Tuesday, September 27, 2016
I’m sitting in an auto repair shop in Wickenburg, Arizona, waiting for the muffler on our GoWesty (a VW Eurovan) to be repaired. The wind is strong, on the ground as well as aloft so there will be no flying today. Wickenburg is the kind of cute western town you might want to spend an afternoon in. Anything after that and, at least for me, my “go go go!” mode kicks in. It has a kind of blue collar, old world grit I remember from small towns in Pennsylvania. For no good reason, realistic concrete statues of men in cowboy hats are placed in front of a few establishments; I joke with Stephen and Arina that this is how people are tricked into stopping here.
I landed at Wickenburg Municipal on Sunday in a strong, steady wind, after getting pushed around by headwinds as strong as 25 knots en route from Dateland, AZ. The plan was to head into the mountains past Prescott, but the winds were so strong that instead I chained Eddy to the ground here and joined a genial group of pilots for coffee and doughnuts. Sunday happened to be their weekly get together. A man with a cowboy hat asked where I was headed. “New York City,” I said. They all laughed and asked what my groundspeed was -- “43 knots” -- and laughed some more.
I haven’t written anything so far except for letters, but it’s all imprinted itself so well that I’m finding no trouble recollecting. First: everything leading up to everything else.
The Cal Rodgers Experience
The pedal was on the floor for the entire month before departure. Every day I would come home from work, make a sandwich, and sit at my laptop for 6-8 hours planning the route, sending out paperwork, checking things off lists, ordering a backup pair of glasses, finalizing contracts, calling airport managers, and collapsing into bed next to my already-asleep girlfriend. We’re expecting a baby in March, by the way. March 12th, right between my father and sister’s birthdays. Without blinking I can tell you that leaving my impending fatherhood behind for 40+ days has been the hardest part of all this.
Bigger even than the broken landing gear strut that sparked a 2 week sprint to the starting gate. On September 2, a windy day at Franklin Field (F72), I came down for a practice crosswind landing. One moment I was hovering above the runway, the next the trike was on the ground and shaking back and forth, dancing from wheel to wheel with unanticipated violence. I was clenching the control bar, struggling to restore equilibrium, my only words “oh boy. OH BOY!” I knew something was really wrong. It’s incredible to me that I didn’t flip Eddy right over. I ended up running off the runway into the dirt. The trike was leaning to one side. I taxied it, slow and sad, to the parking area, bracing myself to consider the damage.
Eddy was leaning to one side like a crippled thing -- the right strut had snapped at the root, the brake lines were torn and leaking, and the propeller had sliced through a wheel pant. I sat down on a bench and cried. So began the second “trike recovery effort” I’ve ever made, involving a tremendous effort from Doug and Tom (my instructor and hangar mate/mentor) to buy wood for ramps, rent a U Haul truck (incredibly one was available; it was Labor Day weekend), wheel Eddy into the truck, disassemble the wing, and get the injured bird back to the hangar.
When I was young I had a hamster who I named Houdini. He escaped upwards of 8 times. It’s no surprise then, that an adventure modeled after Cal Rodgers might include, already, some of the roadblocks he encountered: mechanical issue, weather, the odds seemingly insurmountable. But Cal had a lot of help, it turns out. So do I. More than I deserve, I’m sure.
Something I realized recently: Cal never could have gotten halfway to the opposite coast without a lot of help. My adventure is no exception. Having Kamron Blevins of Northwing on my side is crucial -- I called him immediately and he overnighted me new struts, a brand new prop, and a new wheel pant. Having community is crucial. A group of people who will unite behind you, believe in you, cheer for you. Completing this flight will be in humongous thanks to my community, for the people who braced my effort.
A prop strike can have tremendous consequences on the interior of an engine. Compounding the problem: the only HKS mechanic I know was backed up with work until the middle of October. I begged him to let me bring the trike to him. This involved approximately 12 hours of driving, and two U Haul rentals. Three days before our estimated takeoff date, I found myself standing in a hangar, wind rattling it quietly, while the mechanic removed the spark plugs and poked a slender metal rod into it. It was as if I were being surgically inspected. I could feel the cold rod slipping between my organs, prodding me, icing my soul. The man looked at me: “It’s okay,” he said. I might have had a stroke.
I spent days crawling around on the hangar floor, asking Doug to drill out my fiberglass struts, figuring out how to fill brake lines by myself (soaking my jeans in transmission fluid), tying the trike down to the ground with ratchet straps, adjusting the prop angle three times until it was right, safety wiring the propeller... I came home with fiberglass splinters in my hands, inexplicable little bruises and cuts all over my fingers, so much grease under my nails that it took a brittle brush and 15 minutes of merciless scrubbing to remove all of it.
And all the while... press! All of a sudden the news outlets I’d been pestering in Sacramento wanted a piece of the story. I wasn’t even sure I had a piece to give. On the day that I flew my trike again, a photographer from The Sacramento Bee was there. I assembled the wing, reattached it and was up, only to discover that I seemed to be flying sideways. The wing was pointed in a different direction than the carriage. I landed, and taxied back, whispering to Stephen (who had arrived by that point with our Director of Photography, Arina), that it might be all over.
I wanted to curl up and die. The story I’d worked so hard for a chance to tell had an audience, only I didn’t know if I could tell it any longer. There was a possibility that it was all for naught. I might walk away without the adventure I’d strived for, with only a corny positive spin like “it turns out the real adventure was just everything that led me here!”
The only reason I didn’t have a breakdown was that I didn’t have time for one.
In the midst of this, on the day Stephen arrived, we threw a housewarming/sendoff party, managing to cram about 30 people into our apartment. I made six pizzas from scratch and left for 45 minutes to rent another U Haul truck. I was surrounded by people who believed in me, who wanted to see me succeed: the people I loved, the people I was just getting to know, the people I’d been raving about my project to for the better part of 2 years. My manager handed me an envelope which I believed was a reimbursement check for work, but turned out to be a Kickstarter donation that he’d pooled from all 4 of our cafe locations. I wanted to sit alone and cry, weeping because of the gratitude and because of my fear. I did not want to disappoint anyone.
It turns out that the main mast had also been bent in the accident, accounting for the misplacement of the wing in regards to the carriage. Once again, Northwing came through -- overnighting me a new mast without hesitation. Sitting in my kitchen in the cold morning, waiting for it, I got a call from another reporter. I was so broken that I told him without any hesitation what was going on, sparing no details. He wanted a piece of that, even. Like a wild non sequitur I had a dude in my house asking me about everything. My mast arrived at the door about 20 minutes after he did. He followed me to the airport to get more footage and even helped me install the mast. Even the press was helping me get Eddy ready! I took the trike up again and it flew better than it’s ever flown. Flying like that felt incredible. Eddy felt sturdy, strong, and clean again.
The Cheering Dims, The Engine Hums
We departed on September 16. The news was there that day; the cameraman asked if I would be taking off in the parking area outside of the hangar, rather than the runway. When I got to the airport that morning, the first thing I did was to screw my new wheel pant in and zip tie my parachute cable. Even then, I was still buttoning things up. I kissed Tyler (my girlfriend), and hugged everyone. A man and his wife, who said they lived down the road from the airport, came to see me off. “We’ll pray for you, honey,” said the woman. I told her I’d take anything I could get.
It was cold and still. Stephen was wearing a race car jumpsuit; he’d misplaced his flight suit. We got in the trike together for the first time ever. Almost 3 years, and we’d never been in the air together. I warmed up the engine. I made a normal radio call -- “Lodi traffic, weight shift 6688 Lima departing runway 26, departing southwest” -- suppressing the urge to jinx everything by yelling out “Lodi traffic, weight shift 6688 Lima departing runway 26, HERE WE GOOOO BABY waaaaHOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!”
Once airborne we came around for a low pass and waved at the cameras. Later I would watch Heather from Good Morning Sacramento interviewing Tyler after takeoff. Everyone looked small as we rose away. Tom and Manouch, in their trike and Cessna, respectively, flew by us a few times. Tom snapped some beautiful photos. It was the first time I’d flown in formation. After about 15 minutes Tom peeled away and we continued on, the sun painting the valley red, woozy, unreal, none of it for a moment registering. Just the flying, the focus on the craft, the millions of worries not mattering because there was no room for them: the unfunded Kickstarter with 2 days and $6,000 left. My child, my girlfriend -- the woman I love and cherish more than flying and music combined and all of the novels I have yet to write -- on the ground without me. A part of me not wishing to go, not wanting any of it now that I was doing it, had proved I could make it this far.
Tom peeled off and there was only the hum of the engine, me at the controls of a trike, and 4,000 miles in front of me.
Someone once told me “you’ll know when it’s time,” in a discussion about the adventure and when it would occur. It didn’t come true. I didn’t have any sensation that the moment had arrived, that the winds were in my favor, nothing that prophetic. Only that I could, now, begin. I thought I might as well start flying down the coast and see what happens. It’s only now, 11 days later that I realize I’ve started.