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.