By Greg Brown
“Dad! Why are you still at home?” asked my son when I picked up the phone. “Spring break starts now. You should have taken off hours ago to come pick us up!”
“Sorry, Austin. I’ve been waiting all morning for the weather to improve.”
“The snow’s ended here, Dad; I can see patches of blue sky.”
“Could be, but ice-filled clouds obscure the mountains throughout Colorado and northern New Mexico,” I said. “I don’t dare take off. What’s more, Colorado’s weather is way behind forecast; tomorrow better be flyable, because I can’t come on Sunday.”
“Forget Sunday, Dad. We want to get out of this place now!”
Months earlier, Austin had asked me to retrieve him from Colorado Springs for spring break. “I’ve offered my friend Richard a ride home to Phoenix with us,” he’d explained at the time. “It’s his mother’s birthday and he’s short on cash. Besides, that way I can get some flight time.”
“I’ll be glad to pick you up,” I’d replied. “Just keep in mind that the other two times we flew to Colorado Springs at this time of year, we were trapped there by blizzards.”
“Dad, the weather will be fine,” he’d insisted. “No way will we get stranded three times in a row. Just don’t worry about it, OK?”
I consented, but not before making backup travel arrangements—standby buddy passes from an airline pilot friend. Five hundred miles of springtime mountain weather couldn’t be ignored.
As it turned out, I’d indeed avoided a third time snowed in at Colorado Springs, but Austin wasn’t so lucky. Similar conditions now prevented me from picking him up following Denver’s meanest blizzard in a century. Worse yet, in the storm’s aftermath airline flights were overbooked for days to come. Traveling standby was out of the question for the young men.
“Now what?” asked my son, upset. “I sure as heck don’t want to waste spring break here on campus.”
“Any chance you could hitch a ride to Albuquerque, Austin?” I asked. “The weather’s better there and I should be able to get in tonight or tomorrow. Otherwise, you could grab an airline flight from there.”
“You’ve got to be kidding, Dad. Most other students are long gone. And every available car seat was claimed months ago.”
“Ask around anyway, will you? If that doesn’t work, we’ll come up with something else.”
I was checking bus schedules on the Internet when Austin called back.
“We may luck out,” he said. “A guy from my dorm is driving to Las Vegas. Since the snow’s closed Interstate 70 west of Denver, he’s considering the southern route through Albuquerque. I’ll call you when he makes up his mind. This better work, because almost everyone else has left.”
After hanging up, I illustrated the rescue plan on sectional charts for my wife, Jean. But then the phone rang again.
“You won’t believe this, Dad, but I-70 just opened westbound so we’ve lost our ride to Albuquerque. What’s more, I’ve just learned that we can’t stay in the dorm tonight.”
“OK,” I said. “Arrange a place to stay, and I’ll work on getting you home tomorrow.”
We hung up and I returned to my chart. Then it struck me. Any road to Las Vegas would take Austin’s friends through western Colorado and Utah, both of which were clear and forecast to remain that way. But when I tried to contact my son, he didn’t answer.
“Why didn’t I think of this before?” I said to Jean. “I’ve got to reach Austin before that car leaves!” Frantically, I redialed repeatedly. Finally, I got through.
“Has that driver left?” I asked, fingers crossed.
“I don’t know,” said Austin.
“Well, if you can catch him, hitch a ride no matter what highway he’s taking. Call me from the car if necessary; I’ll come up with a rendezvous point.”
I paced the floor for over an hour before hearing back from Austin.
“We’re in the car, Dad, westbound on I-70,” he said from his cell phone.
“Great!” I said. “I’ll get back to you with directions.”
Searching for airports convenient to the highway, I settled on Grand Junction, in western Colorado. Grand Junction Regional Airport/Walker Field borders the interstate there, with hotels and restaurants nearby.
“If the boys need a ride from the hotel in the morning, we’ll loan you a car to pick them up,” offered a friendly voice at Timberline Aviation.
Suddenly this trip sounded like fun again. Why do unexplored routes and unfamiliar airports hold such intrigue for aviators? Joyfully, I phoned Austin with the details.
The next morning, Jean and I winged northward over some of the West’s most exotic landscape. Ascending from the Sonoran Desert with its gigantic cacti, we skimmed snow-frosted pines carpeting the Mogollon Rim, then traversed Meteor Crater and the Painted Desert into Navajo country. Richly wooded Black Mesa set the stage for Monument Valley with its legions of austere pinnacles.
Soon Jean and I peered down into gooseneck canyons in Utah, and dodged 12,000-foot snow-slathered peaks. With alternating treasures of golden desert and alpine snow to entertain us, three and a half hours aloft seemed to pass in minutes. High mountains shelter Grand Junction on three sides; we circumnavigated them to the west, and then descended along the Colorado River to our destination at the confluence of the Gunnison.
Awaiting us in smiles and shirtsleeves after this supernatural trip were Austin and his comrade Richard.
“Finally!” said my son, welcoming us with hugs. “Can we get going right now? Vacation is wasting away.”
“Sure,” I said. “Mom even brought lunch for the flight home.”
After refueling the plane, we took off with Austin at the controls. We’d barely climbed out of the canyon when he activated the autopilot.
“Now for something really important,” he said, pulling a book from his backpack and handing a camera to Richard.
“What’s with that?” I asked. “You have homework over spring break?”
“No way,” replied Austin. “But my literature prof said that whoever shoots their picture with ‘The Iliad’ in the most interesting place during vacation gets extra credit for class.” He gestured out the window toward white-cloaked mountains. “This is certainly an interesting place, and spring break has finally begun!”
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].