By Greg Brown
“Funny how certain people bring richness to our lives,” I observe to my friend Dan as we cruise southeastward into New Mexico. We’re en route to visit my old buddy Bruce Papier, who’s showing his Mini at the Southern New Mexico British Car Club show. Neither Dan nor I have ever before visited Las Cruces, just north of El Paso. Somehow Bruce’s activities always lead me to new adventures.
Dan earned his pilot credentials only a few months ago. With 60 hours under his belt, he’d jumped at the chance to accompany me today on this 300-mile cross-country.
“This is the farthest I’ve ever flown from home,” he exclaims. It will also be his first experience with density altitude and a high performance airplane.
“That’s quite a ridge up there,” observes Dan of the hulking mass cradling Lake Roosevelt.
“It’s the Sierra Ancha,” I reply. “That mountain range is always intimidating, and sometimes downright sinister, when the winds are blowing. Once, when my son Austin and I crossed that ridge after visiting Bruce in Santa Fe, our Flying Carpet was hurled over Lake Roosevelt like a leaf on the crest of an ocean wave. Made us feel mighty small. Returning home another time, I surfed stratus over the Sierra Ancha into a gaping hole revealing the lake far below. It was as if Earth had cracked under my feet and invited the lake to swallow me. You know how you rarely feel height in an airplane? Well, that time I certainly did.”
“Sounds like you and Bruce go way back.” says Dan.
“We do,” I reply.
Years ago, while teaching together at Purdue University, Bruce and I discovered a common passion for cars, art, computers and airplanes. Bruce also flew hot air balloons. Those interests generated countless flying trips together.
By the time Jean and I moved to Arizona, Bruce lived in northern New Mexico–first Las Vegas and then Santa Fe. I remember our first flight there from Phoenix. We traced the route of the Spanish conquistadors, reliving beneath our wings their trek over inhospitable terrain, their surprise upon discovering ancient Indian pueblos, and their dismay at encountering impassable lava flows. While we knew their destination, they did not. For our journey home that trip, the weather turned unexpectedly sour; I photocopied instrument flying charts in the tiny trailer that then served as the Las Vegas, N.M. Flight Service Station.
“Something interesting happens whenever I fly to visit Bruce,” I reminisce to Dan. “Once I took my boys along to Santa Fe. They were small then, and one accidentally opened the door at 11,000 feet. There was no danger in it, of course, but those sorts of things kids and their dads remember. On a subsequent flight, the clouds lowered at the Arizona border and I found myself unable to get an instrument clearance, because the St. Johns navigational station had gone off the air. Can you believe there’s only one VOR navigational station between Phoenix and Albuquerque? That’s 320 miles!”
Dan and I soon find ourselves ogling mammoth open-pit mines along the New Mexico border. First we marvel at their size, then at the frighteningly brilliant hues of nearby tailing ponds.
“Can’t imagine what creates those colors,” I ponder out loud.
“It’s probably good that we don’t know,” Dan replies.
Beyond Silver City, the terrain turns grey and desolate, so conversation gives way to private thoughts. A talented artist, Bruce was once honored with an exhibit in the New Mexico Capitol building in Santa Fe. It was a weeknight, but I flew over from Phoenix to attend the show’s opening. Bruce was astonished when I entered the gallery. Having work next day, I soared home that night over mountains slathered with honey-butter moonlight.
Another special flight took me to Las Vegas for Bruce’s retirement party. There I met another good friend of his, Jon van Arsdel, an Albuquerque Flight Service specialist. Since then, I always radio Jon a friendly hello when flying in the vicinity. On days off, Jon is a private pilot and a Mariachi musician–someday I hope to experience this six-foot-tall, blonde Dutchman strumming his pot-bellied guitarrón and singing Mexican corridos in his concho-studded sombrero.
Soon, Las Cruces materializes outside our windshield, before the jagged Organ Mountains. Borrowing a loaner car at the airport, Dan and I motor downtown to Mesilla Plaza, a historic square hardly changed since cowboy times. There waits Bruce with his dog and his scarlet Mini. He’s greyer and balder than before, but maintains his youth through highbrow humor.
Following introductions, the three of us slurp authentic enchiladas and wander the show. There are Jags and Triumphs, MGs and Austin Healys–even a Morris Minor convertible. Bruce predictably favors the Minis, but Dan falls for a Jaguar Salon sporting burgundy lacquer deeper than Lake Roosevelt. My own favorite proves to be a 1925 Morgan three-wheeler racing car, finished in British Racing Green.
We pause to ponder a running Sunbeam Alpine offered at the bargain price of $500. It seems incongruous, classic British sports cars showcasing their charms before adobe buildings built with stick and straw ceilings. Roadsters display their shiny engines outside the old Confederate territorial capitol building where long ago, Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang.
Soon it’s time for us to chase the sun westward, but no sadness erupts because we all know another excuse will arise to reunite us.
“Are you coming to the Albuquerque Balloon Festival this year?” asks Bruce as we hug shoulders.
“Maybe so,” I say. “Maybe so.”
Rare are the friends you can go without seeing for years and then resume your bond uninterrupted upon reuniting. Bruce is one of those people, and Dan will likely become one, too.
This year’s “British Car Day” event takes place in Las Cruces on April 28-30. For information visit [http://www.zianet.com/bmcsnm/Small/homeframeset-events.htm]. 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].