Everyday Rabbit Holes

A FedEx Boeing 777 near Powell flying from Memphis to Seattle.

Most people would consider my hometown of Powell, Wyoming—whether they live here or are visiting—a pretty remote place in this world of eight billion humans. Certainly there are other places more remote, but in terms of averages in the United States, we’re pretty much in the boondocks, the sticks, the hinterlands… the middle of nowhere. Some locals call this part of Wyoming, “The Big Empty.”

Typical of remote locations, there is often a lack of diversity in the populations occupying them. And, Powell, Wyoming is no different. With the exception of a small body of international students at the local college, Powell is pretty much a  “white-bread” community.

Yet, nearly every clear day I’m reminded that perhaps we aren’t that remote and maybe we’re a little more diverse than I think.

Thanks to a little app on my phone called Plane Finder, I can learn about the planes that fly overhead on any given day which are relatively many given we are in the middle of nowhere. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we are near a major airport, but I’m astounded in how many planes I see flying overhead on any given day—even if they are typically 25,000 feet or higher. And, thanks to Plane Finder, I know about any given plane’s origins, its destination, how high above me it is flying, how fast it is traveling, how long it has been in the air and how much more time remaining in its flight, its manufacturer and model, its flight number, and which airline it represents.

Real time image of FX17 in PlaneFinder.

Beyond the knowledge of these airplanes overhead, flying from all over the country (and world), it’s fun to think about the diversity of the passengers onboard those aircraft that are only about thirty-some thousand feet away as they transit the typical blue skies over Powell. They may look down and see an arid and sparsely populated land mass below—that is anything but inspirational—but I look up and think about the places where they are going to and coming from, and the variety of cultures on board, and suddenly my outlook on the day gets a little brighter. 

For example, just today I looked up to see a plane heading almost due south. It was flying from Calgary/YYC to Dallas-Fort Worth/DFW. Not long after, another plane flying due east from Portland/PDX to Chicago/ORD. Other days, I’ve looked up to discover a plane coming from Frankfurt/FRA and heading to Los Angeles/LAX or Las Vegas/LAS.

Visiting with one of my students today—who happens to be an international student from Timor-Leste—I said to her, “You must see all kinds of planes flying over your home town.” Strangely enough, she said airplanes are pretty rare. I was in disbelief, so we looked at the current air traffic over Timor-Leste via Plane Finder, and oddly enough, she was right. There’s all kinds of air traffic in that part of the world, but the routes seem to circumvent her island nation for whatever reason.

I was telling a couple of my colleagues in the art department about this and wondering how we could do some kind of collaborative art project about this local, overhead anomaly. (If something comes to mind as you’re reading this, feel free to leave a comment, or just run with this idea and do something about the planes that fly over your community—wherever it is. I’d love to hear about it too.)

In case you are wondering, yes Powell/POY does have an airport, but no major carriers service our lone landing strip where (mostly) single-engine puddle jumpers land and take-off. If you want to get on a major carrier airplane while in Powell, you’ll have to find your way to nearby Cody/COD or Billings, Montana/BIL about 90-miles away.

Of course, now that I know more about these planes that fly quietly overhead, more questions have found their way to me, leading to more rabbit holes to go down on the internet. For example, I noted that FedEx flies their planes over Powell on a regular basis from Memphis/MEM to Portland/PDX or Seattle/SEA and back.

FedEx’s Memphis hub map of flights.

That got me thinking, “What’s so significant about Memphis/MEM to Portland/PDX or Memphis/MEM to Seattle/SEA? It turns out that  Memphis/MEM is the main hub and the location of their headquarters. Everything that is FedEx seems to pass through Memphis/MEM. And, how did that come to be, I wondered? Because during FedEx’s infancy, they purposely chose Memphis/MEM because Memphis International Airport/MEM is near the mean population center of the country and inclement weather is relatively infrequent compared to other centrally located international airports.

Now I need to know how many planes they have…

Nelson John

15 August 2000
Auckland, New Zealand

I said goodbye to John a few hours ago at the bus station in downtown Auckland. John was one of the first Kiwis I came to know here in New Zealand. We met up in the TV room of the hostel where we were both staying at the time. We connected as a result of our mutual interest and humor found in professional wrestling.

In some ways I feel as though I’ve known John for years and in other ways, he still seems a stranger to me. Perhaps we never came to know each other’s peculiarities as good friends often do, however I think there was an understanding between us that such details weren’t that necessary. All we needed to know is that we both enjoyed professional wrestling and movies—good and bad ones alike.

As we were walking to the bus station this afternoon, I still felt a need to know more about John despite his knack of evading questions that revealed too much information about himself. So, I asked him to tell me about a favorite childhood memory. He spoke of a cousin that came to visit his family one summer when he was eleven. She was from Australia. He told me how he developed the biggest crush on her and acted like a typical goofy kid—trying to be interested in the things she was interested in just so she’d be impressed. He never saw her again although he still hears about her through his family. He recounted a Saturday afternoon when they attended the local movie house—“Jaws” was showing. He hid on the theater floor during several scenes because he was so squeamish despite her ability to watch the entire film without a blink. His voice was sincere and confident when he told me that there was no better place to grow up than Nelson—his hometown. We compared notes of our childhood and once again found we had other things in common as we recounted our earliest memories.

John kept odd hours at the Ponsonby Backpackers. Most of the time, he would stay up well past 3:00 a.m. and he didn’t think it unusual to stay up until dawn. I think he was disappointed that I could never make it too far past midnight before I felt the need to retire. As a result of his late-night TV vigils, John was never seen during the normal breakfast hour around the kitchen—not even during the later morning hours of the day. He usually appeared after 1:00 in the afternoon. I would often join him in the early evening hours for a walk to the market where he would often purchase a box of Choya tea and Watties Baked Beans for his evening tea. John told me that he probably drank up to 12 cups of tea per day—always with milk.

John’s knowledge about America was impressive. I don’t suppose it is that unusual for a Kiwi to be fairly informed about the United States due to its high profile in the world, but John seemed especially interested in America and my life as an American—as if he was comparing the things he learned from me and my life with what he knew (or thought he knew) about the States. A couple days ago, I was stunned when he made a reference to Montgomery, Alabama, as the capital of that state. Less than a year ago, I couldn’t have told anyone whether Christchurch was on the North or South Island of New Zealand.

I suppose John doesn’t have much money. Although he is staying in places that are associated with travellers, he only appears to be living day to day with little resources—doesn’t have the look or the talk of a true traveller. During my days spent with John, I only saw him in one other pair of pants, which was a ripped up pair of jeans—he would wear them when he was washing his regular pair. John always wore the same sweater too but he never appeared dirty as I’m sure he bathed and shaved almost everyday. Not long before he left, his sweater had ripped where the sleeve meets the chest-area of the pullover. He struck me as odd in his determination to have it repaired as opposed to purchasing a new one. I would later learn that such resolve in resourcefulness is a common and admirable trait in many New Zealanders.

John’s shoes were also very worn and when he had them on, they were seldom laced—or only half laced—as if he was never going anywhere too far. However, today when we left the hostel for the train station by foot, his shoes were as they always were—half laced—just as if he was going out the back door to have a cup of tea or going down to the market at the bottom of the hill.

Because I suspected he was on a tight budget, I bought a six pack of beer on occasion and shared it with him—opting for Mac’s Ale, one of the domestic beers that is brewed near his hometown of Nelson. He was always grateful anytime I “shouted” him a beer or some other treat like a Ponsonby pie or a Memphis Meltdown ice cream bar. Upon handing him one of these items he simply responded, “Cheers.” I’ve never known anyone to express their thanks so well and so simply as John. For this reason alone, I’m grateful to have known him.

John expressed having mixed feelings in leaving. I’m not sure why he had to leave or if he even had to leave at all. I didn’t press him for more information, I just accepted it from him. He caught one of the busses going north toward the Bay of Islands. He would go as far as Orewa for the $7 bus fee and then hitchhike farther north to Whangarei. From there and further north, he told me he would be looking for work at one of the many organic farms found throughout this country that hire general laborers for four hours per day and in return supply them with free room and board. I think John will do well since he is a man of simple means and requires little to keep himself going.

I don’t know when or if I’ll ever see John again. I’m hoping to catch up with him someday—maybe up on the North Shore before I make my way South; and if not there, perhaps down in Nelson when he returns home, whenever that is. More than anything, I hope John will have the opportunity to visit me in Wyoming. I think deep in his heart, he’d like to visit America and now that he has a friend there and in—of all places—Wyoming, I suspect it is even more desirable for him to travel there.