Climbing through 15,000 feet, I breathe a sigh of relief, slide my seat back and take a look around. Orange County, California, has one of the busier departure procedures in the country, and it’s a bit of a workout even when you’re familiar with it. But now that we’re high above the LAX Class B and talking to LA Center, there’s time to gaze down on some very familiar territory from my misbegotten youth. Nestled in the mountains to our right is Big Bear Airport, where, as a new instructor, I nearly paid the price for an ill-advised hot and high takeoff. Brackett Field, my home airport in those days, is sliding beneath us. Ahead is the impassive Mojave Desert, above which I spent so many dark, lonely nights hauling checks. And to my left, in the hazy distance beyond the Mojave, I can make out the jagged escarpment of the Sierra Nevada and the sheer hollow of the Owens Valley. I know it well. Some of the greatest beauty, terror, and sorrow of my career came out of that abysmal, parched valley. It was only 10 years ago, but it seems like another lifetime.