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Flying Carpet: Sea and Sand

We had endured a long dry spell here in Arizona, and I'm not just talking about lack of rain. Following months of toil without a break, Jean and I were physically and emotionally drained. 'I must get out of here for some reason other than work,' she complained while packing for yet another business trip. 'When's the last time we went camping? Or walked a beach?'We had endured a long dry spell here in Arizona, and I'm not just talking about lack of rain. Following months of toil without a break, Jean and I were physically and emotionally drained. 'I must get out of here for some reason other than work,' she complained while packing for yet another business trip. 'When's the last time we went camping? Or walked a beach?'

It was true. Family obligations and our respective work responsibilities had somehow consumed an entire year. Summer vacation was interrupted when one of Jean's employees unexpectedly quit; then the autumn excursion we planned was displaced by another work emergency. Now came Jean's busy fall travel schedule; she was off to Boston on a two-day airline marathon. 'If only you could join me,' she lamented as I drove her to the airport. 'But it's not worth doing — as usual I'll stagnate for 10 hours in airline seats for a half-day meeting.' Unfortunately our distance from the East Coast business centers means traveling a full day each way just to get there and back.

I had hardly returned home when Jean phoned from the airport. 'Guess what!' she said. 'I need to cover a conference in San Diego next week for a sick coworker. Would you fly over and join me toward the end of the meeting? It's not a proper vacation, but at least we can have some fun there and fly home together afterwards.'

This was welcome news at a time when we really needed it. Within easy flying range from Phoenix by light airplane, San Diego is a world away in scenery, climate, and lifestyle. What's more, it ranks among our favorite destinations, and we hadn't visited there in years. Any amount of sea and sand would help replenish our batteries. Now, if I could just finish my projects in time....

Finally it was Friday, and I arrived at the airport. Hurriedly I polished the windshield before reminding myself, 'Hey, what's the rush?' Not until I departed westward into open desert did it fully sink in that I was as free as the wind, treading sapphire skies over gingerbread mountains in my own flying carpet.

Arizona's Sonoran Desert features a smattering of vegetation, but beyond Yuma all hints of green yield to nude rock and sand. Looking down at off-roader encampments near Imperial Dunes, I was reminded of our tenuous grip on this hostile terrain. In colonial times Spanish friars deemed overland travel impossible along this route — humans and pack animals simply couldn't carry enough water to trek from Arizona missions to those of Southern California. Only after Native American guides revealed isolated rainwater 'tanks' along the way did the trip become possible at certain times of year. Not until the early 1900s, when a wood-plank highway conquered the shifting sands west of Yuma, did a direct road link Phoenix with San Diego.

Now verdant fields line the Colorado River and the Imperial Valley near El Centro, but crouching in wait beyond their irrigated boundaries are endless and deadly ochre badlands. This is still no place to travel unprepared, so I took comfort in the life-sustaining canteens filling my back seat.

Two desert hours later, I crossed a nondescript ridge like so many others before it, only to relive the astonishment of every San Diego-bound pilot when Eden materializes on the other side. Sea breeze suddenly soothed my nostrils, and indigo ocean consumed my windshield. I trimmed for landing, anticipating the glow in my loved one's eyes when we rendezvoused in this fairyland place. Jean is hardly the romantic type, but sure enough she waited, beaming, outside the hotel when I arrived. A waterfront stroll was imperative even before I unpacked. How can this quicksilver paradise be so near, I wondered, and yet so different from our arid home?

We dined al fresco that evening among weekend revelers in the Gaslight District, and awakened the next morning to ships navigating San Diego Bay within sight of our balcony. After brunching beachside on Coronado Island, we fulfilled Jean's fantasy of strolling barefoot along the shore. If only we could soar like those nearby pelicans, just inches above the waves.

'Now what?' asked Jean, not wanting the magic to end. On a friend's recommendation we rounded the bay to Cabrillo National Monument. There we ogled sea creatures in their tidal pools, toured the old Point Loma Lighthouse, and hiked the Bayview Trail overlooking San Diego. Afterwards we toasted the day over glorious seafood in the rippling red of a harbor sunset.

Our evening ended in the hotel Jacuzzi, where a retired attorney described life on a sailboat — he was to embark the next day on a 750-mile race to Cabo San Lucas. I swapped tales of aerial adventure for his of the sea. 'We have much in common,' the man concluded. 'Be it boats or airplanes, the big stories always seem to involve solving mechanical problems, or surviving storms.'

Next morning it was time to go home, but we were on slower time now and in no rush to leave. On the waterfront we spotted the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Midway, her decks bulging with aircraft and open for public tour. Jean cares little for military attractions, but given her vacation demeanor she agreed to join me for what proved to be a highlight of our trip. Surrounded by history, we imagined like every aviator catapulting from this floating runway into battle, and admired with awe the 'real pilots' who have actually done it.

Time was running out, so we turned tail from blue waters and aimed our spinner toward the golden Arizona desert. Funny, how some excursions add up to more vacation than the sum of their days. This weekend of wind and water had softened our voices and recharged our souls. As we winged our way homeward I asked of Jean's plans for the upcoming week. 'I don't know yet,' she replied, pausing. 'But frankly, who cares?'


Off-road vehicle encampments line Interstate 8 through California’s Imperial Dunes.


Low tide spurs reflection at Juan Cabrillo National Monument.


Visitors examine tidal pools at Cabrillo National Monument.


Old Point Loma Lighthouse is illuminated by afternoon sun.


The historic aircraft carrier Midway is now permanently moored as a museum. Across San Diego Bay can be seen its modern counterpart, the Abraham Lincoln.


Midway’s decks offer stunning views of San Diego Bay and the Coronado Bridge.


An A-6 Intruder on Midway’s flight deck appears oddly juxtaposed with nearby San Diego buildings.


A vintage sailing ship passes between carriers Midway (foreground) and Abraham Lincoln (across the bay).


A-7 and F-4 fighters dominate the forward view from Midway’s bridge.

An SH-3 Sea King helicopter shares Midway’s flight deck with an F-4 Phantom and the San Diego skyline.

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About This Author:
Greg Brown's love for flying is obvious to anyone who reads his stories in AOPA Flight Training, AOPA Pilot, and other publications, or who know his popular professional pilot texts, The Savvy Flight Instructor, The Turbine Pilot's Flight Manual, and Job Hunting for Pilots. For more stories like this one, read Greg's book, Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane, about the colorful characters and personal adventure that make aviation such a passion for us all. Flying Carpet was endorsed as part of the Forbes publisher's recommended "summer reading" list, and led to Greg's naming as Barnes & Noble Arizona Author of the Month. His latest book, You Can Fly! details how easy it is to fulfill the dream of becoming a pilot, regardless of one's age, education, or station in life.

A pilot since 1972, Greg was 2000 National Flight Instructor of the Year, and the first-ever NAFI "Master CFI." This column first appeared in AOPA Flight Training magazine.

Contact Greg Brown
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