Book #22: The 300 Hour Summer: Flying the Rockies in a Piper Cub

I am quite proud of my latest release, as its my first non-fiction work about flying. The story starts at the coast of North Carolina in early 2015, proceeds west as I nearly kill myself [twice] trying to get to Wyoming in late winter in the Cub, includes over 300 hours of flying in one long summer around the West, and culminates with the inexplicable decision to move to Europe. A first for me, there are no photos…just 31 chapters of my illustrious prose describing what my grandfather once barked as “TOO MUCH FLYING!” For the time being, it is available on Kindle for $5. At some point, I will prepare a significantly more expensive version in print which will include pretty pictures, though be prepared to wait awhile for it.

I am surprised it took four years to write it, as the written word comes naturally without any struggle. Then I added up that, during the period I was writing this text, I put together nine aerial photography books that cover the flights mentioned (with yet more to come), while wandering around Europe pushing myself to the brink of cracking. In any case, there is something very, very special in my heart for Wyoming. Even though I was there less than a year, it still feels like “home” in a way that is hard to explain. Maybe its something endearing about the land, low population density, wild game of the likes of the Serengeti, or decent and down to earth people that loved the outdoors. The American West is, if anything, its own genre of travelogue. The open road….

If you’re a subscriber to Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited, then the book can be obtained for free, with the added divinity that Amazon still sends me cash.

Flight: Switzerland (BE, VD, VS): Under a Muted Sky

It is evident that my standard photography day is one with as sunny of a sky as possible. While I continue to surprise myself with the errant beauty of sky texture as it unpredictably presents itself, instinct takes over, and I am back at it looking for blue sky. Every now and then, I decide to toss personal convention to the wind and go up for a “classic” flight with muted overcast tones.

I held onto this “classic” idea for a while until it occurred to me that its patently false. There is nothing “classic” about it, at least when it comes to aviation, mountains, and photography. How many times have I gone for this pseudo-traditional flight in the mountains with muted tones, beckoning the reflective aura of Bach’s cantatas?

In Colorado, it never happened. I was afraid of my own shadow in the mountains, so I kept to sunny days (except for that one day with some thunderstorms, but whatever – they don’t make for good lighting). It happened a time or two in Wyoming, though I lacked as much winter flying as I would have liked. Spain? I believe I had a chance 3 or 4 times to see a muted overcast sky with snow beneath. Usually clouds were orographic or part of an inversion.

So that lends to the question…how the hell did I come up with this “classic” idea?

Western New York….the place where I was squeezed through the vagina at birth and took my initial flight lessons in the Cub. If one is unfortunate enough to visit while the weather is foul (most of the time), then an observant individual would note that the sun disappears for practically half the year. A relatively classic cycle of weather is as follows: storm system, cold front, brisk northwest wind, lake effect clouds behind it (no sun), maybe a bit of sun after lake effect abates, then a warm or occluded front preceding the next storm. It was in this precise window that winds would tend to be calm, pressure would begin to lower, skies would filter in mid-to-high clouds, and the air took on a certain stillness. No longer was it lashing rain, lashing wind from Canada, angry splashes of snow. Instead, it was a serene, reflective moment before the weather would go to shit again, and I tended to like it.

I have many positive memories of flying the Cub in this kind of weather, as it was either this weather cycle (warm front) or a tiny window of sun where I could fly. Then it was back to a mud pit of a short-field, crosswind grass strip where, as a new pilot, I couldn’t handle 30mph sideways winds which were common.

In circumstances out of New York, I am surprised how rare it is to get a moisturized, calm overcast sky in advance of a low pressure system that mimics these pleasant memories.

Bernese Alps.

“Sector blindness” is a reality in circumstances such as this. It is where a pilot does not notice the difference between snow and a cloud and crashes into the mountain turning it into a “story of fire and ice.”

The foothills in tranquil tones. I had to desaturate the blues out of the trees, which was something quite normal in the Northeast of the USA. On a cloudy day, treeless hills in winter would appear blue.

Looking into the Valais.

Humans on a glacier.

Early sunset tones with Mt. Blanc on the horizon.

Airplanes on a glacier. Why don’t you do that with the Cub? I was quoted $35,000 for skis for the Cub, and $30,000 for the ski rating. To quote a British individual, “They can stick their skis where the sun doesn’t shine.”

Flight: Switzerland (BE, VD): Illusions of Winter

One would think that it snows heavily around the holidays in the Alps. The reality is debatable. Last year during a visit, Gstaad was devoid of snow. This year, it has been plentiful quantities of rain. Dreaming of a white Christmas? You’ll have to find a high-altitude chalet and pay for it.

The flight on this post took place during an early season snowfall, where I was lulled into a belief that winter meant snow in the Alps (at least where humans are; the summits are loaded with it). From what I have read, it is the warmest December in Swiss history, with the single highest temperature in the entire month, in the entire country, recorded at 20.1C, on the north side of the Alps. What does this portend for the rest of the winter? I’d venture to guess that a continuation of the south side of the Alps getting slammed with precipitation, as it has occurred since autumn. Much like Spain, it could be anything from the rest of the winter finishing as warm and annoying, or it could rapidly switch and have weather systems attempt to asphyxiate inhabitants of alpine valleys with meters of snow. In 2018, winter in the Pyrenees went from bone dry, with nearly months of no snow even at the summits, to 76cm/2.5 feet of snow in one storm, down in the valley, which hadn’t happened in decades.

Saanen, on takeoff runway 08. 

Gstaad. I recently read an article about Christmas in Gstaad, written in 2015. It was obviously dated as it presented Harvey Weinstein frolicking on the promenade browsing English-language books as a good thing.

Horneggli ski area. 

Schonried center right. Gstaad Airport in the shadow center distance.

Wittenberghorn und Gummfluh.

Lauenen…under the clouds. Giferspitz above them.

Why not go from ‘VFR on top’ in the Alps to a hole in the clouds, where I can proceed up a snowy box canyon? Gsteig.

Amen. Nothing like a 5000′ wall of rock at the end of the valley. I rode a cable car up to the pass on the right with my wife over the summer. It was very steep and very high, and I attempted to alleviate her nervousness about our impending doom by noting that “if the cable snaps, we get a Bernese death certificate.” A British tourist crammed in the gondola found it eminently amusing.

Still Gsteig. Here Swiss rednecks and obscenely wealthy foreigners coexist in an oddly sustainable equilibrium. 

Gstaad Airport looking toward the canton of Vaud. 

Château-d’Oex.

L’Intyamon. Unceremoniously, the snow goes away due to temperatures. That is the rain layer. Seattle below, Colorado above. 

About to overfly Gstaad Airport to confirm wind. It favored 08, my first ever landing on that side. One has to have some balls to bring heavy metal into this airport. Terrain is rather steep on final approach, so much so that even if I slow the Cub to 48mph, ride the stall buffet skimming trees (it won’t actually stall due to vortex generators, though she’ll wiggle quite a bit), I still must do a slip to bring it down on the numbers, which are displaced quite a distance from the end of the runway. I suppose the proclivity of the Cub to not sink fast makes it seem challenging, as I watched a PC-24 land on 08 and the sink rate can easily match terrain below.

Book #21: Flying Yellowstone

Yellowstone was an editorial conundrum at the time I was flying it. The size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, replete with a complex variety of subjects, it seemed too big for one book, yet if I ignored the magnitude of geothermal features that existed for favor of editorial curation and book size, then I was missing out. Eventually, I decided to split it in two, with the first book “Yellowstone’s Hot Springs: An Aviator’s Perspective” coming out in 2017 and now finally, “Flying Yellowstone.” The newest release features two sections on geothermal features, with the rest covering the vast array that exists in the rest of the park, much of it accessible only by foot. In my continuing assumption that readers are faithful disciples that a) read absolutely everything I write and b) would notice that I may have duplicated content, all images in “Flying Yellowstone” are unique and did not appear in the hot springs book.

As I have more Swiss and Spanish content to release in the coming years, I realized that I will be bringing books to market on American, Iberian, and Alpine subjects simultaneously. While it may be esoteric, I find it interesting and demonstrative of my inability to estimate the workload involved in producing a photography book. It’s also the nature of this crazy story that I didn’t see coming.

Flight: Switzerland (VD, VS), France: Lake Geneva Inversion and Pre-Alps

While I had not heard of such a thing prior to visiting Europe, nor do I hear much about it from sources other than my ramblings, inversions are apparently relatively common on this continent. Part of it likely has to do with somewhat placid maritime weather, whereas the bigger contributor is terrain. California and its famous fog is the closest North American equivalent to terrain and inbound western moisture.

For those who have been reading the blog for years, it is noted that I used to rant quite a bit about it in Spain, then grew to appreciate the beauty of the inversion, so long as it was down below and not defiling my day-to-day life. In the inhabited sections of the Alps and terrain beneath, inversions abound, so much so that it is a common pollution consideration, as air gets trapped and contaminants pile up. British people regularly get tricked by it, with stories of Londoners wishing to “move to the mountains where the air is clear” to escape London’s own diesel-infused winter inversion. They come to Chamonix, France, and then discover that their child’s asthma is now worse, because the air simply gets trapped in such deep valleys.

To me, it is odd. I am so used to strong storm systems with abundant energy blowing entire air masses out to sea, whether it was NY, NC, WY, or CO, it seemed to be that when terrain created fog or orographic lift, it did it in a way that did not trap the air mass. I suppose the alternation between dry Canadian air and moist Gulf or Atlantic sources is the key. A cold front out of the north in Europe, while it can be drier, often brings cool, moist air instead of warm, moist air. Cold, dry air from Russia is not common in Western Europe, so there you have it.

Now how does this fit into flying? There is a persistent inversion over Lake Geneva in winter. In the autumn, it merely sneers at me, demonstrating that clearer air is above, whereas humid defilement sits below. In 2018, it sent me on a rampage, though in 2019 I got smarter and figured out there is a thing called “webcams” and I can discern the top of the layer and either fly or drive above it.

This flight punctured the inversion, went over Lake Geneva, around the Chablais Alps, into the French Pre-Alps northwest of Portes du Soleil for the first time, and came back to the airport via Col du Forclaz.

Skank layer over the Rhône Valley.

Haze now turning into clouds against the Chablais Alps.

Where the magic happens….

Its VFR on top!

From where I came. Technically there were a few holes behind me. Should the engine have quit, I could dive through them and then have about 3,000′ under the cloud deck before landing either in the lake or in an otherwise inhospitable location. 

Island in the sky. Above Evian, France, which probably means you’re looking at the source of its famous bottled water.

Looking up the valley toward Morzine and Mt. Blanc on the horizon. This is the same inversion layer, except no clouds. “Clear mountain air” that ensnares British people looking for a better life.

Pre-Alps looking back toward Lake Geneva, with the Jura Mountains on the horizon. An excellent example of how these inversions work.

Mt. Blanc in the distance again.

Above Oëx, France.

Above Sallanches, France, with Mt. Blanc in the background.

Lac d’Emosson, Switzerland.

Descending down into the skank layer.

Flights: Switzerland (VD, VS, TI, GR, UR), Italy, Austria: Swiss Alps, Engadin, South Tyrol

For some reason, I desire to share the poetic transcendentalism of aviation, and it’s just not coming out in words. I suppose I could just explain some elements of the flight in question instead.

I was on a tear to get as many autumn photos as I could. While the Valais has an abundance of larch trees at timberline altitude, I had long known that the Engadin in eastern Switzerland is an epicenter of these trees. They like to grow in sunny conditions, without mist and fog, so one tends to find them along the ridge of the Alps, where neither the moist Italian plain or the rainy northern side of the Alps can influence. The Engadin and St. Moritz are in an area where valleys are higher yet peaks lower, a condition that looks like elements of the US Rockies.

Anyhow, that is where the larches would be found, so I planned a trip. Instead of flying to St. Moritz and returning, which could be done in a long day with a bit of time to spare before sunset, I wanted to take another flight basing out of Engadin Airport, heading east to see what was there. I had landed once at that airport a year prior, though it was before the larches had turned.

I chose a flight path slightly different than the outbound and return leg flown a year ago. On that flight, I went higher, aiming for the easternmost peak over 4000m, then flew the ridge back to Sion as above timberline terrain was the most attractive. This time, I flew eastbound along the Rhône at lower altitudes to get photos of some deciduous trees in color, then I climbed through the Goms Valley, flying along larch tree level. It was over the pass at Nuefenen-Pass to the canton of Ticino, where Italian is spoken, then eastbound over two ridges to Maloja Pass. That put me square in larch territory, right over a series of beautiful lakes. It was heavenly.

After refueling, I took a before sunset flight northeast down the Engadin, south toward Val-Müstair, then east into South Tyrol, Italy, a section where German is spoken in the mountains. Then it was north over the border into Austria, where I turned west about 8 minutes later and crossed back into Switzerland, for an evening flight pointed straight into the sun with sharp terrain shadows.

I spent the night and returned the next day, heading on the north side of the spine of the Alps, via Laax, Andermatt, back into the Goms Valley, then along the south side of the Bernese Alps, before crossing at Pas de Cheville.

It was a technically challenging affair in that I was pushing the distance to within 20 minutes of my fuel reserve. On flat surfaces with predictable winds that is not a problem, as these things can be forecast and calculated. Given the depth of alpine valleys, winds may prevail in one direction, though they funnel, twist, swirl, and channel in varying ways, complicating the ability to forecast exact flight time. Add to the fact that airports are more distant in the Alps and I was choosing a somewhat circuitous path, and I’d say it was more technically complex than most flights I take. It turned out that my intuitions about wind allowed for picking flight altitudes and valley orientation that avoided the worst of the headwinds.

Veysonnaz – some deciduous color with larches above right.

Nax. Vineyard color below, larches above.

Somewhere above Visp.

Larches on the slopes of Bättlihorn, lower Goms valley.

South side of the Goms valley.

Alpe Di-Manió, over Nuefenen-Pass.

Piz di Strega (mountain in the center distance), Malvaglia (town below).

Over the Forcola pass, looking into Italy.

Somewhere above Stampa, Switzerland.

Silsersee, over the Malojapass.

Silvaplanersee. I believe one of those mountains is a “hydrological apex” where waters drain to the Mediterranean, Black Sea, and North Sea.

Back in the air after refueling. Opening of the Val Susauna. Romansch is spoken here.

Round the bend at Zernez.

Piz Sampuoir. Reminds me of the Rockies.

Above Burgusio (Italian)/Burgeis (German). Such is South Tyrol, where German is spoken in Italy.

Lago di Rèsla / Reschensee. Austria in the left distance.

Österreich! The Eastern Kingdom is the 9th country for the Cub.

Austria left, Italy center horizon, Switzerland right.

Scuol. My wife had to remind me that this is one of the weird towns that is exempt from Switzerland’s annoying “Mwst” VAT law.

Back in the Engadin, where my camera broke. 

St. Moritz in the morning (backup camera). Once I noticed that the two peaks in the center look like breasts, I can see nothing else.

Julierpass. Bit of a washing machine wind-wise. That is turning out to be nothing new at key passes in the Alps. Get wiggled around for awhile and it quits. 

South of Laax. No larches here.

Above Disentis, which is usually windy on preflight briefings. It certainly was in the air as winds funneled from the valley to the south.

Over Oberalppass, on the Andermatt side. “Gutsch Andermatt” is another wind funnel on pre-flight briefings.

South side of the Goms valley again.

Whats left of the Oberaletschgletscher. There is actually ice in there, except its buried under centuries (or millennia) of rock debris that fell onto the glacier. 

Bietschhorn. The thing looks like a middle finger. 

Approaching Pas de Cheville.

Pas de Cheville, looking back.

Book #20: Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers the 4000ers of the Alps

Well, here it is: the cherry on top. After six years of mountain flying in the Rockies, Appalachians, Pyrenees, and Alps, after $5000 of aircraft parts installed in 2015 to fly in Europe, planning specifically for Mt. Blanc, after shipping the airplane from Wyoming to Germany, here we are, having flown the list of the highest peaks in the Alps.

Eighty-two peaks can be found over 4000 meters in height (13,123’ to 15,774’) in the Alps, located in France, Italy, and Switzerland. Unlike their cousins in America, these peaks are covered not only by glaciers, literal ice caps can be found on some of these summits.

I must say I have come a long way since that day in early winter 2013, standing at Leadville, Colorado not too long after deciding to base the PA-11 there. I had only recently figured out how to get the engine to take off at such altitudes; getting to the height of a 14er (mountain over 14,000’ feet) was complicated enough. Yet, there I stood, staring at Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado, and I thought to myself: “It can’t be that hard to fly to them all.” Ha! It was quite an experience, both in this airplane and not knowing what the hell I was doing. That was my first aerial adventure book.

It wasn’t long before I was upside down (literally) in the Appalachians. Go figure. Winds can be dangerous there, too. Then back to chase glaciers in the Rockies. How I thought that was the pinnacle of achievement! Little did I know that those piddling snow fields just whet my appetite. The Pyrenees were a bit of a necessary breather, as just about everything I came to expect about European aviation was completely false, so I had a chance to thoroughly enjoy myself and regroup, while also happening to realize the place was filled with rotors and mountain waves. So much for planning…

And then the Alps came. In a way, it was anticlimactic. It should have been more dangerous, yet it seemed to be a relatively rational experience. Now why could that suddenly be? I would venture to guess it’s pretty simple: I had by then figured out what mountain flying was all about.

Honestly, in 2013 when I made that fateful decision to move to Colorado, I thought I would just live there happily ever after. Never in a million years did I expect this to happen.

 

Flights: Switzerland (BE, VD, VS): Glacier Hunting

Chronicles of Existential Dread: Volume XI: ‘Touching Heaven With One’s Hand’

On a flight in the last month, I happened to note a road to the Cabane Brunet, a refuge located near timberline, south of Verbier. It appeared that cars could actually drive that high, so I investigated online, and it looked open. There is an annoying reality in Europe that many farm and forest service roads exist, appear publicly accessible, are evident on Google Maps, and when one arrives, there is a sign indicating the public is not allowed. Stiff fines naturally await. I have found the best way to confirm the presence or lack of signs is to engage Google Street View, if it exists.

Nonetheless, I decided to drive there, and then take a hike to look at autumn larches. Since most of the elevation change was already achieved, it fit my personal philosophy to frolic in the woods, and maybe, just maybe, hike to the glacier.

Sure enough, I hiked to the Glacier de Corbassière. It was about 6 hours out and back, with a hefty elevation incline, precipitous trails, winds blowing at times to 100 km/h, and some light orographic precipitation coming off of Grand Combin, a massive peak straddling the Italian border. As I approached the glacier, it was evident there was no real trail to it, so I forged my own, stumbling over boulders, slippery rocks, and tumbling scree fields, left behind only in recent years as the glacier as receded.

Then I stood at the base of this massive ice feature, getting beaten by fierce winds. It was wonderful.

I texted some photos to some friends, and one wrote back, in Spanish, stating: “You touched heaven with your hand.” It’s a rough translation, as Spanish conveys emotion and philosophical sensuality far better than Anglo-Germanic languages, though the point is the same. It was a special moment.

“Touching heaven”






I felt appropriately euphoric as I limped back to the car after dark, aching from the beating I took overdoing it. As I drove down curvy mountain roads in the dark, I felt mentally cleansed as I normally do after these exposures, inclusive of an evening watching a movie, relishing my achievement.

Then I struggled to sleep that night, stewing over all sorts of mental machinations, derived of this hike.

People often refer to blissful surroundings as “heaven.” We use the term metaphorically, even though it has religious roots. Most of the time, myself included, when visiting a metaphorical heaven, people come back transfixed, overwhelmed by their experience, circumspect by its awe, with quotidian concerns subdued for favor of the transcendency just experienced. It makes sense to me, as I have experienced more doses than normal of this state of mind.

What if someone literally ascended to heaven, albeit briefly, saw pure bliss, and then descended back to their suburban 70s split-level home, sat in their aged recliner chair, heard their wife make yet another comment about an oversized midsection, glanced over at their wife’s oversized midsection, reflected on the reality that sex isn’t what it used to be (if it exists at all), swallowed the last of the lukewarm and subpar beer, realized the sports team on television lost yet again, glanced at yardwork not completed, contemplated an underfunded 401k, and thought: “Screw this. I am going back to heaven.”

To me, it would make sense. If someone tasted heaven, he or she should stay there. Yet, when we visit national parks or other such blissful experiences, while we acknowledge more is desired, typically people are awash with some sort of glossy-eyed look of near drugged mental unhingement. Is it a coping mechanism at the dread of returning to a miserable routine? Is it pain and exhaustion from too many ski runs? Is it middle-of-the-curve stupidity? Or do people just expect that life has to suck and that transcendence is the domain of infrequent microdoses?

It is by no means a majority, though many memoirs and travelogues contain an undercurrent of people that are on the verge of cracking, or actually crack, realizing that they are not going back to their mundane lifestyle. I read one where a lady heard voices in her mind as she began tearing out every useless kitchen utensil that filled their oversized McMansion. She and her husband sold it all and took the kids around the world for two years. Or the stereotypical PhD that is a postal clerk in Alaska. Oh, the list goes on, and I idolize each one of them.

What’s the takeaway in my case? I’d really prefer to be living next to said glacier, instead of driving and hiking all day to it. In the meantime, I keep flying, tantalizing myself with a near pornographic rendition of such mountain bliss, always at the tip of the wing, always unable to be actually touched, always in motion, yet right in front of my face. “There has to be a way,” I tell myself, yet I am still trying to precisely figure it out. There is a yurt waiting in the mountains of Romania in the event I finally lose it in the process.

As for the photos, I took some very specific flights to various glaciers in the Bernese Alps in late summer, as part of a project for an upcoming book on them. The experience was fantastic and probably laid the foundation for my teeth to start itching and want to live next to a glacier.

These photos were taken on multiple flights.

On the sniff for glaciers…..Tierberggletscher.

Jegigletscher.

Äbeni Flue-Firn.

A glacier not worthy of a name, glued to the nearly vertical north slope of the Aletschhorn.

Peeking over the edge to look at the Beichgletscher.

Some ice glued to the Doldenhorn.

Obere Oeschinengletscher. Unsurprisingly, it is above the Oeschinensee. Supposedly, one of slabs of rock is moving at a rate of speed that indicates she’ll let loose, rockslide into the lake, and create a disaster. “Such is the Alps” is the view of the locals. I wonder what they will think about a massive tsunami coming at them….

Bottom of the Blüemlisalpgletscher. 

I think that is the Morgenhorngletscher in the back. One understands why I call this “glacier hunting.” Around each bend, one finds more glaciers lurking in places I did not expect.

Don’t forget to look down!

Südlicher Breitlouwenengletscher.

Rottalgletscher.

Giesengletscher, beneath the Jungfrau.

What I call “The Cathedral.” Ischmeer.

Obers Ischmeer und Finsteraarjoch with a bunch of feeder glaciers. If you’re tired, imagine flying them all.

Lauteraarsattel.

Somewhere northeast of Rosenhorn. I am not sure the name of the precise feature. It is a piddling dab of snow compared to massive cleaving rivers of ice below.

East side of Studerhorn. I wanted to sneak over to the other side, though it would have been silly.

So I snuck over to my right, the Finsteraarjoch. 

Obers Mönchsjoch. I didn’t see the helicopter flying, though I saw his shadow on the ice.

Mittaghorn.

The saddle west of Kranzberg, looking down on Rottalgletscher, above two cloud layers. Amen.

Getting frisky with the Beichgletscher, beneath the Breithorn. It was tight in here.

I reluctantly had to fly up the valley and see what was there. Too many damn glaciers.

Snapped a picture of this, barely taking a second to enjoy it. Upon further research, it is the west slope of the Aletschhorn, one of the peaks over 4000m in the Alps. 

Okay, this doesn’t qualify as “glacier hunting” as I already photographed it to death. It did happen to be on the way looking for other patches of ice that I might have missed. Aletschgletscher, largest in Europe. Yawn.

Another one not deserving of a name. It might be considered part of the Grienbärgligletscher, though I doubt it. Its beneath the Hienderstock.

Rottalgletscher hiding in the clouds. I like it. Makes it sexier.

Playing hard to get….Alright, enough glaciers for now. 

Flight: Switzerland (VD, VS): In Memoriam

It was one year ago today that I took an illustrious flight from Sion to Saanen, Switzerland, then a three-hour flight around the block (Interlaken, Jungfrau, etc), and then went back to Sion, over the Pas de Cheville. I arrived home from what was at the time possibly the most incredible flight I had taken to find out that the inspiration for my aviation activities was entering hospice. My grandfather died 18 hours later.

Now, before one gets some presumption this is a weighty boo-hooey fusillade of grief and despair, fear not. If you’re a regular reader, then one should know that my prose eventually finds ways to connect the most transcendental, deep, poetic, spiritual, stirring, and profound experiences into cynicism on a regular basis.

It is interesting one year later that the weather was basically the same, the scenery just as gorgeous, and I found myself and the airplane within 40nm of the place it was a year ago. What better thing to do than go flying to mark the occasion?

That stirs a memory from the year 2007. My father had just been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, so I did the whole ceremonial drive to New York from North Carolina, you know, “normal” family stuff. It wasn’t the least bit awkward that most of the immediate family hates each other, but oh well, what is the abyss of death for, but to keep appearances?

One would presume that my grandfather would be shaken up at the prospect of his only son preceding him in death, so I stopped in for a visit. Well, there is that, and the fact that my grandfather was one of the few in the family that I liked, and my grandmother, prior to some apocalyptic zealot miswanderings, made one hell of an apple pie.

I arrived at his house, and there was the Bell 47 helicopter. Granted, I had heard of his new toy, but I hadn’t ridden in it. At age 76, he decided that a Super Cub was too boring (to fly and get a burger), so he got his helicopter license so that he could fly over the hill (and get a coffee). There the beast was, gleaming in the sun. Am I greeted by a morose, grief-stricken patriarch weighted down by the burden of the younger generation dying before the old?

“Get in.”
“Um, is this a good idea?”
“Yes, it’s a nice day to go flying. Here’s the passenger side.”
“Are you going to pre-flight this thing?”
“You get in on this side and put the seat belt on like the Cub.”

Right. So, tossing caution about the “pilot’s mental condition” aside, I hop in, contemplating my mortality.

After preflight checks are done (he actually used a checklist for the first time – I am not sure how that makes me feel), we ascended with alarming speed, reaching about 250 feet, before he settled into a hover, staring at a gauge. Then we began descending, for which he brought it into a hover over the runway. “So, what are we doing?” “The RPM is lower than it should be.” “Is that normal?” “Nope.”

That problem resolved itself on its own, so we rocketed thousands of feet into the sky in a contraption I did not know how to fly, piloted by an old man who is either the pinnacle of mental stability, or is about to crack. It was a ton of fun.

This begets a conversation about my grandfather’s perspective on death. Whenever a pilot that we knew of cratered their airplane into the ground and met their maker, he would with a resigned tone inform me, “Well, [X] cracked up.” I couldn’t tell if it was the inevitability of aviation, the inevitability of death in general, or if he thought that pilot was stupid. Some years later, when he was talking with a mutual acquaintance who wanted to fly his Bonanza from New York to a tight little grass strip where I kept the PA-11 in North Carolina, he started the conversation with, “Mark and Jay want to come and crash their Bonanza at your airfield.” I guess he thought deceased aviators were dumb.

Nibbling a bit further into the death concept, my mother informed me a long time ago of my father’s apparent mental derangement, at the behest of his “crazy parents.” So I am told, when my mother’s mother died in the 1980s, two days afterward, my father got all indignant and asked, “Um, why are you still crying?” “BECAUSE MY MOTHER DIED TWO DAYS AGO!” “So, why aren’t you over it yet?” Why she did not commit assault at that moment, I will never know. I was 6, so maybe she did….

Apparently, my grandparents have this “shit happens” view on death. Go to church, attend the funeral wearing black, act sad (or annoyed….or bored – hard to tell really), return home, and go back to work. If the person was a cherished friend, don’t talk about it. If it was someone the planet is better off without, don’t talk about it. My father was raised in this environment and took it so literally that he opened his mouth to argue the idea of grief (to which I was instructed it was pure lunacy, and as an adult, I prefer the grandparents’ view). I believe my grandfather had adequate social awareness to slither away from that kind of conflict.

I honestly think if it were possible to have a conversation with him about such banalities as “feelings” about his death, he’d probably look at me funny that any time was wasted on emotion about an event that was so inevitable and expected. I literally had a dream a few weeks ago, and he was in it. My first words were (flatly): “I thought you were dead.” His reply was a look on his face like I was dumb and: “Well, I’m here.”

Beneath Villars. Early fall tones showing up in low altitude deciduous trees.

Below Pas de Cheville, eastbound.

Up the valley in Leukerbad. A tad of fall color immersed in Swiss Alps glory.

Exiting Leukerbad. Larch trees beginning to change color at timberline. 

Forest fire burn scar erupting in autumnal color, Rhône Valley, eastern Valais.

This is pure heaven. Larch trees in color with a bit of a glacier in the distance! Amen.

I flew up a ridiculous box canyon and this is the view on the way out. There were very old buildings accessible only on foot on these hillsides.

Above Brig. Glacier across the way, with larch trees below. The last time I saw something like this was the 49th parallel in northern Montana.

Aletschgletscher with fall color. Life is now complete.

Simplon Pass, Swiss side. Flying here had the subtlety and serenity of riding a bronco. It was breezy.

A friend saw a photo like this as noted it looked like “Little Colorado.” If one swaps the larches for aspens, this is a scene one might expect in the Elk Mountains of Colorado.

Interestingly, I have a fall photo of the western side of the Black Mountains of North Carolina, the tallest ridge in the eastern half of the United States, that looks a lot like this, albeit somewhat less severe. Colors and tones were similar. That was five years ago.

Some lonely larch trees in the center. Approaching Pas de Cheville, westbound.

Now on the other side. I took some photos of this terrain a year ago. How things change yet how they stay the same.

Book #19: Mountain Texture: The Pyrenees from the Sky

Since almost four years have passed since arriving in Europe, and prior to this book, 11% of my books were on European subjects, I decided to change the editorial workflow and shove some current content into the pipeline while I continue to chip away at remaining subjects from the USA.

This my third texture book and second Pyrenees book. Texture is interesting, as it is something that I collect, almost universally unexpectedly, while on a flight taking what are otherwise landscape images. That is how ‘Field of Dreams’ and ‘American Texture’ images were acquired. With my newest release, I had a chance to narrow down geographic focus, while retaining the same criteria for texture images. That affords an opportunity to furnish knowledge of the essence of the Pyrenees region, while still producing a book that looks like a tour of an art gallery.

I made some tweaks to layout and flow compared to prior books, resulting in my highest image count yet, organized in some different and interesting ways. It is available on Amazon.com and various Amazon sites in Europe.