Looking out to the West, it is a scene from an old-time Western movie. Hills rising from the horizon, and brush, trees, and dust as far as the eye can see. To the East and South, a valley that is producing crops and looking prosperous. The OAT (outside air temperature) is 97 degrees, and feels more like Lubbock than I imagined Oregon would feel. But Oregon it is, according to the charts, and the signs in the town.
The last week has been a rapid transition from one location to another. On Monday of last week, David (my loader) and I flew from the heat of Southern Arizona to Northern California. That trip began early in the morning, as we wanted to leave prior to the normal solar heating that not only gives Arizona it’s signature heat, but also moves the air up the slopes of the mountains, giving a ride that many people pay money to obtain at Disney. Hence, I asked him to pick me up at 0430 at the hotel. We were successful in beating some of the heat, and were airborne at 0520 watching the sun rise over our right shoulder.
Desert mornings are beautiful. The air feels wonderful, and the view of the mountains seems worthy of a postcard, or at least a set of vacation slides with which to bore friends. The view gives way to a view of Phoenix, and then the desert unfolds. We pass by Death Valley, and from ten thousand feet it doesn’t look nearly as threatening as history would indicate it actually is. I remember stories of the people who traversed this terrain on foot, and with wagons, and trying to survive. In looking at the features from the air, it seems hard to believe it was done successfully.
Just past Death Valley, we drop into Blythe California for gas. I made a stop here on my way home from California in the Husky a few years ago, and it was a pleasant stop, just as I remembered. The dramatic change in temperature and the scenery was notable. The Sierras to the West, still with snow covering their peaks gave another picture worthy backdrop.
Going further north, into the higher country, gave views that fit with my mountain memories of vacations from my childhood. Mount Shasta was in our view to the North, just as picturesque as the calendars show.
Three days in Chester, California at the US Forest Service base was extremely pleasant. Recruiting posters and brochures from the 50s and 60s could have used this base as a model. The grounds were well tended, as firefighters seem to have an inability to be idle. A garden was being tended, rock steps were being built, and the OAT was lovely. The mountain backdrops, with the lake just off the end of the runway made it a place to happily wait for a dispatch.
On the evening of my last day there, we received a dispatch order, and I was up to be first out of the base. I got my load (675 gallons of “mud”), and I was headed out. I could not make the FM radio talk to me. That becomes a problem, as this isn’t the FM on which you listen to KOMA for the latest hits…it’s a communication radio for talking to dispatch, “air attack”, and is mission critical. I decided to proceed with my back up radio only (VHF, or “victor”), and launched. The GPS coordinates were good, and I came up on the fire and checked in with Air Attack on victor. We got the drop line worked out quickly, and I made my drop and headed back to base. On the way out of the fire I realized my error…a simple switch out of place (well known to any pilot who has ever “mis-switched” a radio), and with that I was back in communications with everyone.
No further relief duties were on the horizon. Airplanes were coming “off contract”. My friend Frank called, a friend of his was “looking for a pilot”. Phone calls were made, information was traded, and on the following morning I was loaded up in the Baron, headed for Salt Lake City (SLC). I left SLC on the Aluminum Tube of Death (ATD), headed for Denver (DEN). Upon arrival at DEN, I was met by Keith. Keith was an interesting fellow, who had flown a bit of everything in the Ag Aviation world, and only recently was forced by medical illness to stop flying. In fact, the reason I was needed was Keith’s forced retirement. Keith’s illness hadn’t given him any reason to stop talking, however. Like almost all pilots I know, when given a chance to visit with some (newer, younger) pilot the stories start, and seldom slow, and never stop.
Now, you have to understand that I really hadn’t researched the location of this next flying job. Like many pilots, just knowing some plane was waiting was enough. I assumed (yes, I know what happens when you assume) that where we were heading was relatively nearby. I knew it was in Colorado, and I knew it was on the east side of Denver. How far could it be? Colorado isn’t a huge state, not like Texas.
I was wrong. We drove. The sun got lower in the sky, Keith kept talking, and I kept wondering. I began to think we were nearing Amarillo, as the terrain went from what I thought of as “Colorado”, to what I think of as “Texas panhandle”. Don’t confuse me by mentioning Kansas. Or Oklahoma.
We drove past abandoned farm houses. Many of them were reminiscent of my grandparents’ houses. As I would look at them I wondered about the dreams, the plans, the lives of the people who had lived there. You could see the thought put into the layout…houses and barns located so that there would be some break from the weather, some opportunity to catch water for livestock, and situated so that even in blizzards the stock could be tended.
Two old schools rose out of the prairie, still standing with dignity even though they were long abandoned. As the sun began to sink, you could almost hear the laughter of children playing around the edges. Where did they go? Did they leave the plains, go to the city? Were some of those kids now the grandparents and great-grandparents of current residents? Were they happy? (All kids seem to start out happy, and then we adults manage to “educate” them to the “real world”…and then sometimes they aren’t as happy any more). Keith was still talking. The fascination to me about the eastern plains of Colorado is that it seemed to be “just like” the New Mexico I remembered from my youth. Was that because New Mexico really was more green, and cooler, and more prosperous then? Or is my sense of “green, and cooler” different now?
Just at dark we arrived at Danny’s “strip” (for those of you not aviation minded, the “strip” is the runway and environs from which we fly). Danny, his wife, and the dogs gave a warm welcome. We talked a bit, then had supper. Danny put me up in his “Man Cave”, and the cool Colorado air made for excellent sleeping.
Danny mentioned that we’d start early. Good. I am not a late sleeper. Did I mention that the cool Colorado air made for excellent sleeping? I woke up about 0430, had a shower, and started heading for the hangar. Smugly, I thought my new boss would be impressed with my early rising. I figured surely I’d be first to the hangar, and was trying to remember if Danny had showed me where the key was. I was greeted with a cup of fresh coffee, the hangar door was open, and the first plane was out. I was wrong again.
We had a couple of good days of spraying. Not super high volume, but enough that I got checked out in a turbine Thrush with a -42 engine, got exposure to Danny’s area, and made a little money. The fields are long, few obstructions, and dry land where I started. The biggest problem is finding the field. There are few roads, no fences, and no houses or barns to identify the fields. Only a GPS file exists that can be pulled up on the Satloc. Nothing quite like flying a new plane, programming the GPS, and trying to make sure you find the “box” to spray the chemicals.
Saturday night I got to meet the legendary Allen (Danny’s dad). We know/had known some of the same people, had flown in some of the same places, and had a delicious steak at Allen’s house. The cool breeze flowing in, laughing, telling stories, and enjoying the evening was a good end to the day. We were making plans for me to go to the San Luis valley to spray for the next few days, until I was needed by the fire crew.
I pondered the transitions that had been made. I went from desert, to mountains, to plains; from country to city, to tiny mountain town, to city, to country. I spent time in prosperous neighborhoods, to a struggling economy, to the bustle and money of the city, to the peace of an agricultural neighborhood. I reflected that it mirrored my life. I’ve made transitions from one place in life, to another one that was unexpected; with destinations planned, to destinations that were a surprise. However, just like my plane travels, I’ve found beauty and friends at each juncture. You may think you know the plans for the next day, but you find you wake up headed to a new location.
About midnight the text came in that I needed to be enroute to Ontario. Not Canada, but Ontario, Oregon.