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So I'm enduring yet another flight 883 to Japan, and I get to thinking...

One summer I spent a week hiking in the Wind River mountains in Wyoming. Awesome at the time, but the topography we just flew over makes them look like a child's sandbox. The sun lazes maybe 20 degrees up, exaggerating the already unreal vertical scale: Impossibly deep gorges drop precipitously from knife-edge ridges. Needle peaks climb halfway to me. Cirques, valleys, moraines, and the glaciers that carved them all are still there! And then, plainly framed in the far distance, the snowy bulk of Denali towering over the clouds like a ghostly Ayers Rock.

The structural properties of glaciers are revealed even through the snow that blankets them. Long streamlines give the impression of liquid flow, but tumbled fields of crevasses at every turn disclose the inner weakness of the ice. Low ridges snake downstream from junctures, as two ice rivers try but fail to merge into one. Hidden outcroppings beneath, momentarily surviving the relentless grinding, write themselves on the surface as long undulating wakes.

And suddenly the mountains roll into a broad valley. Trees break the endless fields of snow, and a sinuous river meanders like a Family Circus cartoon, winding back on itself until it tires of the view and wanders infinitesimally closer to the sea. A town, with buildings, roads, and farms. Farms! What do they grow in this desolation? Winter wheat, in the summer, maybe.

Now we're over the ocean, steel black water leering through fractal gaps in the bone-cold pack ice. And glimpsed above the horizon, another plane paralleling ours, revealed by its long gray contrail and a flash of red paint. Northwest. Bleah.

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