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Notes from an author: Mark Vanhoenacker

The British Airways pilot and author couldn’t wait to leave home, but now reveres his out-of-the-ordinary Massachusetts roots — even if it’s unknown to most Brits

Notes from an author: Mark Vanhoenacker

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Growing up in a small town, I could hardly wait to see the world. But since I became a pilot, the place I love to see most from the sky, the place I would orbit the 747 over for hours if I could — banking round and round so that the line of the wings never catches what I’m looking down… It isn’t Hong Kong or Geneva or Lisbon or São Paulo, or any of the other megalopolises or A-list urban charmers my job has shown me. It’s home.

I grew up in western Massachusetts, in the rural Berkshires (the plural comes from the hills of the same name). The combination of natural scenery and world-class cultural institutions is beloved by many Americans — particularly the ‘leaf peepers’ who flood out of New York (three hours’ south) and Boston (the same, east), like the survivors in an apocalypse film every autumn, to catch the moment when the Berkshire Hills, transitioning between leafy green and snow white, turn briefly red and gold. The region draws many visitors from across the Pacific, too — the Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa was long associated with Tanglewood, America’s leading classical music festival which takes place in the county.

During my summer jobs at the festival I was often able to practice a few phrases in Japanese, but I rarely heard other foreign accents. New England’s Berkshires (‘burrrrk-shires’), like England’s Royal County of Berkshire on departures from Heathrow, are a kind of flyover country for many long-haul travellers. Green bookends — lovely but vague from the window seat — to a typical flight between London and New York.

The problem, perhaps, is that foreigners who come to the US for its scenery tend to head to the national parks of the western states, or to the coasts (the epithet of Massachusetts, home to Cape Cod, a place that nearly every Briton I know has heard of, is ‘the Bay State’); while those in the mood for high cultural pursuits, if they come to America at all, might never think to leave the cities.

To notice the Berkshires at all you have to know about them already, and that’s just as true from the air. From the sky, what’s special about them appears mostly as absence — of major roads and suburban sprawl during the day, of significant gatherings of light at night. On the 747’s navigation screens, blue circles indicate major airports. Zoom out far enough and these collectively form the shapes of whole continents, the outlines of what, to a 747, constitutes the known world. But zoom in over the Berkshires and there are none to be seen.

We think of great circles on the globe connecting great cities, but their paths sweep too over many unlikely places along the way. Flying from London to Mexico City, the jet I’m piloting often passes within a few miles of my hometown.

At such a moment, when I try to describe my home below to colleagues, I say that these Berkshires may not be royal, but in the 1790s, one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting, on the run in the New World, marvelled at the forests sprawled below us; that Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick in a simple farmhouse we cannot quite see, inspired by the sight of Mount Greylock, Massachusetts’ highest, cetacean-shaped peak; or that the Berkshires are where novelist Edith Wharton took refuge, to write in bed each morning at the estate she designed herself; and that Henry James came to visit her here, when a transatlantic journey was still a grand occasion.

I could say the Berkshires are where the Dunfermline-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie died; or that the local Clark Art Institute, whose Renoir- and Monet-bedecked halls are the final home of Sir Edwin Manton’s priceless collection of works by Turner, Constable and Gainsborough.

I could say the Berkshires are home to Mass MoCA, a modern art museum that might have been airlifted straight from New York’s Meatpacking District, if its great brick halls weren’t hangar-sized and its staff so friendly. I could say that I was born in Pittsfield, the county seat, where both agricultural fairs and baseball were invented — the latter may be a stretch, but Pittsfield is home to a starchy 1791 bylaw banning the sport from being played within 80 yards of the newly at-risk windows of a meeting house, which is America’s first written reference to the sport.

I could say that the Berkshires are a place where you can’t walk for very long without entering a forest, or crossing a tumbling stream, or coming to the shores of a lake or a beaver pond; a place where the skiing is so inexpensive and family-friendly, it’s no surprise the county turns out Olympians.

Instead, though, in Britain I’ve learned simply to say I’m from Massachusetts, or from ‘near Boston’, or even ‘a few hours north of New York’. From far across the Atlantic, it’s close enough. Just remember, though, after you cross the whole sea to land in such a well-known coastal metropolis, to escape it occasionally.

Mark Vanhoenacker is a Boeing 747 pilot for British Airways and author of the bestselling Skyfaring: A Journey With A Pilot. RRP: £16.99 (Chatto & Windus).

Published in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)