There are days when it takes all you’ve got

just to keep up with the losers.

quote from Robert Orpen

The Dust Devil Dash is an informal contest held at Tehachapi every year in early September as a grand finale for the cross-country soaring season.  Pilots launch whenever they wish, go any direction they choose, soar straight out as far as possible and then mail a pre-addressed post card from the landing place.  Results – miles flown – are handicapped to neutralize the great disparity in performance between gliders of different generations.  The prize, free breakfast and a one-of-a-kind tee shirt, is awarded at the next year’s preflight briefing, during which that winner recounts what made their flight a success.  One year’s wealthy runner-up flew a ‘supership’ more than five hundred miles across substantial parts of California, Nevada and Idaho – but finished second to a kid in a sixty year old military trainer.  The kid soared less than half as far, but did so with inspired (and inspiring) brilliance.

I had never flown in any kind of soaring competition, but happened to be the only active instructor employed there at that time and thought maybe we’d have some home court advantage.  If such an edge existed, however, it would hold only in that local area and for about the first hour of an all-day flight.  My plan was to launch first and grab as much distance as we could before faster ships or hotter pilots overtook us.  I recognized that against some (probly most) of these contestants our hypothetical advantage was nothing, but the strategy of striking out first seemed apt either way.  

It did no good.  The early bird got worms alright. We took off before second-to-launch had even finished getting ready, too early to do anything but flounder…  If we’d known how it would go we could have landed in time for a second launch and still been ahead of the pack.  But this tow was already paid for and I could hardly afford to spring for another, so we hung on, gradually bleeding altitude while the normal people staged and got underway.  

By the time nearly all were up and climbing (or already gone) we were languishing below a hilltop near the airport, behind the convective power curve where chances of a lucky save were nil.  We could probably hang on however long it took to eventually get up, but now a relight might be quicker…  Then even staying aloft began to seem doubtful so I took the mulligan.  Ultimately we were last to start, at the very back of the lineup we’d meant to get a jump on.

So began my first competitive effort!  Finally out on course, I felt like the sousaphone behind a Norman Rockwell marching band:  great big zero bringin’ up the rear, huffin’ ‘n’ puffin’ to not fall further behind.  Tail-end Charlie.  Our fancied advantage?  Eaves-dropping on radio calls from the entire fleet ahead of us.  Sure, some duffers landed soon after leaving town and we caught and passed a few others, mostly in lower-performance craft, but there’s no denying the greatest influence on this flight’s outcome was my ever-so-clever opening gambit.

By 4:00 P.M. we were catching the back of the pack north of Boundary Peak, gold distance more or less.  Front runners were spread abreast across an arc more than a hundred miles wide downwind of the start, some passing out of radio range.  At that point we had the height for a conservative glide of more than fifty miles with no lift (extremely unlikely!) plus a couple thousand feet in reserve for landing.  From north to east lay sound alternates within range, each leading toward others further and further apart, off into vast Nevada.  Empty blue overlay several names on the map but a line of scattered cu led toward one.  An hour later the lift out there would be weakening, though still terrific to 17-K or so.  After that we could glide on for much of another hour with low back sun revealing landscapes ahead that neither of us had ever seen before from the air.

Or we could call it quits and return to comfy, familiar Bishop seventy miles back.  

What!” gasped Pedro, “What about the ‘Never turn back’ mantra?”

I reminded my pal that from here forward every mile would add doubly to the time and cost of our retrieve, getting us home late the next night.  Yes we had planned for exactly that, but any chance of a competitive result was blown before we started, thanks to Moi.  By retreating now we could enjoy a leisurely evening, get a tow in the morning for a nice easy flight back, be home before dark tomorrow and avoid having to de-rig and re-rig as well.  While today’s winners endured all-day treks home from who knows where, we’d be frolicking there in style.  Pedro was disheartened but weary, and reluctantly agreed.

If you chase off your devils, the angels fly away too.

Joni Mitchell

Next day, early overdevelopment and afternoon smoke kept us away from a direct route and the best lift.  Then one brake on our four-wheeled trailer seized, leaving us on our own as crew dealt with that nightmare on the ground.  (Isn’t it odd how mechanical fubars always seem to happen on Sunday when every garage in the world is locked?)  We could feel sorry as we liked for the poor crew,  and ourselves for that matter, but until we landed it was every man for himself.

On we slogged all afternoon through shaded, unkind air, eventually getting low just thirty miles out.  Sunset was fading from bloody smoke to icky brown as we limped toward the last airport short of home, Cal City.  Nary a beggar’s chance for one more climb.  

The tarmac was silent but still hot and we were peeking in the restaurant’s dark windows when two sets of headlights turned off the highway and onto the airport entrance road.  They were pilots from yesterday’s race who normally kept their ships there, dropping them off for the following weekend.  After running away from us one day, they’d come from behind and caught us the next – now all set for their own relaxed evening while, with trailer and crew still stuck upcountry ten times further from home than we were, we wouldn’t be completing our retrieve until sometime the next day at best.  All for a pair of ordeals that netted us a total of twenty three miles, nowhere in the end.

Nowhere that is except soaring nirvana, the Owens Valley and those majestic ranges surrounding it.  For two very different kinds of day, neither suffocating frustration nor choking smoke could diminish the grandeur of soaring there.  Our human limitations only accentuate the scale of that special place, not just in size or power or other metric, but utter absolute presence.  

Two bad days in Heaven beats Hell on Christmas, so to speak.  (Not that I’ve witnessed either firsthand, yet, but neither has anyone else we know of.  Still it does stand to reason, doesn’t it?)  Oh I don’t know, that little adventure lies so far back the details are as hazy now as the air was then, but I’m still learning new lessons every time I recall it…  

“Recall what, you say?”