The airport was nothing more than a wooden shack in the middle of the desert. A sign labeled “Gate 1” hung over one of the doors leading out to the airfield and to a white single-engine prop plane that was parked on the runway.
All around us lay the dry dusty rock of the Andean foothills, waves of undulating earth barely breaking the horizon, all shades of the same brown against a cloudless sky.
We had seen miles of it on the way here from Lima through the blackened windows of the long-distance bus. This was where the ancient Nazca had lived over 1500 years ago and where they had left behind figures of people and animals etched into the desert.
The first time I saw the astronaut figure was on a show about aliens. They said that the Nazca had been visited by people from outer space, since the enormous designs, some over 400 feet across, were only visible from the air. And one of the figures is wearing a helmet, like an alien visiting Earth that can’t breathe oxygen.
But their graceful lines had their own magic grounded in possibilities far more inspiring than science fiction. They were made by hand, across almost 200 square miles, and except for some vague suggestions of being used as ritual pathways for religious ceremonies, there was no clear reason why they had made them.
And they were beautiful. Each one blocked out in graphic detail from the white sands of the desert, miles of straight legs that a surveyor could track with a level, pairs of arched lines that curved together in parallel finished with perfectly symmetrical circles. To see them in Peru was worthy of a special occasion.
“Happy anniversary,” Dave said to me again as we climbed into the plane. It had been one year since we were married, and our flight over the Lines fell exactly on that date. I smiled back at him and strapped myself into the seat next to the window.
A tour group of Japanese women filled the first few rows of seats ahead of us, chatting excitedly and taking photos. I aimed my camera through the window where the figures were going to be, my finger poised on the shutter button, ready.
The pilot welcomed us to the Nazca desert, and with a short overview of what was known about the Lines, the small plane, half-empty, blasted up into the clear sky. As we rose the foothills flattened out beneath us, their variegated browns disappearing into a giant blank canvas of neutrals.
“We’re going to take two passes over each figure,” the pilot told us, “so both sides of the plane can see. Just sit back and relax.”
Already I could see unnaturally straight lines criss-crossing the desert, the pathways of the Nazca leading us towards the figures. I pressed my face against the plastic window, wanting to get closer to them, trying to see more over the white wing of the plane.
“Are you ready?” asked the pilot. “We’re coming to the first one.”
A murmur of excitement rose up from the tour group in front of us, and I turned to Dave and grinned.
“Those of you on the right side will see it first. Here we go.”
The wing dipped down towards the right, and there, right in my window, was the whale. A sea mammal in the desert, fins spread, tail swimming forward, mouth open, a curl of an eye staring up at us from a century ago perfectly outlined in white. It was surreal, its size incomparable in the blank desert, like looking up at the moon surrounded only by the darkness of space.
I had only a moment alone with the whale, just enough time to click the camera before the wing rose up again and it disappeared.
“And now the left,” the pilot said, and the plane went reeling to the other side, my seat went skyward and all I could see through the window was blue.
When the plane straightened out I pressed on my stomach to calm it. I could feel something bubbling up already, after only one pass.
“We’re coming to the second one,” the pilot announced. “Right side ready?”
We plunged, the trapezoids came into view, then we went up again, blue sky. I burped.
“Uh oh.” Dave looked at me with concern. “How’s your stomach holding up?”
“I’m fine,” I shrugged. “Not to worry.”
When the brown desert appeared again through the window, the astronaut figure filled my field of vision, his feet standing at the base of a hill, his body propped up against it and his hand reaching out to the gods as both a welcome and a goodbye. As I focused on his helmet and his big, circular eyes, I felt nauseous, as if I were the alien that couldn’t breathe in our atmosphere, as if I were the one that they had drawn it for thousands of years in the future.
I grabbed a bag and threw up.
I watched with increasing detachment as the lines appeared and receded from the window, my body rooted in the seat and my mind drifting away on waves of nausea. The figures that had started off so simply were now being transformed into something more fantastical at each turn of the plane. I felt like I was floating, formless, the spider crawling next to me, the hummingbird flying into nothingness, and the figure of the two enormous hands inching alongside me dragging its gelatinous body behind it.
The cabin had become quiet. The women were no longer chatting or taking photographs, there was only the rustle of paper bags and the sound of people shifting uncomfortably in their seats. I closed my eyes, head spinning, and only opened them again when we had landed.
I smiled at Dave as the women began to climb out of the cabin, their faces pale, like ours, eyes glazed over.
He smiled back weakly.
Outside the air felt fresh, cooling the sweat from my face and unsticking my pants from the backs of my legs. I stretched my arms overhead, making space between my vertebrae then compacting them back down, gravity drawing me back to Earth.
I looked out over the desert where we had just been. There was nothing that hinted at the remarkable figures that lay out there among the rocks and bushes. Only the gods could see them now.