A Cross Country To Die … er … Live For (fin)

Told ‘ya. Got too damned bizzy with treadmill stress tests, blood tests, AME’s, cardiologists and Christmas. Oh, and flight reviews and WINGS certificate completions. So, as advertised, just in time for the new year … TA DA … the pulsating conclusion to a cross country to die … er … live for.

 

Third Day

Next morning at the crack of dawn (for moi), we were in the hotel van back to BFF. Whilst I wandered around in a fog, Bob had the airplane preflighted and ready for departure. It was such a luxury having him along on the trip. Bob’s leg flew us south/southeasterly towards Fort Morgan, Colorado (BFF el. 4567′ N40°20.05 W103°48.23′). The forecast was for mostly sunny skies along our route of flight, until we were to turn west towards Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where scattered thunderstorms were predicted throughout the afternoon.

It was a short leg, 96nm, and the scenery about wasn’t particularly groovy. Western Nebraska looks a bit like Southwestern South Dakota, absent the proximity to the high terrain north and west: high plains, an occasional river, east/west power lines, another high elevation windmill farm, Interstate 80 and lots and lots of empty.

Fort Morgan had a long n/s and there were two grass strips, but the grass runways were x’d out for ongoing construction on a longer, wider, newer, n/s runway. That was too bad because the super cub loves grass. It’s primarily used by crop dusters, although we learned that there were a bunch of corporate jets that flew in and out regularly, owned by some large firms whose names escape me. We bought fuel and pushed further south, fighting that bloody headwind every inch of the way to Pueblo Colorado (PUB el. 4729′ N38°17.40′ W104°29.88′), 130nm to the south.

Just south of FMM we encountered another tower, 1190 above the local terrain (6044′ MSL), then another 9nm farther south (and a lot closer to our route of flight) that stood 2000′ in the air (6950 MSL). Leading elements of the front range were clearly visible on this spectacularly clear day. We skirted Denver’s Bravo in a gradual climb as the ambient terrain started encroaching on our 500/1000′ buffer of airspace between us and terra firma. (There is, in fact, an airport thusly named, a private strip of 2600′ at an elevation of 5600′. Wonder if they ever get earthquakes?) Said ambient terrain rose up above that “mile high” elevation that makes Coloradoluddites and John Denver ever so proud. No offense, but … YAWN.

Alert areas abound to the east of Colorado Springs, and northeast of Pueblo, where “intensive USAF student training within 22 dme of BRK (Black Forest {really?} VOR/DME) 11,500′ & below” might well scare the living whoopeee out of you.

We crossed Interstate 70, a bunch of local roads, a few river washes and viewed a whole lotta nuthin’ – excepting, of course, the spectacular high terrain to our right. One interesting man-made feature was listed as “DOT Train Track” about 10-12 nm n/e of Pueblo. Of course, government gobbledygook demands it be called by a meandering name: High Speed Ground Test Center, a part of the TTC, or Transportation Technology Center. We were a tad distant on our approach into Pueblo, and were shunted way to the west by Pueblo Tower on our approach.

Pueblo is inundated with and by DA-20 Diamond Katanas, all of which respond to the call sign, “Tiger.” Can you imagine? Katana? Tiger? There’s an inherent disconnect, especially if you’ve ever flown one. Well, the afore-mentioned Tigers are trainees from the US Air Force’s IFT (Initial Flight Training … imagine that, a government acronym) and the 1 Flying Training Squadron of the 306 Flying Training Group. The Air Force Academy is 45 miles north/northwest of Pueblo and together with a company called Doss Aviation, Air Force Cadets get their first taste of military flying in – can you believe it – a Diamond Katana. Tiger my arse.

Anyway, when we finally were able to land amidst all those “Tigers”, then managed to get a sec to get a clearance from ground control who was very bizzy with “Tigers” to taxi around all those “Tigers” and onto the ramp for fuel and a sandwich to go. Pueblo is a bizzy place with parallel and intersecting runways and taxiways galore. We were glad indeed to be rid of the place, but were still haunted by “Tigers” all round us as we winged it south for Raton, New Mexico (RTN, el. 6352′ N36°44.55′ W104°31.83′) 98nm away.

The general terrain around Pueblo and its eastern environs had dropped to around 4000′, but 10nm south the elevation climbed about 5000′. Our course line paralleled a rail line and Interstate 25 and this leg started the most interesting topographical part of our journery. Mountains are magnificent and diverse, majestic and dangerous and flying over, around or through them has caused many a pilot to come to grief. We vowed to be the exception.

34nm south we passed over Rattlesnake Buttes, a place where a happy forced landing might not occur, especially if there were lotsa rattlesnakes in and among the buttes. We passed by Spanish Peaks Colorado, the airport (4V1, el. 6056′ N37°41.79′ W104°47.09′) and the mountains, reveling in the dramatic scenery surrounding us. The Purgatoire River and its intersection with I-25 and the n/s rail line let us know that we were above Trinidad, Colorado and not too far from our first mountain crossing, at Raton Pass (el. 7834′). We had been climbing with the terrain, but we may have crossed the pass at something less than the 500′ required by the FAR’s over unpopulated terrain. We started our descent about 10 miles north of Raton Muni/Crews, landing on Runway 25.

Raton Pass was the place settlers crossed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the fabled Santa Fe Trail and later the Iron Horse of the Santa Fe Railroad climbed the grade in the latter part of the 19th century.

We were greeted at the airport by a pair of unleashed Dobermans, who didn’t appear keen on our arrival and caused me some travail considering they were between me and the “terminal building” and bladder relief. Bob just blustered past them and they barely managed a growl. Fuel/bladder needs cared for, the pleasant young lad in attendance provided a used Santa Fe Sectional for the westward part of our trek. A timely hand from an obliging fellow who commiserated with me on my inability to find an FBO with current charts along our entire route. Has ForeFlight provided the death knell for paper charts? ‘Twill be a sad day indeed, were that to occur. How else will I wrap my Christmas gifts if expired charts are allowed to expire?

21nm south of Raton is where the entire trip changed – mostly for the better. You see, at 21nm south of Raton there is a “pole line” that runs, for the most part, east/west and traverses a section of the mountains that, while at higher elevation than the crossing near Las Vegas, New Mexico, is far more direct for the western turn of our journey. The “pole line” is a route Bob learned years ago from a local Raton pilot when he was asked how he’d cross the mountains. Bob had mentioned the Las Vegas crossing and the local advised him as to the benefits of the “pole line”. The only problem I had with the “pole line” was the English language, or Bob’s use of it – to wit: what the hell is a “pole line”?

“You know,” said Bob, “A pole line.”

“No, I don’t know what the hell a “pole line” is.”

“A line of poles,” he replied.

“Are you talking ethnicity?” I asked. “There’s a line of Polish people stretching from Raton to Taos?”

“No. Pole line. A power pole.”

“A power pole?” I queried. Then a dim bulb flashed in my mind. “Oh, you mean a power line?”

Mystery solved. Amazing how dense one can become when different colloquialisms are confronted. “So … ,” I said, “We’re actually crossing a mountain range following a power line?”

“You got it,” he said.

Now I’m not too bright, but eventually I catch on. I was a tad amazed, however, that we’d be tracking a power line to get to the Taos/Santa Fe area. We’re all familiar with “IFR”: I Follow Roads (or Railroads). Now we’ll be “IFPW”. Odd, don’tcha think? So we take off from Raton using Runway 20, after bidding a fine day to the docile Dobermans, and I flew a southerly heading in search of our “pole line”.

“Is this really how you navigate cross country in a Cub? Following pole lines?”

“Sure,” said Bob from the back seat. “How else? You got a better way?”

I admitted that I hadn’t and, after all, this was a nostalgic trip – why not fly a bloody “pole line”.

And, right on time, dead ahead, was our magical “pole line” running from east to west, just north of the town and airport of Springer, New Mexico (S42 el. 5891′ N36°19.89′ W104°37.07′). As we turned west to follow the “pole line”, we could see where it began its climb over the spine of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains, a spur of which we had crossed back at the Raton Pass. The terrain began to rise rapidly as we got closer and I started a climb following our line.

I was delighted finding, then tracking the “pole line”, and elated when I checked the GPS and realized that our “pole line” had terminated our headwind. Our ground speed was showing 95-100kts – which allowed us to eschew the original plan of overnighting in Santa Fe and, perhaps, wind and wx gods approving, make it all the way to Gallup or Winslow. “Pole line” be praised. We continued the climb, finding peaks topping out from 11,078′ on our left, and 11,721′ on our right, and we settled in at 10,500′ with the cub breathing normally and not at all winded from our 4200′ altitude change from Raton.

The scenery was amazing – as mountainous terrain always is. The “pole line” took us south of Angel Fire Airport (AXX el. 8380′ N36°25.32′ W105°17.39′) centered in the valley surrounded by peaks stretching as high as Wheeler Peak at 13,161’ and bordered on the north by Eagle Nest Lake. The area is a ski resort for those New Mexicans are so inclined, and is especially convenient to Taos, Santa Fe and even Albuquerque. ‘Tis a charming mountain valley, with bunches of ski chalets scattered about – but I’m not a snow guy and don’t plan on becoming one in my dotage. Our “pole line” kept us south of the Taos Pueblo World Heritage site above which pilots are requested to maintain 12,300′ MSL. I wasn’t keen on climbing any higher, so the “pole line” proved to be a good friend.

Just like that we were past the Sangre De Cristos and began a gentle descent to the southeast of Taos (SKX el.7095′ N36°27.49′ W105°40.35′), thence, just north of Pilar, NM, turning southwesterly towards Ohkay Owingeh (E14 el. 5790′ N36°01.57′ W106°), to avoid Los Alamos (LAM el. 7171′ N35°52.78 W106°16.12′) and the restricted airspace south and west of it. We also avoided overflying the Bandelier National Monument, a marvelously well-preserved site, where the Pueblo people established homes over 11,000 years ago – and a place I had once admired on a visit a marriage ago, a galaxy far, far away.

There had been thunderstorms forecast in and around the Santa Fe/Taos area, and we could see them abuilding south and southwest of us. With all the bloody high terrain about the area, orographic lifting action happens and, with the right amount of moisture, thunderstorms get a good start. We didn’t need to start playing dodge-em cars with the thunderboomers, but we were getting closer to them – although they pretty much stayed where we saw them.

We skirted Santa Fe (SAF el. 6349′ N35°37.03’ W106° to the northwest and I was delighted to realize that, ever since Taos, we had been following the course of the Rio Grande River. I kept wondering what the waterway was below and Bob chuckled when he told me. Somehow I knew the Rio Grande ran through Santa Fe (I guess from the visit with the ex-), but, as usual, I’m a bit slow on the uptake. Life is tough when the word that best describes your existence is, “DUH.”

Our south/southwesterly tour of the Rio Grande River ended over the Cochiti Dam, when we turned almost due west towards a whole bunch of beautiful nothing. We would have turned west, anyway, because a few thunderstorms that had spawned north of Albuquerque were encroaching on our route. We played tag with one, skirting it to the north, then a while later, we danced south of another, affording some amazing rainbow-framed views of the spectacular red rock country near the Jemez Pueblo. It may not be quite as majestic as the Sedona area, but with a rainbow above, Jemez was hard to beat. (I swear that I’ll download the pix of the trip and try to post them on the site – either as an accompaniment to this article, or as a photo essay on its own.)

We were in the wilderness on this leg, but the ground speed remained a constant 95-100kts. This leg of the journery was the longest at 263nm and my fanny was starting to drag. We played tag with a couple of thunderstorms in the vicinity of Mt Taylor – funny how mountains like to toss turbulence into the sky. We spied grand and spectacular scenery in this “Land of Enchantment™”, but even with the unmatched beauty of the place, it all was growing old. And, when you’re tired, and old yourself, all you want is a bite to eat and a soft and quiet bed.

I40 crawled into view from the south as it turned northwest out of Grants, NM. The sun was dropping very low in the sky, streetlights and neons were beginning to flicker on as we overflew I40 in search of the beacon that beckoned us to Gallup (GUP el. 6472′ N35°30.66′ W108°47.36′). On CTAF after catching the ASOS, we heard an Amflight cargo carrier taking Runway 6 on an easterly departure. We spied the airport, I made a left downwind entry and clanged it onto the runway at the end of our longest day. I was done.

But not quite. We still had to tie her down, hit the can, find a lineman for fuel and find a lift to a hotel. As it happened at 6:07pm local time at Gallup Municipal Airport on Monday, 20Oct2014, ’tweren’t a soul to be found. The FBO closed at 6pm and, apart from the Amflighters, we were the only ones on the field. Sigh.

And, if you’d forgive an old crank for a mo’, gentle reader, here comes a rant.

I’m sure that Gallup, New Mexico, is a nice place. I’m sure that a cultural life exists therein, the existence of which I missed. I’m sure that Gallup is filled with nice people, friendly people, helpful people. It’s just that I didn’t find them, that day. Granted I arrived in Gallup tired from a very long day of flying. We were up at 7am, in the air at 8am, flew until just past 6pm, landed at four different airports, flew up at 10,500′ for parts of an hour, and fought a strong headwind for the longest part of our journey. The flight, that day, had been fascinating as I watched the land below morph from high plains into relatively high mountains and then high desert. It’s just that, when we got to Gallup at the end of that very long day, little was easy – and absolutely not one damned thing was fascinating.

I mentioned that the FBO had closed at 6pm. The place had been abandoned, deserted – they must have jetted from the place the moment the second hand crossed six. There were some bustlings of activity as the Amflight pilots/support staff schlepped around the airport, but they were WAY too bizzy to bother with a couple of transients who had arrived, just, in a super cub. Gallup Airport had closed and ’tweren’t a soul about to help us. We searched high and low for humanity and found none.

A pleasant-enough Budget Car Rental employee eventually emerged from the Lady’s room and advised us that the only motel nearby was about a 10 minute walk up the road. There was, however, no one available to transport us and our bags there. The walk, dragging bags and flight gear, was closer to a 15 minute stumble along a rumpled road devoid of successful businesses. Apparently we were on the wrong side of Gallup’s tracks – and tracks there were as a number of freight trains rumbled past us on our stroll. The motel was one of those “extended stay” chains that, oftentimes, provide shelter to those for whom “homeless” is the next stop. It appeared that were the case in this place.

A pleasant-enough room clerk helped securing a “suite” for the night. She assured us that the “suite” she selected for us was at the far back of the building, as far away from the rattling freight trains that clattered past, conveniently shrieking their impressive air horns just as they passed our “extended stay” palace because there was a grade crossing nearby. Bob, train buff that he is, was delighted at the sounds of railborne commerce – I was, perhaps, a tad under-appreciative of its charms.

When asked about the best, nearest, restaurant, the clerk advised that there was a steak house just the other side of the airport – in other words, a fifteen or so minute walk. Cabs, she implied, were hard to come by. The best restaurant choice, in her opinion, was the nice “Mexican-American” place right next door. “And,” she beamed, “I have a 10% off coupon if you mention that you’re staying with us.” Extended stay with benefits. How delightful.

The “suite” had a dinette/dining area/living area with a bed, and a separate bedroom with the sole bathroom’s access through the bedroom. I shambled back to the clerk and got Bob his own room nearer the street and the trains he so loved. The “Mexican-American” place next door wasn’t haute’ cuisine, but the server was pleasant and the food was fine – unfortunately the beer choices weren’t. Oh well.

The next morning dawned bright and cold with frost on the window. I had watched the Steelers beat the Texans the night before and was a tad slow emerging from the room – Bob had finished his breakfast and headed to the airport. By the time I arrived, he had fueled and preflighted the airplane and, mostly, defrosted the windscreen. Lordy, what a good friend he is.

The first leg was fairly short – a trip o’ertop some middling mountains enroute Winslow-Lindbergh Airport (INW el. 4941′ N35°01.30′ W110°43.38′). Interstate 40 and the railroad bear off on a south/southwesterly course, whilst we flew a straight line farther north. The terrain was beautiful in the early morning with the sun backlighting low slung mountains and buttes in the 5500-6500′ elevations. We flew north of the Petrified Forest National Monument – and I vaguely recalled a stop therein during a cross-country drive with my Mom, Sister and Aunt Stephana, early in the 1950’s.

We planned for a stop at Winslow for the fuel we’d need on the next longer leg – and I wanted to visit because of the name (Winslow LINDBERGH Regional) and the Eagle’s song. (“Well I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona and such a fine sight to see. It was a girl, my lord, in a flat bed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me. Come on Bayaybeeee. Don’t say mayaybee. I gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me.”)

The reality of Winslow, Arizona, on 21October1014, ain’t gonna save nobody. The airport was devoid of life, charm, or an open building – and I guarantee there weren’t no girl in no flatbed ford slowin’ down to take a look at me.

Lindbergh had piloted the first TAT Tri-Motor flight westbound “transcontinental” flight from Los Angeles and landed at Winslow in July of 1929 – hence the airport name. Passengers then would continue on to Clovis, New Mexico, board a train to Waynoka, Oklahoma, thence by plane to Columbus, Ohio, traveling the final leg on the Pennsylvania Railroad into New York City.

We were outta there in the time it took to fuel the airplane and take a slash – didn’t see no bathroom, so I watered some weeds – my final comment on the deathless charms of Winslow.

Southwesterly we pressed on, shedding nary a tear as we put Winslow’s lack of charm at our 6 o’clock, on the longest leg of the last day, 217nm to Blythe, California (BLH el. 400′ N33°37.15′ W114°43.01). We had to climb pretty quickly to top out Hutch Mountain, 35nm southwest – and enroute passed a cluster of lakes (seeming odd for high desert) that were due north of the oddly-named metropolis (snicker) Lost Eden.

Lost Eden? Arizona? Please.

Crossing Hutch Mountain (el. 8532′) at around 9000′, we could see Mormon (dry) Lake (Isn’t it appropriate that a lake named Mormon should be dry?) ten miles north, and shortly thereafter the spectacular red rock canyons surrounding Sedona (SEZ el. 4830′ N34°50.92′ W111°47.31′).

Sedona (or SS Sedona as those who have landed on its mesa top airport call it) is a beautiful place, a close destination for San Diegans desperate for salving their spiritual auras with its new-age healing gurus. It’s also a wonderful place for normal humans who like to hike, or gaze slack-jawed at the canyons, or snack on rattlesnake tid-bits at the copper-topped bar in the Cowboy Club.

We continued southwest, passing Prescott’s Ernest A Love Field (PRC el. 5045′ N34°39.29′ W112°25.15′) desperate to avoid the Embry-Riddle-ite filled skies. Crossing Mount Union (el. 7979′) we started a gradual descent as the terrain began to drop slowly beneath us. I started to feel the pull of the ocean, even though it was a solid 400 miles away. ‘Twas also the time that I started to feel cramped, crowded and cranky. The trip was beginning to take its toll – although I was able to restrain myself because I was flying this leg and I was up front. There were still mountains ahead that needed crossing in the Gladden 1 MOA, but we were nearing home and I was nearing the end of my tether. Approaching the Colorado River, south of Parker, Arizona (Avi Suquilla Airport P20 el.458′ N34°08.99′ W114°16.07’) I experienced a giddy fit. I’m finally home.

Well, not quite.

Finding Blythe should have been easy. ‘Tweren’t. It’s bordered by the Colorado River, 10nm east, US 95, a major rail line, and Interstate 10 which parallels Runway 26, just south, and appears to be on the airport property. From 5 miles I still couldn’t find it. Bob kept pointing it out and, I swear, I was on a mile base before I saw the frkn runway. We bounced onto the asphalt, taxied to fuel, schmoozed with the attendant after a bio-break, then  paid for the last tank of fuel we’d purchase on the trip. We were almost home. California, at last. I was, officially DONE.

‘Twere Bob’s leg and, stellar human that he is, offered it to me, but as I wrote, I was DONE. “Don’t you want to fly it into Montgomery?” he asked. “Nope,” I said, “Don’t care, don’t wanna.” Gemini Boy was preparing to rear his ugly mug.

The final leg trucked west, north of the 2507 Restricted Areas and past the Chuckwalla Mountains. (Really? Chuckwalla?) We approached Chiriaco Summit (L77 el. 1713′ N33°39.89′ W115°42.60′) which was formerly known as Shaver Summit, and, in the spring of 1942, became a magnet for the troops at George Patton’s Desert Training Center, Camp Young. There is a museum honoring Patton a short stumble from the airport.

But we weren’t stopping. Just past Chiriaco there’s a 3816’ peak and from there we made a beeline, south/southwest towards the Julian VORTAC (JLI). Since we don’t have a nav radio, we kept the trip pure of navaids by heading in the general direction of the VORTAC – because we both knew where it was.

That last climb seemed to take forever, but, when we crested Volcan Mountain, home to the VORTAC (and the final resting place for more airplanes than you can remember – go to the NTSB’s website and do a search for crashes near JLI), we could see the ocean and were finally, nearly home.

The very straight line Bob had drawn on the chart could have taken us into Miramar’s surface area Class Bravo, so we juked a tad south by San Vicente Reservoir, north of Gillespie, o’ertop Fortuna Mountain, and HOME. The Montgomery controllers welcomed us back, admiring 83679’s lines. And we were DONE.

Not quite.

The final concern had troubled me the entire trip: what if we can’t cram her 18″ per wing longer wingtips inside our T-hangar. With great care, and the last little bit of strength remaining to me, we squeezed her into her warm new home, clearing the doors by a whopping two and a half inches a side. Home. At last. It was that easy.

 

What was the best part of the trip, you ask? Maybe the ever-changing tapestry of textures, colors and terrain features was my fave – although it’s easy to say a close second was great companionship, sharing the joy of flying with someone who loves the sky even more than I, the spectacular scenery, and the completion of a new adventure to add to the memory. What was the worst part? 7am wakeups weren’t great and 40°F morning temperatures weren’t fun for my la-de-dah SoCal fanny to deal with. The very worst part? Well, it had to be that hissy fit starting about the last 3 hours: I was done with cramped, early, slow, low and let everyone on board know it. Bob politely asked me to unplug my mic jack if I needed to vent: rumble, grumble, bitch, vent, whine. Fortunately, Bob didn’t take my grumbling personally. And we had a fine debrief at Casa Machado over Isabel’s Cadillac Margaritas and munchies, shared with the Greek and Todd. A foine toime was had by all, indeed.

Would I do it again?

Well, Laurel and I are taking 83679 up to Sandpoint, Idaho, this summer, to hobnob with Gary and Sue and Joe and Kim. The distance is the same, or similar. The scenery should be spectaculah. Maybe if we don’t have to rise at the crack of dawn we’ll be able to do it without another hissy fit. We’ll see.

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