I always love to go back to my childhood hometown of St. Joseph, Michigan for a quick visit in July. Although the air is usually heavy with high heat and humidity, and thick with mosquitoes the size of geese, the mugginess and intense sun do warm Lake Michigan to a point on the mercury good enough to swim in without making your lips turn blue.
It’s also that time of year when St. Joe’s storied fame as a grower of marquee fruits and vegetables takes center stage. By late July, strawberries, cherries and raspberries are on the wane, while tomatoes, sweet corn and peaches are coming into grandeur.
To say everything is fresh is an over simplification; it’s a transcendent quality perhaps matched only in heaven. Nearly every country road outside of St. Joe is bordered by endless farm fields pulsing with fragrant produce arching toward the sun in a frenzy of chlorophyll and photosynthesis. There are also countless roadside fruit and vegetable stands spilling over with flavors and colors that make every plate unforgettable.
But a warmed Lake Michigan, vibrant produce — and of course, seeing family — aren’t the only reasons why I look forward to going back home to visit in July. I’m an airfoil aesthete, a lover of flight. To see the Earth’s surface from above, and to feel the sensory movement of flying, brings me pure joy. I dig it, whether as a passenger on a commercial jet or while piloting a glider. And that love is intensified this time of year because of a natural phenomenon that too is a product of light energy, moisture and soil.
During summer, when the Earth’s 23.5-degree tilted axis gives America’s Midwest prolonged exposure to the sun, the land there exhales with heat and humidity. This fills the atmosphere with energized water vapor that rises, cools, condenses, and gives birth to cumulus clouds.
When conditions are right, which they often are over the Midwest during summer, friendly, popcorn-looking cumulus can suddenly erupt into cumulonimbus clouds, those towering brutes with the anvil top that can rise to 65,000 feet above sea level and unleash severe wind, thunder, rain, hail — and tornadoes.
Cumulonimbus are also common in Utah during summer and generate powerful weather events. But in the Midwest, because of their propensity to start and fuel deadly tornadoes, the big thunderhead is feared and respected.
When viewed from the ground, cumulonimbus are spectacular. But when viewed close up and at eye level from a window seat in a commercial airliner flying over Iowa, the experience is a natural spectacle that I find absolutely bewitching. It’s a front-row seat to one of Mother Nature’s most dramatic displays of aerial geography, atmospheric creativity and profound power.
Which is exactly what I got — and something more — when my wife and I flew home last month.
On a connector flight from Minneapolis/St. Paul to South Bend, Indiana, I eagerly took my window seat. As we flew toward the southeast over Wisconsin, the pilot frequently banked to the left and right to fly around cumulonimbus. Outside my window, I could see a bank of the colossal clouds across the horizon. The synthesis of clouds, sky and sunlight was hypnotizing.
While beginning the descent into South Bend, the pilot gradually lowered through dark, gray clouds. The aircraft pitched, yawed and rolled in the turbulence, then suddenly exited the cloud. And beyond my window was something I had never seen before.
Visible above the aircraft was the bottom of an endless, dark cloud, and far below was an indigo blue that looked like Lake Michigan. Or was it sky? For a moment, I couldn’t tell what it was and experienced spatial disorientation — the inability to determine where I was in space.
I knew we weren’t flying upside down, but for a moment, it appeared and felt like we were. I looked away from the window for a moment and closed my eyes to recalibrate. Then I looked back. Far below was the surface of a waveless Lake Michigan.
Consider Exhibit A, the accompanying photograph that I shot of the scene from my window seat. Think I’m crazy? Perhaps you’re right. But now try looking at it upside down.