leaving the plane in a self-induced nighttime. All except for one. One shade stayed open and it was that one shade that allowed a sliver of light to enter the plane—where it beamed with laser like intensity directly at my retina.

I was in the middle seat, of the middle row, and at first that beam of light bothered me to no end. It kept me awake. It blinded me from seeing my in-flight movie screen. It kept me from sleeping. Basically, it drove me crazy.

I leaned forward to discover who had dared to leave their shade open. They must be, I assumed, selfish, terrible people. They must have no affection for the rest of humanity.

What I saw instead was a middle-aged couple. Late middle aged. Looking out the window with the joy of two five year olds. Giggling. Peering. Pointing. They were so fascinated by whatever they were looking at that you would’ve thought they’d discovered the lost city of gold, sitting on a bed of clouds, guarded by unicorns.

Five hours into the flight that beam of light got more intense. It illuminated my face as if I was rapidly approaching nirvana. Unfortunately, I wasn’t. My eyes started to ache. My face started to sweat. Finally, I asked the flight attendant to ask the couple to lower their shade.

They did lower it. Halfway. The light beam was out of my eyes and landing faintly on my chest now. That I could deal with. And then, for the rest of the flight, the couple craned their necks in what looked to be the most uncomfortable and awkward way possible, so that they could still both see out the window.

It was then that I realized that something special was going on.

An hour later, with the rest of the plane enjoying the airline’s artificial nighttime, the couple raised the shade up an inch or two, putting the glare back in my face. I huffed a little. I might have even grumbled. But as I watched them, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something magical was happening. The better side of my personality argued with my less patient side, saying: “don’t you dare screw this up for them, don’t you say a word.” And so I didn’t.

Until the end of the flight.

Walking out of the causeway, short on sleep, I sidled up alongside the couple. I had to ask what they saw out there that had them so thrilled, what beauty was I missing by sitting in the middle seat of the middle row?

Reluctantly, the woman told me in broken but excited English that it was her first time in an airplane. Her first time above the clouds.

She went on to explain that what she saw out that window, was her home of Germany and then all of Europe growing small and distant below her. After that there was an ocean that seemed to last forever.

She also saw about six hours of sunset, as we chased it westward.

“She never saw those things before,” her husband added.

I thanked them both. They’d inspired me—and reminded me just how lucky I am for getting to travel as much as I do. Their excitement at looking out the window and the genuine joy they found in something that we often take for granted reminded me why travel has the potential to be such a transformative experience.

It doesn’t have to be about the new or untouched, it doesn’t have to be the biggest of fastest or wildest. What matters is that it’s new to us. And that we are able to find beauty in that.

The woman reminded me to look at the world with the eyes of a child. As a traveler, I find that challenge incredibly exciting.

In fact, I think it’s the whole point really.

Photo by jacQuie.k on Flickr


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Older comments on The Sliver of Light (That Reminded Me Why I Love Travel)

12 December 2009

What a wonderful story; beautifully written.

Ryukyu Mike
15 December 2009

Excellent, Steve. You definitely made a point here. Lookin’ forward to more from you.


23 December 2009

Excellent piece. People with window seats who are not enchanted by the view of the planet at 30k feet are missing the last part of the flying experience for which airlines can’t charge.

07 January 2010

It reminds me of a life-changing experience I had. I was a teen at Disneyland trying to look cool and detached from the all ‘kid stuff’ around me. As I grudgingly watched the parade with my family, I saw a woman in her 20’s just beaming and laughing and loving every moment of the parade. I realized that she was having fun and that I wasn’t. From then on, I’ve tried to find the joy in the moment rather than trying to impress others.

07 January 2010

I will actually pay a bit more or take a longer flight for the (hoped-for) views, and I must have a window seat. As Gregory Dicum reminds us in his book, WINDOW SEAT (what else?), aerial views of Earth have only been available to homo sapiens in the last century. Some of my best travel experiences have been spectacular aerial views–the Arctic, central Turkey, British Columbia, the Alps, the Sahara Desert, flying into Cairo, and many other places. And it’s not just for the person who has never been on an airplane; it’s for anyone with a sense of curiosity. Maybe I’m weird, but I never get tired of seeing the Grand Canyon or the Alps from the air. Be sure you pick your seat so it’s far from the wing and usually best on the opposite side from the sun (for least reflection and best visibility). Get out your atlas!

13 April 2010

That’s nice for her, but I wonder why she couldn’t have lowered the blind for a few hours in the middle of the flight. Surely several hours of flying over ocean can’t be that interesting?

Eager Existence
24 May 2010

I discovered the same joy and awe on my girlfriends face when I took her on her first flight from Perth, Australia -> Singapore -> Phuket, Thailand.

What an adventure that was!

After a 1/2 dozen flights, you lose the magic and start to get anxious and anticipate the destination… forgetting its the journey that makes a lot of moments special.

Patricia Morrise
11 July 2010

Pack light and pack smart meaning bring only the necessary things you need.Packing light isn’t just about the trip over and back,it’s all about your traveling lifestyle.