We spent the last night of our great adventure in Three Forks, Montana. After tolerating what a local recommended as “really good” Chinese food, we said goodnight to one another and agreed on an early morning wake up at 5:30 am. Even though we we knew it would take some effort to wake up so early, we also realized that if we were to make it home in one day, we would need to take advantage of the perfect flying weather that a ridge of high pressure was providing. When I called Chrissy the next morning on the agreed upon time of 5:30, she sounded like a zombie. I was tired and wired at the same time. The deck from my room looking east showed a stunning sunrise and perfectly clear weather. I was excited to get going and over the Rockies before it got bumpy and I was equally anxious to be home. We all were. The three of us convened in the lobby, slurped down some weak coffee and headed to the airport. As the rising sun started brightening the day, it was obvious that we had wonderful flying conditions. Cool, clear, and calm.
We pulled up outside the airport fence in the rental car, popped the trunk, gathered our gear and then realized; none of us knew the code to the gate. We stared in frustration at the 8 foot fence topped with barbed wire that spanned the entire perimeter of the airport. It was was pure torture to have woken up so early and have made it so efficiently to the airport for an early departure only to watch the rising sun brighten the colors of the Cub and the Prince, not a mere 300 feet away. Fueled up, ready to go, and separated from us by chain link and barbed wire. I couldn’t believe it. It was way too early for anyone to be at the airport office on a Sunday. I left a message with the airport manager, feeling sorry to call him so early, but feeling way sorrier for ourselves. It was during this message that Jerry had thought to boost Chrissy up to look over the open space above the gate. She just kept climbing up like a spider monkey, got a leg over and dropped to the ground on the other side. I could have kissed her when she opened the gate for Jerry and I, but I was on the phone. The airport manager had kindly called me back with the gate code.
There is something so optimistic about early morning flights. Once awake, taking to the sky with the rising sun seems to be the most perfect way to usher in a new day. The air is smooth and cool, and the sun bringing in a rich palette of colors which grow and deepen with each passing minute.
We took off to the north from Three Forks. It had been chilly just standing on the ramp, so Chrissy and I, in anticipation of much cooler temperatures at the high altitudes we’d be flying at bundled up. She even slipped a pair of sweat pants over her jeans. Climbing out, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the temperatures grew warmer as we ascended. A temperature inversion, our lucky day. Not only were we blessed with ideal flying weather, we were comfortable and warm as we flew to Missoula for our first fuel stop. It was a stunning flight over the giant Rockies with wide, sweeping valleys, the air so fresh and clean. It was well worth getting up early for.
We made an efficient stop in Missoula, with me following Jerry as he made all of the radio calls to the tower as a flight of two. I had a handheld transceiver in the Prince, but it wasn’t as powerful as Jerry’s radio in the Cub. We were just loading up when I received a phone call. It was Jesse, our friend who flies smoke jumpers out of Missoula. He had seen on the Spot Tracker that we were in Missoula and invited us over the tour the smoke jumper facility. Regrettably, we declined in the interest of keeping our momentum rolling toward home. Jesse wished us a good trip and off we went.
Our final leg through the Rockies and the air was still smooth with no clouds and great visibility. We crossed over the small town of Kellogg, Idaho, crested some smaller foothills and began our descent into Couer d’ Alene, Idaho. the Rocky mountains behind us. Once again we made an efficient stop, but we were all starting to feel the cumulative effects of our compounded travel. Chrissy and I wanted to lay on the nice warm asphalt of the parking lot like snakes, we were chilled. But we gathered ourselves up, and climbed back into the airplanes. A few miles to the west, and I made the Student Prince waggle as I had done over every state crossing as entertainment for Chrissy because I had told her you can actually feel state borders from the air. We were in Washington! The dry, hot air over the miles and miles of eastern Washington wheat fields produced thermals and it was a bumpy ride to Chelan. Our route took us over the confluence of the Spokane and Columbia rivers and we flew parallel to the Columbia and then over it as it took a southerly course. What a massive, impressive body of water. Set down deep in a canyon carved over eons, and dammed in several places, it is still mighty and beautiful. I wondered what it look like before it had been dammed. It was a treat to see it from the air.
Descending down into the valley of fruit for the Chelan airport, I had the distinct feeling that I was letting down into an oven. When we landed and emerged from our airplanes, the three of us looked stunned from the heat coupled with our exhaustion. We rallied our collective energies just enough to fuel both airplanes and push them out of the way of the pumps. Then we collapsed in the shade of a maintenance hangar for a break. Except that the young mechanic was enjoying his Sunday inside the hangar by applying some chemicals to his airplane project while listening to some heavy metal a high volume. We lasted about 10 minutes in the shade filled with chemical smell and loud music before we mustered ourselves for the final leg over the Cascades and home. We were all so hot and tired, and Jerry and I didn’t agree precisely on which airport he would be landing at when we arrived home. Either the Jefferson County International airport, where I am based, or on his own grass strip at his home, about four miles south. He told me he would figure it out on the way.
Desperate to get into the air and get some air flowing, I had to wait while an ultralight took off ahead of us and gained some distance. Finally I pushed the throttle forward for the last leg of our incredible trip. Climbing over the airport once to gain altitude before tackling the Cascades, my pulse quickened knowing we were nearly home. I climbed the Prince hard to make altitude for the first peaks which are in quite close proximity to the Chelan airport. I explained to Chrissy that a pilot must always leave themselves an out, and several if possible. My out if I weren’t able to clear the ridge with room to spare would be a 90 degree turn toward lower terrain. I didn’t need to employ an escape maneuver, the Prince climbed well and I took advantage of some thermals. The Super Cub has such great climbing capability that Jerry never had to consider such options. Thus the “Super” in Cub.
We leveled at 9800 feet and took in the beauty of the Cascade range. A younger mountain range, it is more jagged than the Rockies. Just like any youngster, it has sharper teeth. And it had much more snow than the Rockies had and I had forgotten how green it was. We took pictures and exclaimed over and over about the majestic peaks, the smell of pine, the unreal teal and turquoise mountain lakes and how much prettier mountains they were than any other. And then, to the south, there it was! The majestic, unmistakable Mount Rainier, rising miles above all the other mountains, dressed in a lovely cloak of white clouds. Ahhh..we were getting closer. But my heart really knew it was home when in the distant west in a line from south to north, I glimpsed my beloved Olympic mountains. I knew their shapes like the curve of my own face, and I whispered to them, “Hello mountains, I’ve missed you.” At the northeast corner of the Olympic range, I knew my little home lay. The airport I learned to fly at, the high school I graduated from, the beaches I’ve know all my life, the homes of my family, friends, and dear community. I was coming home, and like the Mole in the book, “The Wind in the Willows” who was having so much fun on his adventures with his new friends that he never considered his home until he smelled it. But when he caught a whiff of his home, he became desperately homesick for it. I felt like Mole when I could see the Olympics. My heart was yearning for home and nothing else.
All the way from Port Townsend to Ohio and back, Jerry had never left his position behind the Prince. He would always be about a quarter of a mile behind me, either off my right or my left and sometimes above and behind. But he was always there. Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to spot him, and Chrissy would help me look, and eventually one of us would see him, and there he’d be, the little yellow Cub faithfully flying behind us. The western edge of the Cascades weren’t going to peter out quietly. There were some really jagged peaks before the lowlands appeared. Chrissy and I had turned a couple of times to take some photos of teal colored lakes and then began a gradual descent toward the lowlands. I could see the Puget Sound, home was only 35 minutes away! My heart was beating faster. I just knew there would be some of our loved ones on the ground when we landed. I glanced around for the Super Cub and didn’t spot it. This was not uncommon, so I asked Chrissy to lend her eyes to the sky. She didn’t see him either. Now we started looking around in earnest, turning the Prince to look at all quadrants of the sky. All I saw were the craggy Cascades we had just emerged over. My stomach tightened, my breathing became rapid, and I started getting concerned. All during the flight, nearly 3400 miles, Jerry’s Cub was never out of sight. I could see my worry mirrored on Chrissy’s peaked face. Her freckles standing out on her pale visage. Oh no, I thought to myself, I’ve lost Jerry. Not having enough fuel for a completely retrace of our route, I turned the Prince back and retraced our flight track for about 15 minutes. Of course my handheld radio had dead batteries before we had left Chehlan, so it was useless. Chrissy and I were imagining the worst and we were looking for the yellow Cub not only in the sky, but down below us in the mountains. If I spotted the Cub on the ground, I planned to hit the SOS function on the Spot tracker to mark his location. My mouth was so dry. To calm myself down, I talked to Chrissy matter of factly. I told her that Jerry and I had agreed that if we should ever become separated, we were to fly to our intended point of landing. I told her that we would continue to Jefferson County airport, fly over it and look for Jerry’s Super Cub on the ramp. If we didn’t spot it, we would fly to his grass strip and look for it there. And then if we weren’t there either, it would be time to start making some phone calls. I then felt myself start to panic, and a multitude of emotions and thoughts assaulted me, with guilt being at the forefront. I shouldn’t have pushed so hard, I should have charged my handheld, I should have looked back for him more often, and on and on my thoughts ran. I told Chrissy she needed to talk to me so I could clear my anxiety. She was having anxiety as bad if not worse than I was, and her face looked nearly green. Our joy at returning home had evaporated, and that last 30 minutes of flying was an eternity. Every seagull, airplane and boat weren’t the yellow Cub, and it only served to heighten our worry. I flew fast over Jefferson airport while we scrutinized the ramp. No yellow airplane anywhere. Damn! I turned south, my eyes peeled. And as we grew nearer to Jerry’s little grass strip, I thought I discerned yellow but thought maybe I imagined it. I yelled to Chrissy, “Look, look! I think I see yellow!” I couldn’t believe my eyes as the yellow formed a wing, and then two wings, and finally the whole shape of the Super Cub, sitting intact in front of Jerry’s hangar. All of the adrenaline pumping through my body was still circulating and the relief washed over me. Chrissy told me she thought she was going to be sick. Her voice was shaky. As we flew back to Jefferson, I coached us both to breathe deeply and exhale. By the time we turned base leg to land, we were feeling almost normal. And then I spotted a group of people standing near the windsock waving. Our welcoming committee! Just what the doctor ordered. I flew over the runway, rocking the wings while Chrissy waved. We had made it. After landing, we taxiied up to our family and friends, shut down and happily touched our feet on our home ground. I collapsed face first into the grass I learned to fly off of so many years ago, hugging and kissing it. And then it was hugs and a joyous reunion complete with pictures and champagne. I poured a little champagne on the Prince’s wooden prop and Rich took the Lady Summer access panel off. We all admired and exclaimed over the wonderful signatures from our new friends in Ohio. We were so exhausted, yet so happy.
When Chrissy and I had to drive off in separate directions, we looked at each other. So much was said with our eyes. Our eyes acknowledged that we had both experienced life full on together, full of joy, magic, love, connection, courage and beauty. Our eyes also reflected the regret that this chapter had been completed. Like a good story, no matter how good the ending, one wishes the end would never come. That’s how you know it’s good.
And speaking of magic, the name of the champagne we were offered to celebrate our homecoming? It was called Sophie.