By Greg Brown
We had endured a long dry spell here in Arizona, and I’m not just talking about lack of rain. Following months of toil without a break, Jean and I were physically and emotionally drained.
“I must get out of here for some reason other than work,” she complained, while packing for yet another business trip. “When’s the last time we went camping? Or walked a beach?”
It was true. Family obligations and our respective work responsibilities had somehow consumed an entire year. Summer vacation was interrupted when one of Jean’s employees unexpectedly quit; then another work emergency displaced the autumn excursion we planned. Now came Jean’s busy fall travel schedule; she was off to Boston on a two-day airline marathon. Unfortunately, our distance from the East Coast business centers means traveling a full day each way.
“If only you could join me,” she lamented as I drove her to the airport. “But it’s not worth doing. As usual, I’ll stagnate for 10 hours in airline seats for a half-day meeting.”
I had hardly returned home when Jean phoned from the airport.
“Guess what!” she said. “I need to cover a conference in San Diego next week for a sick coworker. Would you fly over and join me toward the end of the meeting? It’s not a proper vacation, but at least we can have some fun there and fly home together afterwards.”
This was welcome news at a time when we really needed it. Within easy flying range from Phoenix by light airplane, San Diego is a world away in scenery, climate and lifestyle. What’s more, it ranks among our favorite destinations, and we hadn’t visited there in years. Any amount of sea and sand would help replenish our batteries. Now, if I could just finish my projects in time.
Finally it was Friday, and I arrived at the airport. Hurriedly, I polished the windshield before reminding myself, “Hey, what’s the rush?” Not until I departed westward into open desert did it fully sink in that I was as free as the wind, treading sapphire skies over gingerbread mountains, in my own flying carpet.
Arizona’s Sonoran Desert features a smattering of vegetation, but beyond Yuma, all hints of green yield to nude rock and sand. Looking down at off-roader encampments near Imperial Dunes, I was reminded of our tenuous grip on this hostile terrain. In colonial times, Spanish friars deemed overland travel impossible along this route. Humans and pack animals simply couldn’t carry enough water to trek from Arizona missions to those of Southern California. Only after Native American guides revealed isolated rainwater “tanks” along the way did the trip become possible during certain times of the year. Not until the early 1900s, when a wood-plank highway conquered the shifting sands west of Yuma, did a direct road link Phoenix with San Diego.
Now, verdant fields line the Colorado River and the Imperial Valley near El Centro, but crouching in wait beyond their irrigated boundaries are endless and deadly ochre badlands. This is still no place to travel unprepared, so I took comfort in the life-sustaining canteens in my backseat.
Two desert hours later, I crossed a nondescript ridge like so many others before it, only to relive the astonishment of every San Diego-bound pilot when Eden materializes on the other side. Sea breeze suddenly soothed my nostrils, and indigo ocean consumed my windshield. I trimmed for landing, anticipating the glow in my loved one’s eyes when we rendezvoused in this fairyland place. Jean is hardly the romantic type, but sure enough, she waited, beaming, outside the hotel when I arrived. A waterfront stroll was imperative even before I unpacked. How can this quicksilver paradise be so near, I wondered, and yet so different from our arid home?
We dined al fresco that evening among weekend revelers in the Gaslight District, and awakened the next morning to ships navigating San Diego Bay within sight of our balcony. After brunching beachside on Coronado Island, we fulfilled Jean’s fantasy of strolling barefoot along the shore. If only we could soar like those nearby pelicans, just inches above the waves.
“Now what?” asked Jean, not wanting the magic to end. On a friend’s recommendation, we rounded the bay to Cabrillo National Monument. There, we ogled sea creatures in their tidal pools, toured the old Point Loma Lighthouse, and hiked the Bayview Trail overlooking San Diego. Afterwards, we toasted the day over glorious seafood in the rippling red of a harbor sunset.
Our evening ended in the hotel Jacuzzi, listening to a retired attorney describe life on a sailboat; he was to embark the next day on a 750-mile race to Cabo San Lucas. I swapped tales of aerial adventure for his of the sea.
“We have much in common,” the man concluded. “Be it boats or airplanes, the big stories always seem to involve solving mechanical problems, or surviving storms.”
The next morning, it was time to go home, but we were on slower time now and in no rush to leave. On the waterfront, we spotted the aircraft carrier USS Midway, her decks bulging with aircraft and open for public tour. Jean cares little for military attractions, but given her vacation demeanor, she agreed to join me for what proved to be a highlight of our trip. Surrounded by history, we imagined, like every aviator, catapulting from this floating runway into battle, and admired the “real pilots” who have actually done it.
Time was running out, so we turned tail from blue waters and aimed our
spinner toward the golden Arizona desert. Funny how some excursions add up to more vacation than the sum of their days. This weekend of wind and water had softened our voices and recharged our souls. As we winged our way homeward, I asked of Jean’s plans for the upcoming week.
“I don’t know yet,” she replied, pausing. “But frankly, who cares?”
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].