The big picture is lots of small ones

Cloud-hopping from Africa to Alaska

A 12,000-mile trip across three continents and 15 countries promises a broad view: grand vistas, the big picture, scope. But as we close in on our goal of Fairbanks, Alaska, it's the smaller picture that sticks in memory. Not the continents, not the countries, but the communities: those seen in traditional small-town and village ways, those that cross boundaries, and those for which geographic boundaries are meaningless.

Maybe it's the low, slow way we've flown north through Africa, Europe, and the United Kingdom, and then west across the Atlantic and now Canada. Our pace has been deliberate, unhasty. Our landing and resting places (for the most part) have not been cities: Nouadhibou, Mauritania; Quimper, France; Vagar, Faroe Islands.

We find a place to stay, clean up, have a meal. Then Arthur and I typically wander around town. We see families with children, parks where teenagers gather, neighborhood shops. We get a sense - however brief - of the tempo, the atmosphere. In San Sebastin, Spain, people stroll along the seawall well into a warm spring evening, and we join them. In Aberfeldy, Scotland (a tiny village of stone houses, fields of sheep, and a nearby loch), we go down to the school bus stop to see off a friend's children. Except for the accents, this early-morning gathering of mothers and kids could be in rural New England.

Communities form around ideals and interests, and these have been part of our trip as well. Africa has a community of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). These usually involve American, Canadian, and European expatriates working with Africans to improve infrastructure, provide humanitarian aid, expand economic development. It's hard work, often involving difficult living situations - even physical danger. One is also subject to the vagaries of politics in the nations that fund such efforts. We met and stayed with such people in Namibia, Angola, and Mali.

They know their territory well - to the extent possible for those whose races and historical backgrounds are better related to the colonizers than to those whose roots are deeper there. But they are doing good work, and they maintain a network - a community - that stays strong even though they are likely to move to new assignments every few years.

Communities build around interests as well. In this line of travel, the community of pilots and others involved with aviation has been very evident. Those who provide services to pilots ferrying aircraft over long distances hear you're coming and send offers of help. We hang out with other, more experienced pilots who've done this route before: the German woman we met in Iceland who's crossed the North Atlantic hundreds of times in light aircraft; the Swedish pilot now living in Mexico who's flown back home every year for the past 21 years; the American pilot in Greenland; the South Africans we met in Rankin Inlet.

Three guys who jointly own a Cessna 172 in Iqaluit, Nunavut, tracked us down when they heard we were in town. They invited us over to hear our "war stories" about the flight and offered advice about flying in the Baffin Island area.

We've seen a community of journalists gather around this trip as well. Reporters from Boston to Washington to Anchorage have sought us out along the way for interviews, seeing a story in the uniqueness of the trip. For them, it seems, the story also is about how journalism works in this unusual circumstance where a reporter becomes more than an observer.

But the most unique community - one I had not expected to encounter - has been the one that has formed around this trip itself. These are the hundreds of people who have been participating through e-mail: sharing their enthusiasm, sending us best wishes and "Godspeed," asking good questions, offering advice. Here is a very real community of thinkers united by a common interest, strangers communicating with us and with one another.

As my wife, Carol (I haven't seen her for seven weeks, now), reminds me by e-mail, this kind of community fits very well with the purpose of this page. "Home Forum" might seem a contradiction: the merging of a private, personal place with the idea of a public spot for exchanging ideas.

But the page and its Web-site version have resulted in the forming of a real community, one that Arthur and I have found encouraging, inspiring, and a lot of fun. We set out on a long, tough journey and found a new community along the way that was perfectly tangible - as real as any built around a village square or city park, an unanticipated gift.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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