In a hidden valley in the foothills of Utah’s La Sal mountains, my old friend and I sat on his stone porch in the fading light and watched the sun disappear behind the soaring red rock of the Moab Wall ten miles to the west. As always from this perch along the fault line between basin and range, the view revealed four different American landscapes: desert, farmland, rolling ranch land, and high mountains.
In the pasture to our right, the wranglers were bedding down the ranch’s horses for the night. Up along the pine dotted cliffs on our left the last hunting hawks were circling. In front of us, the impossible burnt orange of a Moab sunset swarmed up the side of the western sky.
As we sat there, cigars burning low and the Metaxa in the stoneware cups sipped slowly, our conversation ebbed into the long silences that wrap around you when the world puts on its very best end-of-day displays.
Then from very far away over the mountains behind us, a faint, rising whoosh arced high overhead. Leaning our heads back we marked the contrails of an airliner slicing across the sky.
Through that still air the line of flight was drawn in a single stroke from somewhere far to the east (Chicago? New York City? That far? Further still?), and slanted down the slope of the sky towards somewhere far to the southwest (Phoenix? Los Angeles? Far beyond?).
In the following moments, while the night rose over the mountain behind us, more contrails appeared from the east before arcing down behind the tinted thunderheads that moved towards us from the high desert. Before full dark, we’d marked over a dozen. They lingered, gradually expanded, and then dissolved across all that empty sky.
“One of the things I remember about Seattle in the days following the Eleventh.” my friend offered as the day faded out, “was the emptiness of the skies. No planes. For the first time I can remember, days with no planes.”
“In New York,” I replied, “we had planes. Fighters cut across the sky at all altitudes. You’d hear their sharp sounds slice through the air above you at all hours. You were glad to hear them. You slept better when you slept at all.”
“It was sort of peaceful in Seattle during those days,” he replied. “Peaceful in an unnerving way. No noise from the air. No contrails.”
He paused as the last light in the valley faded and the contrails high above still marked the sky like broad smudges on a blackboard.
“Well, they’re back now,” he said as the stars came on.
“Yes,” I agreed. “They’re back. For now.”