We flew the other day, flew above the giant, gnarled cottonwoods and the buff red cliffs. From the air, the cadaverous-like trees looked as if they had been thrust up through the sand. Their heavily veined, wrist-like trunks and claw-like branches reaching, stretching skyward, threatening to snatch us from our low glide. Passing over the tiny, contrary hamlet the Mormon pioneers baptized Bluff, we approached the cliff tops which appeared as porridge stifled in mid-boil, a conglomerate of monstrous, solidified bubbles, heavily dimpled and scoured by blasted grit. The humps and bumps were burnt white from tens of thousands of stifling hot summer days. We swooped up Cottonwood Wash, racing our shadow along the towering vertical cliffs stained with desert varnish and cracked by wind, rain, freezing and thawing. Botanical gardens bisected numerous upright cliff faces and the rough and tumble slope of talus rock. The zones of green growth appeared and disappeared as we barnstormed past their secluded alcoves. Appealing impressions and upright, stand-alone islands in the sky rushed beneath our rigid wings.
Navajo Eagle Man Carving
Circling back to the west, we rushed over a lonely sage and rabbitbrush-encrusted desert mesa. In short order we approached the rumpled, rocky spine known as Comb Ridge. My stomach flip-flopped when the bottom dropped out as we dove over the western edge, banked a hard left and skimmed the muddy wash below. We drifted south by southwest, then quickly veered left, slicing through the man-made cut, dissecting the skeletal backbone of the once Great Snake. A hard banking right turn brought us directly over the lower portion of Butler Wash. We hung there a brief moment, then dropped right into the gullet of the beast. My fingers, toes and derriere gripped all available surfaces, nostrils flared, eyes went wide and blood rushed to my head as the low and slow flying Super Cub twisted and turned its way through the tumultuous rift in the earth.
I unclenched for a brief moment and sighed in relief as our canary yellow bird shot out of the raggedy, blossom-like opening blooming into the river valley of the less-than-mighty San Juan. The Mule's Ear diatreme reared up and flashed before my eyes, just over the right shoulder of my pilot, Captain John Gregory. He was jammed into the seat directly in front of me, expertly maneuvering the plane, but still causing me to overthink my mortality, and his. Even though there were controls within reach, I greatly doubted my ability to land this balloon-wheeled beast on my own. I prayed John's heart was strong, reached up to my left and slid the little window open a good three inches, leaned forward and breathed in new life. Reinvigorated, I looked around and discovered we were zipping across the heavily scored and whitewashed plateau of Lime Ridge. Just then, John darted to the left and whisked us to the edge of the river gorge located between Mexican Hat and Sand Island campground.
I shook my head, thinking, "No don't do this," and keyed the mike, which, of course, had a short in the wiring. As John glided left and dropped over the edge of the chasm a sense of calm overcame me. I breathed in the stream of cool, fresh air blowing across my face and relaxed into the dive. We leveled out somewhere around 500 feet above the brownish-red river, lined by green tasseled tamarisk. I looked up to the canyon rim and marveled at the highly textured rock formations drifting by. I was overwhelmed by the stream of stimulating visual impressions. We drifted over the roiling river and dipped our wing tips to the rankled rafters floating lazily below. As I watched the upturned faces and waving arms, I realized they were saluting us in an unfriendly manner. John informed me later that river guides do not much appreciate rip-roaring airplanes disturbing their peaceful float trips. No sense of humor I guess.
It was not long before we popped out of the eastern end of that uplifting canyon and spied the sawtooth surface of San Juan Hill to our left. Thinking back on high school history lessons and a hot, dusty handcart trek my family and I once experienced, I recalled the monumental struggle early, undaunted pioneers endured while pulling themselves up that malicious incline. The jagged trail looked even more impressive from the air than it did from ground zero. In a brief moment Captain Gregory was banking left and turning into the wind to bring the bird down at the Bluff airport. He opted not to land on the asphalt strip but chose the rutted and cross-cut dirt road parallel to the runway. I figured the more difficult landing was meant as an exclamation point to the flight. It worked!
With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and The Team
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