Will Fly For Food

I got an early start from the east side of the Sierras once, knowing that I had to get to Wayne Wonderland later that day. I took off without making breakfast or even brewing coffee. I hadn’t been airborne twenty minutes before regretting the decision. I am a gastroemotional pilot; I do poorly on an empty stomach.

Over the years I’ve kept track of all the airports (or roads or dry lakebeds or beaches) at which I’ve landed, an innocuous hobby. Nine hundred and forty-eight at last count. So that morning, flying low and to the northeast, I spied the Lida Junction strip that services the Cottontail Ranch. Might as well add the Ranch to the notches on my belt. As I did a touch-and-go, a  dilapidated sign along the adjoining highway read “Good Food in Gold Point, Just Ten Miles” with an arrow that pointed behind me. Good food is good enough for me, so I backtracked to the west.

Keane Wonder Mine

There was a mining boom in this part of Nevada in the late 1800s when Gold Point briefly flourished. I circled overhead looking for an airport that wasn’t there. In fact, nothing was there, just abandoned buildings. No cars, no horses, no body. I landed on a road, seduced by that promise of good food. A pickup soon appeared out of nowhere; the driver wasted no words. “Get in,” he said with a finger imperatively pointing to the passenger seat.

Rhyolite, Nevada

It turned out that a couple from Los Angeles had just bought the ghost town and put a fence around it. I had landed inside the fence. I was wearing a T-shirt that read “Will Fly For Food”. The driver wordlessly delivered me to the owners. The woman looked me up and down, and said, “OK”. While she whipped up eggs and sausage and biscuits and coffee, her husband showed me around the silent town. The intact wooden buildings looked like they could have been occupied yesterday. Books were on the shelves, kitchen utensils hung from their hooks. The husband leaned against a counter and wondered out loud where the old mayor’s secret mine shaft had been. Of course the counter rolled away on cue to reveal a hole in the floor with a ladder descending into the dark. When we returned, his wife had cooked a breakfast fit for a king. In return, I took her for a ride around town in the Buzzard. She photographed. I was well fed. Everyone was happy.

I’ve been on the receiving as well as giving end of the food pipeline. Back in the days when my wife needed to dodge agricultural inspection stations, I’d fly cantalopes from Green River across the state line to Arizona. While photographing the Republican River in Nebraska, I flew well out of my way for the innertube-size T-bones in McCook. When I was doing a book about the geology of Denali, I frequently abused the privilege of unlimited Park Service gasoline, flying to burgers in Talkeetna for more pictures along the way, an admittedly thin excuse.

Sanddunes outside of Laguna San Ignacio

But my favorite gastronomic adventure took place in Mexico. For three years I regularly flew to Tucson where I’d pick up nurses, dentists, interpreters, and handimen. Every two months, in the company of two or three other small planes, we would all head south, clear customs in Guaymas, and cross the Sea of Cortez on our way to Mulege. I love Baja. I love the food, the people, the simple architecture. I love the margaritas. In the morning we would climb into the Sierra de La Giganta and soar down the backside through the canyons that lead to the ejido at Laguna San Ignacio. The Flying Samaritans have built a clinic there.

Sylvia

We provided medical care to fishermen and their wives. We brought medicines purchased the night before in Mulege.

Victor

We took the measure of their aches and pains, diabetes and hypertension. We traded smiles. Always there was lunch fresh from their boats the day before. Sylvia brought camarones; Victor gave me a tiny seahorse decorated with seashells.

 

In September 2009, Hurricane Jimena approached Baja California from the south. The storm grazed Cabo San Lucas; the gringos’ playground wasn’t hurt so the world promptly forgot about it. Jimena, however, continued to churn northward along the Pacific side of Baja, dumping huge amounts of rain on the mountains above Laguna San Ignacio. Precipitation records are not maintained for the Sierra de La Giganta, but twenty inches fell later on Guaymas as the storm marched farther east.

Road beneath Laguna San Ignacio

The only road into Laguna San Ignacio — thirty-five miles of difficult dirt, rough on the best of days — was submerged. Floods out of the Sierra swept prodigeous volumes of sediment into the lagoon, plugging the outlet. Water in the lagoon rose and did not go back down. The village was cut off. The fishermen had a little gas remaining for the outboards on their pongas. The government had earlier built a small desalination plant so life could go on. Let them eat fish.

Back home in Arizona, I watched it all by satellite, and kept my ear to the ground as rumors leaked out of Baja and were forwarded by the Flying Samaritans. Three days after the storm, I put word out on the local NPR station that food donations were welcome. God bless Flagstaff: its citizens brought twenty-seven hundred pounds of rice, beans, cheese, flour, canned meat, and a few chocolate bunnies to my driveway. Shheeeze. Now what?

I rounded up buds with Cessna and Maules. We flew all that food down to Mexico. How heavy were we? The Buzzard’s landing gear were splayed out like a squished bug; all I know is that the cement sled that I whipped down the runway did finally lift off the ground each time I asked it to. On my first flight, US Customs and Border Protection intercepted me as I tried to leave Tucson. The enthusiastic agents wouldn’t believe my explanation for carrying lumpy bags and funny looking boxes south across the border. They slashed open the bags, spilling beans and bunnies all over the cockpit. When they started to slash my life raft, I got concerned, even belligerant. Eighty miles of open water separate Guaymas from Mulege. Ultimately, after multiple trips, we delivered all the food to Baja. The people of Laguna San Ignacia appreciated our efforts. Six weeks later, the lagoon breached the obstruction, the water fell, and life returned to normal.

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About Michael Collier

I had the good fortune to be given five mentors early in life. John Running shared his love for honest photographs. Chuck Barnes showed me how to think like a geologist. Chris Condit, bless his soul, taught me to fly. Walt Taylor will always be the most effectively caring physician I could ever imagine. And Wesley Smith, that night above Crystal, taught me how to pray to the river. My thanks to you all. www.michaelcollierphoto.com