In the Belly of the Whale

Driving north across the frozen sagebrush and fallow farm fields, across oxbows of frozen rivers and along streets shuttered on a Sunday morning, we pull into the terminal at the Riverton Regional Airport in Riverton, WY.  An unattended 15-minute parking lane sits vacant, directly in front of the entrance doors to the one terminal. Mounted mule deer, mountain lions, Sandhill cranes, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and elk peer down at weary travelers with glass eyeballs and frozen countenance. Security is a room 5’ wide by 10’ long, and the singular airline gate has 10 folding chairs set up along the perimeter of an L-shaped room. Through the glass windows, frozen Tarmac stretches away as snow dances across the black and yellow of the runway. In the distance, flat prairie abruptly dead-ends in the sagebrush foothills, forcing heavenward to breathtaking heights of craggy stone and unforgiving glaciers.

Ten passengers emerge from the terminal onto the Tarmac and ascend, one-by-one, up the five steps to the cabin of the prop plane. Passengers are arranged into ten of the available 18 seats for weight distribution, stoically faced, as the pilot and co-pilot make preparations, entirely visible through the door-less entryway to the cockpit.  One seat on each side of the aisle and 9 seats deep is the entire volume of the plane. A small service dog and his companions occupy the three seats at the back; a blonde woman traveling to New Orleans inflates her fuzzy, pink neck pillow; a soon-to-be-father reads Pregnancy for Dummies two seats up from me and across the aisle.

Over Colorado, snow and a fogbank settle into the valleys, creeping into the canyons like a giant inland sea. Island hills break the surface, or appear ghost-like under the clouds like unseen pods of whales or prehistoric mastodon. Clouds and snow in the mountains form the appearance of giant advancing ice sheets, plowing boulders and carving giant crevasses with their sheer force and might. Saber-tooth cats stalk herds of wooly mammoth through the mountains and down to the edge of the foggy sea.

Civilization disappears as we soar over the cresting clouds, breaking in and out of the waves as though in the belly of a giant whale. Rib bones encircle the cabin as we peer out through tiny windows, looking down onto waves of clouds and imagining the world beneath the surface. An albatross descends, several miles south, and soars westward, barely cresting the waves, as we dive beneath the murky surface toward the ocean floor below. Schools of fish travel single-file along straight or curving paths in the aquatic vegetation. The air control tower looms ghostly and frozen, like a castle in a fishbowl, as we dive to the whale-dock with all the other passenger-carrying whales. Icicles and frozen fog form algal colonies on the trees, roofs, and bushes along the runway, and in the distance the ocean floor rises to meet the surface of the inland sea.

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