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…

A Recipe for a Greater America

The Mars rover Perseverance is slowly lowered to
the Martian surface by the onboard sky crane.

You want to talk about making America great (again)? I’ve news for you—it’s already here.

It was on full display this past Thursday in NASA’s Pasadena, California Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) when the Perseverance rover was lowered onto the surface of Mars after a seven-month journey covering over 300 million miles.

No matter how you look at it, the landing of the car-sized Perseverance on the Martian surface was a great event that went without a hitch. And, great events don’t happen without great people running the show.

As I witnessed this event unfold, I started noting how many people of color and how many women were part of this show—starting with Swati Mohan, the mission’s guidance, navigation, and control operations lead. I have no idea what the demographic breakdown of the mission’s team is, but it certainly didn’t resemble anything like those Apollo missions with a room full of Anglos assembled in Houston’s mission control back in the 60s and 70s.

I read recently that NASA as a whole still has a long way to go in terms of diversity, with 72% White and 34% women employees. I’d be surprised if those were the same numbers on the Perseverance mission team.

If we truly witnessed greatness the other day—and I believe we did—then the recipe for greatness was right in front of us in the diversified gathering of individuals who define the Perseverance mission to Mars.