Nightmares Past

Day 50 • April 20, 2012 • Grand Canyon to Cameron, AZ •  58 miles

Having lived in Phoenix more than ten years and traipsed through Cameron countless times on hang gliding trips, it’s surprising that my most vivid memory of Cameron prior to this trip was from when I was a kid about Zoe’s age.  I was on a family vacation in the Plymouth station wagon pulling a Coleman pop-up camper.  Somehow we wound up in an RV park in Cameron for the night.  It was hot as an oven, dry as, well, an oven, and the wind was blowing like stink.  I spent the entire night waiting for the camper to be toppled by the wind.  We were spared that fate but I was pretty sleep-deprived by morning.

The next Cameron nightmare was hang gliding related.  It was 1988 and Team Gator had just burst onto the cross-country hang gliding scene with a resounding yawn.  We had the gliders, we had the truck and drivers, we had illusions of grandeur.  It was only a matter of time before other pilots bowed to our greatness.  On a flight approaching the Painted Desert, Rick and I were pulling together a big one until everyone—me, the driver, other pilots—lost sight of Rick.  He was low and had flown up the Little Colorado river toward Cameron instead of taking a more easterly track like the rest of us.  The last radio transmission from Rick was something like “I’m landing in a big dirt field with red cliffs all around.” Well, that described virtually every place in the painted desert, a very big place.  I still had plenty of altitude and was well on my way toward awe-inspiring distances with Rick’s driver, Jan, and truck below me.  It could have been concern for Rick or inability to simultaneously manage my flight and Rick’s retrieval but I soon found myself on the ground as well.  Jan and I spent the remainder of the day and most of the night driving all over the Navajo reservation looking for some sign of Rick—alive or, as the night progressed we were fearing, hoping?, dead.  By something like three in the morning we learned that Rick had landed with much fanfare among a sea of Navajo children, was taken in by a Navajo family who fed him and eventually drove him and his glider to Flagstaff where he hooked up with a local pilot and was at that moment snoozing peacefully in a comfy bed.  Team Gator was making history but not quite the way we’d imagined.  The accompanying picture shows Kurt and Rick with Biff the Wonder Roo in happier times.  Driver Scotty looks on in disbelief.

Today we had no nightmares, just a stunningly beautiful descent into the painted desert, lit up by the setting sun.  We met a French couple who was bike touring with a road atlas and helped them with some route information.  Zoe had perhaps a bad dream when one of the Rock ‘em Sock’ ‘em thumb fighters she had acquired from a recent kid’s meal fell off the trike.  We were pressed by the setting sun and didn’t have time to look for it.  We met up with Rob in Cameron and pitched a tent in the same trailer park where our camper nearly toppled many years before.  This night there was a light, cool breeze that made for peaceful sleep.

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4 thoughts on “Nightmares Past

  1. Oh, one of the many flights that I screwed up. I recall being somewhere between 14,000 and 16,000 feet above sea level and a bit hypoxic. approaching that fork in the road where the right fork (east) is the usual one to send the chase driver. For some reason I thought you wanted to go north (you actually were heading east). It took a few minutes to get things straightened out, but by that time we had gotten separated by three or four miles (which is all it takes to get lost).

    My hypoxia was getting the best of me as we crossed into the Red Cliff area of the Painted Desert. You asked me where I was. After several seconds of looking down, all I could say was, “It’s red.” I was instructed to go on O2. Once I did, my head cleared within ten seconds. At that point I became aware of my blunder. But I was getting drilled in a huge area of sinking air.

    I barely made it to a ranch with a road. A road meant there was a way to get the chase truck (the sad International Scout 2) back in there. A ranch meant there were people and possibly a phone.

    I landed on the sand stone rock at the periphery of the ranch. I always hated the transition from whooshing air of flying to the still, calm noiselessness of a flight cut short. The radios crackled and I reported my situation. I began dissembling the Moyes GTR 162 when I was greeted by a young man on horseback. He greeted me with, “You are trespassing on Navajo land.” When I told him I had launched from Mt. Elden in Flagstaff he became aware that my trespass was unintentional, although he was less than pleased to see me.

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  2. And yet, he escorted me to his humble ranch home. No phone. No hill to climb to get better radio reception. I climbed a non-functioning wind mill tower. On top I heard a saddenly faint, “Break for Ricky D.” from Jan. My truck at a long quarter-wave CB antenna connected to a juiced CB radio pushing 9.5 watts. If I could barely hear her, she couldn’t hear me.

    The son rode off to tend to his sheep. Not a half-hour goes by when he returns, walking next to his horse. He is holding his hands in pain. His horse had thrown him, he said, “I think both my wrists are broken.” I couldn’t tell if they were broken or badly sprained, but hey were scarred up and certainly useless. He was in a good bit of pain.

    Suddenly I was the hero. I sat him down and fashioned ice packs out of rags and some ice cubes out of a cooler. I took his horse and debridled and unsaddled him. I was going to go get his sheep for him but he declined the offer.

    At that point I was introduced to the family who still had their Fathers Day lunch on the table. I flies didn’t keep me from accepting the offer to dig into the meatloaf. Bob Thompson would later tease (or did he insist) that I was eating “dog meatloaf.” Thankfully that joke only lasted a year or two.

    They told me I was in the middle of nowhere and they weren’t planning on heading back to Flagstaff for a week — or maybe two. I ate some more meatloaf. This wasn’t looking good. Then, after a couple of hours, I’m told that they have to take the daughter to Flagstaff because she works at a convenience store on the north side of the mountain. Okay, I’ll go with it.

    It was a looong, slooow drive with my GTR mostly hanging out the back of the pickup truck bed. Dirt roads almost all the way. Smooth, at least. As the sun was setting they dropped me off at what I remember might have been a Maverick store. They would take me no further. This was cell-phoneless 1987 (I don’t think it was 1988 as we were in the Scout, not the FourRunner), and we had phone lists to contact people. And either an MCI/Sprint 800 number for long distance or lots and lots of quarters.

    One name was a local Flagstaff pilot whose name I can’t recall. No answer. I called home to Phoenix and left a voicemail (er, recording on the machine) to let them know I was safe. I don’t know if anyone ever called the number. Hours went buy. 9pm? 10pm? 11pm? More calls. No answer. Nothing left on the answering machine to let me know that they knew I was alright. Were they still searching the vast Painted Desert for me? I didn’t know — but I had money for a 44 oz ThirstBuster and SlimJim to take my mind off it.

    Another call to Flagstaff. Finally, an answer. He would come pick me up. He took me home with him and gave me a blanket and pillow for the couch. I made more phone calls. No joy.

    Then, at 3am, there was a call. Eventually they called the home phone and found out where I was. Kurt and Jan were pissed. I dared not tell them that I had been comfy in bed for the last few hours so I pushed a conveyed a daring story of woe. It almost worked. Eventually they made it to the Flagstaff house. We loaded up and headed home stopping only to put gas in the tank, air in the tires and about two quarts of oil in the Scout. They had been driving quite a few miles that day. 😦

    We arrived home well after sun up. Everybody was late for work and exhausted. Jan was so pissed that she demanded $20 dollars just, just… just because, dammit !!

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