The big rigs were matchboxes and the cars marbles and then it was over. On the way down, the salt flats were pale green and iridescent blue, and the mountains heaved up like bread rising in the oven. I chewed gum on the descent, for the first time Iâ€™d ever been allowed, and felt my seven-year-old body slam into the back of my seat as the wheels hit the tarmac and the wind flaps roared with engagement. I tried hard not to swallow my gum. The second time, two years taller, on a ranch outside Gunnison I was in the back seat next to my sister. She was always talking about being a pilot when she grew up. I decided I wanted to be one too, but the way she talked made me keep my dream to myself.
My dad sat in the front seat with a thermos of coffee and bread and butter sandwiches wrapped in cellophane next to Art Gilmond, who was sixty, and smelled of engine oil and sweat. He was balled and sunburned and he kept a ranch with mustang horses and fruit trees. We were staying the week.
Iâ€™d surprised him heading for the bathroom the night before, coming up the stairs just as he was passing in the hall.
â€œBoo!â€ I yelled.
His fist stopping just inches before my startled face.
â€œDamn it. Never do that again,â€ he said his face suddenly ashy. â€œNever surprise a Vet.â€
I kept my distance.
The yellow and white propeller of the little four-seater wound up like a drunken bumble bee. This time the plane bucked down the runway and then lifted off, air slipping under and over its fat white wings like someone had tossed it aloft. We circled the canyons low enough to startle horses. The engine vibrated in every cell of my body. The sky seemed to be a brighter blue than on the ground, and everything looked miniature like in a painting or like a toy store village. We at bread and butter as we circled; flying to the edge of a canyon and then flying on, the land suddenly falling away below us. My ears popped, and I gulped air.
The third time I was seventeen, and alone in the front seat with the instructor. The long cable that connected the glider to the belly of the plane up ahead of us would pull us aloft, he told me. I was ready. By the fence my dad stood with his foot on the bottom rail, a thermos of coffee in his hand. Iâ€™d been reading. I knew about aerodynamics and the Wright Brothers. I also knew about Icarus.
I was ready for anything except for the way when the instructor retracted the metal cable after weâ€™d climbed up, and up, circling with the tow plane until we were at gliding altitude, it was suddenly silent. No motor, just rushing wind. I could see gulls circling just below us, and the tiny speck of my dad.