View from the Edge
Edginess is not foremost among the character traits embraced by the general aviation community. Once you've ventured to the precipice, however, it's hard to disagree with Kurt Vonnegut's astute observation that, from the edge, "you can see all kinds of things you can't see from the center."
Several months ago, as I sat idling in the two-seat Cessna 150 at the Whiteman Airport in northern Los Angeles, the usual giddiness of departure swirled and knotted in my stomach around a nucleus of tense irritation. The seven-hour flight from Medford three days prior had to be repeated and, thanks to a stubborn morning marine layer, I was getting a late start at 1 p.m. On top of that, a headwind was forecast for most of the route. The going would be slow.
I waited patiently, the open window bouncing in the propeller's arid slipstream, as a traffic helicopter floated over the runway threshold and pirouetted five feet above the shimmering asphalt. The control tower called my takeoff clearance as the chopper drifted out of the way, and straddling the white centerline I fed in the throttle.
Rising into the golden-orange haze above the cluttered neighborhoods of Pacoima, I loosened my seatbelt and stretched my legs down the pilot and passenger foot wells. A rolled-up sweater served as lumbar support. As I reached my cruising altitude of 7,500 feet over the Grapevine, the high-workload phase of takeoff comfortably behind me, I settled into a groove of introspection: what exactly did this trip, the furthest yet of my aeronautical escapades from the Rogue Valley, mean to me?
Los Angeles itself was of no special significance — sure, it afforded me an opportunity to visit my dad in Laguna Beach and a pilot friend in Montrose — but from the perspective of accruing flight hours toward the 250 needed for a commercial license, it really just happened to be an interesting place roughly 600 miles away. That adage about the journey versus the destination comes to mind. My previous expeditions had taken me just about everywhere between Gold Beach, Eugene, Klamath Falls, and even Sacramento, but this was different. This was a conquest.
On such a journey, the restless perceptions of one's mind are among the chief pitfalls. Somewhere around Madera, I remember seeing a metallic object flitting strangely over the horizon at my altitude (technically, at this point, a UFO). Recovering from my slouch, my heart rate registering surprise, I quickly poised for an evasive maneuver and watched my horror dissolve to amusement as a Mylar party balloon bearing the cheesy Wal-Mart grin rotated eerily past my left wing.
After refueling in Modesto, I made decent time to the cow fields near Woodland, where I returned some personal effects to my then-recently-ex girlfriend. When I touched down in Redding, the sun had begun to slip around to the other side of the world, casting long, deep shadows over the tumbled gauntlet of mountains to the north. This was my primary reason for wanting an early start: while I knew I could do it safely, I did not cherish the idea of crossing that ominous terrain at night. Nevertheless, the weather was clear, and I embarked on the home stretch. Passing over Dunsmuir at 8,500 feet, I encountered a phenomenon known as a mountain wave. Downwind of Mount Shasta, the twilit peak of which loomed nearly a mile higher than my present altitude, a series of gigantic, terrain-induced swells buoyed me upward.
The plane rose precipitously on the muscular crest of air, with all the power of an autumnal leaf to resist. It was eerie beyond expression to watch the inky irregularity of the horizon slip further beneath me, inexorably yielding to the immense stellar chandelier of the night sky as the relative wind wheezed around the Plexiglas. Bathed in a sinister-looking red glow, the altimeter registered 11,000 feet, the outside air temperature corroborating with a reading of 20 degrees. Even with the heater blowing onto my legs, my breath materialized in frosty puffs.
Thankfully, the mountain wave was relatively mild, and passing beyond Shasta the air again became placid. I set the power for a long, shallow descent, knowing that crossing the Siskiyous near Pilot Rock at about 8,000 feet would give me plenty of terrain clearance.
Floating like a phantom under a canopy of thin, gray stratus, the hulking, tree-covered darkness below gave way to the lights of Ashland. It was just after 9:00, but I must have felt 50 degrees warmer at the sight. Fifteen miles away, just past the familiar knob of Roxy Ann, the beacon of the Medford airport beckoned me home with its vigilant two-tone flash. The runway glowed like my own private Victorian Christmas and, as I settled back to my personal center, still hours from truly returning to earth, I thought about all that I'd had the fortune to see from the edge.