While I normally put in a lot of internal links to previous, related posts here, I won’t be doing that for what I hope will be thirty NaNoWriMo posts. If you have jumped into or stumbled onto this story in mid-adventure, there are plenty of other ways to navigate around the site to find previous installments. Actually doing so is left as an exercise to the student.
Having “tripped” and being “off balance”, there are hazards in getting caught up, as well. Another sports analogy — how many basketball teams do we see come back from ten or twelve point deficits in the last quarter, only to then just completely be out of gas and fall back again once they’ve caught the other team? It’s not enough that you got caught up. You have to stay caught up the next day. And the next.
Or maybe today just wasn’t a good day to write. The lesson being that you have to write even on the bad days. (Duly noted.)
Despite a late night out with the telescope and camera in a park on the east side of town (including a visit from a curious cop), Tom was up early the next morning in anticipation of the day’s proactive investigatory activities.
First he checked on Ellen’s car. It was still out at the complex in the desert to the west of town, although it had been driven overnight. The bread crumbs and time stamps showed that while he had been out looking at Orion and Jupiter and explaining to the cop what he was doing (and letting him take a look for himself), someone had taken Ellen’s car a couple of exits back toward town, stopped for over an hour, and then gone back. The map showed a steak house at the spot where they had stopped, so Tom didn’t think that there was much to make of it.
Tom looked again at the maps and photos of the area where the car was parked. While he had the online map photos of the site, they really didn’t give him a clear idea of how the terrain was laid out and what the sight lines were. He spent an hour playing with various two-dimensional and three-dimensional mapping programs, checking to see what the landscape looked like and where the roads ran. He made note of several landmarks that he hoped were as prominent when he was standing next to them as they appeared to be on the computer screen.
When he was done, he had some information but he didn’t feel like he that much knowledge. Tom wasn’t sure that he had a real clear plan of attack, but figured instead that he would make it up as he went along. Once on site he would look at the terrain and react accordingly. That bothered him, since he didn’t like going back to being reactive instead of being proactive. There was a nagging feeling that he might be making a bad move by not being more meticulous, but there was also a fear that he might lose Ellen and any advantage he had by being here when she wasn’t expecting him.
The hotel had a decent breakfast buffet set up in the lobby just off from the elevators, so Tom took advantage of it. While he was sitting alone at a table, working his way through a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon, he noticed someone at the brochure rack out in the lobby. The woman was stocking the rack with a flyer he hadn’t seen or hadn’t paid attention to before, but now it caught his eye across the lobby.
Abandoning his breakfast, he walked over and looked at the brightly colored flyers that she was putting into the rack. A large, colorful hot air balloon was pictured floating above some mesa or badlands area, apparently locally. Large garish letters invited everyone to “See The National Parks & Monuments From A Hot Air Balloon!”
Tom stepped around to where he was in the woman’s field of view. When she looked up at him, he smiled and asked, “May I have one of those?”
“Of course,” she replied, handing him one. “Have you ever been up in a hot air balloon before?”
“Yes, a couple of times, usually over some sort of wine country or another, but never over the desert. I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit. Do you work with this balloon company?”
“You’re looking at the owner and chief pilot, as well as the janitor and bookkeeper. I’m Margaret. Margaret Locke.”
Tom shook the proffered hand and smiled again. “I’m Tom Tiernan. I’m so glad to meet you, Margaret. I’m a photographer and science reporter out of Los Angeles, just passing through the area for a couple of days. I’ve been taking pictures of a lot of the geologic formations out here for an article I’m writing. It occurs to me that getting some pictures from the air might be perfect.”
“I’m sure we could get you to where you need to go, Tom, as long as you don’t need to do anything extreme, like land right on top of Shiprock. We like to stay on good terms with the tribal governments since we’re all sort of in the tourist business together.”
“No, nothing like that,” Tom replied. “I’ve been looking out to the west of the city, I would guess about a third of the way between here and the Arizona border. There’s a spot as you follow the river where there’s a big escarpment that the river cuts through. Just to the south of there is a big reservoir, and there’s a tiny little town there. I can’t remember its name right now.”
“I know where you’re talking about I think,” Margaret said. “The town is Waterflow and that big escarpment is called ‘The Hogback’. Just on the other side of that escarpment is where the reservation starts. Does that sound familiar?”
“Yes, that’s it, ‘Waterflow’. Lots of farm land down in the river valley, lots of rocks and dirt up on the mesas around there, right? I’ve been looking at the way the river cuts through the escarpment, the Hogback.”
“What is your article about?”
“It’s about erosion, aimed at a younger audience, through one of the online education sites for high school students. Is there any problem flying out there? For example, are there any restrictions about going over the reservation?”
“No, like I said, we work together. As far as the FAA goes, it’s all open airspace and as long as we’re above a thousand feet no one really can tell us we can’t be there. But in a balloon you end up landing where you end up landing, so it’s better to be friendly with anyone who might own the field or back yard that you put down in.”
“Great, that sounds like just what I need. Can we go up later today?”
“Whoa, what’s the rush? We usually like to have a little more planning and notice than that. We need to check out the weather and winds and put together a chase team to pick us up at a minimum. In addition, the area you want to look at isn’t a place that we usually fly. We usually take tourists up at one of our more scenic places, somewhere around the parks, up in the mountains toward the Colorado line, or down toward Santa Fe. That’s territory and wind patterns I know already. If we’re going someplace new I would like to do a little scouting.”
“I am pressed for time if I’m going to do this,” Tom said, still smiling. “I’m only supposed to be here another day and this seems like such a perfect fit for the work I’m doing. I know when I took balloon flights before they always wanted to go early in the day because of the calmer winds, right?”
“Yeah, we’re usually trying to get on the road by 6:30 so that we can be in the air by 8:00.”
“It’s not quite 8:00 yet so it’s still pretty early. Since I’ve got a deadline, would it be possible to at least check to see what the weather’s like and if your team is available for a flight this morning? Then if it’s at least possible, we could go out and actually see what conditions were like. I’ll pay for the day even if we don’t fly and if you say that it’s a no-go then we won’t go. But if we get lucky and it can be done, then we get take our flight and I can get my pictures. Could that work?”
Tom could see that Margaret’s first, kneejerk reaction was going to be that it couldn’t be done, just because. However, since he had laid out a reasonable plan with a series of points at which she could abort the flight, and since he had offered to pay if they flew or not, she bit back her initial response and gave it some thought.
“I know that the weather is supposed to stay clear today and I don’t remember anything in the forecast about it getting very windy. I’ll tell you what. Give me about ten minutes to make a couple of calls and I’ll see if I can pull something off. But remember, I’m the pilot in command. If at any point I say that we can’t go, then we don’t go.”
“Agreed, safety first and you’re the boss. Let me go get my camera gear. I’ll meet you back down here.”
Tom went up to his room and pulled together the camera and binoculars, along with spare batteries and memory cards. He grabbed a light jacket in case it turned out warmer than yesterday had, as well as a ski jacket, hat, and gloves in case it turned out colder. Stuffing it all into his new backpack, he paused only to send a quick email to Jason and to double check the location of Ellen’s car. It hadn’t moved and was still out at the compound in the desert.
Back in the lobby, he sat and waited for Margaret to return. Soon he heard her voice. He stood up as she came around the corner, still talking on her phone.
“Double check to make sure that both propane tanks are full, as well as the gas tank on the van. Tell Bobby to meet us there in twenty minutes, we’ll have to hit the road as soon as I get there, okay? I’ll see you in a few.” Margaret hung up and then looked around for Tom.
“It’s your lucky day,” she said, walking over, “at least so far. We’ve got a better than fifty-fifty chance of the winds being within limits, and there’s a friend of a friend who will let us set up and take off from his field down near the river. My normal support crew is at their day jobs, but my son and a friend of his are available. They’ve been training with me and they’ve done a couple of pickups, so we should be good to go. We’ll see when we get out there. Are you still up for trying this, even if we don’t get to fly later?”
“Let’s give it a shot,” Tom said. “Where should I meet you?”
“It will be faster and easier if you just come with me. After we’re done either I’ll bring you back here or my son can drive you back, if that’s okay.”
“That works for me, let’s go.”
Margaret’s car was typical of what Tom had seen in the region, a four-wheel drive Jeep that had been not-so-gently used. He threw his backpack in with an assortment of other junk and tools already in the back seat and they were off, Margaret trying to get the heater to work a little bit better than usual.
Fifteen minutes later they were pulling up at a hanger and office building on the periphery of a mid-sized airport. Tom had seen it on some of the maps, but none of them had indicated its size. Tom had assumed that it was a small, private airport, but in fact it was mid-sized with a couple of runways and a large collection of hangers and buildings surrounding it. As they pulled up, a small regional turbojet took off over them, displaying what looked to be a corporate logo of some sort.
Tom gestured to the plane that was taking off. “Are there commercial flights into here?”
“Yeah, Great Lakes flies in here three or four times a day from Denver, weather permitting. It’s about an hour’s flight but you have to take the B190’s in. A lot of people don’t like being in something that small if they think of a 737 as ‘small’ already, but they seem to be flying full with skiers and tourists, so I guess they can’t be that bad.”
“Another thing she lied about,” Tom muttered under his breath.
“What’s that?” Margaret asked.
“Nothing, I had just gotten some bad information from a friend, that’s all. Is this your place?” He nodded at the sign over the door, “NWNM Aviation”. Back as they had turned off of the main road he had seen a billboard with a hot air balloon on it, but he hadn’t paid any attention to the address.
“This is it. The planes are off that way, but the balloon should be in the garage over here if Neil got everything ready. Grab your gear out of the back and let’s see how he’s doing.”
Tom looked at Margaret out of the corner of his eye as they walked across the parking lot. “I’m curious,” he said, “how you got into this business. Nothing personal, but I don’t imagine there are just a ton of black women with their own aviation companies out there. If I’m sticking my nose where it’s not supposed to be, I’ll respectfully withdraw the question, of course.”
“No worries. You’re correct. I think that there are only about ten aviation companies nationwide that are owned by women of color. I got into flying at an early age because my father flew fighters in Vietnam. I went to the Air Force Academy, got a degree, got my wings, flew transports, did my time, and then got out. We ended up out here because of the climate and because I can’t stand the big cities. I got my balloon license and added that to the business because there’s a lot more money to it in this area, although as you can see, we’re not exactly getting rich. Here we are.”
She opened a door next to the driveway and led him in. It was dim inside, lit mainly by the windows lining the large hanger doors on the opposite side. Inside the hanger were two small planes, one a high-wing craft and the other a low-wing. Near where they had come in was a large SUV with a trailer attached. In the trailer sat the deflated balloon envelope, the six-passenger basket, and various other pieces of equipment.
As they entered, two older teenagers were in the process of tying a tarp over the trailer. One was clearly Margaret’s son, a tall and gangly young man. His friend was shorter, but built like a tank. Tom guessed that if Margaret’s son was a wide receiver on the high school football team, his friend was probably their center or an interior lineman. They both looked like they were going through a checklist carefully, doing tasks that they had done before but couldn’t yet do from memory.
Margaret led Tom over and made introductions. “Tom, this is my son, Neil. Neil, Tom. His friend is Bobby. They’ll be our support and pickup team for the day.” Tom shook hands all around. Margaret started checking their status with Neil. All of the equipment was in place and the chase car was ready to go. Neil had even had Bobby throw together a cooler of drinks and a bag of snacks for later.
“Okay, good job. I think you guys have done it all, let’s hit the road.”
From the airport it was about fifteen miles out to the Waterflow region. Towing the heavily loaded trailer, they kept their speed down. While they drove, Margaret kept listening to a radio tuned to the aviation weather band, checking updates from the Farmington weather station.
In about twenty-five minutes they pulled off onto a side road and rumbled down to a weather-worn farm house. Less than a mile to the west, Tom could see the Hogback rising up and curving off to the north, the river channel carving through it like a breached fortress wall. Margaret got out and left the motor running while she went up to the farmhouse door and knocked. After a brief conversation with someone and some hand waving as she confirmed directions, she was back. They rumbled off onto a gravel road until they came to the open field that they needed.
(At 23:53, Chapter Eleven to be continued…)