A few days after returning from Key West, it was time to set off on the main adventure. We packed up the house in Sarasota, and set off for Palm Beach County Park Airport which we had already visited a couple of days before to perform the rental checkout with a Palm Beach Flight Training instructor. We loaded up our C172 SP, N961MC (known from then on as Mike Charlie) with our gear, which I had weighed the night before to confirm that the weight and balance was ok. With just the two of us and a few bags, we were well within limits.
After returning the rental car we were off, our first stop being just up the coast at Fort Pierce where I had completed my PPL two years before. The school owner was not there, so we left our regards with the receptionist (who was later to be jailed for massive embezzlement) and had an excellent lunch at the airport Tiki restaurant before continuing up the coast to Flagler Airport.
Bad weather was coming in from the South (the fringes of a tropical storm) and we encountered low cloud and poor visibility as we approached the airport. We landed at Flagler for our first night stop; this turned out to be the glamorous Topaz Motel.
To avoid being tempted to push on through bad weather I had decided not to make any accommodation bookings; we just turned up, and looked for accommodation on arrival. This method never once let us down. Our flight guides listed the nearest two or three hotels to each airport, and a number of these even advertised free collection from the airport. It helped that at smaller airports, we camped under the wing; the larger ones where this might have been more difficult tended to have accommodation more readily available.
The following day we left Flagler without regret, and headed northwest at speed to try and get away from the tropical depression which had chased us into Flagler the night before. The moving map GPS in the aircraft made navigation effortless, although I kept track of our position on the chart as we went should the technology let us down.
We threaded between a number of MOAs (Military Operation Areas) as we went. Technically, VFR traffic is permitted into these areas without any clearance needed; however, if they are active then it is better not to mix it up with the military traffic!
Our destination was LaGrange Airport, in Georgia, where we hoped to camp for the first time. However, it turned out that a taxi to the nearest camping location would cost about the same as a night in the Super 8 Motel (a chain which was to serve us well over the next month), and given that the weather was still rather hot and humid we elected for one last night in air-conditioned comfort. We dined well in our room, having discovered that there was nothing within walking distance, and that pizza could be ordered online for delivery to our room!
From LaGrange we struck out West to Hot Springs, Arkansas. This town, as it is impossible to visit without finding out, is the birth place of former President Bill Clinton. A highlight of the day’s flight was crossing the Mississippi, a mental milestone which really made it feel like we were making good progress and nearing “The West”.
The flight was our longest yet, at 4 hours, and took us clear across Alabama and Mississippi. We’d have the chance to stop off in Alabama, however, on the way back nearly 5 weeks from now.
We had never seen agriculture on such an enormous scale; large circular fields with rotary irrigation, serviced by crop dusters flying mere feet above the ground and even under the power lines to apply their chemicals.
We rented a car from the airport and drove up into the hills to Lake Ouachita State Park. After registering at the ranger station, we settled in for two nights of camping; our first stay in our new tent.
Thursday was a day off from flying, and we started off with a guided kayak trip around the lake. The weather was fantastic (as it was to end up being throughout the entire trip) and there was plenty of wildlife to watch; beavers, turtles, and deer among others. The weather was still hot, but bearable for camping, and we spent two very pleasant evenings chatting with locals who were there to camp in their RVs; they were all pleasant and very interested in us and our trip, a trend that continued everywhere we went!
Click here to read the next part of the story.