"Eight Miles High,” An Appreciation

It’s long been accepted mythology that the classic Byrds' song "Eight Miles High" is about being stoned—maybe about an acid trip or an evening on ‘shrooms. Band members David Crosby (now passed) and Roger McGuinn separately agreed to that claim, years after the composition and recording.

Upon original release, however, The Byrds (and Columbia Records) both denied the song was about getting high. While that was just as likely due to American radio stations banning airplay because of "drug connotations," the denials had more than their share of truth, since some of the lyrics plainly referred to a visit to England—and The Byrds indeed traveled by air to London in August 1965.

Prior to the pandemic, I was part of a fairly exclusive club that commuted to work weekly by air. And I’m quite certain that the song is equally about the totality of The Byrds’ travel on tour, particularly the numerous flights they would have been taking at the time.

For most people, air travel is an occasional necessary evil. But for that small contingent of us who boarded multiple commercial jets a week—and managed the logistics of that travel all by ourselves (no personal staff, no booking agency, etc.)—the song truly captures a state-of-mind that very few can fully understand. I believe The Byrds had also entered that state-of-mind, and part of the brilliance of their song (through both sound and lyrics) is that they render the headspace of constant air travel so well.

The song begins with tumbling drums and a driving bass line, moving you into some of that mindset and experience of constant travel. When you’re regularly traveling thousands of miles, a basic rhythm becomes established, along with a constant adrenaline rush that’s part and parcel of your life.

The first four notes of Roger McGuinn’s lead guitar moves us "into the air," so to speak. Now we’re into an accelerated reality that never stops. Moments later, ghostly, ethereal voices begin to tell us just how far we’re traveling.

Eight miles high, and when you touch down

You'll find that it's stranger than known

So true. Your "home base" is transformed—alien, in a way. Your destination as well: never truly home. Just a geography to navigate until you get back to whatever you call home now.

What happens when you’re constantly traveling is that your whole world becomes built around the traveling. Everything in between is just way-stops, markers that separate what becomes the point of existence: the transport.

I would normally catch the last flight out in the evening. My routine: drive one to two hours (depending on traffic) to the airport, park the car, get past security, hop on the first flight, land in the connecting airport, grab a quick bite (if possible), hop on the second flight, disembark and find the car, drive an hour or so to my final destination of the evening. I’d do that twice a week.

Everything becomes about making the process as efficient as possible. You know just where to park in the airport or offsite parking lot so that you never have to hunt for a parking space. You know exactly how much time it takes for terminal shuttles, walking to security, getting through security, visiting the restroom. You know how long it takes to disembark from your seat, and exit—and you know how long it takes to traverse one end of the terminal to the other (Gate 1 to Gate 50, for example).

Successful execution of each step in the journey becomes a pleasure in itself. And airport dining? A true reward when you’re fortunate enough to have a long layover, or to get to the airport early. You’ve earned that glass of wine. Enjoy it with a shrimp cocktail or a crab cake. After a while, the wait staff will get to know the weekly air commuters. They’ll smile at you more, get you a better table, be a bit more attentive. You might have an app on your phone that rewards you for being a frequent diner. It’s a special fraternity.

Did I mention the adrenaline rush? Especially if you’re racing to the airport during rush hour, Google Maps at hand counting down to arrival time. And the connections. If you’ve had a delay...will your first flight land in enough time to board the second flight? (Pro tip: Sometimes they don’t. You’ll get to know airport hotels and their accommodations, and you’ll try to get the airline to pay for the overnight...sometimes they will...most times they won’t.)

What happens is you’ll become acutely alert…present in every moment…particularly the hours when you’re traveling.

Signs in the street, that say where you're going

Are somewhere just being their own

Signage is part of the journey. Even if you know the way by heart, that sign to the gate, the restroom, the offramp is another checkpoint. Another reassurance. You’ll notice if the signs ever change. You’ll pay attention to every billboard and every marquee.

Rain gray town, known for its sound

In places, small faces unbound

Round the squares, huddled in storms

Some laughing, some just shapeless forms

The Byrds were talking about London, of course. But their lyrics capture some of the feeling of endless traveling. Fellow human beings do indeed become "small faces" and "shapeless forms." And as the traveler, you become a sort of ghost moving through everyone surrounding you.

I would typically land at midnight or after. Sometimes in a "rain gray town." The airport might be practically deserted, or might be a surprising hub of activity. Heading home, or heading to a hotel. The world quiet, in the liminal space between one day and the next.

Pretty soon, the travel becomes the point. The rest of your life you’re just marking time. Waiting for the next journey. Nothing else seems as real or as urgent.

Sidewalk scenes, and black limousines

London, yes. But the exterior of any major airport. The limos, the towncars, the shuttles, the buses—

Some living, some standing alone

—as you watch everyone inside and outside those terminals. Some going, some arriving, most of them transitioning out of the collective hallucination of travel via planes, trains, and automobiles.

Lead guitarist Roger McGuinn intersperses the song’s verses with two increasingly frenetic and chaotic solos that ingeniously capture the freneticism of constant travel. This song can’t easily resolve the surging, otherworldly mental state it has conjured up, and so it ends in a kind of instrumental meltdown—because all songs must conclude.

But the constant traveler keeps vibrating to that 12-string electric maelstrom. And despite the fatigue and the repetition, possibly reveling in it.

The pandemic ended my years of weekly air travel. I won’t tell you that I miss constantly being in airports, sitting on airplanes, eating in airport restaurants, and driving to and from those airports. I won’t miss booking and rebooking flights, trying to always minimize cost and maximize frequent flyer miles.

But part of me misses being in the mindset that The Byrds were in so many years ago. Because in some ways I was never more alive. I revisit some of that feeling when I listen to “Eight Miles High.”


Terry Borst is a screenwriter and college professor currently based in Los Angeles and New Mexico.

Category: Trips

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