A curved two-hundred foot cliff outside of Grover, Utah faces southwest, cupping the prevailing wind in its palm. I once watched a pair of sleek black ravens playing above the cliff. Each hovered, surfing on the rising air for a moment, and then spiraled down through a four-foot notch in tight aileron rolls. Immediately without wing beats they would soar back up and do it again, and again, and again until I thought my heart would break with the sheer joy of their flying.
I learned to fly in 1975 at the same time that I was learning to kayak. Being upside down then rolling upright was just part of playing on boisterous rivers. And horizons that spun and wheeled around an airplane’s instrument panel were just part of being aloft. Both are three-dimensional activities in a fluid medium–air and water. This is a story about one of those; it’s a story about the wind.
In the late 1990s six of us contributed essays to a book about the Colorado River called Water, Earth, & Sky. (Don’t bother looking for it at Barnes and Noble; the book has long been out of print. There is no immortality in publishing.) In the book, we asked the question: How does this river flow from the mountains to the sea? Over the years, busy-as-beaver engineers built enough dams and siphoned enough water out of the Colorado to make it a miracle that the river flows at all. Each of us wrote from our particular vantage points–hydrology, geomorphology, ichthyology, ecology, history. I took pictures from the air.
The Green River, longest tributary of the Colorado, is born on the flanks of Three Waters Mountain at the north end of the Wind River Range in Wyoming. Rain that falls on other flanks of Three Waters ends up in the Columbia and Mississippi Rivers; thus the name. I had camped at the Pinedale airport, intending to photograph headwaters of the Green for the river book. My plane balked though; the starter wouldn’t engage. I’m not fond of hand-cranking its 470-cubic-inch engine, but a man does what a man has to do.
To the uninitiated, there is a long-suffering misconception that an airplane must always be in perfect condition. Fact is, no matter how meticulously maintained, there is almost always something on a fifty-six year old plane that can be adjusted, realigned, screwed, or glued. So it wouldn’t start. With the key off, I delicately pulled five or six propellor blades through. The rattlesnake snick of the magnetos and the malicious hiss of the exhaust valves sent shivers up my spine. With the tail tied down and the mags hot, I pulled mightily on the prop and sprung out of the way. The engine roared to life and then settled back down to an idle. I still had ten fingers so I jumped in, buckled up, and took off. Had the solenoid hung up? Had the alternator wandered off line? There would be time enough to figure it out when I got to Lander on the other side of the Winds.
The wind blowing out of the west was insistent, testy, jostling as I left Pinedale. I climbed through eight, ten, twelve, thirteen thousand feet aided by rising air that surged up and over the mountains. The wings of my plane snapped back and forth between gusts, reminiscent of the rocking flight of buzzards for which it is named. We pirouetted between ridges and waltzed over promontories, clicking pictures between bumps.
The Wind Rivers were conceived during the Laramide Orogeny, and were lifted to their current elevation by ten million years ago. More than most American ranges, they were sculpted into this Valhalla landscape by moving ice during the Pleistocene. I found a little dab of glacier stuck to the side of Gannet Peak, not quite fourteen thousand feet above sea level. There were goblet-shaped cirques and trout-laden tarns. The cliffs were granite, glowing like gold. I photographed nonstop until I thought smoke would pour out of my cameras.
The afternoon wore on, the sun got lower, and I turned toward Lander. The range is a mile-high airfoil that stretches almost a hundred miles in length. As I flew east, I felt the first ripples of what I knew had to come: the leeside mountain wave. The air was smooth, not shredded. At first the Buzzard sped downhill, descended at a brisk but not alarming rate. But then passing out of the trough and into the wave’s crest, we involuntarily climbed two thousand feet a minute even though the motor was throttled back and the nose was aimed well below the horizon. “Let me down!” I shouted unheard to the wind.
I live at seven thousand feet; moving among mountains is part of my DNA. One morning alongside Denali, I was headed south through fifteen-thousand-foot Kahiltna Pass when I realized that the scenery hadn’t changed for quite a while. The air felt calm, but I was swimming directly into a perfectly laminar 140-mile-an-hour current of air. Like a fish swimming upstream, the Buzzard nosed and noodled around until we found an eddy and then shot through the pass.
Of course there was that other time, carrying four wooden crates of photographs to Boulder, when I stumbled into a waterfall of chaotic air plunging off the lee side of the Rockies. This was clear-air turbulence; no clouds had announced the maelstrom’s presence. The Buzzard bucked and bayed like a horse that had stepped on a snake. My airspeed frantically leapt from 60 to 160 and back as I hit one pocket after another of exploding air. The sixty-pound boxes, bouncing off the ceiling and banging against my bicycle, rolled around the inside of the plane like angrily thrown dice. I radioed to Denver Approach that I could not comply with any instructions because the plane was utterly out of control. Every ounce of my energy was focused exclusively on keeping its wings and tail feathers attached.
People, I’ve observed, get nervous when the wings of their jetliner flex in turbulence. But wind is the medium in which we fly; those wings were built to flex. The trick is to visualize the invisible: you ‘see’ air move when you feel its power. I learned to fly up this side of a valley because, as a kayaker, I could see water foaming around that side of a boulder. I expect turbulence right here because I can see those clouds boiling past a ridge over there.
Two years ago I was returning from Alaska, working my way south along the Yukon’s coastal range toward Whitehorse. White ribbons streamed inland from every peak. The Buzzard and I descended to five hundred, then three hundred, and finally one hundred feet above ground where at last we found relatively smooth air. Overhead, the sky was spangled with lenticular clouds, banners of severe turbulence that showed where not to fly.
Lenticulars are fascinating. I think of them not as clouds (which they are), but as standing waves in a moving river. When wind streams up and over a mountain, the air is moving but the clouds stand still. Within the cloud, the rising air suddenly cools as pressure drops and moisture condenses. Beyond the peak and out of the cloud, visible water is sucked back into invisible air. Have you ever been taken aback by a quiet friend’s sudden outburst of anger or tears? Underlying emotions can suddenly surface and just as quickly disappear. Lenticulars are a lot like that. It’s not just still waters that run deep.
My photographs arise from landscapes defined not only by mountains and rivers, but also by clouds and air. On moving water, I had reveled in the intimate relationship between rocks and waves. Now aloft I know that mountains are as much expressions of granite as they are sculptors of the wind.
That mountain wave, stretching well into Wyoming, had been slow to release me after leaving the Wind River Range. When I got far enough east, the wind eventually let me down. Dusk settled as I descended into Lander. A well-lit Little League field shined below as I turned final to land. Tying the Buzzard down for the evening, I unfolded the bicycle and pedaled toward the lights. It was good to be on the ground again; I would eat hotdogs and cheer for whichever team was lightest on its feet. There would be time enough in the morning to fix the starter.