death valley
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death valley

Flying “The Trona Gap”, a VFR corridor through Death Valley

“If you think you’re enlightened go spend a week with your family” — Ram Das

Like most solitary journeys, mine was a gamble, and started in a casino.

Hundred-mile-an-hour winds are not uncommon over the Sierras but even in Death Valley, hundreds of feet below sea level, their forces move rocks. If the lowest place in North America by elevation is inside a national park, my journey started at a figuratively even lower place, the Las Vegas strip.

So powered by the need to escape, with meetings behind me and the desire to get home for the weekend , I chanced a route slightly more direct. There would be mountains to deal with but for now my flight was low, heading through the Mojave, weather improving. After the mountains, only clear skies — towards home, towards wife, towards sleeping children.

I took off early, sun pouring into the Mojave basin like activator into a developing tray dark room. Remnants of failed fly-in towns came into view: Amargosa, Panamint and Tecopah. Olive green date palm orchards, as if consumed by marauding sand dunes, blended into things once owned dreams once dreamt.

The third lowest airport in the world is Furnace Creek (L06), 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Descending into this dried seabed is like scuba diving and being passed by a shorebird, diving. You’re not supposed to be here.

Consider this: all three of the world’s great monothiestic religions started in the desert. Acts of nature, solitude, geologies of scale all seem to put man not at the center but at the very edge of this unpredictable universe. A fact I might have considered more as a sandstorm seemed to appear out of nowhere, biblically, closing in behind me. I had no way back. Ahead lay the shapeshifting dunes of Furnace Creek. Much beyond that no clear way forward.

I was committed to a basin known as The Badwater—an infernal hole that in July smokes any living creature and in April merely hybernates. Like a geologic mammoth buried alive in a great tomb of uranium to fuel its awakening.

The airfield at Furnace Creek Ranch looks like a spaceport for Mars. In high winds, atmospheric sand envelopes everything—whiting out all but a black strip down the middle its dunes. It serves as a native inholding and a historic watering hole for pilots, oxmen and nowadays tourists. This morning it would thankfully be my safe haven; two small planes already tied down, a third, invisible, blown back into the palms.

The windsock aimed in my favor. I worked my mains down onto the cracked surface. Shuttering as if caught in a bar fight the night before, my nosewheel came to a rattling halt. A ranger appeared out of nowhere, like a dust chap taking my horse. He helped me tie down and then offered me lift to the ranch. There I ate a breakfast of date bread fried in egg batter, sweet pear cactus syrup, coffee that tasted of earth around me.

I spent the day looking out on what used to be seashore.

Night brought less wind. The palms painting the night sky alabaster white, their bickering fronds celestial commentary on my predicament. If there were stars they were enjoyed by better pilots elsewhere.

Remembering the words of my teacher, I closed my eyes.

“You have but two choices,” he liked to say. When confronting phenomena, “you can judge it, or you can celebrate it”.

I breathed in deeply, thinking about my children asleep, my wife holding our newborn.

A lesser pass further south was my chance, so again in the early morning I untied my little ship with a flashlight, the mountains in partial view, and made airborne still below sea level. In an underpowered plane, overloaded with wishful thinking (as my teacher would later say) I departed the Badwater at minus two-hundred and seventy-three feet, aimed for the Sierra massif, its highest peaks just north of me.

The Pacific Wave, as it’s known to pilots, farmers and even weathermen, is no celestial thing but a real act of nature here on earth. Due to some ongoing and unresolved argument between an ancient inland sea and the chilly waters of the Pacific, a wind rages on, pressing into service an invisible calvary of billowing white clouds, mere soldiers pushing up and over the Sierras, quickly dispensed with on the other side. By heat, by acid.

Leaving Death Valley in the early morning can feel like winning back your Friday losses: for a moment everything is briefly ok. Air equals sand, stars equals sun. Sea level comes to meet mountain.

And within that same hour, which holds both its most profound sense of contentment as well as its lurking twin of acrid doubt, can the full scale of your half-century of life convert to mere seconds. From 12,000 to 2,000 feet, life trades not on years but in seconds, from the dwindling reserves already spent as an adult to the overflowing coffers of yet touched by youth. No choice but full contact with the present moment.

Thus I rolled a Cessna one early spring Friday, fighting my way home from the desert to the coast.

It is said to never fly for work. As a recreational or private pilot, the temptation to make it home on a Friday too great for unbiased judgement. This was my first error.

The second thing they say, is said not by pilots, but by their brothers in cossacks, those chanting in the monasteries or lighting altars in churches. It is that, between our attachments, there is freedom. To understand this to be truly free.

Yet I am merely a student, a student pilot and at times a dallying monk.

As students, we are taught to mind the forces, be aware of the false matter. Don’t waste time. Know your attachments.

As pilots, we are taught density altitude; we are taught to fly with the wind and with the direction of flowing water in the mountains; yet we are left to teach ourselves how to account for our own limitations. This is a human fact.

On this day, mine was a destination. An attachment as strong as any.

One that would nearly cost three young girls their father; a wife her pair, a town, truthfully, its idiot.

So idiots dream.

They dream of flying, to land instead of park. To spend the night in a camp of palms.

They do not dream of driving; of boarding another’s plane. Though they might know there are safer ways to live.

All this is true.

However also true is that we have to board our own ship; somehow make our own way. How else to make the necessary things in life, even a city for gambling, still palatable?

We fly as that is what we do. Just as practice teaches that the tubular aluminum that you are about to willingly step into, headed for some far off island with not enough fuel to return from, will reach its destination, despite what in theory says it’s crazy, we do this anyway, knowing that sought after star might have been snuffed out or never really existed at all. Because despite theory, practice shows us that not only is this commonplace, but it’s more commonplace than anything; to have both an attachment to destination, as we have an attachment to self. For both are the same. No matter pilot or passenger.

Thus idiots dream.

How many souls on board the radio said. This is the parlance of our trade. Souls, as if already gone.

Tumbling from the heights of permanent snowfields, I pulled out over Lake Isabella, with a few hundred feet left to chance. The water surface reflected a seasawing yellow wing, my dash reflecting needles that no longer moved. I had no more fuel. The cockpit was covered in coffee, debris, and batteries. I had fought through wind and turbulence for 20 minutes, each precious inch of that elevation spent frivolously in a few seconds by an ego that said it had to. Answered by death that said no.

All of this must be taken into account. Both our will to live and our will to risk life. To take agency, safe keeping and better judgement to the dance but go home with the guy on the motorcycle. We spend hubris like we throw chips in a casino, like we throw minutes at a century. We peel off altitude at the strip bar of youth.

Landing back at the coast to crystal blue skies reflected upon crystal blue waters I came to understand that even the ideas of pilot, father, husband are attachments — all forms lost to the formless.

“Enlightenment is total and absolute compliance with the inevitable” my teacher tells me. “Yet always choices”.

“The last thing we are given,” I muster, “is agency”.

“Don’t be pretentious” he replies.

To hold these mutually opposing views simultaneously is the biggest gamble of all. There is wishful thinking, then there is reality. Ram Das was right. And I didn’t need to reach home to understand.

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Peterson Conway
Latest posts by Peterson Conway (see all)
12 replies
    • Peterson G Conway
      Peterson G Conway says:

      Phil, I was carved by SP’s writing in my youth, and this is has only grown stronger as I kept reading. Thanks for the kind words.

  1. David Mercer
    David Mercer says:

    You are too smart to pull such dumb s——-! Think more of your family than yourself next time .
    By the way, your narrative was written as if by Louis L’Amour,
    himself, and in reading it you had me on the field, in the huddle, and not as an observer in the stands.

  2. Larry
    Larry says:

    I flew at Edwards AFB and Mojave for 27 years. At Mojave, I used to land my 172 on one wheel more often than two and once had to have ground help to taxi. Most folks don’t know how bad the wind can be in the Mojave desert. Sounds like you got into the mountain wave on the east side of the Sierras … a phenomenon that has claimed many a life or airplane.

  3. Skip Brown
    Skip Brown says:

    I learned an unknown (to me) definition of the word agency: The sense of control you feel in your life, your capacity to influence your thoughts and behavior, and have faith in your ability to handle a wide range of tasks and situations. Your writing is poetic. I finally took a breath at the very end of your story. Thanks for sharing.

  4. kate mikkelsen
    kate mikkelsen says:

    Decades ago, I lost a. young, brilliant friend to wind shear in the high mountains. He was celebrating the success of his startup, in a plane with a real estate agent. This brought me right back. Glad you’re OK.

  5. Peter T
    Peter T says:

    Wonderfully written Peterson! In the true spirit of Richard Bach!
    One learns quickly and swiftly in the High Desert, and makes the error of obliviously flying into that type turbulence only once! Don’t ask me how I know ;-)

  6. free enneagram test
    free enneagram test says:

    Very good post, I wonder if this is your story, I really like this descriptive tone, so good that I think it is a work of literature.

  7. Jasper Wilde
    Jasper Wilde says:

    Hope to read more of your other shared articles. By the way, I also want to introduce the enneagram test personality test to everyone, please stop by if you have time


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