By Greg Brown
“This seems like old times,” observed Jean as we soared like Santa through clear Christmas skies. It was true. Nearly every December since moving to Arizona Jean and I had piled kids and gifts into our Flying Carpet for a family journey to Tucson, where my brother Alan and his wife Lesley had a vacation home. Their time-honored Yuletide excursion from Chicago offered at least one annual opportunity to gather our families under one roof. After growing up in the Midwest Jean and I had never fully acclimated to celebrating Christmas Arizona-style in short sleeves and bathing suits, but the presence of family helped make it believable.
We cherished flying from Phoenix for the festivities back then. Along with bypassing holiday traffic on Interstate 10, we got to celebrate the special day aloft. Our longtime destination was private La
Cholla Airpark northeast of Tucson. Not only was it convenient to my brother’s place, but the narrow runway nestled in cactus-studded desert gave the convincing impression of landing at an Old West ranch.
Every year Alan and Lesley would greet us at the secluded airstrip, their kids gleefully watching as mounds of gifts emerged from our baggage compartment. Then we’d sip Alan’s secret-formula margaritas around the pool while comparing the blossoming heights of our respective children, judging their ball-throwing and swimming contests, and applauding their youthful musical performances.
Unfortunately that enjoyable tradition ended when my brother and sister-in-law divorced. As so often happens when couples split, we lost contact with Lesley and the kids while lives and legal settlements were sorted out. Lesley got the Tucson house and Alan stopped going there. So after years of family pleasure, we found ourselves home alone on Christmases with no holiday flying destination.
This December, however, we received an unexpected invitation. “We’re again celebrating the holidays in Tucson this year,” wrote Lesley. “It’s been so long since we’ve seen you. Would you consider visiting us?”
Of course we consented, but enough had changed to make this trip a new adventure. My brother Alan wouldn’t be there, of course. How would we react to Lesley’s boyfriend, Gary? And how would he feel about meeting the brother of his girlfriend’s ex-husband? Then there was the novelty of flying to Tucson for the first time from our current home in Flagstaff.
It felt odd after such a hiatus again requesting permission to land at La Cholla. In the past Jean and I had sported shorts and T-shirts for the desert flight from Phoenix, but at Flagstaff this morning we donned down coats to carve snow and ice from in front of our hangar. Once aloft, we reminisced about holiday visits long past: treating our teenaged niece Rachel to her first flight at the controls, and watching our then-toddler nephews play-flying on the airport ramp.
Gradually the snow disappeared as we journeyed southward over lower country, and new vistas marked the change from our previous well-worn route. From what seemed an arm’s length away Jean photographed the Four Peaks dominating Phoenix’s skyline, then turned her camera on sun-silvered mountain reservoirs that nourish the city from the East. It seemed strange skirting the hazy hustle and bustle of Phoenix airspace at a tranquil distance after swimming through it so often in the past.
Then Mt. Lemmon cracked the horizon, and we skimmed foothills north of Tucson to land. “Watch for vehicles and animals,” warned my directory, so we perused La Cholla’s runway and windsock
from mid-field before touchdown. Subdivisions had sprung from the surrounding desert since our last visit, and nearby roadways teemed with traffic. But the sleepy airport ramp remained as we remembered it, and waiting to greet us when we taxied in were Lesley and Gary. “How long did it take to fly from Flagstaff?” asked Lesley, welcoming us with hugs.
“An hour and 15 minutes, compared to over four hours of driving,” replied Jean, “not to mention avoiding the Phoenix traffic.”
Waiting at home were our nieces and nephews. How they’ve changed —Rachel soon graduates from college, and before long the boys will be high schoolers. Also there to greet us were Lesley’s mother and her brother’s family. Their company seemed especially rich since we’d wondered if we’d ever see them again after the divorce. Like old times, we assembled poolside to swap family stories and gossip. Gary fit in like a long-lost cousin: he grew up in Wisconsin near where Jean’s family came from, and now lives in Madison where I first learned to fly.
Some traditions never die. Lesley’s niece Sara had been little more than a toddler when we last saw her. Now she played “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on her violin, accompanied in muffled song by her own baby sister. Lumps clogged my throat as I remembered our own sons performing many years earlier at the same gathering.
“Greg! It’s already 4:00!” warned Jean, waking me from the warm comfort of family. Wanting to be well along on our flight before dusk cloaked northern Arizona, we hurriedly packed our things. “Be
sure to call us when you land!” pleaded Lesley as we remounted the Flying Carpet at La Cholla. She and Gary waved when we waggled our wings goodbye after takeoff.
Snow reappeared as we journeyed homeward, and our private sky lit up with the grandest of holiday lights. Holding hands while savoring sunset over white-whiskered mountains, Jean and I agreed that this Arizona Christmas had been as warm and rejuvenating as those remembered from the past.
“It was great seeing Lesley and her family again, and I really like her boyfriend Gary,” said Jean, shivering as she retrieved our winter coats after landing. “And coming back to snow like this makes it really feel like Christmas. Let’s light the tree when we get home and build a fire. I’m in the mood for hot chocolate!”
Author of numerous books and articles, Greg Brown is a columnist for AOPA Flight Training magazine. Read more of his tales in “Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane,” available through your favorite bookstore, pilot shop, or online catalog, and visit [http://www.gregbrownflyingcarpet.com].