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From high above, a region revealed

From the vantage point of a commercial jet, almost everything from 30,000 feet looks to me to be either farmland or a golf course.

Larry Kelley, CEO of the Port of Port Arthur and a professional pilot, said it’s much the same for him from the pilot’s seat. But from the passenger seat on Kelley’s single-engine, four-seat Moony on Thursday evening, everything on the Texas Coast came to life for me.

I’m a roadmap guy. From the moment I took the job here at The Port Arthur News, I’ve made routine use of the Texas detailed topographic maps atlas I bought on my first week on the job. I’ve bought a state atlas everywhere I’ve worked — 10 newspapers in 39 years.

There’s a professional concern, of course: You don’t want to make the reporting blunder that exposes you as an out-of-towner. It happens, but less so if you spend ample time driving your community, studying the geographic layout, visiting landmarks, driving different routes, learning which plant is which and which waterway goes where. By the way, we have a lot of waterways here.

When, for example, there’s a manhunt near Labelle Road, it helps to know if we’re talking north or south of 365. When you see a place name in your newspaper, it’s generally going to be from the map — for example, Taylor Bayou from the map instead of Taylor’s, which I often hear in conversation.

But from 1,000 to 2,000 feet above — ah! — that ties it all together. I’ve sipped a soda at the Wheelhouse and watched tankers move past the restaurant. Thursday, I flew over the river and watched multiple ships tackle the meandering route north toward Beaumont. That takes skill. Seeing that on a map provides knowledge; watching the ships from river level provides illustration; witnessing it from a mile or two above provides understanding.

Driving south over the Highway 73 bridge, it’s one thing to crane your neck to the west (sorry if you’ve passed me, and I’ve looked distracted) and know there’s a lot of water out there. The map tells you what it is. The flight shows you the reserve fleet, tucked into a corner. The flight shows you the ExxonMobil plant, which I’ve never seen up close.

From the ground, I’ve stood at the Sabine Pass battle site; from the air, I can appreciate how the Union Navy became a sitting duck for Lt. Dick Dowling. From the air, I’ve seen the lighthouse and Texas Point and, finally, the ship channel from above, my own “eureka” moment.

From the air on Thursday, we extended our flight west toward Houston, over Trinity Bay and Galveston Bay, where I could see cargo ships and posh homes along Clear Lake. (Kemah, Larry tells me, is a great place to eat.) I could see the San Jacinto monument from the air (recently closed, due to fire in the area) and looked down over Smith Point. I’ll remember that on other flights.

I saw the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, and High Island (not an island, except when there’s flooding.) Larry’s wife grew up at High Island, where they were married.

There was more from the air: McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge and restoration along the beach. Jeff Branyk had tried to explain it to me once, and I’d followed it on the map. But overhead, I understood. I saw the unintended terminus of Highway 87, and we passed over where Port Arthur LNG might locate — Say yes! — where the highway may move.

It was, by any measure, a magnificent flight over a unique portion of Texas and America. Driving home, still a bit shaky from a two-hour flight on a single-engine plane, I thought about what a treasure Southeast Texas is. For locals who have not explored it, you should.

Larry thought I had a pretty good innate sense of direction in the air, and suggested I should learn to fly. Me, I’ll leave that to the professionals. There was a time when I’d board a plane and hope that the pilot was my dad’s age; my dad is 87 now. Larry’s young enough to be my kid brother, and I’m fine with him as a pilot.

There was a single spot of land below, near Anahuac, that from the air I couldn’t make out. Larry seemed to sense my uncertainty. It was a golf course, he said.

Of course. Isn’t everything?

Ken Stickney is editor of The Port Arthur News.