Friday, April 13, 2018

A Chapter from "Waypoints"

I'm putting together some draft chapters of my next book (not yet edited by the talented Ms. Martin) which is going to center on flying, not so much what my career as a pilot was about, but an introspective expression of why people take to the sky and are enthralled by it, from the young first time solo pilot to a senior that's spent a lifetime in the air. It will be my stories, it will be friend's stories told through my words.   I may not publish it until I retire, as I've got a full plate right now, with book marketing both here and in the UK (TBOB and Saving Grace  were both a #1 bestseller in England and Ireland and Small Town Roads won a major literary award which means a lot of radio interviews,  job in DC (yes, I'm officially a "suit"), house in Chicago, 98 year old Dad in Washington state and a husband who is all over the world at any given day. Don't ask me how much time I spend NOT getting to fly the airplane. But I'll put up some excerpts.

Chapter 3 - Passing Landscapes 

People often ask me where I'm going when I take a vacation, or just a few days off. The islands, a spa, or a jaunt to someplace exotic? No, for me, just a few simple days holed up with a kitchen and my dog, books and the sky. The last thing I feel like doing on my days off, is what I do when I work, dashing around airports trying to get somewhere fast, eating bad restaurant food, hurrying here and there to try and pack a few years worth of living in a few days.

On my days off, I'd prefer to do my living, now, quietly in the moment or like today, making a few things from the kitchen to share and then driving into the city to see friends.

We too often pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that we blow right by it. In the adult pursuit of bigger and better, we fail to stop and just look at what we have right here as we pass by it, things hidden by the layers of indifference casually tossed on us by others, dreams gathering dust while we toil to somehow make our world conform to what we are told it's expected to be. And everything in a hurry. Maybe it's the specter of mortality, maybe it's just this new generation of entitlement that's trying to nudge us out of the way, but people seem to want to have everything now. No one seems willing to consider that the time it takes to make it is what makes the final product taste so sweet.

I'm one of the few women I know that cook. Almost everything is available at the store, prepackaged. People have forgotten how good simple, real food is; the chewy tang of sourdough, a pan-seared steak, garlic and deep rose wine, and the snap of a green bean fresh from the garden. The depth of a cheese, the warmth of a swallow of rich liquid, the burst of juice from a single strawberry.

Maybe it's from the days of flying small airplanes that I learned to savor life, perhaps it's just the process of becoming slowly born that is coming into midlife. But flying certainly. You really learn to appreciate the slowness, the stillness of a day in a small taildragger. Moments in such a craft where you literally stand still aloft, sometimes a sense of where your craft is in relation to the earth, sometimes with a stiff enough headwind and a small enough engine, for real. The flight may be minutes or it may be hours, but in a tiny little two-seat aircraft, with the steady drone of the dependable, little Lycoming guiding your way, you simply drift along in the clouds, within yourself. Up ahead is the horizon, and you know it's your destiny to reach it, you've planned the flight and loaded the gas, you've set your heart and soul upon its reaching. What you expect to greet you is up ahead of you in the blue, and it only remains for your little plane to follow.

In a small airplane, the sky will give you time, since the sky, although changing, is still eternal. There's no rush; you keep the horizon in your window but still look down, savoring the journey. The tumbled landscapes of glacier stone, and great pristine rivers, thin as a strand of pearls from up here. It's like the unhurried sense you get on a day-long road trip; the time filled with the immaculate sameness of hours bathed in the sun's warm honey. Anything that really requires your mind, the engine setting, a scan for traffic, occurs in brief, unhurried intervals. Your vehicle continues on to your destination, carrying you with it, carrying your thoughts as you forge ahead, of tears, of laughter you've not known since youth, of love, of mechanical, rhythmic memories of the past that you carried with you as you started this journey.
Those memories are not always happy ones, which is part of the trip you will make. As the miles flow past, you realize that when you are young, no one really tells you the truth about love. About coming into your heart and what it means. And even harder, the memory long ago of the one person you were expected to share those things with, but could no longer. Especially in a vehicle on a rushed trip, you didn't want to make. Talking matter of factly about how life has formed you as you've flown through the years, seemed banal, like proving a right angle or finding the equal distance between two lives. The two-lane highway rose slowly into the foothills of the mountains as you tried to navigate through a silence that carried with it the weight of a dead end. Staring straight ahead, you saw the fields clutching onto the skeletons of flowers that long ago died, of bare, windswept trees, and clusters of burrs that stick to everything with a tiny pinprick of pain. Things were sticking to you. You didn't have a thing to say. Not that it mattered. For you had lost your voice years ago.

All that was left was the lack of words as you opened the window to carry the silence into the wind. The wind would carry that moment to where it would simply bounce off the landscape like a piece of discarded trash, delicate, crumpled tissue best left to be disintegrated by time. Better left behind as the sun began to relax on what would be your renewed journey; the road pulling away from discarded thought, the highway lines breaking up like Morse Code as you moved forward. Moved away from that day, that particular road, til it is long behind you.

Soon nothing is left but the memories that you are making now, that you hold tight to you, moving on into new skies, open roads. Time ticks past as the diorama of your life unfold in the window up ahead, the rush of the world, fast food, fast life, suspended for a few hours. The pace of your travels will drop you into an unhurried state of motion, where you won't get near any speed limits, but you'll feel as if you've lived twice as long and experienced twice as much.

It's been a few months since I've been up in a small airplane, but I remember it well, especially that moment when the day sky matured into dusk. It had been a hectic few months of work and the sameness of schedules, and I just needed to get out and feel the wind on my face and watch the stars come out from their hiding spots. The point was not to get to anyplace fast. The point wasn't even really to get anyplace. I think Heraclitus, of whose writings are only left fragmentary remains, said it better than I, expressing the nature of reality as a flux in words, the way I'd express them in flight tonight.
The rule that makes
its subject weary
is a sentence
of hard labor.
For this reason, change gives rest.

That night, I needed some quiet change, a break from my labors, a journey forward - back into myself. I'd taken off from a small town airport, with no agenda but to see my day translated before me in the small windshield of my plane. Soaring over fields of plenty, the landscape one of infinite calm, shadows deepening, blurring the margin of cornfield and sky, the rising moon popped out from an opening break in the clouds. The space that held the moon widened and I could see the beginnings of stars, close enough to clasp in my hand.

Mark Twain said in Huckleberry Finn "We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them and discuss whether they were made or only just happened". But I know they were made. Made to serve as tiny points of light to guide a distant traveler back home. As the day set behind me, I slowed and turned back towards the strip while some light remained, utter silence now other than the song of the engine. Wind in my face from a little side window I popped ajar, I felt one with the air. It felt like all life, all my past, my future was contained in this sky and I'm not just passing through it but I'm part of it. It's one of the most contented, coherent moments one can experience,

The moon was halfway up the sky, as I got back to the airport, its light and the remaining daylight providing the guidance I needed to land at the little country strip. As the wheels gently kissed the ground, the day changing into the night, my breathing was slowed in true rest. As I secured my little red craft in the hangar for the night, I touched the cowling of the engine. It was warm, as was my soul. I took a big drink of water from the remaining bottle, felt it quench something in me. Realizing I was hungry, I took a small square of darkest chocolate from my pocket and placed it in my mouth, it melted on the heat of my tongue, as I stood still, my hand on the engine cowl, feeling it cool, wondering how I ever thought life was complicated. Wondering why I ever worried that I had to hurry to get where I was going, for where I was headed was within me all of the time. It's Sunday and I have to work early in the morning. Soon, like myself on that night, you too will have to return to work, to the sameness of life, to deadlines, but for tonight, there is no rush. We need those moments alone, those hours in the air, those miles of open road. Those times of solitude, for souls like us, are simple moments of inwardness. In our simple code of life, quietness and remoteness stand guard over courage heightened by a change. This is our own compass north, the self in isolation, resolve, depth, emotion, thought and reason held in until they are amplified within our being, becoming music to life's unhurried journey.


  1. The best time I ever had flying, was on an incentive ride with the 190th ARW Kansas Coyotes, on a KC135. I got to hang out in the boom room as we flew over to Indiana to refuel a Guard flight.

  2. Sounds like what scuba divers call "rapture of the deep", doesn't it?

    PS: which tail dragger?

    1. I used to own a Super Cub. I also did a fair bit of flying in an 8KCAB (Super Decathalon) that belonged to a friend who rented it out to friends with a lot of tailwheel time.

  3. Really looking forward to this one!

    1. It may have to wait until retirement since I'm the "aviation guru" for my alphabet group, but looking forward to it. I'll post more sample chapters.

  4. Duly added to my must buy/must read list. My experience hasn't been in anything smaller than a DC-3 (which was an experience in itself) but I love the way you let us vicariously feel what you've felt in the cockpit.

  5. Thanks for the chapter looking forward to the new book. My husband and I like to drive not sure sometimes where we are going. We have found some of the most wonderfully amazing and beautiful places while leisurely enjoying the unhurried sense you get on a day-long road trip. (taking you words)

  6. I find it interesting that the book and music industry in the rest of the English speaking world is still "normal", even if it means a lot more work for you at strange hours of the morning.


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