WITHOUT A NET

If not for the last moment, think of all that wouldn’t get done! Or found. They say lift is where you find it, though much more occurs where you don’t look. Nor does any law say you’ll find it where you do look. Sometimes there isn’t any. Still, one certainty underlies many others: when you do find what you seek it’s always in the last place you look.

One summer I had to ferry a sailplane from Bishop to Tehachapi, a 160-mile trip that on any normal day should be easy and fun. And yes it was fun, in retrospect, but would not be easy until the last moment.

Willis, a friend’s friend, drove me to where the ship waited, but turns out his car wasn’t up to pulling the trailer. No biggie said I, we shouldn’t need it…

Surprise! Aeolus served headwinds all the way. After a slow start, the first of several hangups came on lowly Mazourka Peak thirty miles downrange. Ample landing alternates were available from there, but no possibility of a second tow. Getting home meant remaining aloft, and that demanded staying over high ground.

Normally you’d soar by there high and fast, cross the Owens valley nearly two miles up and glide grandly into the Sierras where the Golden Trout Wilderness teases timberline. Not that day. After forty minutes sniffing around Mazourka’s summit I never got high enough to do more than give up and trudge on.

Slow climbs lead to slow glides and fewer thermals found. Grinding fifteen miles into the wind across the valley threw me down again, miles off course to reach high ground sooner and stay within range of Lone Pine airport. As the sun lowered and shadows deepened, it looked like I’d need knee pads.

He is the best sailor who can steer within fewest points of the wind,

and exact a motive power out of the greatest obstacles.

Henry David Thoreau

Grasping for purchase on the highest terrain in fifteen hundred miles, I scrambled north along echelons of steep foothills, actually going further from home, and got stymied again beside the half-mile granite cliff of Lone Pine Peak.  Willis monitored 123.5 in his car below, jacked on free coffee from the Frontier Deli and trying to sound peppy, but OUT OF SMOKES and manifestly bored. Me too by now. Zeal wanes when new adventure turns into an old movie. Fifth time past that same gnarled pine growing from a crack in the wall, I’da loved a cuppa J.   Fifteenth time, I craved one.  Chances of a miracle looked slim, so I risked landing at Cinder Cone dry lake to just get moving again before too late. Fall out there and the whole next day would be consumed by an expensive retrieve, but if I ever caught just a sliver of luck we could still be home by sunset.

After five hours aloft I’d come only a hundred miles. It was nearing time for the lift to shut down when finally came our first break of the day. Sneaking between some nameless hilltop and the cheerful little cloud above it, WHOOSH! At last lift so strong and sure, well before leaving that one triumphant climb, still sixty-five miles out I radioed Willis to hightail it for home.

What else to say? Or do.

First, thank your stars for that hallowed last moment, then secure your bird and celebrate the possibility of doing better next week!

Oh yes, about the trailer…