It was one of those days. An Indian summer Sunday, up before dawn with just enough that needed to get done to prevent me from feeling like the day was my own. Cleaned up some stuff around the house, made biscuits for the kids and started sorting through a stack of Antarctic aviation photos – forty years’ worth – that have been entrusted to me in a jumbled cardboard file box. Puttered.
Devon figured it out before I did: “You wanna go flying today?”
I had to think about it, but yeah, now that she’d asked, I did. The sun was up, and warm – warmer than it had any right to be this far into October. And if I let a day like this go by and didn’t have anything to show for it, I’d be moping around the house in That Mood. I guess 18 years of marriage have taught Devon to pick up on the look in my eyes that precedes That Mood and nip it in the bud.
We made a deal that I’d skip out after J’s afternoon Bar Mitzvah class, and plan to be home by dinner. That would give me just enough time to make it out to Livermore to spend a little time with the Skyranger.
It’s been an interesting little dance getting reacquainted with ‘395. When I flew her down to Hollister almost nine years ago for new fabric and paint, no one could have guessed what a long separation was in store. So now, flying her again, it’s like seeing an old flame. The memories are there, but you know you’ve both changed. In some ways for the better, no doubt, in others… well, you were going find out, right?
I’ve put only seven hours on ‘395 since that first test flight in August. Too much work and travel and all. And keeping her out in Livermore – I still haven’t found a hangar at the local airport – the hour’s drive each way rules out spontaneous little lunchtime hops. But I’m finally getting to feel like I know her again, like I don’t have to approach each encounter like a test pilot.
So there I was, late on a Sunday afternoon, low over Alvarado Canyon with the sun at my back. Flying. Really, just, flying. Feeling the wind on my wing, watching shadows grow, creeping out to the east and painting the hills a deeper, duller gold. The moon had just come up to the east, nearly full, burning almost incandescent against the bluing sky. This was where I needed to be – I swear, there was a sense of certainty and rightness about it.
Somewhere – was it in Skinny Legs and All? – Tom Robbins wrote that being an artist was just the habit of seeing things no one else had and making it so that they could see it too. I often think that’s why I fly, and why I write. Because I love seeing the depth and breadth of the beauty the world has to offer. Whether it’s down a hole in the ice at the bottom of the planet, or floating over sun-parched California hills, I want to know what it’s like to be there.
Then, of course, comes the real challenge. It comes back to me from a slip of paper I found when I was seventeen, in a newsletter from Outward Bound. I cut it out and carried it in my wallet until it fell apart from wear. It never stopped speaking to me, both as a promise, and – especially the last line – as a challenge. This, really, I think, is why I must fly. And then write:
This Is the American Earth Nancy Newhall
To the primal wonders no road can ever lead; they are not so won.
To know them you shall leave road and roof behind;
you shall go light and spare.
You shall win them yourself, in sweat, sun, laughter,
in dust and rain, with only a few companions.
You shall know the night — its space, its light, its music.
You shall see earth sink in darkness and the universe appear.
No roof shall shut you from the presence of the moon.
You shall see mountains rise in the transparent shadow before dawn.
You shall see — and feel! — first light, and hear a ripple in the stillness.
You shall enter the living shelter of the forest.
You shall walk where only the wind has walked before.
You shall know immensity, and see continuing the primeval forces of the world.
You shall know not one small segment but the whole of life,
strange, miraculous, living, dying, changing.
You shall face immortal challenges; you shall dare, delighting,
to pit your skill, courage, and wisdom against colossal facts.
You shall live lifted up in light; you shall move among the clouds.
You shall see storms arise, and, drenched and deafened, shall exult in them.
You shall top a rise and behold creation.
And you shall need the tongues of angels to tell what you have seen.