The enlightenment: how flying has made it all my hometown

We are the result of what we were; we will become the result of what we are.

Zen Masters strive for Enlightenment: a moment when they discover something significant that has changed within them and realize it will never change back.

I pulled up to the Telluride library in southwestern Colorado. I was dropping my son for his weekly one-hour Spanish tutoring session. Fortunately there was a spot just down the busy street and I parked, walking quickly in the heavy snow around the block to Brown Dog Pizza.

Once inside, Amy, the previously stoic bartender, shouted out a greeting and I was surprised she treated me like I was a regular. While I had picked up pizza a few times, I had only stopped once at the bar and I didn’t exchange two words with her. I pulled up a chair and before I had taken off my coat she had a Stella and a glass of water in front of me – same as I had ordered that one time. She stood behind the drinks and I knew somehow that something important was about to happen.

“You know I never got to thank you,” she said with a wan grin. I had no idea what she was talking about. I hid my confusion well and she continued.

“This time of year is really slow for us. When you came in at the end of my shift, that tip bought my son the fancy tennis shoes he wanted. I was a hero.” She looked down and smiled shyly.

“Today is on me.” She looked up and made eye contact revealing a deep sincerity. “Thank you so much!”

I mumbled a reply as I still had no idea what she was talking about. A little more small talk and as she tended to other customers I tried hard to piece it together. I knew I had stopped for a drink during last week’s Spanish lesson and caught up my email on my phone. She was working.

Tip jar for bartender
Sometimes it really pays off.

When I needed to leave to pick up Justin, she had disappeared into the back room. I figured the second beer made the bill just over $13.00. I was angry and impatient so I tossed what I thought were two 10s on the bar and left in a huff.

The clue that solved the riddle was lunch on Saturday. I had to use a credit card because my wallet was unexpectedly nearly empty.

The 10’s must’ve been 100’s. Damn! Why am I so careless everywhere but the cockpit?

A few minutes later she wandered back, and when she was through I felt guilty for caring.

“You know we really are a community here,” she said. “Not like Vail,” as she pointed to a patch on the shirt I was wearing.

“Everybody there lives somewhere else. We all live here and nothing is cheap. Believe me, we notice people who take care of us. I won’t forget what you did and what it meant to my son.”

Two nights later on a busy Friday, it reaped further dividends when a sotto voce word from her to the hostess led to an unbelievably quick table.

“Who are those people?” I heard someone wonder as we passed them on our way to the window on the second floor, best seat in the house. While my dinner companions were curious, I didn’t reveal my secret, which would have embarrassed me to my friends and might have irritated my wife. I was relieved when my good friend John suggested we leave a huge tip as we split the bill.

How often does a thoughtless action impact the lives of others and their perception of you? Those two bills were launched onto the bar with two of my worst traits – well-known, often lamented impatience and abject stupidity with cash – and then they boomeranged into something important to her and for me even more: a warm feeling of belonging to a place; the belief that I was somehow supposed to have supplemented her income that day; and that we are all connected in some way that is real but intangible, fleeting but permanent, mysterious yet obvious.

That was the start of the Enlightenment.

I went back to the library to pick up my son. Walking in the front door and through the lobby, I noticed a large map of the United States. It was no different than any other map you’ve ever seen, probably three feet wide by two feet tall, in a nondescript brown frame, the states in various colors. I was drawn to it.

I walked over and touched it, moving my hand to Telluride, deep in the Rockies. I thought about how unintended consequences had made me feel I was meant to be there, that I was a part of this tiny box canyon town, and it was now a part of me. Then I started tracking routes I had flown around the country, needle point stiches trailing threads across the quilted plains.

Then it happened.

I realized flying has made it all my hometown. My neighborhood now stretches from sea to shining sea; I am a part of all of it. I thought of a trip from Chicago to Texas where a storm system left me options through Kansas or through Georgia. Either one would work. As easy as picking a bank branch on one of two corners, my choice for convenience now can cross a thousand miles.

When traveling by commercial jetliner, one place feels like any other – the same airports, the same chain restaurants; the same four-lane highways, the same insurance company conference rooms. I call it “TravelWorld,” a homogeneous subculture across the western civilizations as full of customs and rules as it is with Cinnabons, Starbucks and 20-urinal restrooms. The sameness is mind numbing. You often can’t tell if you are in Texas or Tennessee, Birmingham, Alabama or Birmingham, England.

Wall map
“Flying has made it all my hometown.”

But as a pilot, the differences between places are many: the terrain; the population densities; the coasts and islands and rivers and fields. With this vantage point it is obvious that no place is the same as any other.

My previous perspective came from a smug conceit, the view inside the hermetic bubble around my life as it used to be, pre-Cessna. I felt ashamed by what I was and freed by what I have become. In this moment, the map came alive with faces and places, made iridescent by the joy of my dream to fly come true and by discovering that there are only friends you haven’t met at airports across this land I love.

My hand drifts left to Las Vegas and I see the mountains just west of Henderson (KHND) and I hear the friendly voice of the controller as he changes the runway four times when I am on downwind from 17 Left to 17 Right and back again. I listen to the lineman and my father agreeing that vanilla-flavored coffee is far superior to what I prefer and feel the cackle of my dad when I discover, 100 miles east after departure, that they had conspired to ruin my morning joe.

Toward the ocean I see the VOR approach to Fullerton, CA (KFUL) and remember the stern talking-to from the tower controller when I, enraptured by seeing the LA Basin for the first time after dozens of commercial flights through the same airspace, neglected the approach and pointed toward Los Alamitos (KLSI) by mistake. And how the FBO owner put his arm around me and told me that we all learn through error, and had one of his flight instructors patiently go through how I could complete my next two legs in this aviation jungle to Van Nuys (KVNY) and then back to KFUL. Without his help I would have canceled the meeting and lost a big account. He wouldn’t accept a dime.

Back toward home, I trace the Grand Canyon that I have flown the length of now four times. How different it seems from above. As a child I was deeply afraid of getting too close to its edge; now I urge the controller to let me fly its length and, from 15,000 feet, he obliges, turning childhood fear to as-a-child glee. I see the thunderstorms over the Rockies which caused me to stop for the most expensive gas I have ever put in the 182 at Durango, CO (KDRO), and how I had to tear my passenger away from the gorgeous, well-endowed young lady who took our payment without remorse.

I can smell the forest fires igniting the beauty east of Colorado Springs, the rain coming off the Front Range at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan (RBJC), the dusty prairie of wheat over Lamar, CO (KLAA).

I jump to the Midwest and Wisconsin is not cheese signs and beer stops but the Kettle Moraine, that glacier cut scoop north of West Bend on the way to Oshkosh. I see the Madison airport just east of Lake Mendota with the cool line guy loving my son’s long board and laughing with me as Justin zooms around the ramp. I remember the young girl who rolled out the red carpet and greeted me with hot chocolate and cookies on the day I first flew in snow. And the charter pilot who explained my clearance back to Chicago.

I look to Green Bay and see Lambeau Field aglow as the controller calms me late at night when I was having navigation equipment trouble. I couldn’t find the runway and he told me: “Go straight at Lambeau and look left. I’ll turn our lights all the way up.” Perfect.

Out the peninsula and around Washington Island, a covey of terns and cranes enjoying the Sunday morning too as I above them sip a delicious coffee made fresh just for me by the lady at Door County Cherryland (KSUE). Were it only that her airport kindness was in style everywhere.

At Tomahawk WI (KTKV) I watched parents of a Sand County Crane teach him to fly, chasing him into the wind and he would run, wings spread, as surprised to be in the air as I often am but even my worst landing could not compete with how he collapsed, time after time, in a heap. The airport manager enjoyed my enjoyment and pitied that I would not be there for his first success which he felt was still days away.

CYTZ taxiway
Landing at Toronto’s lakefront airport does make you feel like you earned it.

My eyes slide east to Toronto where I had my first minimum approach on instruments at Billy Bishop (CYTZ). I was saddened when customs told me by phone they wouldn’t bother to visit me on the ramp because, “No one else is coming in private today. Enjoy Toronto!” I so wish more would take on the challenge, feel the rewards of a successful instrument flight. Two days later my ship was just outside the door of the Porter Aviation FBO, not sent to the ramp’s hinterlands, the lineman replying to my surprise with “You EARNED it, eh!”

I look across the lake where I have flown over water many times without complaint to get into Cleveland. I worked for a large corporation there and remember how important I felt as I entered its headquarters; from the air the building is now so small it is hard to find, insignificant next to the lake, nothing beneath the sky, lost in the world that overtakes it.

Drifting down the coast to Norfolk (KOFK) where Justin and I, chased by thunderstorms, made it just-in-time across the Bay on an instrument approach hastily put together after we had run with our tail between our legs from Chesapeake. There was lightning 270 degrees around – how close it looks at night when it is really a great distance away – and the landing was without incident.

Remembering Durango, my angst at the expense of a large airport was evident. In response, the girl at Norfolk Aviation Services graciously gave us the weekend gas discount of $1.50, waived our ramp fees and the landing fee. Another refugee from Cheapeake, a freight dog in an Aero Commander generously showed us his aircraft at the slightest prompting. He mentioned he was a new father, and as he watched Justin drive the rental car on the ramp he commented on what it must be like to help a boy become a man.

“Any advice?” he asked me with sincerity, his concern evident under the cloudy night.

I have been asked this before and had a considered, practiced answer at the ready: “Show them the best of yourself and the world, and love them without measure.” I accepted his Facebook Friend request a few days later and we have stayed in touch.

“Love Without Measure” is the tagline on a photo of his boy.

Someone greeted me by tapping my shoulder, and I reluctantly turned away from the map. It was the builder of the house that we were staying in. I had recommended his service and showed the house to some prospective clients. Because my dogs had scratched the mahogany floors in the brand new home, my guilt had made me go a little overboard in my tour and in the refreshments I had provided.

“Hey, I just wanted to say thanks again,” he said as he stuck out his rough hand and gave mine a firm and vigorous shake. “It looks like they are going to go with me. I really appreciate it.”

I said it was no problem.

“I hope you come back to Telluride and stay. You’re the kind of person that belongs here.”

He was right. I do belong there.

And in Vegas, LA, West Bend, Oshkosh, Madison, Toronto, Cleveland, Norfolk – as well as scores of places all around and in between.

And they all belong to me.

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