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The view from above in ‘Imagine a City’

An international pilot’s love letter to the cities of the world — and to home

mitch blunt for the boston globe

Perhaps you’ve got the urge for going, when the meadow grass is turning brown, summertime is falling down, and winter is closing in.

But maybe you’re not the singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who wrote precisely that about her own urge for going, or Tom Rush, who sang about it in Cambridge coffee houses and first recorded the ballad in 1966.

Or perhaps you have the urge to be someplace else, to yearn to go, to move, to get underway, anyplace, away from any “Here.”

But maybe you’re not John Steinbeck, who used those exact words in “Travels with Charley,” his 1962 account of a road trip with his beloved dog.


Or perhaps you are a mere boy in Pittsfield, pencil in hand, looking at the model airplanes on your bedroom dresser, fashioning a rudimentary map of the world and drawing a line across continents, wondering where you might land, had you but world enough, and time, and a pilot’s license.

So maybe you’re also not Mark Vanhoenacker — Boeing 787 Dreamliner pilot and congenital dreamer. But you surely can join the grown Vanhoenacker in his own journeys, across the globe and, just as evocative, back to his Western Massachusetts hometown, in an inviting new volume that gives new meaning to the notion of the view from 42,000 feet.

His “Imagine a City” is, to be sure, a travelogue; in its pages the reader visits Seoul, Rio de Janeiro, Venice, Delhi … and Pittsburgh. It also is a primer on piloting a massive aircraft; some passages place you squarely in the cockpit, bearing down on a runway in a faraway place. It is, too, an examination of the obverse side of getting the urge for going; sometimes it is the urge for going home, even if you can never go home again. It is, in addition, a coming-of age memoir; Vanhoenacker is a gay man who has broken personal barriers if not the sound barrier itself.


And — you did not until now think the world much needed this — this volume is a meditation on Pittsfield, maybe a hometown not so different from yours, inhabited as it is by family, teachers, and the various landmarks of life.

Vanhoenacker’s Housatonic days were spent on bikes, lingering “beneath the creepy damp undersides of small bridges until we scared ourselves,” and exploring the tucked-away corners of the place that was his world, until he discovered the world beyond. In truth, this is a man who deserves to be paid not by the hour (though his work schedule is constrained by federal guidelines to about 85 hours a month), nor by the word (though his book runs to over 400 pages) but by the mile (a concept the Air Lines Pilots Association, his union, might like).

For the miles do swiftly pile up. One moment he’s in Brasilia (“both breathtaking and confounding”), the next he is in Jeddah (possessed of “an outgoing coastal cosmopolitan that contrasts with staid Riyadh”), then on to San Francisco (where “the morning light is canary yellow”), and over to Kuwait (with its “golden, gauzy air”) and down to Cape Town (where the blue of the city’s “waters, like that of its skies, has no equal”).

And, of course back to his current home base, London. Here’s the view from there: “London is like the world, and unlike Pittsfield, at least in one straightforward sense: the more I know of it, the bigger it seems.”


This is also a Boston book. In these pages Vanhoenacker reflects on how the Puritan leader John Winthrop found inspiration in the Sermon on the Mount for the city-upon-a-hill he hoped to help plant in the new Massachusetts Bay Colony, and he speaks of having “walked through the Public Garden and thought of a black-and-white photo of Mom, taken there in the late 1960s,” adding, “that photo is reason enough to love this city deeply.”

To all of this — the natural outgrowth of browsing the family atlas at the dinner table with his father — he brings the remarkable perspective of a pilot, for he is right that “long-haul airline pilots today are given an experience of cities that no one else in history has ever had.” He thinks of himself as a modern-day Coleridge ancient mariner, passing “like night, from land to land” — though a reader might add that Vanhoenacker never was, as Coleridge also wrote, “As idle as a painted ship/ Upon a painted ocean.”

Along the way — in mid-flight, you might say — Vanhoenacker offers a lyrical look at what life is like behind those bolted cabin doors. “The handover from Greek to Egyptian controllers,” he writes, “takes place when Crete is barely behind us and the lights of vessels off Alexandria are almost in sight, and from the cockpit so close do these civilizations appear, one to the other, that I’m no longer surprised by all the Greek terms — papyrus, hieroglyph, sarcophagus, pyramid, even — we rely on to speak of Egyptian antiquity.”


Who knew that in command of one of humankind’s most remarkable modes of transport was a historian of humankind’s ancient history?

Which of course is the charm of this book, and it makes a reader understand what John Gillespie Magee meant when he spoke, in “High Flight,” perhaps aviation’s greatest poem, of having “danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings,” for sunward he climbed “and joined the tumbling mirth/ Of sun-split clouds.” At the keyboard, Vanhoenacker has danced, and on his pages there is tumbling mirth indeed.

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

IMAGINE A CITY: A Pilot’s Journey Across the Urban World

By Mark Vanhoenacker

Knopf, 416 pages, $30