Volcano Pilgrim
Five months in Japan as a wandering poet

SFO-NRT

Three hours into the flight to Tokyo, you wonder what might be outside the window. All the shades have been pulled down to dim the cabin, and when you slide yours up a few tentative inches, the light is as sudden and blinding as a flashbulb. As you blink the brightness away a landscape begins to emerge: an island, then a stretch of coastline, a spine of mountains, the furthest of which is clearly a volcanic cone. All is white and crisp, even the sea seems dusted white – not with wave-crests, for they do not move or change, but because the offshore water is thick with ice.

According to the real-time in-flight map you are passing over the Alaskan peninsula, and you have never seen a landscape so empty, so purely expressive of cold.

 

            Black ocean of ice

                        see what the night has left scratched

                                    on my windowpane

 

Which volcano is it? It cannot be Redoubt, which has been threatening to erupt for months, and surely air-traffic control would be routing flights far around it. Volcanic ash does to airplane engines roughly what a handful of rocks would do, thrown into a fan. When Redoubt erupted twenty years ago, a plane flying through the ash-plume stalled out and dropped two miles before righting itself and returning to Anchorage. Among the passengers on that flight was the father of the woman who is now your girlfriend. At the time they were living near San Francisco. On that same day you yourself, twenty years younger, were packing your things to move to San Francisco, to be with a woman who is no longer your girlfriend. It cannot possibly be Redoubt.

But your fellow passengers are stirring in annoyance, and so you slide the shade back down, and now the plane is dark again, darker than before.

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