It is 8:00 AM on a Sunday morning in September, and I am down in the East Jesus section of the Denver International Airport where all the smallest United Express flights come and go. I have already flown once today—Casper to Denver, another puddle jumper—and watched the sunrise over the western reaches of the Great Plains, the light glinting off dozens of potholes in southeastern Wyoming’s moonscape topography.
They announce our flight, which, down in this modified trailer park of a terminal means a guy shouts “Durango?” in my general direction and waves his arm. I cross the tarmac and climb the stairs into the little Embraer 145, and take seat 1A. Even though this is an all-economy aircraft, I am entitled to board first and sit in seat 1A because I fly more than a hundred thousand miles on United each year. This last year, somewhere over Greenland on my way back from Athens, I crossed the million-mile mark (lifetime) with United, and it was everything I’d dreamed it would be. They announced my name over the loud speaker, gave me a bottle of pretty good Australian Shiraz, and the pilot (who was not, unfortunately, Sam Elliott) came out of the cockpit, sat down with me and shook my hand.
As I get myself settled in seat 1A, Kool and the Gang’s Celebrate is cranking—and I mean cranking—over the PA system, and the young male flight attendant, whose name tag says Matt, is doing a modified version of the Swim in the tiny galley that on the Embraer is right across the aisle from seat 1A.
“We’re going zip-lining when we get to Durango!” he shouts to me over the music with so much enthusiasm that for a second I think he means we are going zip lining, me and him, or perhaps all 18 of us on the flight, but then the pilot leans out of the cockpit to slap Matt a high-five and I realize we in this case means the three-man crew.
“Cool,” I say, as the end of Celebrate bleeds into the first few notes of Tavares’ Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel.
“Can you imagine?” he says, “how it’s gonna be up there this week with all of the trees flaming out?”
“This flight.” I say, “ought to be pretty outrageous too.”
It’s the third week of September in Colorado and the giant Aspen groves (the world's largest living organism, thousands of acres of trees all connected by their roots) that cover the western half of the state will be lighting up in swathes of color the size of football fields; green to yellow, yellow to gold, gold to vermillion. Our flight, which must be one of the most spectacular commercial flights in all the world, will climb through Rocky Mountain National Park, cross Arapaho Basin, catch the north end of the Collegiate Range and Independence Pass just east of the town of Aspen. Then, most dramatically of all, we will traverse the high San Juans near the melting rum raisin ice cream cone of Uncompaghre Peak, before we begin our final descent into Durango.
When Gloria Gaynor starts singing I Will Survive, and Matt turns it up one notch further and uses his demonstration seat belt as a lip syncing microphone, it proves too much for the older couple over my left shoulder in seats 3B and C. They start making faces and sounds of displeasure, which I watch Matt take note of and choose to ignore.
“Good morning ladies and gentleman!” his voice booms over the booming music. “It’s Disco Sunday on United Airlines and we are so happy you are here to experience what may turn out to be the most beautiful airline flight in the history of the Universe.”
I glance back at Mr. and Mrs. No Fun At All and see that they are deciding whether or not to relax into Matt’s routine and for everyone’s sake I encourage them with my eyes.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Matt says, “you are not going to believe this, but a couple of hours ago, before the sun had even started to rise, one of United’s finest mechanics, John Baker, was lying under this airplane with oil and anti-freeze and a lot of other toxic fluids dripping right into his ear, and it is to him we owe our impending on-time departure, and because of him we WILL survive today, along with the delightful Ms. Gaynor.”
We get only halfway through Play That Funky Music, White Boy, before Matt has to turn down the music and play the safety demonstration tape.
When we sail past Longs Peak the west wind is blowing the early snow off the top into a cloud shaped just like a spinnaker, and I spot three sapphire blue glacial tarns on the mountain’s various flanks. On the eastern approach to Independence Pass a herd of elk 200 strong is running across a high mountain meadow, the tundra beneath their hooves a deep red and gold. And when we leave Crested Butte behind under the wing and make the big turn southward, Slumgullion Pass is on our right and Baldy Cinco is on our left and as we skate down the south side of Spring Creek Pass, I am all of a sudden looking at my very own valley.
“Matt!” I say. “Come here, come here, come here!” He crouches in the aisle so he can see out my window. “That’s my house!”
“Yes, that one all by itself out there, down at the end of the valley.”
“Near that little clump of pine trees?”
“You live there?”
“What in the world,” he asks, “do you do out here?”
And it’s true, no matter which window we look out we see only vast pine and aspen forest, a few snow dusted 14,000-foot peaks, the broad snaking valley of the upper Rio Grande, a very occasional cluster of weathered buildings, and very little, it seems, to do.
“I write books,” I say. “Novels.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“No,” I say, “in fact, the new one is called Contents May Have Shifted.”
“It is not,” he says.
“It is!” I say. “I named it after you…you know…in a way.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Matt says into his microphone, “You are never going to believe this…"
As we hang a deep left over Beartown and follow the path of the Silverton railroad toward Durango, Matt makes an announcement over the PA system about my forthcoming novel.
It goes without saying that the enthusiasm is entirely his.
Pam Houston divides her time between her ranch in Colorado and the University of California at Davis, where she is director of the Creative Writing Program. She has been a frequent contributor to O, The Oprah Magazine, and her writing appears regularly in More and other publications. She in the author of the best-selling Cowboys Are My Weakness, and her new novel is Contents May Have Shifted.