Indio, CA - Imperial, CA & Slab City

Photos by Arina Bleiman

10/14 As has become a common theme, I'm delayed once more, which is what gives me the time to detail some of my adventures. I'm stranded in Dallas, TX, which is easily the cushiest kind of "stranded" I've experienced so far. We're at Stephen's father's house. It's beautiful, and we're about to grill a steak dinner for the second night in a row. It's nice to breathe and I know I should be taking advantage of the rest., but I'm incredibly nervous. With every delay I have to shift the schedule around again: looking at the calendar, we're in the final third of the route with about 19 days left. I've got a lot of flying ahead of me still.

Yesterday, I waited out some cloud cover, but by the time I was in the air it still wasn't broken enough. I couldn't climb above it without losing sight of the ground (not okay if you're flying a trike). After 40 minutes I landed at Dallas Air Park, a rundown field in Plano. We were still only 20 minutes from Stephen's dad's but in the opposite direction. I parked Eddy under an overhang and tied him down. 

Anyway, let's backtrack to Los Angeles.

9/21: Los Angeles, CA - Indio, CA

We lost two days while in Los Angeles. We spent them plugged into our friend (and fellow trike pilot) Henry's power supply and parked in front of his house. The second day I discovered that the bearing of my front wheel was broken; we spent most of the day chasing down parts, finding a machine shop to drill out the old bearings, and hammering in the replacements. Looking back on it, the tenseness of that delay is one that still unnerves me. "Weird weather for this time of year" has been a recurrent phase. 

Finally the clouds were high enough for me to sneak out. So on a cool, grey morning, 5 days after setting out from Lodi, I found myself above Los Angeles, looking down at rows of concrete through a palpable haze. I had 3 alternate airports selected in case conditions deteriorated, especially given the nature of Banning Pass: a place formidable to pilots. It can quickly turn into a giant wind tunnel, and I was anticipating heavy turbulence for the 20 minutes it would take me to fly through it.

Of course, high winds are nothing in comparison to the events of Cal's flight to Banning in 1911: his engine exploded there, spraying hot oil in his face and causing him to land immediately. That he got back in his machine after an experience like that is still incredible.

I was tense approaching the pass, rolling hills and small peaks beneath me. Incredibly, the winds were calm. I was shivering a little at 5,500' and was briefly misted by a rain cloud. I leaned my head out the side to let the wind blow dry my face shield. Out of 100 windmills, only one turned.

I descended after Palm Springs and landed smoothly at Bermuda Dunes. A golf cart full of grinning boys escorted me to a comically-oversized hangar. I got to meet Angel, who works for the airport and who had arranged my arrival. Everyone there was very genial and made me feel like a celebrity.

Again we were delayed, this time by sandstorms which filled our teeth if we opened our mouths at all. The winds ripped through the rows of hangars, van and trike parked inside one of them, clanging and rattling like a banshee in a dungeon. Stephen and I sprinted outside in time to see a Cessna actually taking off into the storm; the winds must have been at least 30 knots. The craft rose 1,000 feet before it was halfway down the runway, lights flickering through the mask of sand grain. I couldn't decide if he was very brave or reckless.

The winds died after the second day, which we spent regrouping, sitting in a cafe and shooting off emails, etc. The town is dead there (when it's not a festival weekend). 

9/23 - Indio, CA - Imperial, CA (& Slab City, CA)

I had to validate with Arina that we did everything I thought we did, in one day, on 9/23. "Yep," she said. 

I took off at sunrise with a 20 knot tailwind pushing me southeast. The valley was mellow in the early light; manicured golf courses rolled away under me. No clouds. I flew along the Salton Sea, described to me as reeking of dead Tilapia. Near the sea the land seemed suddenly desolate, scattered in a sandbox, everything the same shade of desert beige. I was tossed around a bit, the strong winds swirling around the mountains to the west and the air above the sea. At least I was making good time. 

The turbulence smoothed perfectly as I flew over the green fields near Imperial and I landed well ahead of Stephen and Arina. I sat in the pilot lounge, dingy and grey, and drank coffee. A lot of these flights are made so early that by the time I have coffee it feels like I'm just waking up. 

I fielded two press interviews and we drove to a small Mexican diner before driving on towards our destination for the day, Slab City. Bumbling along a dirt road, the van wobbling irritably, it emerged out of the haze of my early journey, the harried morning, the coffee still seeping in my blood.

The first thing was that we were most definitely in the desert. We drove through the hot, dry road, hand-painted signs pointing the way to the Hostel, where Balu, our guide, would be waiting for us. It was so dusty and burnt out that it was almost pure white, a wave of heat throbbing  and baking us the moment we stepped out of the van. 

Balu had just returned from a trip to Iceland. He emerged from a cluster of haphazard trailers, a painted school bus, scrap wood nailed together to form rooms; all of it sewn together with fabric, plastic, tarpaulin overhangs to block the sun. He shook my hand through a coil of razor wire that ran along the fence. 

We started by pouring drinks and toasting, I forget to what. Balu would pour himself at least 5 more over the course of our 4 hour stay. We toured the hostel; a Pandora station was spitting out a charming blend of 1970s folk rock and funk. The place was wild, an amalgamation of trash and time. We sampled moonshine that had been brewed locally, it's only label either "strong" or "mild."

Balu showed us an RV that he had used while touring with a band, something that he has done extensively as an accomplished Vibemaster. 

"How many bands have you produced?" I asked.

"I didn't say produced," he said. "I'm a Vibemaster.

"Oh," I said. We looked at each other. "What's a Vibemaster?"

"I keep it real man! Make sure everyone's getting along, having a good time."

I had never heard of this profession but decided that if I ever started a rock band, an amiable, portly hippie named Balu was probably an excellent investment. I grew to like the Vibemaster a great deal. He showed us the VW bus that had belonged to his mother: he'd painted it with rich primary colors, icons, and symbols. From the passenger-side, an Indian woman looked out from a veil under the glow of a sickle moon.

Wherever we went, Balu careened forward first like a bowling ball, clearing the way. We read from a gossip magazine in the middle of a trash site, where Balu said the waste management companies of Imperial dump illegally. He told me that eventually the sun would burn out all of the trash we saw, baking it into dust, the soil of Slab already a toxic, diseased thing anyway.

At one point, making a wrong turn, the van was chased by 2 dogs and Arina cautiously turned us around. "This guy likes to come out and take shots with his rifle, sometimes," Balu said nonchalantly. I was about 2 seconds from screaming "DRIVE, ARINA! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD STEP ON IT!!!" Flash-forwards of my child's future danced wildly: "Well sweety, your father died of buckshot wounds from a crazed desert hobo. It was a very unfortunate thing, but he loved you very much, even then."

We swayed through the library of Slab, shelves that had survived the fallout stood in the desert, proudly offering their titles. A thin woman with a boy-cut was conversing with Balu about where to build her shelter. She'd arrived a few days earlier and had decided to live there. I wondered why. Balu would tell me later that he thought she was lying. "Sometimes people say they're staying because it makes them feel "in" with the Slabbers," he told me.

There was a time in my life when I considered everywhere I went as somewhere I might live. In that time I might have considered Slab in the way the woman with the boy-cut was. To try something new, entice a new way of living, a place to seek happiness. Thinking about this, I understood that I was no longer seeking. I had a tribe already, a place I belonged to. That place, bizarre and inexplicable, was hundreds of miles away already, in Sacramento, California. 

Not to say that I didn't stay open to the wildness and oddity that was Slab City. Even now, I can't seem to put my finger on it. It was dangerous: an odd mixture of artists, seekers, wanderers. We met a Portuguese, ex-US soldier who looked and swayed like a pirate. He yelled a greeting from the fence in front of his shack and invited us in; he'd washed up there a year ago in his trailer and built his home around it. Handwritten signs littered the yard, some extolling the virtue of obedience in slaves; one said "You say you support The Constitution? I say f&*% The Constitution / Y'all support the Institution!"

A crib sat empty in his front yard, and Balu asked where the baby had gone. I asked who that was and was told it was a real baby who The Pirate had been caring for a couple of months. "People around here know The Baby," said Balu. "They feed it and sh%$ if they see it wandering around." I still don't know if he was joking; some mornings I wake up and wonder if I should call CPS just in case.

The evening ended in East Jesus, an art commune right next door to West Satan, a neighbor they've purportedly had shooting matches with. East Jesus stretched out in front of me, a garden of reclaimed art rising up from the trash and heat of the desert: manakins thrust through the roof of a Cadillac, a VW bus with iconography superglued all over it -- mostly rows of whippets. "Charlie loved his whippets," Balu said, referencing the eccentric and deceased founder of East Jesus, whose curvy nude photo rested atop the baby grand piano I would later play. 

I sat with Balu and looked at a wall of TV sets, their screens smashed through and replaced with white slates and red letters: "YOU'RE TOO THIN" "BLAH" "I WAS YOUTUBE" "BE LIKE TV" "FREE THOUGHT * ONLY $89.99"

A little toddler named Nou Nou was wandering around and handed Arina a card: one side with the number 2 on it, the other side 3. "That's weird," I said, "23 is my lucky number." Balu looked at me. "That was Charlie's number." It was also September 23. 23 is also Stephen's and Tyler's lucky number (my girlfriend), one that oddly pops up in our relationship often. I'm not a numerologist, but something about Balu sitting next to me, quiet like The Ghost of Christmas Future, and stumbling on the number 23 ... I felt comforted. I've come to associate, in some pseudo-OCD way, seeing the number 23 as an omen of good progress. Finding it here made me feel, in an important moment, that I was on the right path.

The trip still felt impossible; I couldn't grasp at it's realness. This would all end soon. It was insane that I'd even come this far. It was as unreal and impossible as the day I'd gotten my pilot license.

I left Slab City in the same way I had entered it: not knowing quite what to make of it. A mirage in the desert, a haven for creativity, a hideaway for ex-cons and addicts, or people who just want to be left alone.

A disturbing darkness there also. A woman passing through on a road trip, mechanical camera in tow, badgered Balu with questions about a murder/rape that had happened there. According to Balu, a woman had been flirting with a man who was spoken for; he and his girlfriend took the woman outside, raped her together, and carved an anarchy A in her chest with a knife. They left her there to die; someone found her crawling in a ditch and she was airlifted out in time to save her.

"But don't quote me, I wasn't there." To be fair to Balu, I'm paraphrasing. 

Thinking of something this grisly amidst the quiet, fleeting oasis of Slab seemed odd, impossible. It was like wildness itself: beautiful but liable to shift, become unfriendly. Full of potential and demanding of respect. A place you might go at a suggestion from a friend: "hey man, you want to meet some really freaky people?" Vagabonds from all over flowing through it, to experience, to be free, to wander in the desert like Jesus. I'd been one of them for a day.

I left that wilderness and planned my next flight, falling asleep in the pop up roof of the camper van and hoping to be in Arizona the next day.

Los Angles: September 17 - 21

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10/6 I'm too tired to do much of anything right now. I'm stranded in the middle of Texas without my ground crew, I haven't kept up very well with this blog, and there's a layer of cumulus above me that threatens to hold up further progress to San Antonio tomorrow. I'm nowhere near marathon shape and even after 9 hours of sleep in a dusty Del Rio motel I find myself as lethargic as the airport courtesy car I'm using (the check engine light has been on since I sat in it). The wind is picking up outside; I'm crossing my fingers for more fly able weather tomorrow. Ever since the van's transmission quit three days ago I've been without even my logbook, meaning that the last 7 hours of flight have gone unrecorded. The three cups of Starbucks I've had today aren't working; I salivate for a carefully-pulled, single origin ristretto shot. I'm looking at you to provide, Austin. As if to spite me, Step Out by Jose Gonzalez just came on (the song I blogged about as having inspired me through the darker times of this adventure). This is one of those periods, a dip in the momentum. They are expected, but that doesn't make them suck any less. 

Look, I haven't been great at keeping up with this but there's nothing I could have done differently. This has been the most demanding, the most nonstop, intensive thing I've ever done. I'm planning to write a book about everything once it's all over and I promise, if you backed the Kickstarter, you'll get a copy regardless of whether it gets published.  

In the meantime, while I'm stuck alone in this Starbucks in Del Rio, let me tell you about Los Angeles.  

Flying in LA is beautiful once you've climbed up past the smog layer to 3,000'. Even at 10 in the morning it's hot up there. The Class B airspace (B for busy) is like an upside down wedding cake extending from LAX. Stay clear of that and you're golden. Commercial jets on final approach stretch for miles to the east; at night they're like a never ending stream of lights.  

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On 9/18 I took some friends flying, edging around the thick marine layer by the coast that obscured the coast below for a bit then cruising back to Hawthorne. It was beautiful and weird to be taking friends for rides in a place I'd never flown before. This was especially true for Christina, who really pushed me to do this, three years ago when it was just an exciting idea. It was full circle. "You're finally doing it!" people kept saying to me. I think I was still so shaken from the enormous repairs that I had completed that "finally doing it" felt way too good to be true. I didn't dare believe it; I was suspicious of my joy. 

Cal landed in Long Beach in 1911 -- right on the damn beach actually, because it was 1911 and the FAA wasn't around to revoke his license, and even dipped his landing struts in the Pacific. 

In the middle of writing that sentence I received 5 text messages, answered them, started an Instagram post, and refreshed my weather app before I realized I was off track. Maybe this is why Cal's story holds so much appeal for me: it was a time when everything was very focused. The whole country was behind one pursuit, cheering for Cal because of what he represented. He wasn't just flying across America, he was pulling the future along with him.  

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Very little is still standing when it comes to Cal's story. There's a Vin Fiz replica and a little write up at The Smithsonian, his grave, and then a 1/3 scale replica in the lobby of the Long Beach Convention Center. Our visit happened to coincide with Comicon weekend.

And there it was. In the midst of royalty from Game of Thrones, Suicide Squad devotees, members of the Imperial Federation, The Vin Fiz flew 30 feet above. I looked everywhere for the plaque.  

"It had to be removed when we remodeled, we just haven't put it back up yet."

"When was that?" 

"About 4 months after we put it up" (5 years ago).  

I stopped and asked passerby if they knew what was flying right above us. Predictably, only one person did (and her career had been in aviation). I had a nice, prolonged conversation about Cal and his modern relevance: why he is not remembered and what that says about the state of things. She blamed social media, citing it as a distraction from progress. Yesterday, holed up in my Del Rio motel, I caught a glimpse of her as I flipped through the TV stations. She was on E! competing with other women for a sports star on a reality dating show. She was voted off in the first episode. 

The night of the 18th we gathered at a friend's house. I was surrounded with people I hadn't caught up with in months, maybe years. Though I didn't expect it, the night ended with everyone sitting in a circle and telling me, honestly, they're thoughts on Tilt Shift. I was embarrassed in the kind of reddened way I am when people sing happy birthday to me. 

it was beautiful though, to hear the honesty of the other side of my experience. It was strange and surreal: friends who thought it was a pipe dream, friends who were proud, friends who were inspired, one friend who actually cried because of its emotional connection to her. I don't think I stop often enough to consider the waves I might be causing. We don't come through life without stirring the motion of everything; we all create a current. Like a cosmic blanket that we ripple and poke without realizing it.  

Well, the pressure was on. I still couldn't fathom that I was in Los Angeles, but I soaked in the moment. I felt enormous gratitude for it, was flattened by it. The path ahead would be [IS] rough; I wanted to save the energy in that room for later. I felt the weight of what I was about to attempt, the love lof everyone who wants to see me land Eddie in Montauk, and knew then that I was going to really go for it. Up until then it hadn't taken shape, was still just an idea. Now I would take a shot at Banning Pass, see how I was doing in Indio, set out towards Arizona and weave around the higher mountains, one at a time.  

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A Word from The First Trike Pilot Around The World

"David Grabowski, reaching back to the early 20th century history of American aviation, has found a genuine hero to commemorate. Why is it that hardly anyone at all knows the name of the first man to fly an aircraft, coast to coast, across the USA? Have Americans really lost touch with their historic heroes? Calbraith Perry Rodgers comes from genuine American historical stock. One of his ancestors was the 1812 US naval hero of Commodore Oliver Perry, author of the famous American quote 'Don't Give Up the Ship', and Cal's 51 day flight across the US to win a prize of $50,000 - withdrawn halfway through by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst - was one of the 'sickeners' Rodgers had to overcome. There were no airfields for his landings each day and he crashed 12 times. But sponsored by the then-famous drink 'Vin Fizz', Cal Rodgers won through, though tragically, he was killed shortly afterwards when his flimsy Wright Flyer struck a seagull flying low along a California beach. He should be famous, but he isn't, and David Grabowski's brave and imaginative flight along Rodgers' route to get him remembered should be something all Americans support."

- Brian Milton, the British pilot who made the first Ultralight flight around the world in 120 days in 1998

One Year Later

Insight Coffee: 10th St, Sacramento, where I've worked since last June.

Insight Coffee: 10th St, Sacramento, where I've worked since last June.

Mid-day: a blistering hot street in Land Park, Sacramento. A bearded man in Toms dismounts his bicycle and carries it through his front door. He is greeted by a Chihuahua and a Maltese who yip and lick his legs. He hurriedly makes a sandwich and brews his third cup of coffee that day, bringing both with him into an upstairs room. Above his desk hangs a U.S. VFR Wall Planning Chart, 1:3,100,000 scale. The northeastern portion of the map features a connected series of red lines drawn with Expo wet erase. He sits and begins to plan.

 

For the last 6 hours I’ve felt fine, mainly because I’ve been ignoring the chorus of “To-Dos” thrumming in my limbic system. The knowledge of how little time I have left crashes in on me and I feel panic. I open a voicemail on my phone: it’s from the documentary’s Director, Stephen, expressing the same. We have just enough time to get to day 1 of production.

Faces I come home to every day for 500, please.

Faces I come home to every day for 500, please.

 

The good news: I’m flying again. I have a pilot’s license. I passed my exam in March, shaved to celebrate -- then immediately regretted that and haven’t shaved since. I ran my first full marathon. I’ve flown every chance I’ve had, even though those opportunities were marred at one point by a series of light repairs and alterations that had to be completed. The upshot of the tweaks and repairs: Eddy is running better than ever. The downside, obviously, was the loss of two months.

I feel a bit like the kid who starts a “travel journal” on vacation and comes back to it years later feeling sorry for neglecting it. The honest fact of it, Dear Reader, is that I haven’t had oodles to report. I’ve been doing the same thing I’ve always done: hang in there, do everything I can to get to day 1.

The ceaseless workload; I meet it joyfully.

The ceaseless workload; I meet it joyfully.

Every second of my day is hung up with planning or making phone calls. In a lot of ways this makes me very happy: I finally have concrete plans about which airports I’ll land at and what we’ll film in which parts of the country. It makes me smile when Helen (by far the greatest Long Island accent I’ve ever heard) calls me from Montauk Airport (our finish line) and tells me there’s hangar space available.

In other ways it’s rattled me. I’m exhausted with the push of getting ready for this. I berate myself constantly for, really, having done anything else except prep for this trip… and I am tired of this. I miss having the time to compose music; I haven’t written a story in over a year. These are the things that I have always had, have always done; For the better part of the last three years I’ve put them aside. I look forward to the day I wake up and find only “drink coffee and read” on the agenda.

Mercifully, at the end of each week’s stream of “GO GO GO!” I am reminded of why I haven’t ever, for a second, given up.

Early morning, a quiet Sacramento street. Sprinkler systems are running. A bearded man emerges from his home carrying a travel mug of hot coffee. He locks the door, gets in a car, and guns it south for Lodi. There is no traffic.

After a thorough pre flight he takes off on runway 26 in his trike and turns to the southeast. He climbs into a layer of warm air at 1,500 feet and levels off. The sun is just rising, the land below is golden. Mount Diablo stares solemnly. The air smells fresh, the atmosphere winds around the fairing of his trike. The hum of his engine and the hiss of the air streaming around him are the only sounds, the world passing under him the only thing to see. He breathes a sigh and hears the crackle of his own headset in his ears. He has 4 hours of this ahead of him. Moving along at 50 mph, he is home.

On Weighing Risk

My sister (21, Mezzo Soprano, got all the beauty genes) leaves for Finland tomorrow. She’s one of two U.S. competitors in the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition, and also the competition’s youngest. She’s just been told that her host has a swimming pool, but not to wear a bathing suit (they swim in the nude), so she’s already feeling culture shocked. She’s scared about flying overseas. I don’t blame her, given recent headlines. I’m of course referring to MH17, but also another event that shook me:

Last Wednesday, Haris Suleman (17) and his father Babar crashed into the Pacific ocean en route to Hawaii. They had been flying around the world from Indianapolis in a world record attempt, and were supposed to make their final touchdown on Sunday. The flight was to fundraise for new schools in Babar’s native Pakistan. Haris’ last tweet: “Pago Pago is without a doubt top 5 places I’ve been this summer :)”

This was too close to home. It hit that area of my throat that makes me uncomfortable. “This could be you,” it whispered. The point in bringing this up isn’t to make anyone nervous or our parents cringe. It’s to talk about death.

My patron saint of cross country flying, Cal Rodgers, met his untimely end just after his own flight was over, and it’s a surprise that he didn’t die before he made the flight. He crashed 14 times and was hospitalized for a month before he could complete the trip. The very reason that Cal’s name is so enigmatic is because he died, the ensuing boom in aviation all but writing him out of the books. I think that he was keenly aware of the possibility of dying. How could he not? Multiple deaths had occurred at the Chicago International Aviation Meet just a few months before he began his trip. But he pushed on anyway, fighting pressing crowds, delays, injuries, and his own mother, who forbade him from completing the trip (apparently worrying mothers could be major delays in 1911).

I recently had a conversation with a customer (I work at a winery now) about the differences between the west and the east coast, he being a refreshingly cynical New Yorker. He paused for a moment, took a sip of cabernet sauvignon, and quipped: (I’m paraphrasing here) “the biggest difference between the east and west coast is how each views death. That’s what defines the life of everyone: how they view death. No one lives forever.” Ironically, the guy was a life insurance salesman.

I told my sister that part of the reason I stayed tied to New York was that anything outside New York, whether I realized it in these terms or not, meant uncertainty. I stuck with what I knew, afraid of having to readapt to something different. I think that in some ways I wanted to take this adventure to face my own mortality. As a result, I’ve come face to face with the present, i.e. life.

I could toss out statistics and stats about light sport trike crashes, but everything about risk ultimately comes down to weighing it. That is to say: is it worth it? Will you regret it if you die because of that risk? For my sister, leaving to go compete in a major international singing competition far outweighs the astronomical possibility of crashing in the plane she’s travelling in. For Stephen and I?

We’ve talked about this. We may pantomime having an engine out over Los Angeles for comedic effect, but both of us understand what we’re undertaking. We’re doing something that nature did not intend human beings to do. We’re taking every precaution, of course: proper instruction, a ground crew as backup, and a ballistic recovery parachute installed in the trike. The question remains, as I said before: does the act outweigh the risk?

Being on this adventure is the first time that I’ve been okay with the idea of dying, and I don’t think that’s as morbid as it sounds. If I had died in New York, for any reason, I would have (for the sake of discussion) regretted it. If I die having an epic adventure, pursuing something that I’m passionate about, and aiming to create a portrayal of that experience, I’m very okay with it. I wouldn’t take the (still relatively small) risk I’m taking otherwise.

I’m really not being flippant. We generally don’t want to talk about death because we don’t want to think about it. Even Stephen (and of course I don’t fault him for this), brushed this conversation aside last time we had it. But it’s important to think about. Time is limited. Time does not exist except the present time and if you aren’t okay with the present, you shouldn’t be doing whatever it is you’re doing because then… why? Why any of it?

I tried ignoring death for a long time. In my initial flight lessons I would suppress the idea that there was a finite amount of space between my body and the grape vines below. That didn’t eliminate the thought, it just struck harder whenever it came into the foreground. It doesn’t surface anymore (at least in flight) for the simple reason that I’ve accepted it and moved on to the reason for the risk: the why and the now.

Haris Suleman and his father knew what they were getting themselves into. Their death is a tragedy, but it’s not a reason for anyone else to stay on the ground. And it’s certainly not a reason to stay cloistered in a practice room when you could take a miniscule risk for a major international singing competition. I’m more excited for my little sister (sorry Adele, can’t stop thinking about you as “little”) than I ever have been. I can’t wait to hear what happens after she lands.


Memory Lane

It's difficult -- in the wake of the intensity of building an aircraft, learning to fly it, and planning for forty days of flying in it -- to remember where you came from. Stumbling across this entry (from dark days past) jogged my memory immediately. I wouldn't have life any other way than it is right now and that, despite whatever is to come, is a wonderful acceptance.

Hashtag throwback; hashtag all of the feels.

"Sitting in the AppelJack Diner. Broadway/55th. I feel fragile, unwound, exhausted. As the haze of my own exhaustion settles though, a certain clarity comes along too. I miss my family so much, in this moment. I realize too, that I've been so angry. Why am I always so angry and dissatisfied? And this is what matters most. Finding a way to be happy no matter what. Food's here. I wish I was eating with my family. I love them."

"Sitting in the AppelJack Diner. Broadway/55th.
I feel fragile, unwound, exhausted. As the haze of my own exhaustion settles though, a certain clarity comes along too. I miss my family so much, in this moment.
I realize too, that I've been so angry. Why am I always so angry and dissatisfied? And this is what matters most. Finding a way to be happy no matter what.
Food's here.
I wish I was eating with my family. I love them."

This is Happening

5:08 PM, the squashy chairs at Starbucks, Chelan, WA. I’ve sat in every one of them now, buying a watery iced Americano in exchange for a sluggish internet connection. Mostly it’s been handling miscellaneous things - emails, inquiries, follow-ups (texts from mom asking when we can Skype). What it hasn’t been is blogging, which I have to apologize for. Writing is one of the only things keeping me sane, so there’s no reason not to channel it here.

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We’re existing in a semi-permanent dream world: living in and around an airplane hangar. The first night - camped on the front lawn in my circa-1960s tent - I was woken up with my books soaked by the rain. I sat up: “come on David, you’re made of stronger stuff than this!” (a phrase I have never heard myself utter before). I made a dash through the rain, only to realize that it was really the sprinkler system. Last night we slept on the hangar floor to stay out of the wind and woke up to little presents from mice in our cereal bowl and on Stephen’s sleeping bag.

We’ve only been here for six days but we forgot to pack an accurate sense of time into our suitcases: it blends together like the sagebrush and dust in these mountains.

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I feel lucky and simultaneously unworthy. Last week we watched a team of three sew our wing together over a day, quiet for most of it, running the cameras and reverent towards the craftsmanship. For the past two days we’ve been with Dan, a man who’s closest neighbor is two miles away and who thrives on coffee, nicotine, and the musical stylings of Deadmau5 (not what I expected - I told him so). We’ve been assisting him in building the trike body from the bottom up: we’ll know it intimately when we move the pedal to full throttle for the first time. How many pilots have actually had a hand in building their aircraft?

What’s most disconcerting to me is that this is happening. Disconcerting because I’m not ready for it -- I don’t know when I ever would have been. This is the biggest step we’ve made so far and I’m halfway between sleep and dreaming. I can’t imagine everything will really focus until we’re making the first leg of our trip (Sacramento to Half Moon Bay). I’m watching my dream unfold along with our wing and I don’t feel proud. I feel lucky, and overwhelmingly so.

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I can’t believe this is me: standing up in the back of a pickup truck and screaming as it barrels down a mountainside; watching three hang glider pilots soar off a cliff and into evening thermals; waking up besides a roaring river and seeing stars like silver through my hammock’s opening. The amount of change and the pace of that change, since the day I stepped out of Brooklyn, has been delayed in getting to my brain.

I left what I knew in order to affect a change in myself but I’ve seen so much already that I’m scatterbrained. I shudder in the morning cold, hearing gunshots from a firing range and a rooster in the opposite direction. I climb out of a hammock slung between a truck rack and Stephen’s SUV and head into the hangar.

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Next week: our adventures in Stehekin: an unincorporated mountain community only accessible by plane or boat, in a nook at the far end of Lake Chelan.

 

 

A BIG ANNOUNCEMENT

by David Grabowski

We’re passionate about cutting a film from our experiences because we believe it will inspire and inform our audience in a unique way. But we’ve also been searching for a way for Tilt Shift to serve a physical, very real, humanitarian need. We found our answer in Angel Flight West!

Angel Flight West is an organization of volunteer private pilots offering the gift of flight to thousands of stricken children and adults for over 30 years. Along with commercial airline partners, AFW arranges non-emergency air transportation without cost to qualified passengers. Missions have included providing passengers access to treatment at faraway medical centers; transporting blood to critically ill patients; flying special needs kids to summer camps; and many more humanitarian missions.

Three years of treatment later, and cancer free!

Three years of treatment later, and cancer free!

This organization’s work is close to me personally. When I was in college, my mother was diagnosed with stage three, triple-negative breast cancer. My Aunt Sybil was diagnosed with this same cancer some years earlier, and in the end it claimed her life. Getting my mother the top possible care was of the utmost importance, and in the end she began treatment at MD Anderson: the top care facility in the country. MD Anderson saved my mother’s life, but she wouldn’t have been able to make it down to Texas were it not for the grace of a good friend and pilot. He was able to get standby tickets on his airline for my mother and father, without which they would have been unable to go.

As Angel Flight West’s mission is to provide this same, needs-based medical transportation (along with other admirable missions), I am thrilled to announce that Tilt Shift will be donating a percentage of proceeds from its final cut to Angel Flight West. You can find their site here.

We could not be happier to partner with this wonderful organization, and to spread the word about their mission going forward!


Leaving Home and What I Brought With Me

Leaving home is particularly weighing when you do it twice in a row.

Leaving Brooklyn

I found myself in my Brooklyn apartment for the last time. Some snow had fallen the night before and a sheen of ice had hardened on the street. I disassembled my bed frame and hunted through the drawers one last time. If this were a movie I might reflect deeply for a moment on everything that had happened in the apartment, but I didn’t. The truth is that I couldn’t wait to leave, couldn’t wait to start my life again, couldn’t wait to reinvent myself, to fly, to become a hard and confident man, to steer my life where I wanted to go. My wonderful trooper of a father arrived and we carted everything down the stairs to the van. We edged onto the freeway and I didn’t look behind me once.

Being at home #2 (which is, of course, still my home) was quiet and wonderful. I got to cook for my parents almost every night and in the early mornings I worked out hard at the gym. By the time Stephen and our affable nitwit of a friend, Jon Mark, pulled up in Stephen’s car, I was feeling pretty terrific and ready to start my adventure.

Heathendom.

Heathendom.

All then there was Mardi Gras. There is nothing quite so strange as watching an entire city get drunk for five straight days. What’s especially strange is that it really is... everyone. I saw the drunks drunk, college kids getting drunk, and I saw what looked like a country club’s worth of rich white people standing in the middle of a side street drunk and smoking cigars. It can turn dark really fast; in few places on earth can you see the numbness of an entire species quite so clearly as Bourbon St. on the last night of Mardi Gras. A “Romanian gypsy” whose breath smelled like vomit read my palm. I saw people doing scandalous things to try and convince strangers to throw plastic beads at them from balconies. Solo cups slid down a river of human matter and booze so fast that rats could have used them as ferries.

By day three I needed silence and found it by cycling along Esplanade Avenue and north to the southern bank of Lake Pontchartrain. Along the way I found a church, Our Lady of the Somethings, and sat in it for an hour, just relishing the nonexistence of stimulants in my system or sound waves careening around me. In that sensory deprivation tank, I thought back home to my family, to the life I’d left behind. I found my thoughts unsettlingly pulled back to where I had come from, and for the first time wondered if I had made a mistake in leaving. I lit a candle, said goodbye to the silence, and got back on my bike.

 

Some of the best seafood I've ever tasted. Above: crawfish. I ate 5 pounds of them. 

Some of the best seafood I've ever tasted. Above: crawfish. I ate 5 pounds of them. 

By the time I got back in the car, hungover from alcoholic slurpies and desperate for a cure, I wanted nothing more than to flee from the insanity of that festival. What’s strange is that I can’t stop thinking about it now. 

There is a place in New Orleans called F&M and it is a shithole. I don’t use that term lightly because that evening it was, factually, a shithole: there was an overflow of human feces spilling out of the men’s room and into the corridor, where I advised the couple whispering behind me that no, no they did not want to have sex in there.

This probably gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of bar F&M is -- people dance on top of a pool table, the music is a strange mixture of early 2000’s rap and hip hop, country, and modern chart toppers. The place dribbles over the edges with horny 20-somethings looking for a Mardi Gras one-nighter. I don’t do well with these kinds of situations: it’s like I don’t know what to do with my body. This is how it’s always been, ever since high school dances. Let me reiterate that: ever since high school. Why the hell, then, did I find myself in this shithole in Louisiana? Wasn’t the point of my leaving home to start fresh, to start all over, to not find myself in the middle of a club dancing to music that I hate and wanting to be anywhere else?

Answers don’t come easily to questions like these. I’d like to go back for a minute, far before this trip was conceived. It was winter and I was having a long conversation with a good friend of mine, Jim. We were talking about the west coast, how I was planning on moving there and how much good I thought it would do me. Jim, after a pause, told me that my problems would follow me wherever I went. “Yeah, but being somewhere where I’m at least happy wouldn’t hurt,” I countered. I don’t think I need to say that Jim was right.

Your problems follow you no matter where you go, because having problems is as integral to individuality as having DNA. It’s really pretty out here in California, I’m putting 100% of my time into something that I’m passionate about, but those same “problems” persist and will do until I decide to take action. That moment of decision can happen in New York, in Los Angeles, or in a shithole in the middle of New Orleans. Where doesn’t matter; you is the location of the issue.

So, with that in mind, I’m taking a hard look at myself during what is probably the strangest time of my life. I’m in a city I’ve never been in before, looking for odd jobs, and shooting up into the air a couple times a week in a trike. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.