July 6, 2005. Oakland, California.
I stood on the tarmac dubiously eyeing our transportation. I had flown in many airplanes before but never one this small… or old. Jim, an experienced pilot of 26 years, had considerably more confidence than I in his 1953 Piper Tripacer. He fondly called his vintage flyer, “the VW bug of the sky.” Yellow and black, it resembled a hornet, which I reckoned would have presented formidable competition for the modest plane. I could have been wrong, but the engine and propeller appeared to be a lawnmower turned on its side. I looked for traces of grass clippings on the blade but became distracted by the plane’s covering; thinly stretched semi-heavy duty plastic wrap concealed a frame that I concluded must have been balsa wood. I tested the Saran wrap covering by ploinking it with my finger, careful not to poke a hole in it. I summed up my engineering findings and came to the only logical conclusion—no other craft could possibly be better suited for an adventurous sky trip to Banff, Canada.
I would say that we had been diligently planning for this trip for months, but it may be slightly more accurate to say that we’d thrown it together haphazardly in the past day and a half. Jim had advised to pack as if we were backcountry camping, as were constrained both by space and weight. Apparently, weight factored into small concerns, like whether the plane would lift off before reaching the end of the runway. Fortunately, Jim’s removal of the back seat had granted us a few more precious pounds. Still, we were faced with tough choices. To keep the baggage weight down to the safety limit of l00 pounds, we were limited to only the most critical items, like a boombox and a cooler full of beer—the abandoned water jugs could hopefully be replaced at some unspecified pitstop en route. Despite our commendable frugality, we somehow managed to pack the entire back of the aircraft with our bare necessities, which spilled into the front of the plane. Acutely aware of the 100-pound safety limit, I surveyed the unruly mass and concluded I wouldn’t become unduly concerned with our exact baggage weight, which I estimated at 197.43 pounds.
Jim climbed in through the front door, located on the passenger side of the plane, into the pilot seat. A bicycle frame sticking beyond the top of his seat forced him to hunch slightly over the steering wheel. With some innovative yoga moves, I squeezed into my seat and felt lucky to just have a couple of fishing rods poking at my head and shoulders. I created space for my backpack beneath my own steering wheel and crammed it between my feet and two foot pedals that steered the plane. Erring on the side of safety, I gave the pedals a couple of centimeters of clearance so that the backpack straps wouldn’t inadvertently get caught on them and bring down the plane. After several unsuccessful attempts to close the door, I leaned my shoulder into Jim and managed to pull the door shut with a good inch of room to spare. I buckled myself into my seat and admired our accommodations for the next 7 days—not exactly roomy; by comparison, Southwest Airlines seemed like first class. Of course, Southwest flights didn’t offer passengers the chance to push countless tempting control panel buttons and switches, nor to fly a plane.
“Clear!” Jim turned the ignition and after a slight stutter, the whirling propeller drowned the cockpit with a droning noise. We put on our headsets so that we could talk to one another over the din.
Me, “Let’s do it.”
After taxiing to the runway, Jim gave the little engine full throttle. The propeller responded with increased speed and noise. The bicycle and fishing rods rattled more intensely as we slowly gained speed on the runway and thankfully lifted off before reaching its end. Apparently, we had kept our weight to within the limit--at least for sea level; at higher elevations we would not have as much air lift. I made a mental note to increase our weight safety margin by drinking a couple of beers from the cooler before our next takeoff
I stared at the jumble of indicators on the control panel. They indicated we were 2,000 feet in the air, flying at 100 miles-per-hour, our top speed. Jim unfolded a map and consulted a hand-held GPS; apparently, the plane’s onboard navigation equipment wasn’t sufficient for its intended use. I hoped that the fuel gauge was.
I inquired, “So, what would happen if engine were to lose power?” “Could we glide to a landing?” Jim didn't miss a beat.
“This plane has a glide ratio like a set of tossed keys. Just kidding! No, we could make it to that small lake over there without power.”
I spied a small lake on the horizon and felt some sense relief. Pointing to the distant lake, I said, “You mean that one over there?
“No, that one.” To my dismay, Jim was pointing to one seemingly directly underneath us.
Once we were safely 3,000 feet from the ground, Jim let me try flying the plane. Surely enough, the pedals and steering wheel that had been patiently sitting just inches away now responded to my touch. I was in control of 2000 pounds of Saran-wrap-covered-balsa-wood flying 3,000 feet above the earth. Coincidentally, I also happened to be in the same Saran-wrap-covered-balsa-wood 3,000 feet above the earth. I contemplated this disturbing fact and relinquished control back to Jim.
At 4200 feet, I looked down upon clearcut forests in Northeastern California. These soon yielded to windswept wide-open grasslands in the tiny town of Alturas, where we landed to refuel. As we taxied to the pump, we were greeted by the airport’s Air Traffic Controller, fuel attendant, and food vendor—Tom. He invited us into the “airport lounge” for refreshments. As I snacked on some expired candy fruits, Tom demonstrated his proficiency with a bow by shooting real arrows at a box 10 feet away. His first shot bounced off the box, narrowly missing his wife. His second shot ricocheted inches from Jim’s leg. We thanked Tom for the expired food and his impressive marksmanship demonstration and excused ourselves.
Continuing into Southeastern Oregon, we flew over the desert scrub of Wildhorse Valley, where the horses likely outnumbered the people; I could see only one house. The setting sun colored clouds on the leeward side of a jagged mountain bordering the Alvord Desert, our night’s destination. Unfettered desert winds jostled our descending plane as Jim wrestled with the controls to land us safely on the expansive barren desert floor. After our bumpy flight, I was eager to stand on solid ground and I quickly stepped out of the plane. Jim followed suit, as did our map, which blew across the desert as I comically scampered after it in vain. We had an audient for our show; a lone sailboarder emerged from the lifeless depths of the windy playa to welcome us to the strange planet.
Being careful to keep more of our gear from blowing away, we unpacked our bikes and pedaled a couple of miles along the area’s only road to an inviting hot spring. Surprisingly, a couple of people were already there, but I couldn’t complain. These roadtrippers were happy to share ice-cold beers from their cooler. We were shortly joined by a local, Darren, who made his living by selling hunting rights to his property. I didn’t bother to ask him what wildlife could survive in such an inhospitable environment, but I hoped it wasn’t the namesake of Wildhorse Valley. Wildhorse Valley wasn’t exactly abundant with humanity either; the five of us likely constituted the most densely populated region for miles. I asked Darren the population of the greater Wildhorse Valley metropolitan area. He responded, “Well, let’s see, 3, 4, 5, 7.” “7.” I waited for him to say “thousand” but it never came.
With nightfall, the desert winds retired under a cloudless star-filled sky, free of any light pollution. Gazing at the Milky Way from the hot spring, we silently drank beers and listened to a symphony of crickets interrupted only by the occasional howls of distant coyotes.
Back at the plane, I set up our tent by the light of my headlamp, which soon attracted every flying insect from across the desert. Opting to work in the dark, we cranked up the boombox, and cooked a healthy dinner of Ramen noodles and Vienna sausage, nutritionally supplemented with tequila shots to aid a restful night’s sleep.
> Sky Trip, Part 2: Oregon to Montana! (2005-07-21)
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