Fourth of July

||| |---|---| | | | At first, I was decidedly bummed at the timing. I'd agreed to fly my Cheetah to Peterborough, Canada, east of Toronto, to give a talk there on the 7th of July. It seemed a good excuse to take the Cheetah on an adventure and see parts of the country, and even parts of a different country, that I'd never seen before. But it would be a long journey in my slow little plane. And as I got ready to leave, I realized the timing meant that while other Americans would be spending the July 4th holiday with family and friends, enjoying barbecues and fireworks, I would be spending it all alone, flying between unfamiliar towns somewhere in between the coasts. I sighed as I packed the airplane, resigned to what seemed to be part of the price I pay for the life I lead.

A week later, I wouldn't have traded places with anyone. For in the course of our journey, my Cheetah and I end up sharing an entire week-long celebration of America that tops any Fourth of July I've ever known.

We start by taking a last, lingering look at the jagged coastline of the Pacific Northwest, which is still a wild place covered in redwood forests and spray-splashed rock cliffs, before heading out over the lush and orderly vineyards of the Napa Valley. Turning north, we pass over the green rice fields of the northern San Joaquin Valley before leaving the safety of the flatland behind for the Sierra Mountains. I wonder again, passing the snow-covered slopes of Mount Shasta, why the most beautiful places to fly also seem to be the ones that afford no good place to land in an emergency. Would it be too easy, otherwise? To have a gift of such wonder and beauty without any price to give it value? This trade-off between gift and price is an equation I will weigh many times in my way across the continent.

Reminders of the impressive force of nature and the universe are all around me in the dramatic landscape of the northwest. I pass by the cavernous hollow of Crater Lake at 9,500 feet, which is filled with water even at that high level. And while the lava fields east of Boise, Idaho, are not what I would call beautiful, they arrest my attention with their raw power; a reminder of the boiling substances that lie beneath the seeming calm of the Earth's surface. Local pilots tell me that you can survive a landing into trees better than on the inhabitable surface of the lava fields. Looking at the hostile, desolate landscape beneath me, I believe them.

The next morning, I work my way through the roughest of the mountains in western Montana. I follow the highway through one pass, but then leave the road behind to follow the kinder landscape along a piece of Lewis and Clark's trail. I look down on the river valley below me, trying to imagine those early explorers forging their way through these mountains for the first time. Exploring this landscape myself for the first time, I feel an affinity with their spirit, although I have many more tools and landmarks to help me on my journey. And yet, almost 200 years later, I, too, am following and trusting the guidance of the Native American woman who led Lewis and Clark safely to the Northwest.

I had planned to follow the highway the whole way until a local pilot said I'd be much better off to follow Sacajawea's route instead. Sacajawea knew how best to navigate these mountains, but the road-builders apparently were determined to bring the highway past Butte, even if it meant traversing much rougher terrain. Looking down on the relatively gentle river valley below me, I realize Lewis and Clark were fortunate to have found such a knowledgeable woman, and wise, indeed, to have listened to her.

Unfortunately, not all the European settlers interacted so well with the native people who inhabited this land before them. In the afternoon, I fly over the battlefield of Little Big Horn, where Custer made his last stand, and then head south toward Wounded Knee, where the cavalry took its revenge. It's a sober reminder that some of the fiercest battles for freedom in this country were waged against others who also called this land home.

I land in Rapid City, South Dakota, after running a gauntlet of afternoon thunderstorms, glad to have won my own little battle with the forces of Mother Nature. The next day is the Fourth of July, and I get up early to detour into the Black Hills before continuing my journey east. I fly past the granite faces of Jefferson, Washington, Roosevelt and Lincoln at Mount Rushmore and then head further back into the hills to look at the enormous, unfinished carving of Chief Crazy Horse. My respectful fly-bys seem a fitting Independence Day tribute to leaders who all argued and fought, in their own way and time, for the principle of equality and an ideal called freedom. The sober, warrior's dignity I sense in Chief Crazy Horse also reminds me of the complex, challenging, and rich cultural mix that makes up the multicolored fabric of the country I call home.

At lunchtime, I stop in Huron, South Dakota, to wait out some weather ahead of me. By the time I get downtown, the parade is over, but there's still a band playing in a bandshell in the town square. As I look around at craft stands set up among a field of American flags, I suspect that Norman Rockwell might have spent more than a day or two here. I lie back in the grass under a tree and listen to the buzz of insects against the background music, pleased to have found a celebration I could join, after all.

It's late afternoon by the time I take off again, and I revel in the chance to stay low over the farmland of South Dakota and Minnesota. Midwest pilots probably take all these landing fields around them for granted. But after working my way through the Sierras and the Rockies, I'm in flying heaven. If the engine quits now, the question will be which of the fields here to choose as a landing site. The rural farmland isn't as dramatic as the scenery in the northwest mountains, but there's still a striking, artistic beauty to the patterns in the fields below. I wonder, sometimes, if the farmers are even aware of the artwork they create in their plowing; if they can see anything of the lines and colors from the ground. Green and white-striped fields below remind me of party tents, and rolling hills and valleys further to the east have the look of folded fabric casually draped across the Earth when the land was formed here, long ago.

As I fly over my old stomping grounds southwest of Minneapolis, I decide that it's been a good Fourth of July, even without a barbecue or fireworks. I land at Flying Cloud Airport just as a nearly full moon starts to rise in the east and the sun settles into the lower western sky. I shut down, take off my headset and slide the canopy back, suddenly aware of being both tired and hungry. As if the universe has read my mind, a familiar scent begins to waft its way toward my nostrils-a scent of charcoal and hamburgers sizzling on an open grill. I look over toward Elliott Aviation's large hangar and see a line guy out front, spatula in hand, supervising a luscious-smelling barbecue. He looks over at me and smiles. "Hi," he says. "You hungry?"

For a moment, I think I must have landed in an alternate dream reality. I've traveled halfway across the continent and could have landed at any one of a dozen or more airports. But somehow, I ended up at this one particular FBO, at this one particular airport, to find a young man standing 20 feet away from my airplane cooking me up a hamburger, almost as if he'd been expecting me. Part of me wonders what the odds of this happening are, but a larger part is more concerned with the more important and immediate prospect of food. "I'm starved," I answer, still a little dazed. "Great," he says. "We've got plenty. Just check in and head over here."

Ten minutes later, Aaron is serving me up pasta salad, lemonade and a juicy cheeseburger, fresh off the grill. Aaron and another lineman named Jeff then help me clean up, fuel and put away my airplane, and a fellow pilot offers to give me a ride to my hotel. I am completely content as dark falls and I start getting ready for bed. But my July 4th celebration isn't over yet. I hear reverberating thunder outside my window and draw back the drapes to find myself with a prime seat for no fewer than five different community fireworks displays. All I can do is laugh. I even got the fireworks!

The next day I continue my exploration of American history at Mackinac Island, Michigan. Once a sacred location to the Native Americans who fished in the plentiful waters surrounding it, Mackinac's strategic location in the straits connecting Lake Huron, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan brought a wide range of people to its shores throughout the years. It was a key outpost for French and Native American fur traders before being taken over by the British, who stubbornly held on to the post until after the War of 1812. American settlers began coming to the island, first to fish, and then to enjoy its cool summers, and by the late 19th century, it was a haven for rich industrialists who built Victorian mansions along its waterfront. And unlike many cities, where modern-day life has buried the past, the history of Mackinac is still interwoven into its everyday life. Airplanes are the only motorized vehicles allowed on the island, so after landing my modern-day machine, I am taken down into town by a horse-drawn taxi, passing old trading post buildings, the British island fort, and still-operational horse stables.

The Grand Hotel is the most famous lodging on the island, but its gilded-era price tag and evening dress code are both beyond my means at the moment. I opt instead for the Chippewa Hotel-a charming place right on the harbor. I also find the best meal I've had in a long, long time-fresh planked whitefish that melts in my mouth-at the nearby Village Inn, where the atmosphere and clothing requirements are much more comfortable and casual.

I make my appointment in Peterborough, Canada, after crossing enough of the Canadian wilderness to imagine quite clearly what the forested wilds of Michigan and Wisconsin must have looked like before they were settled. It's a beautiful stretch of land, but most emphatically not somewhere you'd want to have to set an airplane down. Even if you survived the landing into the trees, swamp and rock, the bears and mosquitoes would undoubtedly finish you off before anyone ever found you. Brave people, the explorers and settlers who took on these wilds with only a rifle and an ax.

From Peterborough, I wind my way through hazy summer build-ups in the Green and White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire on the last leg of my transcontinental journey. Finally, the Atlantic ocean comes into view, and I set down just north of Boston, where the country's independence movement began and my own Independence Week celebration comes to an end.

I give the Cheetah a grateful little pat as I tie her down, some 33 flight hours after leaving Santa Rosa. The trip was certainly more work, and had a few more tense moments in it, than a simple backyard barbecue. But this price, too, came with a gift. For on this particular Fourth of July, I did more than just celebrate the birth of our country. I went out and explored it. Experienced enough of it to have a renewed respect for the diversity and range of both the geography and people its boundaries embrace. Discovered why it is we sing of purple mountains majesty and amber waves of grain. And spent a week living and breathing the precious gift of freedom, from sea to shining sea. I think Jefferson, Adams, and even Sacajawea would have approved.


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