Oatman

 

It is just after daybreak and I am musing quietly in my camp chair parked just outside my trailer door. I can hear a plane. A bird trilling in a nearby bush… One farther away…a different call. Nothing else except the ringing silence in my ears. The steady hum of highway traffic is totally absent.

I am ecstatic to have awakened in this silent desert wonderland. It is an escape from time. There is a small farmstead about a half mile behind us. Only Dakotah and I are here at the foot of the mountain.

I debated going to Phoenix for the weekend, I’m really happy I didn’t. I decided to camp here in the LZ at Oatman instead.
I found him here last Saturday. He is a sweet, gentle personality. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. No, really. He wouldn’t hurt it. He captures each errant creature in a plastic bag designed specifically for such a task and releases them at the end of the day.

He drinks spring water (he got it from a spring himself) and is a vegetarian, he only eats organic food and works out on a homemade  gym. It consists of a wooden weight lifting bench, a small set of weights and pull-up bar welded to the top of his van. The bench doubles as a serving platform for any meal.

He’s a hippie… And a paraglider pilot.

We meet in the morning, he shares some of his coffee and I pet his old dog… Little Brother. We make a plan to hike up the mountain around two thirty.

I’m a bit late cause I’m hungry. I heat up and scarf down some potatoes and ribs my neighbor Jim gave me back in Gila Bend. They are ridiculously good.

I swing my pack onto my back and head to Dakotas house.

We both have hiking poles. They are almost a requirement for the hike. It is a very steep, rocky trek up. Dakotah instructs me how to place the pole carefully prior to taking each step and to hike up the areas where there is vegetation growing. The boulders are not stacked on top of each other quite so thickly and are cemented into the earth. The chances of having a major rock slide is less…. Even a minor one would be catastrophic. They are quite evenly sized, between as big as your head and about the size of a beach ball..some a bit larger…about the size of a coffin, I think darkly.

It is a sharp, wobbly staircase. Eight hundred feet up. Every ten minutes or so I turn around to look at the unfolding landscape. My camper shrinks on the desert floor. I take several breaks with my mouth dry and heart pounding…finally I  reach the top. Dakotah is waiting. He stopped a couple times to make sure I was doing ok, but has still made it way ahead of me. It has taken me a little over an hour. It takes him about thirty-six minutes. He is in spectacular shape.. and almost twenty years my senior.

We stand at the top and admire the landscape. It is getting close to sundown and the wind is pulsing up the hill in regular cycles, fairly gentle at around eight to ten mph. I lay out my wing and take the first launch. My wing comes straight up, I give it a quick check, turn on my heel and run forward.

I holler “Ka – Kaw!” and it echoes in the big bowl as I fly away from the hill. Airborne!!

It is buoyant and mostly smooth. There are still little bubbles from the days more powerful thermals. I find a few of them on my way out, but I don’t take advantage of much lift so close to the rocks. It Isn’t enough to carry me far from the sharp danger.

I land about fifteen minutes later walking on the desert pavement not far from my camper. Dakotah has not launched yet and I face the hill to wait and watch his flight.

He finally  takes off near sunset into the deep almost navy blue sky… I follow his flight into the spectacular sunset building.. cerulean/red/orange/yellow swash of color that streaks the sky low to the West.

Dakotah finally lands forty minutes later nearly in front of his van right before all the color has left the sky. It is spectacular to watch him fly. He has no fear.

An hour later I return with some organic grilled romaine I just fixed and he spoons me a bowl of the veggie stew he has made. Its good.. He’s thrown a couple jalapeños in the pot and surprised me with its spicyness. I’ve had dinner with only a very few vegetarians and I have to look in his bowl because i’m curious to see all the things he’s put in it.. The one thing I couldn’t identify were some flower shaped disks he told me were broccoli hearts.. The rest was kale, cauliflower, beans, carrots, and broccoli tops.

The next day is mellow. I fix a few things on my truck, explore some of the countryside, check out the road to the top.  It’s skinny and steep.

I’m not wanting to hike up to the top today. I’d go up if we could drive, but I’m just not feeling it. I’ll watch him fly and take pics if he can launch.

The last campers left some wood. I think it’s mesquite.. There is a ton of it dead around the corner by the alfalfa fields. It would be nice to have some company by a fire tonight, I’ll ask Dakota over when he lands.

I finally see him launch in the orange light, it’s a bit buoyant but not too lifty and he soars the ridge getting little pops that take him just feet over the top of the ridge.. as the last of the sun dips below the horizon, he punches out and sets up his landing…

I greet him as he folds his wing. His smile is giant and I can see that he is thrilled with his sunset ride. I show him some of the pictures I took and invite him to my campfire later. He is delighted with both and says he will bring some tea.

The fire is just the right size… Just big enough to throw off some good warmth when I scoot in close with my blue campchair…. I enjoy the quiet crackling of my creation for fifteen minutes before I hear crunching footsteps on the rocky desert floor… And the wheezing, limpy pawsteps of Little Brother, exhausted with his long walk.

 Dakota has some warm, fragrant peppermint tea in a cup for me, he is always smiling.. It is a joy to have the company of such good energy. He sits next to me in the flickering light and tells me stories. He tells me about his medicine wheel and how he builds each one very carefully, aligns it to the cardinal directions and how he makes a prayer for every rock he chooses…   IF it has the correct energy. It can take days if not weeks to build one. Sometimes he will choose rocks that he only gathers in the moonlight.

He tells me of panning for gold, of living on a reservation, and his life as a saturation diver. He is endlessly interesting to me, but my eyes are beginning to close.

I am grateful for meeting such a free man, such an incredible spirit that is so open and willing to share. I love his sweetness to all living things (he doesn’t have fires because it kills the creatures that live in the wood) but he doesn’t chide me and in fact, says he enjoys the warmth and company.

He gives me a giant hug and parting tells me, “Goodnight Dear One, sleep well.”

I smile with a lump in my throat. He has become dear to me too.

Gila Bend

 

I am sitting outside my new Toyhauler in Gila Bend, Arizona. It should be quiet here in the desert, but really its not. The rubber from every vehicle that passes is a rip in the perfectly still air.. I can follow each sound across the highway… every once in awhile someone peels out in a muscle car. The campers nearby play music, crumple potato chip bags. There is a child or a woman screaming thinly from someones TV. It is impossible to tell which camper it is coming from.. Sound carries far in the desert.

 

Gila Bend is one of those places I’ve always dreaded going. I’m a city girl.. and kind of a foodie. I like meeting people with ideas and dreams. Gila Bend doesn’t have a lot of dreams. Its got a lot of Meth though. It seems to always be the blight of a small town. Even with the blight here, it seems small and safe.

 

I don’t really go into town much.. there are a couple small restaurants, fast food, a tire repair, hardware, and about four gas stations. No grocery store… actually, there was one, but it closed last year. Most of the locals like the Italian place. They’ve got good pizza.. it is New York style, pretty authentic too. Mostly I’ve just been cooking in the camper. I made a roast duck and chicken, bean soup, some nice grilled steaks and salads.

I’m saving the fat from the duck… you need six to eight cups in order to confit a duck… if I make two more, I’ll have enough. It seems worth the effort since the Phoenix grocer is charging eight bucks a cup for the fat…

 

When I’m not cooking, I always like to check whatever area I’m in to see if there is a good flying site nearby.. I’ve been moderately put off by some online guidance I found with my phone here. It said that you shouldn’t fly during the week because there are military jets that use the airspace.

 

Two days ago, my coworker and I were coming back in from the range and I saw a truck parked at the gas station. It had at least five hang gliders on top and what looked like some kind of motor. I emergency asked my co-worker to stop our truck so I could jump out and meet the pilots. They had just come from the local site.. Oatman. They are a middle aged fit fellow and a gorgeous black haired Mexican gal with a thick Spanish accent. They tell me there is no jet hazard.. the military stopped buzzing that mountain years ago and that there are a couple hippies camped out for a couple weeks. The couple is on their way to Mexico to fly. It is what they do full time. For money, he teaches people how to fly ultralights and does art. My chest burns with jealousy.

 

That evening, the minute we arrive home from work, I set out to find the site. I don’t bring my wing because A. it is still unpacked because its nice to kite in the evenings when the wind is right, and B. Because there is no way I’ll make it for even a glass off. I’ll be driving home in the dark for sure.

 

I head out on I-8 then Painted Rock Road and follow the instructions… but I’m lost in some gloriously green alfalfa fields almost immediately. Finally, I get turned around and feel like I’ve got the right spot. I’m headed down a washboard dirt lane. There is the big hill with radio towers directly ahead of me That’s what I’m supposed to be looking for. I don’t see what looks like a good LZ yet, and I wonder what is on the back side of the tower mountain… The sun is setting hotly and it is a banner evening, but I’m worried if I’ll be able to find the hippies in this fading light. There is a LOT of empty country here.

 

As I round the last corner to the right, the back side of the mountain takes my breath away…. OF COURSE!! It is a classic ridge. A big beautiful, sweeping bowl with a few acres of flat desert pavement* with sparsely dotted saguaro and creosote for an LZ. It would be easy to land right next to your car.

There are two campers here. One is a white van that looks a little trashed and the other is a tidy hanglider strapped to a newer model truck with a nice tent setup. There are two guys by the van and one of them is folding up a wing. I zero in. An old yellow dog wheezes and limps toward me as fast as he can. (not fast) He makes a large effort of greeting the new visitor. I quicken my step to make his painful journey a little shorter.

I wave at the two pilots and they start walking toward me as well.

 

One guy just landed. I first introduce my self to Paul and shake his hand. Dakota (guy that landed)will have no part of hand shaking and gives me a giant sweaty hug. I love his enthusiasm! He’s thin, in his mid-fifties, and is sporting a messy sun- bleached blond ponytail, a permanent tan and smile, powerful looking arms. It is obvious this fellow is thrilled to be alive. Paul is about the same age with salt and pepper whiskers but a little more sober and has to be back to work the day after tomorrow.

Dakota will be flying and camping for another week or two. We talk for a half an hour about wings and sites and people we know.. I get a jury site checkout, some local lore and finally excuse myself to return home in the deepening twilight. The desert pavement is just forgiving enough to see some faint tracks but with any less light, I will be hard pressed to find my way out.

 

I am delighted with this epic place, it is exactly the type of site I have always imagined I would love to find. I can barely wait to fly it this weekend even if I only get a sled ride or two!!

 

*What is desert pavement? It is a naturally occurring, closely patterned arrangement of rocks on the surface of desert soil that is very flat and might seem to be man-made. Many times it has a varnished appearance from clay and other deposits.. it is unknown the exact reason how it is formed but there are several theories.