As Time Goes By

What are airplanes good for if it?s not getting together with good friends who live too far away?



I can't believe we're doing this!"

Kimberly's laughing voice sails through the air from somewhere behind me as our horses canter through the ponderosa pines of an Oregon trail. I don't answer immediately, because just staying in the saddle is taking up most of my focus at the moment. But I laugh, inside and out. Because it's good to hear that phrase again.

It's a phrase I used to hear all the time coming from Kimberly as we plowed our way through various adventures, from flying our airplanes around California and hiking on snow fields at Glacier National Park to champagne moments at five-star hotels and restaurants in San Francisco and New York. But it had been a while since we'd had a flying adventure together. Four years, in fact. Ever since she'd been transformed by a life-changing event called becoming a mom.

Babies change things. Even if they're not yours. And their impact can be far more complex than just needing to arrange for childcare and protective cabinet locks. Kimberly and I still flew back and forth to see each other when we could manage it, but it seemed our days of joint adventuring were gone, or at least were going to be on hold for the next 15 years or so.

But then the forces of the universe suddenly realigned for a couple of days. I had to bring my airplane home from Redmond, Oregon, where it was having its annual inspection completed, and I'd gotten an invitation from a fellow Cheetah owner to go riding at a nearby dude ranch while I was in the Redmond area. I was still trying to figure out how to get to Oregon to do those things when Kimberly called. Her husband was going on a business trip and her mother had offered to watch the baby, leaving her with an airplane and an unexpected two-day kitchen pass.

Our first plan was for her to fly me to Redmond in her Cessna 210, but then another friend offered to fly both of us there in his P-210T Silver Eagle (a 210 retrofitted with a Rolls-Royce/Allison turboprop engine). That meant Kimberly and I could fly to Redmond in turbine style and fly home together in the Cheetah-a plan that sounded a lot more fun.

Bright and early the next day, Larry Turley (who makes kick-ass wine when he's not flying airplanes) arrived in what he calls his "Turbine Suburban," and we took off and headed toward Redmond. Normally, I wouldn't put a 210 in the category of exciting airplanes, but stick a turbine engine out front and even a 210 gets pretty darn impressive. We zoomed quietly up to 15,500 feet and just over an hour and a half later (the Cheetah can take up to four hours to make the same trip), we touched down in Redmond.

Kimberly and I had actually been to Redmond before. It was on our last trip together, four years ago, and it was a 20-hour stop that will remain near the top of my cherished-memories list for the rest of my life. The good-humored folks at Redmond Air had given us free popcorn and an unforgettable courtesy car-a rusty, faded-red Honda Accord with manual transmission, brakes that screeched loud enough to turn heads several blocks away, and a passenger door that flew open in any left-hand turn. We'd taken that car and burned up the town with it, including the back roads of the local golf resort where we spent the night-a resort memorable for having a really fun sprinkler system and martinis so huge that the extra had to be served in medium-sized bell jars. But that was in Kimberly's pre-baby years.

"I wonder if they still have that car," she mused with a smile as we walked into Redmond Air's lobby. We asked one of the staff, who responded to the effect that they'd gotten rid of that piece of junk some time ago and replaced it with a Cadillac. Our faces fell.

"That was a great car," I said sadly.

"Why?" the Redmond Air guy asked in disbelief.

I struggled to explain. It was a long story. I turned to Kimberly for help.

"It did great donuts," she finally said, with an impish grin and giggle.

In that moment, laughing together over the memory in the Redmond Air lobby while the employees looked on in perplexed bemusement, I remembered why I miss flying with Kimberly so much. Nobody I know makes me laugh as much as she does.

We said good-bye to Larry and headed out to the Rock Springs Guest Ranch-a beautiful, rustic family dude ranch nestled in the hills west of Bend, Oregon-where we'd been invited through the generosity of a woman named Cori Bethke. Cori and I had met at the Santa Ynez, California, Airport a few months earlier. I'd been preflighting the Cheetah and she'd walked up and introduced herself as a student pilot and another Cheetah owner.

Meeting Cori was, in some ways, like meeting an earlier version of myself. She, too, was from the New York area, and she was in her 20s-the same age I was when I learned how to fly. And, like me, she'd pitched a high-powered corporate career to go try something more fulfilling. For me, it was writing. For Cori, it was horse wrangling. And we owned the same airplane. When the two of us discovered that Cori was going to be spending the summer working at a ranch near Bend and I was going to be there to get the Cheetah's annual done, she insisted I stop by for a visit.

Kimberly and I arrived at Rock Springs, changed into jeans and boots, and saddled up for a trail ride with Cori. A wrangler helped Kimberly up onto the back of a powerful-looking quarterhorse named Jerricho and handed her the reins.

"So," Kimberly quipped, "should I have read something like Horseback Riding for Dummies before doing this?"

I laugh, even if the wrangler doesn't. I mount a well-behaved nag named Duster, Cori gives us a few basic steering instructions, and we head off down the trail. After building our confidence with a comfortable walking gait and a creek crossing, Cori talks us into trying a trot-which I decide feels an awful lot like "moderate to severe" turbulence with the added risk of being pitched completely out of the cockpit. I'm already contemplating how bad certain muscles are going to feel tomorrow when I hear Kimberly start laughing behind me. I smile, because I know what that means. It doesn't mean she's found something amusing. It means she's about to be pitched off her horse, too.

Kimberly's still laughing when we slow to a walk again, and Cori turns around to ask if we're okay.

"Oh, yeah," Kimberly gasps in between bouts of giggles. "It's like, oh, God, you remember, Lane, when I slipped at Glacier and slid all the way down that mountain?" Cori looks understandably concerned, but I start laughing, as well. Maybe you had to be there, or maybe you just have to know Kimberly. But, well, it was kind of funny, the way it worked out. Kimberly and I had taken the Cheetah up to Glacier four summers ago-a summer when the park still had numerous snow-covered trails late into July. We were making our way gingerly down a ridge when Kimberly lost her footing and proceeded to slide almost 1,000 feet down a steep, snow-covered slope. My heart caught in my throat, but almost before she stopped sliding I heard her laughter sailing up the ridge, and she was still laughing when my friends and I got down to where she was.

"Oh, my God," she greeted us. "That was SO much fun! If kids knew about this, they'd never bother with sleds again!"

Only Kimberly could fall down a mountain and call it fun.

We continue down the trail in the late afternoon sun, trotting, cantering, splashing through creeks, and generally having a great time, even though we know our bodies will have words with us tomorrow. But, hey. Tomorrow's a flying day. We don't need to walk.

We stay at a wonderful lodge right on the Deschutes River, indulging in a leisurely breakfast al fresco the next morning before collecting the Cheetah and heading south. A heat wave has made the late morning air shimmer and the Redmond airport is at 3,077 feet, so we decide on half tanks and a fuel stop in hopes of getting a climb rate over 200 feet per minute. The Cheetah struggles reluctantly up to 8,500 feet, where she digs in her heels and flat refuses to climb any more. Even here, it's still bumpy and the hot air going over the controls is so thin that it's like balancing on top of a basketball, trying to keep the plane level. It's the price we pay for a late night and a leisurely morning. But I'm not complaining. It was fun.

We pass through some smoky haze just north of Klamath Falls but pop into the clear as we pass the city and approach the volcanic peak of Mount Shasta. The concerned voice of the Klamath Falls controller comes over the frequency as we start to bank around the 14,000-foot mountain.

"Niner-four-uniform, do you have Mount Shasta in sight?"

I look at the clear skies and the mammoth triangle of rock and ice that's completely filling the Cheetah's windscreen and side windows, then shoot a look at Kimberly. She starts laughing. I think of at least half a dozen wisecrack comebacks before I decide that discretion is probably the better part of valor here.

"Uh… that's affirmative, Klamath Falls," I answer simply.

When we get past Shasta, Kimberly does a radio survey of all the northern California airport unicoms and decides that Willows offers the best option for a late lunch and fuel stop. The town of Willows is little more than a bump in the road with a racetrack, but it has a 24-hour airport café with good pies and lots of character, 24-hour fuel-and a Wal-Mart across the street. As we tie the Cheetah down, we see three guys pushing a Wal-Mart shopping cart filled with bags and tiki torches toward a pretty white-and-blue Maule parked next to us. Somehow, the idea of flying a Maule into Wal-Mart for tiki torches strikes us as funny. But then, Kimberly and I find a lot of things funny when we're together. It's part of why we're friends.

We take off again into a hot, lazy, afternoon sky, and I pop some music into the CD player to ward off the post-lunch sleepiness that's settling over us as the western sun floods the cockpit with insidiously narcotic warmth. We fly for several minutes just listening to the music as we drink in the summer sky, the green fields below us, and the sight of Sacramento and the Sierras off in the distance. Suddenly, Kimberly looks at me and grins.

"Wow," she says. "It's like having your own personal sound- track."

I laugh once again. With all the hours I'd spent flying myself around the country while listening to music in the Cheetah, I'd never thought of it that way.

It's with a touch of sadness that I bring the Cheetah in for a landing at Kimberly's home strip. Two days was just long enough for me to remember how much more fun flying is with a good friend on board. But it was also long enough to reassure both of us that deep down, underneath all the changes in our lives, we're still the same friends we always were. Our lives are following different tracks, and sometimes those tracks seem very far apart. But we share a love of laughter, adventure, and life that I suspect will always pull us together again, no matter how many years and changes pass by in between.

The only constant in life is change, of course, and the future is unpredictable. But as I wave good-bye to Kimberly and climb back in the Cheetah to fly home, my mind flashes forward to an image of the two of us, many years from now-a little more lined and gray, perhaps, but still flying through the summer skies, dancing in sprinklers, sliding down hillsides, and giggling together at just how weird and wonderful this adventure called life really is.

And even without Kimberly in the airplane, I laugh.