West with the Night, by Beryl Markham. Northpoint Press, 1982 (still in print; first published in 1942).
I first read Beryl Markham's moving and profound memoir many years ago. Recently, unpacking books from storage, I came across it again, and picked it up. Coincidentally, a few days later, I found among my mother's papers a piece about going up in a small plane in which she quoted Markham. This confluence of inspiring women seemed too much to ignoreboth joyful, independent, adventurous, brave, and loving the feeling of being off the ground, in the air.
Markham was one of the early female pilots. She was born in 1902 and raised in British East Africa (Kenya). As a young woman, she set off on her own to become a successful race-horse trainer. But the moment the first airplane appeared in the skies over Kenya, Markham knew she had to learn to fly. She sold her horses, became a pilot, and flew hundreds of miles solo, over untracked, unmarked country delivering messages, medicines, passengers, and even tracking game. Eventually, she became the first person to fly "west with the night," from England over the Atlantic to North America.
The beauty of Markham's story is not just in the events, but in her telling of them. From the very first line, the book resounds with poetry. Markham has absorbedand conveysthe grace, the beauty and the wisdom of the Africa, the African people, and the skies she depicts.
She quotes Tom Black, the young man who first teaches her to fly:
When you fly... you get a feeling of possession that you couldn't have if you owned all of Africa. You feel that everything you see belongs to youall the pieces are put together, and the whole is yours; not that you want it, but because, when you're alone in a plane, there's no one to share it. It's there and it's yours. It makes you feel bigger than you areclose to being something you're sensed you might be capable of, but never had the courage to seriously imagine.
Markham doesn't write at all about being a female pilot, about the difficulty of being a woman in a man's world. As a horse trainer, she lived in a man's world already. One senses this matters not in the least to her. All that matters is the alchemy of the air:
After this era of great pilots is gone, as the era of great sea captains has goneeach nudged aside by the march of inventive genius, by steel cogs and copper discs and hair-thin wires on white faces that are dumb, but speakit will be found, I think, that all the science of flying has been captured in the beadth of an instrument board, but not the religion of it.
One day the stars will be as familiar to each man as the landmarks, the curves, and the hills on the road that leads to his door, and one day this will be an airborne life. But by then men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines whose conductors are carefully promoted to a familiarity with labelled buttons, and in whose minds knowledge of the sky and the wind and the way of weather will be extraneous as passing fiction. And the days of the clipper ships will be recalled againand people will wonder if clipper means ancients of the sea or ancients of the air.
Isn't our era of giant airliners, computerized ticketing, and mass-market travel fast approaching the future Markham predicted?
But for Markham, the romance of flying is fresh and alive as it was for my mother in soaring above the San Francisco Bay in her little yellow biplane. Markham writes of a night flight over a continent which is literally darkno lights, no electricity, no radio, no rail, no highways.
Ahead of me lies a land that is unknown to the rest of the world and only vaguely known to the Africana strange mixture of grasslands, scrub, desert sand like long waves of the southern ocean. Forest, still water, and age-old mountains, stark and grim like mountains of the moon. Salt lakes, and rivers that hve to water. Swamps. Badlands. Land without life. Land teeming with lifeall of the dusty past, all of the future.
The air takes me into its realm. Night envelopes me entirely, leaving me out of touch with the earth, leaving me within this small moving world of my own, living in space with the stars....
I fly swiftly. I fly highsouth-southwest, over the Ngong Hills. I am relaxed. My right hand rests upon the stick in easy communication with the will and the way of the plane....
The wind in the wires is like the tearing of soft silk under the blended drone of engine and propeller. Time and distance together slip smoothly past the tips of my wings without sound, without return, as I peer downward over the nightshadowed hollows of the Rift Valley....
Risk is inherent in flying a small plane, without radio or instruments, over uncharted continent or open ocean. Risk, for Markham and her colleagues, is something to be avoided where possible, yet not shirked when necessary. Flying alone over the Atlantic, Markham must choose between carrying warm clothing, or a flotation vest. She hates being coldshe chooses the warm clothing.
In the end, Markham leaves Africa. The book is a song of praise to vanished times, to freedom, to life in the sky, to beauty. Says Markham,
I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deepleave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late.
"The cloud clears as you enter it." And onward we must go, thankfully with books like Markham's for courage, enthusiasm, and inspiration.