Flight: Switzerland (BE, VD, VS), Italy: First Snow in the Alps

I interrupt my regular blogging procrastination to post something current. It snowed roughly down to 7,000 feet over the weekend. I dutifully raced to the airport on the first flyable day and chased it like I usually do every year.

There is something intriguing and almost spiritual about the “first snow.” In the Alps, there really is no such thing as a “first snow” as any rainstorm of consequence will leave hints of snow at 4000m/13,100’ during the course of the summer. As last year proves, an August snow can descend as low as 9,000 feet. For some reason, July and August snow, even in the high Rockies and Pyrenees, while it can happen, just doesn’t count as the “first” snow, the harbinger of coming winter; rather, it’s a delightful anomaly endemic to high mountain existence.

I have begun filming some of my flights, including this one. The process began years ago and was a complete pain in the rear. A spinning propeller is not received well on digital recordings. Airframe vibration turns the whole thing into literal jello on camera, as CMOS sensor recording order mixed with getting wiggled produces deleterious effects. Someone suggested I get recordings in the event a film is done some day, which while I understood the reasoning, I was sardonically skeptical. I had to admit, though, that I am in the air in quite rugged and unusual places. What harm could it do to have some good quality film? It may be that years from now I’ll wonder why I didn’t bother to record some.

That set off an eleven-month saga of “rage against the machine” at my new and expensive camera…and mounts….and accessories…and more accessories…and software. I have to admit the product is special, though I have been greeted in the online world with counsel that I could shorten them accommodate limited attention spans and pay for additional cinematic effects and add-ons. I am unsure of the point, as they are free videos, and I believe the best I could get here is some sort of electronic badge from YouTube to increase my self-esteem. Never mind, I’d rather go flying.

Video first, then photos. Not sure how this will translate in e-mail blasts. 16 minutes HD.

Gummfluh. A little bit of snow on the right, and contrails from Swiss military jets above.

Col de Jable, with Alps leering over the ridge.

Slopes of the Wittenberghorn, a neat mixture of green grass and snow.

Above the clouds, looking toward Lenk and Turbach. 

Approaching the Bernese Alps.

Bernese Alps…what a surprise.

Geltengletscher (the parts that are white and smooth). This is why glacier photography is done mostly in summer, to distinguish permanent ice fixtures from snowflakes.

South of Sion, in the Valais. Snow levels are higher here.

Large wall of rock with snow stuck on it. Beneath the Weisshorn.

Between Zinalrothorn and Obel Gaberhorn, with Dufourspitze on the horizon. Another lesson in why glaciers lack certain intrigue with snow on them. Kind of ironic, actually.

Matterhorn. It was too windy to fly around it, so I stayed on the upwind side and got bumped around.

West slope of the Matterhorn, looking over the ridge into Italy. I crossed over and got tossed around, so I came back.

More rock with snow on it. “Seen one, seen them all” so I have heard.

Weissmiess in the distance. A nice demonstration of snow levels as they melt upward during the day.

Back to the Bernese Alps, south side, with snow melting. It is not likely to last all the way to winter, as September sun is too strong. 

One thing I love about first snows is that mountain textures are extremely vivid. As winter progresses, these textures will be coated with meters of snow and lose detail of their texture. That can have its own beauty when it happens.

Case in point regarding texture. On the top of the image is the tongue of the Plaines Morte Glacier. Just 10 days prior, there was a roaring waterfall here, now shut off due to no glacier melt.

I flew to some of the highest peaks in the rear earlier in the flight. By now, I am absolutely freezing.

A waterfall with snow! Hallelujah!

In early snowfalls, rivers and streams show up as dark. Once they freeze, the texture is lost.

Below the clouds, in carb ice territory.

Flight: Switzerland (BE, VD, GE, VS), France: Lake Geneva

I stare at the this lake enough each day that it drives me nuts and I want to fly over it. An obstacle is the haze the lake creates, and a 6,000 to 8,000 foot tall ridge separating the Oberland from the lake, where one must then descend a mile, only to tour a beautiful lake that features no emergency landing zones in most places. I decided to get it over with and head all the way to Geneva and come back on the French side, which sneers at us visually on a repeated basis. It was rather pretty, an odd juxtaposition to glaciated towering peaks that sit not too far away. Literally within the scope of 90 minutes, a person could get off a ferry on this lake, drive a bit, and disembark a gondola just shy of 10,000′ and walk across a glacier.

Dent de Corjon (6,453′), before heading over the ridge.

Glion in the foreground, after having descended over 1000′. Note the haze over Lake Geneva, which is a microclimate.

Montreux. Working my way down.

Vineyards along the lake.

Pully, looking back toward from where I came.

Lausanne, the fourth largest city in Switzerland.

There’s something in the water…I just don’t know what it is. Off the shore of Saint-Prex.

I had heard Swiss banking was struggling, though I didn’t expect them to resort to 18th century piracy.

Crossing the lake to avoid Geneva’s control zone.

The dark side. La Motte, France.

Geneva. That is a 300 foot tall water fountain. Somewhere in this image lurks a giant particle accelerator.

Back to the dark side – Capite, France. Beginning the return toward Saanen.

Thonon-les-Bains, France. Evian water comes from up the hill to the right, out of the image.

Lugrin, France.

Suffice it to say that, should the engine have quit, I would have ended up somewhat moist.

Saint-Gingolph, the border between France (fore) and Switzerland (aft). Amazon has decided that they absolutely will not ship author proofs for my books to me in Switzerland, so I have to drive to the French post office here to pick them up. 

Silt from the Rhône emptying into Lake Geneva. 

Rhône River.

Rhône and Lake Geneva mixing.

About to turn base for runway 26, over Gstaad. Switzerland does not suck.

Flight: Switzerland (VD, BE, VS): Mixing the Alps With Clouds

Note: Abbreviations in parenthesis are the Swiss cantons overflown. In this case Vaud, Bern, and Valais.

There is an essence of Switzerland that I struggle to understand from the air. While one can fly from point to point in measurable and often small distances, it is not often the point itself but the altitude that defines the nature of the destination. To visit the famous village of Interlaken or to go the Jungfraujoch are separated by less than 10 miles in distance and roughly 12,000 feet in elevation. Interlaken is a temperate habitable climate zone, whereas the Jungfraujoch sits on an ice cap. Both are places that can be visited on the ground, with understandably varying complication. The situation in the air is similar.

Because the Cub is powered by a small engine, and fuel range is three hours at normal cruise, with even less if one is climbing at full power for most of it, when a destination in Switzerland is chosen, one must do some altitude planning, largely restricting the flight to the altitude of the destination in question.  If said locale is high up, then I am obligated to find something useful to do for 90+ minutes of climb and descent. If it is low and remains anywhere near terrain, then one must plan how to get there and work around obstructions.

The plan for this flight was something different. Since I am on the Oberland side this time, weather is usually more questionable, though terrain is more varied that Sion. Sion, where I was based for last year’s Swiss adventure, is in the Rhône valley, which runs east-west for most of its time in the Alps. That puts it in a different climate zone, which is more favorable, though otherwise sets the tone for each flight, by putting 9,000’ terrain north and south. Any flight of any reasonable objective involved climbing over that terrain.

That was particularly discouraging toward doing flights like I intended on this day. To climb to 10,000’ only to descend to 6,000’ to play around the base of the Jungfrau, then climb back up, and descend down to 1,582’ was both a bit silly and rather consumptive of fuel. Thus, it was not an event that took place last year. Since I am on the north side of the Alps, there is a lot of variety to see on the way, and things like this make more sense.

The problem, which I am still working on fully understanding, is the weather. While there is a nice orb of yellow sunshine on the forecast map, that holds true over various towns and airports. Merely a few miles from these valley destinations, Oberland elevations can shoot up to rather steep heights (valleys 1500’ to 3500’ – summits 7000’ to 8500’), which means that weather varies significantly over a short distance.

That was proven after takeoff. Clouds were forming off of ridges, and much denser toward the Bernese Alps. I found some gaps in Oberland terrain and weaseled my way around towering clouds, eventually getting above them as I worked along the ridge from west to east. It didn’t take long to make the determination that I would not be flying far beneath the Jungfrau. Whatever I did would require getting above the clouds, which I determined was fine in light of the fact that scenery was stunningly beautiful.

There was a moderate north breeze at altitude, which meant that clouds dried out on the south side of the first Alps ridge. That meant an escape path to Sion should it be necessary, though such winds did discourage wandering over to that side just for fun. Generally, there is a downslope component with rotors on the lee side, and it makes for a fight to get back.

Eventually, I got partially above the clouds at 11,500’, and finished the job at 13,000’ realizing how futile my scheme to fly far below the Jungfrau was. Clouds were much thicker over Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen, though it was extremely photogenic at altitude. I chuckle to myself as I reflected on the fact I told my wife that “I won’t be flying over glaciers at 13,000 feet.”

Over Sankt Stephan in the Oberland. Generally just a summer day.

Not so summery ten miles away. 

Found a way above it, now along the ridge of the Bernese Alps.

I don’t know that this is “classic,” though it does show a lot of elements of weather over the Oberland and Alps. Oberland is left, with typical haze in summer. Alps are to the right, and cloud formations are sometimes mysterious in the middle.

A breeze forming clouds at 10,000 feet.

Untertalgletscher, or something like that, trying to hide in the clouds. Its a pleasant sight in summer.

Now up at 12,000 feet, having scratched the idea of flying down there and looking back up.

Mönch with clouds forming on the lee side. I have a large collection of images like this from mountains all over the place.

Jungfraujoch, the place one can take a train to, is hiding in the cloud in the center right.

Jungfrau. I suppose I technically did get to fly below it and look up.

Looking down through a cloud layer to a glacier.

Looking toward Grindelwald. Cloud coverage, as measured by percentage, is not overcast, though its enough to thwart flying at that altitude.

Somewhere west of Stechtelberg. I confess to a simmering fatigue trying to figure out which exact peak it is. It would help if it wasn’t surrounded by illustrious, visually titillating cloud formations.

There are so many interesting glacial formations in Switzerland that one could get dizzy and literally engage in reverse peristalsis looking at them all. 

Working my way down the ridge toward the airport.

Found a hole and dropped in. I can’t shake the feeling that I am getting flipped off by the hill in the photo.

Above Lenk ski area.

The next hill over. German is spoken where lighting is black and brooding. French is spoken on the horizon where it is sunny. Curious….

Le Rubli. Its not exactly directly above the airport, though it does hang menacingly over the pattern entry point.

Gummfluh. This is part of the Pre-Alps/Oberland and not actually the Alps. Go figure.

If I don’t land the thing voluntarily, it will eventually run out of fuel. 

Flight: Spain, France, Switzerland: Back to Switzerland

With some excitement, another summer will be spent in Switzerland, so the plane had to get flown there. I wrote my in-flight musings in greater depth on last month’s AOPA post, so I will spare the details here. As usual, I presume that there is a mythological blog reader that reads every single piece of content I produce on all outlets, and I dutifully put photos here that were not on the AOPA post, lest said disciple be annoyed by looking at the same image twice. I also put them here as the flight covered ground I mostly had not visited, and in the spirit of my blog map (with lots of push pins), I like to include things in new areas to increase the percentage of planet earth that I have covered on a map. Let’s not get into the fact that I do not update said push pins but twice a year (and even then, I have years of flights missing) or talk about the original premise behind said push pins and how it has failed to live up to the plan. What is human existence but a serious of contradictory anachronisms…

Climbing out over Cerdanya. There is a smoky inversion below and a rare second layer at the summit of Pic Carlit, which was Saharan dust. 

Les Angles, France with haze layer at the summits.

Mediterranean hills north of Carcassonne, France. Like last year, it was hot and hazy.

Somewhere east of Rodez.

South of Lacalm. Terrain is somewhat higher here, though nothing too terribly crazy. There are some extinct volcanoes that impact soil and other conditions.

Cantal Mountains on the horizon. The shallow “cone” at the center is the biggest former volcano, which is 2,000 feet higher than my flight altitude.

Aerodrome de Saint Flour. 

Somewhere northwest of Le Puy.

Loire River.

Ridge before descending into the Rhône valley.

High speed train line in the Rhône valley.

Chirens, with the Pre-Alps on the horizon.

Lac de Paladru.

Chambéry. I landed for fuel at a different airport than last time and it was still infernally hot and inconvenient.

Combe de la Lance. In the Pre-Alps. Flight path is the valley to the right.

Lac d’Annecy.

Mont Lachat de Châtillon. Terrain is starting to look like the Bernese Oberland, though its very much still France.

Pointe de Grande Combe. Still not “in the Alps” yet.

Mt Blanc, highest mountain in the Alps, visible from the Pre-Alps. This image is going to be in my upcoming book on the highest peaks of the Alps.

France left, Switzerland right.

Looking out the other window while crossing the border and terrain is a bit more frisky.

Culan, on the western edge of the Bernese Alps, Switzerland.

Lining up to enter the circuit for Gstaad Airport in the Bernese Oberland (again, not the Alps, technically).

Flight: Spain: Flying in an Inferno

I had considered skipping over this flight, owing to my blogging laziness. I have been very busy attacking the largest peaks, glaciers, box canyons, and high-altitude fields I can find, filling my life with climactic bliss and complication to levels not seen in a while. However, I still retain a mental fixation on the subject, so off we go.

Before I get into the specifics of the flight, I must preface with a bit of my views on hot weather. I may have alluded to my “displeasure” (read: scathing, venomous, raging disdain) for weather in excess of air-conditioned room temperature. I could write vivid, almost poetic literary philosophies, bathing a reader in every shred of wafting perspirant-soaked misery, though I will not. There is a curiosity I have encountered, that there are some on this planet that love heat and humidity and could spin poetry about every shred of misery experienced when temperatures drop below 21 C / 70 F. It takes all kinds to make the world turn, apparently.

This flight took place on the day of the pinnacle of the European heatwave that cooked France and Spain. Just two weeks prior, it had snowed down to 6,000 feet. Now, it was over 100 degrees at nearly 4000 feet elevation, blowing past the hottest temperatures we had experienced. When it gets that bad, something curious happens: I hope it goes to 120 degrees. If it is going to boil over, then go for the gold and reach for the stars. Can I cook my breakfast egg on the sidewalk? Will my car dashboard melt? Will my liver overheat and fail? Most important….will the plane fly without hurling an expensive and necessary metal piece through the crankcase?

I flew the PA-11 with a passenger in North Carolina on an all-time record high day of 104 F. She’s a little sluggish and flies fine. I flew once possibly into the mid-100s in western Kansas, risking heatstroke as I was flying all day. I had to soak my clothes in water, including extra t-shirts, and drape them on my legs while in flight. While outside air may be 105 F or so, the engine blows atrocious heat into the cockpit, to the point where I am ready to puke, even with the window open. Ghetto rigging a pile of wet clothes into a swamp cooler does the trick.

Sadly, I could only get to the airport when the temps dropped to 98 F. It was a bit…toasty… outside, though the plane performed fine. That got me thinking….what is the worst density altitude I have taken off from?

La Cerdanya, Spain: Elevation 3609’, 98F = density altitude 7100’
Jackson Hole, Wyoming: Elevation 6250’, 95F = density altitude 10100’
Leadville, Colorado: Elevation 9927’, 66F = density altitude 13000’

All in all, it wasn’t bad, in line with density altitude calculations. Saharan dust was gross looking. One might look at my photos and note that they are not bad, which I agree that the final product is fine, though it takes a lot of filters, angles, post-processing and algorithms to get to what is produced. Interestingly, color temperatures with the haze veer strongly to the warm, despite anti-haze algorithms typically cooling them in laughably excessive ways.

In the traffic pattern.

Puigcerdà in the distance.

Das. Haze is less as distance to the horizon is shorter due to mountains. That is one trick to work around haze….get closer to the subject.

On long final along the Riu Segre. Fields went from lime green to golden pretty quickly with the heat, though soil moisture was good due to previous rains (and snow).

Flight: MS, AR, LA, TX: Don’t Mess With Texas

Chronicles of Existential Dread: Episode XII: Human Fluids

This one is a bit of a hybrid; there is no philosophical rantings here, just a story, which is included because it supports the ethos of my prior rantings.

On my trip to the USA in the spring, which comprises the photos in this and the last two blog posts, it occurred to me that all three of the airline flights I took went wrong, with eruptions of human effluent on every single one of them.

First was the vomiting child in the seat in front of me. Thankfully, this was at the tail end of a 9-hour flight crossing the ocean, so I only had to endure the absolutely vile smell for about 20 minutes.

The second was from a flight from Dallas to Los Angeles, after terminating my general aviation affairs in East Texas (as noted on my AOPA post describing the story). It was a lovely 3-hour flight in a narrow body jet with 144 occupants….and two bathrooms. Anyhow, I had a need to use the restroom, and after a line of people stopped going, I dove in for my turn, except someone was in there, for about 15 minutes. Then she came out, with a rather unpleasant vomit smell, doing the whole “I’ve never had that happen before routine” (Don’t make a mess in Texas?). The flight attendant donned elbow length gloves and plunged in to clean up, for which the passenger returned for two more rounds of spewing body fluids all over the place. The flight attendant noted “It’s pretty bad in there,” so I sat down and held it for the next 90 minutes until landing.

The third flight, my return to Europe, was the coup de grace. I was breaking my record of the longest single hop flight I had yet taken (11 hours, 15 minutes), not something I was thrilled about, so I sprung $700 more for a premium seat. Surely that must insulate me from the miseries of airline travel….?

For the most part, it did. The seat was larger than a quarter coffin, so that helped. About four hours into this little affair, with the cabin lights dimmed, a young lady wandered up from economy and made some utterings that I couldn’t understand, though I had ear plugs in and didn’t care anyway. She then, next to my seat, pulled her pants down, and appeared to stretch. Now, the last time someone “appeared to stretch” on a transatlantic flight, she was actually drunk as a skunk and was in the process of a controlled episode of passing out. This lady, being oriental, tricked my American ignorance into thinking that she was doing some sort of eastern-infused stretching routine, having slithered into premium for a wider aisle to do so. I couldn’t tell if the removal of pants revealed skin tight clothing underneath (better for, ahem, stretching) or if it was…skin. Remember, it was dark.

After she was immobile for 30 seconds, “stretching,” my intuition deduced that nothing good was going to come from it. She stood up after another 30 seconds, pulled up her pants, and wandered away, leaving behind a gallon of urine on the floor. In an act of airline class warfare karma, I note that at least half of the urine flowed back into economy.

Only seven more hours on this flight.

The two Spanish guys across the aisle had a typically Spanish look on their face when crazy things happen. I hit the call button, and they explained to the Spanish flight attendant what just went down, so he laid a blanket over it and sprayed some perfume and that was that.

In Spain, an extremely common expression to denote surprise about any subject is “coño!” It literally translates as “pussy,” so, well, coño! One could devote an entire post to the practice of exclaiming “pussy!” in response to every surprise in Spain….

What happened to the drunk broad lady (my wife made me change it) that emptied her bladder next to my seat? Nothing. Apparently, there is no consequence for such a thing, so next time you’re on the longest flight possible, slither into first class and relieve yourself on the floor.

The odd thing about this whole deal is that I never had anything weird happen while taking flights living in the USA. Once I moved to Europe, I do spend more hours on planes, though I could go on and on about an incredible quantity of drama that happens in an airplane.

Perhaps I will stick to flying the Cub.

Somewhere in central Mississippi. While suffocating under horrific humidity and heat at 9AM at the departing airport, a guy on the ramp shuddered in disgust at my mentioning that I was heading to Texas, like it was some sort of shithole.

The Mississippi River Delta. Its not actually the delta that flows into the Gulf of Mexico, but rather a silty plain that adjoins the river. I suspect they will be planting rice, as Spain does something similar in water logged areas (including timing, where summer is green but spring is not).

Highway northeast of the ironically named Greenville, MS.

A branch of the Missippi. The River cuts new paths in response to floods as the silt moves around. This is one of the tangential sections of the river.

Crossing the Mississippi into Arkansas. Hot as hell and not as spiritual as crossing into Missouri. I guess it helps to pretend I am a settler in 1840, which is dumb because it really would mean a significant chance of death from cholera.

Mississippi River Delta in Arkansas.

Ouachita River, Arkansas. Infrared. The black areas are water, which means two things: 1) if the engine quit, I’d never be found and 2) there are gators in there. I read an article today about authorities in Tennessee kindly requesting area residents not to flush their unused meth products down the toilet as “our sewer systems are not designed for it, gators live in the ponds near the discharge point, and we do not want to imagine a gator on meth.”

Red River valley, “God Damn Louisiana.” This makes the 46th state I have visited. It is somewhat ceremonial as my wife tells a story as a kid crossing Louisiana in a car during a torrential rainstorm. “Where are we?” to which her father replied: “GOD DAMN LOUISIANA!” 

Somewhere in East Texas.

Somewhere else in East Texas.

Lake Palestine, Texas. Two things: a) I emailed a friend where I was, he googled, and it came up with a photo of a redneck holding a rifle and the gator he shot. I was also given a brief viewing of the lake, and a snake went swimming by…. b) It is pronounced Lake “Palesteen” so I am told that the locals don’t want to be associated with Palestine, as in “them damn foreigners over there.” I find that ironic given the religious proclivities of Texas. 

Flight: MD, WV, VA, TN, AL, MS: Great Appalachian Valley

Chronicles of Existential Dread: Episode XI: Wonderment vs Structure

The “Chronicles” have been a long running analysis of two concepts seemingly in opposition to each other: illusions of modern-day travel compared to my European wanderings in the Cub. In retrospect, I started writing from the farthest points possible between the two, and these viewpoints have been narrowing. It is not to say that one is the other, though it is a methodical analysis of the two that has removed elements of apparent conflict. At this juncture, it is time to consider something that both have in common.

I am proposing that a scale in life exists: wonderment vs structure. To have more of one means less of another, to a point where one could, in theory, have complete amounts of one, lacking entirely in another. I will elaborate more, though suffice it to say that I think my wanderings along with those of the traveling public both sit on this scale, with both looking for an ideal equilibrium point. My contentions of stereotype as applied to Cub wanderings has to do with misinterpretations of where on the scale certain things lie.

“Wonderment” is a funny word. I use it to describe that elevating feeling walking the streets of Venice for the first time, that sense of magic hopping onto a commercial flight, that glazed look of bliss a tourist has sitting in traffic in London, alongside Londoners who are fantasizing about being on holiday in Greece (anywhere but the doldrums of London). Wonderment is a state of mind, not a state of location. It is a constantly changing point, like balancing on a ball, where one must remain in a relative state of motion to remain in the state of wonderment. Not too long after we find something that stokes our need for inspiration, excitement, freedom, or awe (aka “wonderment”), we adjust to it and begin looking for it again. Travel is a natural activity to seemingly contain wonderment in a delightful box; just travel somewhere and the feeling awaits…or so it seems.

Quite obviously, there is wonderment to be had wandering around in an antique airplane. That is what lies in common with a typical travel activity, to the extent the feelings remain the same.

Why call it “wonderment,” though? Why not use “freedom?” I think freedom is a tool; it is not a destination. Freedom in and of itself is the state of lack of restrictions, enabling the ability to pursue one’s desires. Wonderment implies that a person has used their freedom to engage in an activity that, for the moment, has achieved the moment of mental stimulation someone was looking for. Freedom could be used scratching one’s arse on the couch equally as it could be used to fly an airplane or wander Venice.

Structure enters in as the counterweight to wonderment. It seems that the more structure we have in life, the less room there is for wonderment. Why could this be so? Structure is inherently predictable, which means it is antipodal to new things, said new things being a common element of travel and stimuli for wonderment. It is for this reason that I put structure on the opposite end of the scale. To have absolute structure implies no wonderment; to have absolute wonderment implies no structure.

The problem is, we seem to need a certain amount of structure in life. At its core, economics tends to group around predictability; jobs are usually in one location. It’s cheaper to own or rent a consistent residence, for which it is easier to attend college, send the kids to school, visit family, enjoy friends, go to the doctor, and do everything else in life in a known construct, revolving around the structures of need. Since most of the world holds a steady job, wonderment is a small portion of life; therefore, what international travel can be had is like a brief orgasm, a complete explosion of over-the-top enjoyment of new things, before the dominatrix of structure rears her head, demanding of its subjects wonderment chastity.

I tend to find that those with more structure look at anyone on the scale with more wonderment as though he or she is living in pure bliss. While some freedom from structure may exist, the emotional perspective looking over the fence is somewhat of an illusion. Once there, a person naturally finds the next fence to be restrictive, and gazes longingly at what lies over the next fence.

The problem is, I have talked to those who have near complete wonderment, the point in life where no more fences exist to gaze over. It is usually a life of having the weeds as a restroom, sand fleas as compatriots, and a skanky surfer van as one’s primary abode. Further, most who do complete binges of free living (say, digital nomads) tend to do so in punctuated bursts, normalizing into a more, but not completely, structured existence. It is not to say that Middle America is desirable; it is to say that some point between absolute wonderment and absolute structure is.

Therein lies the mystery of the human condition. Once blowing past a person’s personal ideal point of equilibrium on the scale, settling back to an ideal point, the question of life is not answered. The mechanics of travel and wandering may be decided, though the answer to the journey is by no means over. I think a large part of my view has been that those undertaking traditional travel, bound voluntarily or involuntarily by an excess of structure, look to someone with more wonderment in life, thinking that the person has found Nirvana. My teeth begin to itch in that said ascribed viewpoint is lacking adequate insight for the purveyor of it to move to a more desirable point on the scale.

Ironically, my thesis was going to be different, and the evolution of this writing led elsewhere. Even when someone reaches the Nirvana of equilibrium vis-à-vis wonderment versus structure, it is merely yet another tool, like freedom. Wonderment is a continuous state of philosophical stimulation, though it cannot remain a fixed point in time or space, or its effect will dwindle. A person is incumbent to use existing tools available to maintain standing on the ball, in continuous pursuit of the state of thinking. To have arranged life to make that more possible does not alleviate the requirement to continue to chase a state of wonderment. Merely having removed structural impediments without simultaneously fostering the existence of wonderment would result in a relatively freedom-filled existence….sitting on the couch scratching the proverbial arse.

Scientifically, that is a chemical reduction of our existence. Our brains seek dopamine while simultaneously adapting to an excess of it, requiring us to continue working to seek an ideal squirt of hormonal bliss, often derived of exploratory and philosophical wanderings, while being unable to continue doing so lest we get calloused to it. Where does it lead? Probably a lifetime of travel.

Continuing from last blog post. Airplane fixed a week later. Northern Shenandoah, Virginia.

It is horse country in the Shenandoah Valley.

Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Between Lexington, Virginia and Roanoke, Virginia.

Believe it or not, this is a field and not an airstrip.

Quintessential Appalachia. Heading into the hills to avoid Roanoke’s Class C area.

Also quintessentially Appalachian….the occasional heavy industry site in the middle of nowhere. Usually this is a fight between the jobs such sites provide to completely impoverished locals versus the cancer its pollutants cause in said locals from lax pollution regulations. Everyone usually ends up rather pissed off in the end….politicians, environmentalists, locals, workers, and heavy industry alike.

Blacksburg, Virginia. 

Agricultural test sites.

Tree farm. This species is Colorado Blue Spruce, of which one happens to grow in our backyard in Spain.

The partially “populated” valley to the right is known in these parts as a “holler.”

Cherokee Reservoir, Tennessee. It is now grotesquely hot and humid.

Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. There was nothing “frozen” on this flight. It is at this point that I departed the Great Appalachian Valley, which runs from Quebec to Alabama, after having flown half of it without realizing it until I got home.

Up at 8,000 feet, fantasizing I would actually freeze. I whipped out the infrared camera due to haze.

Wilson Lake on the Tennessee River – Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I could have used an “Alabama Slammer” after having flown all day in vicious thermals and heat.

West of Ford City, Alabama (would be ironic if they drove Chevy’s). It was fields of this texture in 2012 taken from Lincoln County, North Carolina that spawned my texture photos that have been going steady since. The same vein of profusely red clay that shows up in the Piedmont of NC goes all the way through Alabama to Texas.

Cedar Creek Reservoir, Alabama – infrared in late evening light.

Reservoir south of Bay Springs Lake, Mississippi – infrared. I landed in Tupelo, Mississippi for the night not too long after.

 

Flights: NY, PA, MD: Engine Lubricant Optional

Chronicles of Existential Dread: Volume X: Depth versus Distance

For this post to make sense, it would be helpful to tie in where the title for this “blog within a blog” came from, the philosophy of “existential dread.” I quote, in part, Wikipedia: “”Existential angst”, sometimes called existential dread, anxiety, or anguish, is a term that is common to many existentialist thinkers. It is generally held to be a negative feeling arising from the experience of human freedom and responsibility…Angst, according to the modern existentialist, Adam Fong, is the sudden realization of a lack of meaning, often while one completes a task that initially seems to have intrinsic meaning.”

So there you have it, my experience in a nutshell. Soaring the grandness of the heavens, above some of the most majestic mountains on earth, laden with a realization of a complete lack of meaning…resulting in dread. Think about it: the prospect of cratering into the side of a mountain looms large, creating its own dread, while also contemplating the existential pointlessness of one perspective over another. In the quantum space-time continuum, the conversion of my biological mass and my aircraft into a pile of charred wreckage via a sudden smack and incineration really wouldn’t matter.

Anyhow, it is these optimistic circumstances that allows one to muse about philosophies while in the air, and if one has read anything I have written while savoring some of these orgasmic aerial perspectives, it is a fight with social crosscurrents that define our perspective of travel and the illusion of depth that comes from it. I am often, while covering some ground, railing against the superficial race to the bottom that has become modern travel, ticking off a list of popular places, posting it on social media, and acting as though the whole exercise means something.

It is strange, as when I started such adventuring with the Cub in 2013, it was downright spiritual to cross most of the country to Colorado and see mountain ranges for the first time. Each new bit of scenery, from 2013 to 2015, from the Atlantic Ocean, Mississippi River, hazy Appalachian summits, every glacier of the Rockies, the convergence of Alberta, British Columbia, and Montana, multitudes of national parks, river systems, open range, galloping herds of wild mustangs….the list goes on…and in each case it was a spiritual baptism in Americana. The newness of it all was so astounding, enriching, and full of depth that I couldn’t seem to get enough.

Then, around the turn of 2016, I came to Europe. Apparently, that ruined everything, at least when it came to losing my travel virginity each time I found a new mountain range.

It is exceptionally ironic, as the dimension of newness increased significantly. Instead of a mountain range and another wide-open western state, it was a new country, a new language, incredible human and non-human scenery, different plant life, different topography, and a level of unknown that blows away seeing Colorado for the first time. In fact, by some measures, certain natural features exceed what existed in the US West (save for space and expanse). In a sudden turn of affairs, chasing the “new” got quite old, and I began to look for a level of depth in what I was seeking. Things got so bad that anytime I saw yet another crowd of bumbling tourists Instagramming yet another ho hum medieval castle, it would churn my stomach. Such intellectual nausea caused meditative periods of flying in silly weather or hiding in the woods. I to this day have proudly never gone to La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, despite not being far from it.

It is my recent flights in America that brought this all clashing together, which is the subject of the photos below. One could note my love affair with wide open Americana having terminated arriving in a brand-new land of expanse, instead chasing a different paradigm of philosophy. Now a return to cross half of the United States in an old aircraft forced the two to sort themselves out.

It is true that someone traveling to Venice and posting it on social media has discovered precisely nothing new in the physical location. Perhaps the individual found something inside him or herself upon visiting, which I applaud, though I confess I cannot see such a depth of thought in a social media feed. At any rate, in 2013, I was flying 100 feet above the ground, camera in hand, in the western American Prairie, feeling like I had found something distinctly new.

But how could this be? My airplane was manufactured in 1949 and many of them have made it to Alaska and the West Coast. I am not the first to take a picture while flying, nor in that location. Could it be that I am mixing a modern lifestyle with aviation and the West? Partially, though I note living on an airpark in Wyoming, while other pilots flew leatherclad rocket ships from the East and West Coasts for their summer getaway, and I can assure you they were doing it well before my first jaunt West. Was I the first to visit Colorado from where I was born? Hardly. Some families took regular commercial flights dating to the 1980s, landing in Denver, driving to Vail, and returning to brag about it (I admit jealousy at the time though they were pompous assholes about it).

So, what is so utterly spiritual here? I thought about the many airline flights I took to Colorado before my move there. None of them felt spiritual. Sure, Colorado was scenic, though I can attest to a distinct superficialness spending a long weekend in the Rockies. While my senses were titillated, they were in a way overloaded. There was also the conflicting incentive to cover as much ground as possible, replacing depth of appreciation with a thinner consumption of a larger area. It is impossible to get much of a real feel for the place doing it that way, and my memory correctly serves to note the difference even today.

I used to like commercial airline travel. It was a magical portal to drive to the airport, board a plane, sit by the window, ignore the discomforts, and be whisked within hours to a different time zone. Roughly when I moved to Colorado, I grew to dislike it, to the point that I now, as a pilot, sit by the aisle, put earplugs in, and do what I can to pass the time like it didn’t happen. When I arrive wherever I am going, I find the experience overwhelming, annoying, and lacking any of the luster it used to have. Looking at the postings of others, capturing what I scornfully declare to be a superficial skimming of a new area, pisses me off even more. Others see the magic of Lisbon. I see that god damn six lane traffic circle outside of the airport that nearly results in a car wreck driving in it, and I drive down the wrong highway exit, every single time, cursing at Google Maps, then ranting about everything, including the caramel macchiato that I bought at Starbucks in the Lisbon departure area inevitably having spilled while squealing tires in that cockamamie roundabout.

I recently read a travel writer refer to the “portative experience” of airline travel, and that our brains are meant to savor a change in surroundings at a pace closer to our physical ability to move ourselves (i.e., walk). To board a plane and 8 hours later have crossed an ocean is not something we are well suited to fully understand. I could not agree more.

In fact, I think that is how I had the key to finding depth while covering distance. It took 27 hours to fly from North Carolina to the Idaho border in 2015. I spent three days and two nights getting from North Carolina to Colorado in 2013, flying from 50 feet to 800 feet above the ground, at speeds ranging from 45mph to 90mph groundspeed. Unabated by trees and other things that block one’s view in a car, I was able to traverse nearly a whole continent at a speed and height where one could literally take in the temperatures and smells, while visually absorbing the changes and intimacies of the lifestyles below. While I was operating old technology, I had, indeed, found something new.

Here in Europe, I fantasized about covering distance like I did in America. Sure, I had no clue what kind of crap intelligent minds on this side of the pond could conjure to make aviation a complete pain in the ass, and cost amounts comparable to mortgage payments. Nonetheless, one would note my national crossings are much less than flights of similar fancy in America. In the beginning, I was pissy about it. Now I have come to love staying within 100 miles, as long as I put myself in a stunning gorgeous area.

What is happening here? Europe is so textured, has so many microclimates, has so much history, and has so much to see that depth can easily be found in a shorter distance. Flying far away has become something of the long weekend by airliner to Colorado…it’s so superficial I can’t see the point in spending the time and money to ultimately see very little as I am either overwhelmed or forced to ignore the depth below. I offer similar advice to Americans that want to come visit…furnishing recommendations of out of the way places to see and enjoy, and every single one of them comes here and hits the high points, fluttering around like a lunatic with tens of thousands of other tourists. I don’t understand it, though it has taken years to get over my crankiness about existential dread and travel philosophies. Besides, do I want people to invade my private wanderings?

The story behind these flights is well laid out in an AOPA post. I offer photos here that I didn’t offer there.

En route to North Carolina, having departed in the late evening. Letchworth State Park, NY.

Agricultural textures – things I didn’t notice in my youth.

Middle Falls, Letchworth.

Larch trees, northern Pennsylvania. I can confirm that most of these are larches as I investigated some groves in early May in the French Pyrenees, that had just sprouted new needles. The branch structure next to the road gives them away. That, and they were there in fall color when I flew over in November.

Northern Appalachia, late evening.

In other words, middle of nowhere!

After overnighting in State College, PA, took off on a hazy morning heading south.

Typical central PA mountain ridges. In about five minutes from this point, oil pressure started acting weird.

Brought the infrared camera, so I can see through some of the thick haze.

Who needs oil anyway? Landed at Hagerstown, MD as a precaution, noting that 4 of 7 quarts leaked out in flight. Note the Allegiant Air flight landing in the background. I can only think what passengers might be thinking when they hear “We have begun our initial descent into the Hagerstown area.” Everything about a jet of that size in a town this small seems odd. Anyhow, not making it to North Carolina….

Flight: Spain, Andorra: June Snow

It seems that a hazy framework of chronology takes precedence over the excitement of the present. Most of the time that makes sense, except when I write about “mountain snow in June” the following October…when it just snowed for the first time in the fall. It gets silly at that point.

I will thus deviate from my chronological fixative adherence and post something from a flight I took today. Yesterday, we had high temperatures in the low 50s at 3871’/1180m valley elevation with rain, with forecast snow levels of 5,905’/1800m. I initially believed it as possible when I read the forecast, though when I watched the rain fall all day and glanced at mountain weather stations and webcams, I wasn’t impressed with the chances of anything other than a summit-grazing snowfall.

Later in the day, webcams began showing snowfall at 2300m, and then 2100m. “Maybe,” I thought to myself as I monitored weather data, still showing -0.7C/31F at 2500m, thinking it wouldn’t likely be much as temperature is key to snow consistency and longevity.

Sure enough, by evening, the snow began to move east and the clouds partially cleared, showing snow down to the upper ski lot, and at what appeared to be 6500’ across the valley. Not only was it snow, it looked to be a decent amount! Sadly, I couldn’t get to the plane for a variety of reasons, including the following morning, until about mid-afternoon. Unlike most early and late season snowfalls, it hadn’t melted entirely, though the bottom 1000’ of snow was gone by the time I got up there.

The range to the east, closer to the Mediterranean, seems to have gotten a heavier coating, as the snow still by nightfall was covered like it was January. Radar showed that the storm was stronger 20 miles east as the cold air came in, so the French got the better of the snow, in a reversion from that which is climatologically normal around here.

While this isn’t your everyday occurrence, I have seen snow on the ground somewhere in La Cerdanya in every calendar month of the year. Locals say it’s not abnormal, yet frequency of occurrence can be quite low. Oddly, in the Rockies of the US, where elevations are higher, oceans farther away, and air drier (thus losing more thermal value at night), snowfalls of this magnitude to elevations this low are by all means not normal during summer and can be rather exceptional if they happen at all. Yet, when winter comes, the Rockies get slammed with snow and cold, whereas the snow and cold here is sort of a temperate mistress, a mix of weather one would find in Virginia with occasional bouts of alpine severity. In fact, looking at a GFS model interpretation of Europe for this storm, it showed snow depths in the Pyrenees, Alps, and highest two degrees of latitude in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia as being the same. In effect, what was happening on the Arctic Ocean in Norway was the same as 9,500’ in Spain, at least for this particular storm.

Andorra. I got a kind text on my phone when I landed, indicating that, despite being over Spanish territory, I had connected to an Andorran tower. That meant a €15/$16.92 roaming charge for the day as Andorra is not in the EU. Had I shut the phone off, then there would be little tracking of my whereabouts if I did finally crater into a mountainside. 

Backside of Puigpedrós (2914m / 9560′) , the peak I see out the kitchen window. France is the left 1/6th. 

In the foreground one can see residual snowdrift/snowpack from the winter. The rest is fresh snow, with the indications of a river being snowmelt.

Note the brown grass above, and slight green below. It is brown this time of year due to cold. It will turn green, then all of it golden due to summer dryness, before turning brown due to cold again. In this section of the Pyrenees, the green doesn’t last long.

La Cerdanya. Ski hill is snow covered on the right horizon. French range with extra snow is just beneath the clouds on the left horizon.

Valley of Meranges. 

Puigcerdà. Its all green now though it won’t last. Much like the Intermountain West, it will progressively turn mostly brown, with certain agricultural operations remaining green depending on how it is managed. Like the US West, even if a bunch of rain falls midsummer, it will still turn color as it won’t be enough.

 

Book #18: Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers the 3000ers of the Pyrenees

So pretty much every project with a list of tall mountains goes something like this: “it can’t be that hard to get them all.” And then it is, taking far longer than I expect, for whatever reason surprises me each time. I can blame the Pyrenees for having a ton of beauty and rugged peaks nearby to play with, that happen to not make the official list of peaks over 3000 meters (9,843 feet). Everything that blog followers have seen around La Cerdanya is a hair too short, with the nearest 3000er northwest of Andorra. The farthest one is almost in Basque Country, which was a limiting factor in that I had to cover some distance before I’d even begin to get to most of them, and then had to go even more to get the rest.

As to the meat of the matter, the book contains the 129 peaks over 3000 meters in height, a cousin to my book on the Colorado 14ers (58 peaks over 14000 feet), and the Southern Sixers of North Carolina and Tennessee (40 peaks over 6000 feet).

I’d say the biggest challenge with the Pyrenees is the fact that they span three countries, are rather rugged, and the airport network is sparse compared to the USA. If one is knowledgeable about something, then that confers some confidence, and can make anything possible. Battling the linguistic unknowns of the Iberian Peninsula made this one more challenging than I would have expected. Oh, and mountain waves. There are lots of mountain waves here. Who knew (other than the locals)?

The book is available in English on Amazon in the USA and Europe. A Spanish translation is coming in the near future.