First published in The Emporia Gazette March 11, 2003


by Cheryl Unruh

Occasionally, I meet in Strong City with three Chase County women to discuss writing and such things. So one winter's evening, I crawled out of hibernation and drove westbound on U.S. Highway 50.

By the time I hit the open road, the early-to-bed sun had just dropped below the southwestern edge of earth. Now showing on the wide-screen drive-in theater was a rose-colored sunset.

A stream of pastel clouds lined the horizon. As I stared into the evolving color, glints of light became apparent.

Jets, eight of them, glimmered in the sunset like UFOs, silver platters against petal-pink sky. Caught in the vision of the disappearing sun, each spark was aimed at random, heading for who-knows-where.

Even when jets don't appear to be UFOs, I am captivated by the planes and the thin, crisp vapor trails that chase them. Miles above us, people travel toward adventure, leaving a trail of bread crumbs in the air behind them.

Encased in aerodynamic sheets of metal, a hundred or more people scoot across the sky, each person with his or her own story, each one focused on his destination. As the planes draw a steady white line, I wonder which passenger sails toward a sunny beach in the Carribean, which one anticipates a lover's reunion in Miami, and which traveler hopes he'll just be able to find his car in the airport parking lot.

I imagined those eight planes glowing in the western sky to be full of restless magazine readers, sipping 7-Up, glancing out thick windows down to the Flint Hills. I wondered what they'd see, peering down to the prairie at dusk. Does the cluster of street lights from Strong City show up at 30,000 feet? Will their eyes catch headlights on a long stretch of highway?

I call this column "Flyover People" because of my fascination with the sky, sunsets, and clouds, as well as the planes and travelers that inhabit the air.

The phrase flyover people is intended as a disparaging term by jet-setters from the East and West coasts who feel a little superior to those of us living in the slower-paced rural Midwest. They get impatient while crossing our wide expanse of farm land.

In "Great Plains," Ian Frazier writes, "America is like a wave of higher and higher frequency toward each end, and lowest frequency in the middle."

He's right, but it's OK to be the eye in the center of the storm.

Personally, I don't mind being considered inconsequential to those jet-setters. I like being flown over. It makes me feel connected with the animated sky. And around here, the sky is not just above, but in front, behind and beside us.

In the 1970s, Vern Miller, our somewhat hyperactive Kansas Attorney General, wanted to enforce Kansas' liquor laws in the airplanes flying over the state. He is said to have proclaimed, "Kansas goes all the way up, and Kansas goes all the way down."

Our endless sky does belong to us. It is ever-present, a player in our daily lives.

For a few days immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, air traffic was grounded. Without contrails streaking the sky, this was a lonely place. Our constant companions had disappeared. The gypsies in the sky were gone: the business travelers, the vacationers, the flight attendants and their beverage carts.

Airplanes garner a moment's more attention since we first heard those words, "... and a field in Pennsylvania." Now when we spy a shiny piece of metal in the air, a needle pulling thread, we pause, parent-like, to follow that plane to its vanishing point, until it disappears into thin air.

Jets sprint through the atmosphere, leaving momentary footprints on the sky. Inside the pressurized cabin, a passenger, headed for who-knows-where, leans her brow against the cool window to catch a glimpse of life on the ground in a rectangular state.

And we are down here, looking up.


Copyright 2004 by Cheryl Unruh



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All Content Copyright 2004 by Cheryl Unruh
Text by Cheryl Unruh | Web Design: Dave Leiker
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