“I really don’t know one plane from the other. To me they are all just marginal costs with wings.”
-Alfred Kahn, airline economist (1917-2010)
Commercial air travel has changed a lot over the years. Since the US airline industry was deregulated in 1978, fares have dropped and lots more people have been flying. Airlines have merged and morphed and vanished. The rise of hub-and-spoke airline systems means that a major delay at one important airport can ripple across the country for days.
What hasn’t changed is the incredible vastness and variety of the country you see out the window. On a recent round trip from southern Colorado to Portland, Oregon (via Phoenix), I saw the Grand Canyon and the Colorado river valley, tract housing as far as the eye could see, and irrigation circles laid out like giant board games in the desert. I saw dormant volcanoes in Oregon and a bird’s eye view of the oil fields of the San Juan Basin in northwest New Mexico.
Commercial flight is the only way most of us will ever get to see those wide, wide views. Every time I fly, those views remind me of all the thousands of places in the US that I haven’t been to yet. And that takes the sting out of the scores of little annoyances along the way.
Because wow, America.
Read about the history of commercial flight in the US at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s America By Air exhibit.
Read about Alfred Kahn, who headed up the Civil Aeronautics Board that oversaw airline deregulation, in his obituary from The Economist (January 20, 2011).
Angel Peak Scenic Area, south of Bloomfield, NM, is a bit like the Grand Canyon in that it doesn’t look like much until you actually get there. Angel Peak itself is over 7,000 feet tall, so you can see it from miles away. But from a distance it just looks like a smallish, rocky mountain.
When you get close, the plateau falls away and you see the 10,000 acres of spectacular, surreal badlands that make up the scenic area managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The area has been open to natural gas development for decades. Drilling and extraction operations are plainly visible, but the landscape is still awe inspiring. And the energy infrastructure makes the canyon itself very accessible (though driving in calls for GPS, plenty of water, and a high clearance vehicle).
Last summer was the first time I noticed a new kind of development in the area near Angel Peak. It didn’t stand out much at the time, but it was called a landfarm and seemed to involve lots of bulldozers. When I visited again in March 2013, I got a much clearer look.
It turns out that a landfarm operation, like this complex managed by Envirotech, is a place where “soil remediation” takes place. This is where contaminated soil from all over the San Juan Basin oil fields is processed by covering it with other soil. High Country News described the landfarm like this:
Don’t look for fresh produce: This is where contaminated soils from the energy industry are plowed back into the earth and treated, or, as they say, “farmed.”
The landfarm consists of several hundred fenced acres of bare dirt on the sage plain you cross to get from Highway 550 to Angel Peak on County Road 7175. There is no going around it. On a windy day the blowing dust smells strongly of chemicals.