To maximise our travel time, and quickly get across the “boring bits” of flat farmland that characterise the central US states, Juvy and I set out one evening after work in our flying club’s 1971 Piper Arrow. Of the six aircraft in the club, this was the best suited for travelling cross-country; retractable undercarriage and a 200hp engine gave it by far the best speed in the fleet. We departed from Zelienople airport, just north of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania where the club is based, and headed west across the state of Ohio into Indiana.
Juvy had fallen off a bicycle and broken her collarbone, with surgery required, not long before we set off. Luckily, she had decided that she was coming anyway and turned up, sling and all, ready to go.
The flight was smooth and not terribly interesting, and we landed after dark at the airport in Bloomington, Indiana and found the arranged rental car waiting for us. I’d chosen this stop as a chance to meet up with a friend I’d made a couple of years ago when visiting China, who was now studying at the university here. We met up with her for dinner in downtown Bloomington and had a great meal in a typical American-style grill, before heading off to our accommodation for the night, the “Motel 6”.
If you’re ever thinking about staying at the Motel 6 in Bloomington, Indiana; don’t.
We rose early the next morning. There was a long day of flying ahead, to try and get all the way out to the American west! I pre-flighted, and we struck out across southern Ilinois and into Missouri. Conditions were perfect, with clear skies and smooth air. We cruised along over endless fields, square pattern roads, and rural towns. The route took us over St Louis, the famous arch clearly visible out the right hand side of the aircraft.
Our first stop was the airport of Grand Glaize-Osage Beach, in Missouri, chosen for reasonable fuel prices and what promised to be an attractive approach over the Lake of the Ozarks. We weren’t on the ground long, just enough time to fill the tanks, empty the bladders, and check the weather and notices to airmen for the next part of the route, and off we went, headed southwest.
Our route roughly paralleled interstate 44, offset to the north, and crossed flat farm lands of Missouri, Kansas, and into Oklahoma. The landscape grew progressively more arid, and there was a clear demarcation where the black Oklahoma soil turned into the red of the southwest. The next stop was Elk City, on historic Route 66. We borrowed the crew car from the Elk City FBO and went for some lunch, as well as stopping in to take a quick look at a “Historic Rt 66” museum; the outside did not inspire us to investigate any further. Instead, it was back to the airport, and back into the Arrow, for our third flight of the day.
We climbed out from Elk City, and set course west across the northern spur of Texas that divides Oklahoma and New Mexico. The terrain started to become more interesting, with craggy hills and dried up watercourses. Our next destination was the town of Tucumcari, New Mexico; this had been chosen due to being in a spot I hadn’t landed before, and for decently priced self-serve fuel. Tucumcari, just like Elk City, was situated right on top of the famous Route 66. We had probably made our way along it rather faster than most people!
The weather at Tucumcari was beautiful, with perfect visibility and a brilliant blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. I filled the tanks from the self-serve pump while Juvy had a minor psychological meltdown over the beauty of this part of the southwest and wandered around photographing clouds and tumbleweeds. This was to prove to be the genesis of Juvy’s love of photography, and role as expedition photographer on many of my subsequent flights.
We took off from Tucumcari and as the gear tucked itself away in the gear wells, we turned to the southwest once more and set course for our final destination of the day. This was the town of “Truth or Consequences” in southwestern New Mexico. I had first spotted this town on the large pull-out road map of the US that Hannah and I had been tracking our USA 2007 trip on, attracted by the interesting name. Until now, however, the opportunity to visit had not presented itself.
I had always had rather romantic notions about this name, imagining a dramatic story of showdowns in the old west. It was therefore a little disappointing to find out that the town was actually named “Hot Springs” until March 1950, when an NBC radio show (“Truth or Consequences”) announced that it would broadcast its anniversary show from the first town to name itself after the show. Hot Springs wasted no time in claiming this dubious honour, and the host of the show visited the town annually in Early May for the subsequent 50 years.
As we crossed New Mexico, autumn thunderstorms dotted the landscape. We diverted left and right to keep well clear of them and admired the beautiful sights that the storms threw up; rainbows, and alternating shafts of rain and light. The countryside was dramatic; bare and rocky with mesas and buttes all around. Arriving at T or C, we selected which of the 5 runways to use (the airport looked a bit like an asterisk), touched down, and tied the aircraft down by the small unattended airport building.
We had reserved accommodation at the Elephant Butte Inn, which helpfully offered collection and drop-off at the airport. We ate at the hotel and turned in, ready to continue across Arizona and into California the following day.
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