A View from the Hill: You can get there from here

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From my perch on Munjoy Hill, I can see the airplanes (remember those shiny things we used to see in the sky?) coming and going from the Portland Jetport. It’s certainly not what it was a couple months ago, but several people have mentioned how anomalous it seems to see any air traffic at all going into the airport at a time like this. 

Who could be going anywhere? 

So I decided to go somewhere. I haven’t been to San Francisco in a long time, and I love that city, so I thought I’d see if it was even possible. I checked the weather and it looked pretty damned good on the West Coast, coolish and cloudy early but sunny and warm, around 70, the rest of the week.

Then I checked to see if these were actual passenger flights I was seeing and not just freight flights. Checking the arrival board online Sunday, I saw that passenger flights had arrived or would arrive from Philadelphia, Washington, Charlotte, Chicago, and Detroit. 

People and planes – as well as packages – were on the move.

It was pretty much the same menu for flights out, with the addition of Columbus, Ohio.

Next I checked a cool app I have called Flightradar24, which displays flights all over the world in real time with little plane icons superimposed on a map. If you think the world has ground to a halt, think again. There are hundreds of thousands of planes in the air at any given time. It’s remarkable. Kind of a grid of normalcy overlaid on a world whose residents are feeling far from normal.

There wasn’t much going on in the skies over Portland at 5 p.m. Sunday but I could see a KLM flight coming in over Portland bound for Atlanta. And Logan was a little busier, with flights leaving for Dublin, Dallas, Detroit, and Baltimore. And there was a flight inbound from Atlanta and another from Raleigh-Durham.

But I wanted to go to San Francisco, so I went to the Kayak travel website to see what was available on Monday. There were flights from Portland on American, Continental, Delta, and United for anywhere from $537 to $2,018. 

But were there actually seats? I picked the cheapest American flight, leaving Portland at 7:22 a.m., arriving at 7:22 p.m. with stops in Charlotte and Phoenix.

By the time I was done upgrading to the main cabin, so I could choose my seat, and selecting exit-row seats, the price had climbed to $852.56. Oh well, at least I was on. I think. For obvious reasons, I never hit the pay button because I never really intended to go. After all, I’d have to quarantine for two weeks when I reached California, and then again when I returned home.

But was this actually possible? I decided to check in the morning to see if this flight actually leaves. 

Whatever the case, it is intriguing to think about pilots and flight attendants and passengers going about their business in this illusion of normalcy.

And life on the grid goes on elsewhere, on the high seas, for example. Another app I like to distract myself with is MarineTraffic. This is similar to Flightradar 24, but for ships and boats.

Once again, it is astonishing to zoom out to world view and see the ships on the move. The mid-Atlantic corridor off North America is so thick with marine traffic it’s a wonder ships aren’t running into each other.

Even around Portland there is activity. At 6:30 a.m. Monday, April 20, the fishing boat Patriot appears to be inbound at Cape Elizabeth, while three other Portland-based commercial fishing boats, the Long Haul, the Bella Marie, and Princess and Angel seem to be working off Kennebunkport.

Of course the ferries are running in Casco Bay. Further out in the Gulf of Maine are tankers, freighters and many more fishing boats. The other day I watched from shore as an Eimskip ship loaded with containers slipped out of the harbor. 

The next day I found its icon out in the North Atlantic heading east. I looked this morning, but couldn’t find it among the hundreds of ships out there.

I don’t know why all this activity surprises me. Of course, the world must plod on. Stuff has to move. Even some people have to move, apparently. I actually find it kind of reassuring, like the tides that flood and ebb exactly on schedule, and the clouds that drift across the sky with no schedule at all.

Oh, it’s Monday morning, and I just checked the flight board at the Jetport. My flight, American Airlines 752 to Charlotte, is on time. 

Gotta go.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.

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