The first thing that hit me when I got off the plane in Las Vegas is that I never really appreciated just how hot the atmosphere can really get when it tries. And at 4:30 in the afternoon in the middle of August, on the tarmac at McCarran, it’s trying pretty hard. Claims to be “only” 105 (“but it’s a dry heat!”) – it is Vegas, but I’m not taking any bets.

The second thing that hit me is just how much my wife trusts me. How many people could call their wife up and say “Hey honey, instead of me driving up to Tahoe this weekend to see you and the kids, would you mind if I bought a one-way ticket to Las Vegas?” She listened patiently to the rest of the plan and told me to go for it.

To be fair, the Las Vegas bit was just the starting point of the plan. It’s the destination of the closest nonstop air service to the town of Kingman, high in the northwest corner of Arizona’s Cottonwood desert. Smack dab on Route 66, and not getting over it any time soon, thank you very much. And home of Sheble Aviation, renown “boot camp for pilots”.

People come to Sheble from all over the world – give ’em three weeks and they’ll make you a pilot. Two more and you can throw on an instrument rating. Another one and you’ve got a commercial certificate. If, of course, you can pass the checkride.

Me, I’m here for their eight-day “make me a flight instructor” regimen. The rules, regulations and procedures you need to memorize make a stack of books that weighs more than my kids, and there’s no shortcut. So I’m here to drink from the firehose and see how much I can cram into my head before it explodes.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Did I mention that I hate Las Vegas? Fly in, get the rental car and get out as fast as I can. But the droid at the Alamo counter refuses to simply give me my keys and let me go. Am I sure I don’t want to upgrade to a “better” vehicle? Gosh, do I really want to decline all the extra coverage they offer? Y’know, I’m going out into the desert, I really should pony up for their “peace of mind” policy that will pay to have their car towed somewhere safe if it breaks down. No, no, no. Thanks. No.


But Southbound on Highway 93, finally out of sight of the sprawl and golf courses, the beauty of the place settles in. It’s desert, and desert is, by sheer dint of its existence, beautiful. Cut down along the winding roads of ancient canyons, breathing easy.

It’s only a few miles along though, that I realize I’m going to get to drive by Lake Mead and see the Hoover Dam. A few “security checkpoints” later, I realize that I’m going to drive *across* Hoover Dam. Wow – never really thought about Hoover Dam, I guess, but here we go. Wicked winding canyons, packed with power pylons jutting out of the landscape at improbable angles, carrying high-tension wires out to the horizon in every direction. Approaching the dam itself, there’s the art deco visitor center tucked into the canyon wall, twin winged sentries frozen like butterflies in 20 foot bronze alert.

The guard wall is too high to see anything as I traverse the arc of the dam itself, but there’s plenty of room to pull over on the far side and admire the handiwork. Not quite as impressive as the Grand Canyon (another 220 miles down the road, according to the signs), but not a bad it of handiwork. Certainly something for a civil engineer to point at and boast. Note: goes down almost 1000 feet on the other side.

Anyhow. A dozen miles west of the dam, the landscape tumbles from canyonland into the Arizona I remember: endless moonscapes of ruddy dust, punctuated by impossibly ragged gray peaks rising to the sky. Good stuff.

Another 60 miles to Kingman, and it’s practically one straight line. Every three miles, there’s a flurry of garish billboards offering land for sale. Prime parcels, cheap – no credit checks! No water either, mind you, but hey, who could resist a patch of sagebrush called the “White Hills Vista”?

It’s dinner time when I roll into Kingman. Down the strip past tired trailer home parks and the usual littering of fast food joints. A few missed turns looking for the Sheble apartment. I knock on the door and meet my roomie Tim, who’s a few days away from his own CFI checkride. He spent his youth in West Texas, dusting crops (to make them grow). For the past few years, he’s been on contract in Colombia, dusting crops (to make them not grow). He shows me pictures of a bullet hole in his horizontal stabilizer from where one of the cocoa growers took issue with his intervention.

Tim and I exchange some pilot banter, but he’s got to cram for tomorrow’s flight, and I’m desperately seeking dinner. Drop my stuff in the bedroom on the right, and off I go into the settling night.

Choices appear to be McDonalds, the Golden Corral Grill and Buffet, an inevitable “Chinese and American” family restaurant, but I cave to the call of corporate familiarity and comfort food. Sorry – I can’t lie: I’m sitting here in the town’s Chili’s. But, but, but… yeah.

Well, tomorrow’s going to be a long day, and a hot one. I’m due at the field at 7:00, before the air heats up. My roomie supposed to be airborne by 6:30. Oh boy – the fun begins!

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