It's a good thing Samuel de Champlain didn't "discover" Burlington by plane. The map-making explorer would have been sorely disappointed — like I am, every time I fly — to find today's pilots have totally abandoned the tradition of identifying the nation's most distinctive geographical features. On a recent Delta flight from Atlanta to Burlington, there was not a word from the flight deck until we were about to land. Weather? Wind conditions? Temperature? The voice on the P.A. joked about our destination with a reference to Sasquatch — did he mean Champ? Did they even know where we were going? No one else on the plane seemed to care.
I'm the annoying passenger who doesn't lower her window shade when they start the Jennifer Aniston movie. That's because I'm looking down on America's farms, forests, suburbs and strip mines — in amazement. Admittedly, it helps me get through the anxiety of being trapped in a tin can at 35,000 feet. But I also really like geography; I'd drive these distances if I had the choice. I settle for the map at the back of the in-flight magazine and, with crude calculation, try to identify major landmarks such as New York, the Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi River, Mt. Hood and the Continental Divide. A pilot used to come on to corroborate the big stuff — the Grand Canyon, for example — but now the flight deck is strangely silent.
Is it an anti-terrorist thing? Or did too many passengers complain about interruptions to the in-flight entertainment? It's no wonder Americans can't find Iraq on a map. Or anything else, for that matter.
Learning about Champlain and his adventures has made us all a little more aware of our unique geography in Vermont. For him, keen observation was a matter of life and death. I think we could all learn a lesson from this dude who discovered the place. Wendell Berry said it so well that Chris Bohjalian quoted him recently in a Free Press column. "If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are." Delta Uniform Hotel.