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Skiing the skies

From the tiny window of the bopping Embaer jet, making the quick jump from Chicago to New York City, the layer of clouds just below stretches endlessly like a vast winter panorama that has been squashed to nearly complete flatness.  The entire view is filled with what looks like the opposite of one of those raised-relief maps that exaggerate elevation a-hundred-fold to show vertical features more impressively.  In stark contrast, the white outside does not suggest much profile.  No mountains impose their majesty, no valleys extend into the distance.  But some furtive cue – angle, light or perspective, it is hard to tell what exactly – suggests an Alpine setting, and the illusion of a ski resort is impossible to avoid.

Groomers and smooth corduroy alternate with moguls, bumps and jumps.  Every now and then, it seems like someone has just gone down the nonexisting slope and planted first turns.  Immaculate braids are woven everywhere in this infinite brumal paradise, fading in and out of existence without the merest hint as to where the imaginary skier had come from or gone to.  The sun is shining brightly, and the day is ablaze in brilliant light, soaking the illusory snow in an otherworldly brightness that is never encountered so exquisitely on the ground.  Elongated, slightly ragged clouds above the clouds are casting shadows the shape of freshly baked baguettes.  What is missing to make the fantasy appear completely real are rocks, trees, lifts, and, obviously, skiers.

Canyons and gullies can be spotted every now and then, as can illusions of cliffs and insinuations of chutes, but the deviation from planarity is only just perceptible.  The graciously curved horizon is the one place where a true third dimension is added to the spectacle, back in the uncharted regions of the resort, off in the distance.  At the juncture of a delicately faded blue and an ever so slightly dirty grey, clouds are piled up high in jagged ridges and sharp crests, a breathtaking view that any real resort would envy.

The place should be called Ski the Sky and would be the pride of its proprietor and the aspiration of ski bums near and far.  Its sheer size and the quality of its terrain, a deep blanket of flawless, fluffy snow without a single rock sticking out, and the perfect weather most of the time would make it one of the most alluring places to go and ride.  Who could resist its attraction?

Now even the Embraer itself is plowing fresh tracks.  Dense air traffic into New York forces the aircraft to circle, loop and figure-eight for nearly half an hour before being granted landing rights at JFK, extending the show of celestial magnificence for another thirty minutes.  However, with time ticking away, a sense of anxiety over connections to make and appointments to keep starts to invade the interior of the plane, threatening an untimely closing of the curtain.

All shows must end, but today the pinnacle has not been reached.  The first move towards the climax is executed masterfully just when anxiety gives way to outright worry.  Within a few creative moments, the setting afternoon sun spray-paints the full extent of the pristine nubilous canvas in an explosion of ferocious orange, with an intensity that no terrestrial sunset would dare to rival.  The day is lingering on with ethereal radiance, promising a serene evening, while revealing shadowy slumps and glistening highlights of preternatural beauty.

A smooth turn of the airplane heralds the coming of the closing ceremony.  The tranquil carpet of the two-dimensional resort gives way to a more rugged topology with canyons, crags, rims, extended channels and deep holes, while its fiery orange magic slowly dissolves into the pale purple of the wilting day.  Suddenly, after another one of the airplane's elegant sinuous curves, the carpet rips wide open and New York's skyline makes a most stupefying entrance.  Reality has triumphed over imagination, and clouds are reduced to nothing but drab globs of condensed vapor.  Grandeur that can be touched and smelled, resplendence that lasts, in other words, can only be found in the living world.  The plane sinks increasingly fast, and ten minutes later the flight ends on the wet and dreary tarmac of JFK.

April 2006