Pittsburgh to Palo Alto, Day Four – the Corridor of Wonders

“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.”

-Nancy Newhall


How does one find the word to describe a day’s journey from the high plains of the Colorado front range, across the Rockies in New Mexico, along the fabled Route 66 and down the Rio Grande, then along the trail of the southwest desert, amid fantastical rock formations of Arizona? I don’t think I can, so I’ll just describe the basics of getting from point A to point B.

‘Point A’ in this case was Walsenburg, where I’d been recovering from a couple of rough days on the road in the company of old friends.

 ‘Point B’ was somewhere as yet undetermined – the plan, as always, was to get as far as I could before losing the sun. I’d been hoping for Tucson, but would take what the winds would give me.

Given Walsenburg’s 6000’ elevation, the Skyranger’s dubious climb performance would be pushed to its limit. I wagered a full tank of gas against the chill of a dawn start, calculating that the cold still air would allow me sufficient climbout at altitude, even at full weight. Brian and Gretchen brought the full gang (Ruth, Conor, Thomas and Liam) to the airport, and kept me company as I fretted about the plane in my customary nervous preflight.

Finally, with the sun just clearing the eastern horizon, it was time to boot the kids out of the cockpit, climb in myself, fire up and go. A stiff west wind made the initial roll interminable, but ‘395 was ready to fly by mid-field, and fairly leapt into the air on command. Rock the wings to the gang below, then southbound.

First challenge was Raton Pass, a wide slow rise to 7800’ that separates Colorado from New Mexico. The chill air gave ‘395 more life than I’d seen before at this altitude, and we found ourselves at 8500’ with no effort. Below and across on the mountainside, the cottonwoods were blazes of yellow and green against the dry brown scrub of the pass.

Swinging down around the broad corner of the pass brought a decision – follow I-25 on a dogleg up and around Santa Fe to avoid high terrain, or cut directly southwest and follow Route 66 up and over Tijeras pass. Buoyed by the Skyranger’s performance this morning, I opted for the pass, and was treated to a beautiful landscape of desert scenery – sinuous ravines below, where blossoming greenery hid from the harsh sun, majestic mesas (or are they buttes?) towering above the desert floor.

None of this, of course, can have justice done to it by a point and shoot digital camera, but I tried.

Coming over Tijeras and cutting south at Albuquerque brought a broad swath of green. I’d never thought of the Rio Grande as having a start somewhere, but like all rivers, it must, and here it was (I’ll also admit to thinking that, geography be damned, conceptually, the Mississippi river just can’t start as a creek in Minnesota).

But the Rio Grande, even this far north, seems to have some of the magic I’ve always associated with its name. It’s a swirl of grass, mud, brackish swamp, and winding water that paints the valley green with life, brewing that mysterious power that it will carry down to Texas, where poets and lovers on both sides of the border sing of the dreams it has fostered and dashed again to dust. Heady stuff.

Down, way down the Rio, past Truth or Consequences, N.M. (whatwas the town’s original name?), and into unassuming Socorro for fuel. As I talk with the proprietor about Skyrangers and mountain flying (it’s safe to assume that, given the chance, I will always talk about Skyrangers and X, for any value of X) – but, as I talk with him, I realize that, some time about an hour ago, I actually crossed the continental divide. I’m still surrounded by mountains, but technically, I’m on the west side. I was so busy doing the flying that I’d forgotten to note the moment that I was “over the hump” and rolling down the other side. Well, here I am, and as they say, it’s all downhill from here. But that’s not to say out of the mountains. I’m somewhere right near the middle of New Mexico, and there are at least a couple of states worth of mountains to go.

The next decision, as I continue southbound, is where and when to make the cut westward. Playing it safe would take me all the way down to Deming, near the Texas border. A cut westward across some higher ground, north of the staggeringly impressive sharks-tooth of Cookies Peak will save me about 20 miles. I try the Skyranger out for altitude, and it still climbs nicely (though it’s already noon, and the air is beginning to get hot). Westward it is.

I rearrange the map and fold away my Colorado chart. On trips like this, I find that I measure progress by how many charts I “retire” per day. It’s noon, and the Denver chart is done. I’m hoping to finish the Albuquerque sectional by my next fuel stop, and see how far through the Phoenix chart I can make it before sundown.

Below me, New Mexico turns into Arizona. The landscape becomes less “harsh desert” and more “Road Runner”. The soil becomes redder, and the rocks begin to take on fantastical shapes that seem inspired by Chuck Jones. You can imagine the names these landmarks must be given by the locals – Ship Rock, Broken-nose Peak, Wile E. Coyote Butte – it hardly seems possible that nature could have made these shapes by accident. Then, of course, there are the Saguaro cacti, also fresh from my comic book imagination. Who would’ve thought that they actually exist, let alone carpet the landscape below these mountain-sized cartoon rocks?

And now below me, what can only be either a Hollywood set or a real life ghost town. It’s complete – the general store, the saloon, the church, even the big ranch house with its broken-down corral. I swing back for a closer look. It can’t be Hollywood – it looks too broken down, too just-the-way-it-was-left. And it’s too far from any reasonable roads to be anything else. It must be real, it must be Arizona.

I swing around the bottom of Tucson for my second fuel stop, at Ryan Field. As I climb out of the plane, I realize that I’m sweating. It was just above freezing when I saddled up in Walsenburg, and I’m still wearing two shirts, a wool sweater and insulated flannel pants. The people who are climbing out of the RV-4 parked next to me are wearing shorts and t-shirts.

I dodge into the air-conditioned pilot lounge and change to more appropriate garb while pondering my next move. There are still two hours of sunlight left, so I can probably make it to Blythe, symbolically making it from Colorado to California in a single day. But as I’m firing up the engine, I have second thoughts: Blythe is in the middle of nowhere, and I might end up pitching sleeping bag in the airport office (if it’s even open). Thirty minutes out from Ryan Field, I redo my calculations. The air is hot, and the wind is out of the west. ‘395 isn’t happy about the hot air, and even if I push things, I won’t make Blythe until 20 minutes after sunset. Time for a new plan. My first waypoint, Gila Bend, captures my fancy. Airport is near the town, and my flight guide says it has hotels and fuel. Great – I decide to give it a try. Of course, I didn’t get a briefing for the field, but I can call Unicom when I get close. I catch I-8 across the Tabletop Wilderness Area, and settle into slope down to “the Bend”.

We’re really out of the mountains now – field elevation is listed as only 778’. Pulling into the traffic pattern, I call Unicom, but get no answer. I glance down at the terminal building – hmmm, bulldozers. Hmmm, no airplanes. Hmmmm. Time to call flight service –

“Good evening, 33395 was wondering if there were any NOTAMS for the Gila Bend airport”

“Letsee, it says here that runway 4-22 is closed, that the taxiways are closed and that the apron is closed. Anything else?”

“Uhhhhh, no thanks – ‘395 out”

Gila Bend only has one runway (4-22), so those NOTAMS were a roundabout way of saying that the whole airport had been shut down. Damn – I finally get bitten by my on-the-fly planning. And with 30 minutes to go before sunset. Ah well, there are plenty of other options. They’re all behind me, but now is not a time for worrying about backtracking – now is a time for worrying about getting down out of the sky.

I make a few radio calls and settle on Phoenix’s Goodyear Field, 30 miles north. On the edge of town, so there’ll be places to stay, and it has a functioning control tower, so I know somebody’s home there.

As I approach final, I see something unexpected – a huge number of airliners parked on the ramp. First thought – is this Phoenix’s reliever airport? Am I going to be mixing it up with the big boys?

On short final, I get a closer view – most of the planes here are shrinkwrapped, stripped and/or pickled. This place is an airline boneyard – a storage facility for planes that are no longer flown, whose futures lie with the whim of Fate. They may be returned to service “when the economy turns around.” They may be sold overseas. Or they may be cannibalized for spare parts, then cut up and melted down to make the next generation of aircraft.

It’s a sobering sight, but I don’t allow myself to ponder it for too long. I’ve been on/above the road for 12 hours now, and my butt’s so numb uh…, well, let’s just say it’s pretty numb. My ears are ringing and my brain just wants to close up shop. I taxi in, shut down, and cop a ride to the nearest motel from the airport staff. Time to sit in a chair that isn’t vibrating and bouncing.

But that was a couple of hours ago. I’ve called home, downloaded the pix from my camera, and written up this page. Now, it’s time to sleep.


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