Western USA – the Southwest

Western USA – the Southwest

I left Pittsburgh early on the 6th, arriving at the airport in plenty of time for the flight. This was just as well, because I was still driving a rental car (it takes forever to get a driving licence when moving to the USA, and they won’t let you buy a car without a licence) and had forgotten who I rented it from. After a short cruise around the rental lot asking people if they owned it I was rid of the car, and checking in on my flight to LA.

Rowan and I had arranged to meet at the Avis counter in Los Angeles airport and sure enough, when I got there he was sitting waiting for me. We were lucky to receive a Mitsubishi Galant; Keiko, being Japanese, has a philosophical objection to riding in Korean manufactured vehicles so one made in Japan was ideal. The drive to our hotel, “America’s Best Value Inn”, took around 90 minutes in the rush hour traffic but we were in no hurry so enjoyed the experience of being on the freeways in LA.

The excellent art at America’s Best Value Inn

I had just obtained my very first smart-phone on moving to the USA (I’m aware that I was about 5 years late to the party on this). Rowan and I were still very taken by the novelty and spent more time investigating its features than actually finding somewhere to eat; nonetheless we eventually settled on “Shakey’s pizza restaurant” close to the hotel. This turned out to be a low cost chain mostly aimed at entertaining children, but luckily had a quieter section available for jet lagged Brits. Rowan was pleased to be offered the choice of a mug, or a super-mug, of beer; the choice was obvious, once you accepted that either way the beer would be coming in a mug.

Rowan and the super-mug

Dinner was just as unhealthy and tasty as we had come to expect from American chain restaurants. It was also very well priced, the restaurant living up to its motto of “Budget tight? Party right!”.

The three hour time difference led me to wake early. Rowan, despite having just arrived from a time zone a full 8 hours ahead of LA, adapted magnificently and was still asleep at the equivalent of 3pm British time. The prospect of flying over LA soon roused him however and we breakfasted at the International House of Pancakes before heading out to the LA flight center.

First order of business was to ensure that the sleeping bag that Keiko had ordered to be delivered to the flight school had arrived; it had. The checkout started off with a review of the aircraft questionnaires that I had filled in in advance, before progressing to the aircraft itself. N2396C, as she was called, was a somewhat tired looking aircraft with faded paint and battered interior, but at a good price and most importantly, entirely mechanically sound.

After pre-flighting, and noting that the door lock was missing (“Yes, it fell out”), we taxied for departure. During run-ups, the slipstream through the open window blew a large section of trim off of the interior. Luckily it hit Rowan so we didn’t lose it. We were assured that despite these cosmetic issues, the structure of the aircraft was in great shape.

We took off and first went through steep turns, slow flight, and stalls in the practice area. That was followed by a landing at Brackett, and then the obstacle departure, an ILS, and a Localiser, all under the practice IFR hood to block my view of the outside. The artificial horizon was not functioning perfectly and I made the decision that we’d avoid IFR flight during the trip; it was a sightseeing holiday, after all. We landed at Corona to take the shuttle to Aircraft Spruce for a new door lock, and then returned to El Monte.

Checkout complete, it was time to brave the freeways again and return to Los Angeles airport to collect Keiko who was arriving from Amsterdam. Every few minutes throughout the drive the advertisement for the LA County Fair would play, with an annoyingly catchy jingle informing us that “Food tastes better on a stick”. I dropped Rowan at the airport to track down Keiko, whose flight was delayed an hour; eventually we managed to locate her and headed back to the hotel to freshen up.

The plan for the afternoon was to visit Walmart, and any other store necessary to stock up for two weeks of flying and camping. Before this, however, lunch. We ate at a burger restaurant, Farmer something or other, who claimed to cook “The greatest burgers in the world” and provide food that would “Not only feed your appetite, but nourish your soul”. Claims like these could not be allowed to go unchallenged. Rowan and Keiko’s burgers seemed good, but my turkey sandwich was disappointing primarily due to the fact that they had decided to deep fry the bread. We used the time to prepare our shopping list for Walmart, written in Japanese and then, to help Rowan and I use the list, English.

Giant-size items in Walmart

Walmart was enormous. Keiko was immediately off in search of good value throw pillows and other such useful flying items. We spent a couple of hours tracking down everything on the list, including a pair of shorts for Rowan, although he spent much of the time browsing T-Shirts with “Three Wolf Moon” style illustrations on them. Finding our list not entirely completed, we proceeded to Target in search of a picnic rug, and then spent a while phoning around sporting goods stores in search of the same.

No-one seemed clear what a picnic rug was (we explained it to them as “Half rug, half tarp” and “a rug with a waterproof bottom, you know, for picnicking”). An employee would answer, put us on hold to go in search for it, and not come back. Another employee would then notice someone on hold, answer, and we’d go through the process again. By the time we got to three or four employees who had been through this procedure we were imagining them all running into each other in the picnic rug section.

Noodles and dumplings for dinner

Eventually, Google provided the answer. Picnic blankets (not rugs) could be had at Bed Bath and Beyond for a mere $19.99, and we even knew where to find the store! With Keiko falling asleep in the back we headed to claim one. For some reason they were on racks, high out of reach. An employee came across us as we were preparing to obtain one using a set of very long BBQ tongs. He started towards the ladder to get one down for us, and then reconsidered and told us “Actually, carry on, I want to see this”. The tongs were a success and we headed off to Din Tai Fung dumpling restaurant for dinner, and off to bed.

We breakfasted in the hotel this time; Rowan was very taken by the rotating waffle maker. After checking out we headed first to Target in search of camping gas, but failed; we took to waiting outside Dicks Sporting Goods instead. We were eventually allowed in, although the manager apologised that the lights were not working. No compatible gas was available so we bought a new stove, but not after I managed to electrocute myself while demonstrating the self-ignite on the old one. Gas and stove acquired, we headed to the mall where we luckily ended up parked right outside the door leading to Sunglass Hut. Keiko, after a long while, managed to select some satisfactory Ray Bans; an essential for a proper flying trip.

Sunglass shopping. Maybe not…

We stopped in at the flight school, but the airplane was not ready so we headed off to lunch. We were seated at the airport restaurant, and then unseated again, as the waiter had forgotten there was a waiting list. Eventually we got a table , and enjoyed another enormous lunch before heading back to the FBO and unloading the contents of the car.

Rowan and I set off to return the Galant. It took us quite some time to work out how to open the fuel door to fill it up, but as always Google provided the answer. We dropped the car at Avis and then walked to the bus stop for the trip back. The online timetable suggested that the bus would take a while to arrive so we called a taxi. Said taxi arrived 20 seconds after the bus did, and watched us board and head off south; thankfully he did not chase us in anger.

North from LA, to Kern Valley

I prepared the flight while Rowan (who had been nominated as load-master for the trip) packed the aircraft, and after acquiring some more charts it was time to leave. We flew VFR direct to Kern Valley at 8500ft, a smooth flight apart from some turbulence over the hills. We cruised at about 150 knots, and the flight took just over an hour total. After the smoothest landing yet we parked up between two Piper Cubs that were in for the day and spent a while exploring the area before returning to collect fire wood and then set up camp. We also planned the next day’s flight to the Grand Canyon; via some other interesting stops along the way!

A large turbine helicopter arrived and spent an hour practicing circuits, ground manoeuvres, engine failures and so on, which we watched with interest. As the light faded we tried to cook dinner. It turned out that our little stove was about at the limit of its abilities when boiling an entire wok full of water. Eventually we managed to produce pasta with sauce, and ate around the camp fire, which was an incredible success thanks to very dry wood and great kindling from Keiko. We toasted giant marshmallows and stoked the fire until it was larger than was perhaps sensible, but with a row of sprinklers downwind we were not in any danger of producing a wildfire. As the fire died down we turned in for our first night of camping, which was rather warm, but extremely comfortable!

Keiko and I woke at 6:15am and shortly afterwards made our way outside. Another beautiful clear morning! I took care of filling in the logbook, schedule, and diary while Keiko started on the bacon. Once crispy enough, we presented the first sandwich to Rowan; served on a stick, of course (“Food tastes better on a stick”). He seemed well pleased, and made his way out to join us. We polished off breakfast and packed up the site.

We taxied across to the cafe to pay our fee, and parked on a slight up-slope. It turned out that the aircraft is unstable this way when loaded in the rear; I could lift the nose wheel off the ground just by pushing on the tail with one finger. We adopted a loading/unloading procedure that ensured weight was always kept in the front.

The first flight of the day was 180nm to Chiriaco summit. We were cleared through the restricted area en-route at 12,500. The gentleman that I had met last year, Christopher, was in the tourist information office once again and was pleased to see us. We breakfasted (again) in the renowned Chiriaco Summit cafe Keiko chose a sensible French toast while Rowan and I naturally went with the chocolate ice-cream sundae. While eating, Christopher stopped by and presented us with a print-out of Americas best castles.

Out of SoCal, and in to Arizona

Leaving the gift shop without being tempted by any poorly painted rattlesnake models, we returned to the aircraft for our next flight. Keiko’s ears had given her trouble on the descent from 12,500 so we flew the next leg at 7,500 to Lake Havasu, and London Bridge. We parked up at Lake Havasu close to a fighter jet with its engine undergoing maintenance; the FBO worker who drove us into the FBO in his golf cart informed us that it had made an emergency landing there a few days before, fully armed, and was being kept under heavy guard until repaired.

The FBO supplied us with a courtesy minivan and we drove into town to visit the bridge. The van left a little to be desired, with the driver’s side wing mirror prone to flapping in the wind above 60, but at least it was free. We crossed London Bridge and then walked back over it to explore the English Village, which was not entirely authentic. The London Arms Pub was sadly closed, so we ate in an American diner next door; that day’s lesson was that a “Corn Dog” is known in Japan as an “American Dog”. After a visit to Walmart on the way back for more stove gas we were ready for the final flight of the day.

Fully fueled once again we set off North towards PGS VOR. The Grand Canyon came into view long before we reached the VOR, and we had superb views out the left hand side as we flew towards Grand Canyon Airport. The airport has become much more formal since my last visit, with secured areas and so on; we had to park in the middle of nowhere and walk into the FBO to find that the Shuttle Bus had stopped running for the season and we’d have to get a taxi. The taxi driver was at least very friendly, and told us how she had stripped her apartment of all furniture except a sofa bed, and turned all the rest into a shrine to music. This included a full wall dedicated to the Beatles, who made up the main topic of conversation as soon as she had established Rowan and my British roots.

We were dropped off at our campsite, and set up the tents before making our way to registration. Some French men in front of us were disappointed to find that there were no campsites remaining that could handle their giant van. After checking in we made our way to the shops and then showers, before returning to the campsite for sausage sandwiches and brownies for dinner.

The night was much cooler than at Kern Valley. The specially purchased super-warm sleeping bags finally started to come into their own! Overnight we could hear wolves howling, not too far away from the campsite. Keiko headed to the store to buy some toiletries; after a half hour I went in search of her, the lady on the till saying “Oh yes, she was in here twice, the second time to buy milk”. When I got back to the campsite, she had re-appeared!

After a breakfast of “Chips Ahoy” cookies and sausages we took the shuttle bus to the visitor centre and toured the shop and centre before hopping back on the Orange route bus out to the East. The views, as ever, were incredible! We walked back the 1.5 miles to the visitor centre and bussed back West, stopping at Bright Angel Restaurant for lunch, before transferring to the red route out along the road towards Hermits Lodge. Some more hiking, from The Abyss towards the West, resulted in some spectacular sights and even a condor, much to Keiko’s delight. On the ride back to the East she was impressed that another canyon, just as big as the first, could now be seen out the other side of the bus!

On the bus ride back the heavens opened, and it was a scrum to change buses back to the campsite. Keiko stayed on board to head to the shops, and Rowan and I disembarked to check on the tents. It was just as well that we did; a small river was starting to make its way underneath mine and Keiko’s tent. Timely intervention by two civil engineers resulted in a drainage ditch that carried the water safely around the tent and away.

The rain refused to stop, so dinner was cheese and turkey sandwiches in the tent. Keiko’s shopping trip had turned into her spending over an hour lost in the campsite on her way back trying to find site 40. We all went to bed early, hoping for better weather the next day.

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