Tiny hummingbirds buzzed between California fuchsias, pollinating the brightly colored flower. A dozen turkey vultures circled the nearby jail, looking for road kill. Small hawks and crows soared by, swarms of cliff swallows rushed about, while osprey and blue herons fished in the waters of Tulloch Lake. During the afternoon a golden eagle glided towards a five foot nest perched on the basalt cliff. The bird soared by, catching the currents of air with its wings open and extended. As the eagle moved towards the nest, the wings folded into a neat V shape, compacting into its body, and the bird skirted the hanging sport draws. At the last moment the eagle tilted its wings, caught the wind, and plopped soundlessly into the nest.
In nearby Chinese Camp a group of monkeys sat around in a tiny wood shack, huddling around a former YOSAR wood stove. I complained of the ache in my forearms from sport climbing. Flying would make it easier. The struggle to the summit would be a flap of the wings, a gentle upward arc of the wind, a casual affair. I thought of the birds.
“Flying is awesome. “ Stanley bounced his knees on the couch. For three years Stanley had been making a transition from full-time Yosemite dirt bag to base jumping fanatic. “I went to Lodi a bunch, did a couple tandem jumps, bought a chute, and just got into it. People die every once in awhile but not that often.”
“Why would you huck your carcass out of a perfectly good airplane? As good as flying sounds…” My voice trailed. I pictured the birds at the crag. Beautiful. Free. Then a slight shutter ran through me. Scary. How could I ever evolve into flying? Monkeys were made to climb not fly.
“You can link up long formations in the mountains once you know how to fly. Base jumping is rad. Besides, it is safer than soloing, James.” Stanley smiled.
Columbia airport, located outside of Sonora California, parks fifty single engine airplanes on the field of asphalt while a dozen more planes reside in nearby hangars. Coiler swiped his card and a metal chopper gate swung open, letting his Ford mountain truck onto the airstrip.
Coiler’s red and blue striped Cessna 150 sat on the far side of the air strip and we pulled out a couple cans of gas, and filled the tanks. Coiler walked around the plane, inspecting the flaps, kicking the tires, and spinning the propeller. After the safety check, I climbed in the cabin and sat in a bucket seat. He handed me a pair of huge headphones equipped with a microphone system.
“The plane gets loud Peaches. Here’s the volume.” He turned a knob on the side of my head.
“It’s tight in here,” I reported through the microphone. For the past few months I’d been climbing in Sonora and staying at Coiler’s on the weekends. The overhanging basalt sport climbing had transformed my body into that of a gorilla; I had huge shoulders, a pizza slice back, and dragged my knuckles when I walked. Coiler’s body was that of a chimp with his dark hirsute body, long arms, and small stature. I felt claustrophobic with the headphones bearing down on my skull and my shoulder rubbing with the chimpanzee pilot.
Seeing the birds, Stanley’s talk of flying, Coiler’s day off, a rest day from climbing, and cool, clear weather all lined up for a flight around Half Dome and back. Coiler’s long standing threat of taking me flying were matriculating.
“Watch the door. It always opens up.” Coiler fired up the engine and taxied down the runway. I tightened my seat belt until I couldn’t feel my legs and then grabbed the sides of my pants, letting my sweaty palms squeeze the denim out of my jeans.
“Do you have a watch to measure our airtime? We need to know how much gas we’ve used.” I shook my head. “Well the trip usually takes an hour and a half anyway.” I nodded and stared at the ground. We were going to run out of gas. I wanted out.
Coiler turned the plane onto the runway, gassed up the engine, and ten seconds later we were the flying monkeys of Oz. The world is a different place from the sky.
As we soared over Foresta, just outside of Yosemite, the growl of the engine became a sputter. Poot! Poo! Poot! I gripped the sides of my pants, and looked at Coiler.
“Houston we have a problem.” Coiler whipped the plane around and eyeballed for pieces to land. His hands darted to knobs and he pumped and primed as the engine sputtered and whined.
Enter terror. I should have stayed on the ground. John Denver, Buddy Holly, and the 1961 U.S. Olympic figure skating team all died in small planes. I would surely join their ranks. Another victim of the old crash and burn. But no. No, I was different. I was not a singer or an ice skater. I would not suffer a horrible plane crash. Would I? Poot! Poo! Poot! The engine coughed. Oh god! Soon, the ‘61 Olympic figure skating team and I would have more in common than our penchant for wearing sparkly Lycra. I wrapped my hands around my face. Imagining the ground rushing towards me made my stomach queasy. I waited, terrified counting the seconds slow.
After forty-five seconds, I peeled my fingers from my eyes, looked around the tiny cab, and listened to the lawnmower that spun the propeller. Coiler stared out the window, his eyes gazing dreamily at Mount Clark. My visions of death by flaming inferno dissolved; the engine’s growl had returned, and we were back on course.
“A little ice in the carburetor. Happens sometimes when the temperature’s between forty and seventy. I diverted some heat into the engine. It’s not a big deal Peaches. It’s the heinous carbineer shift of flying.”
“Heinous carabineer shift?” Over the years, high on El Capitan, or dogging on the sixty foot sport climb, I have experienced biner shift. My weight made the carabineer shuffle and I fell two inches. Unnerving stuff but it never made me think about my eulogy.
The rest of the flight went smoothly. El Capitan, the mighty granite cliff, dripped into the Valley floor. Half Dome stood on a pedestal, elevated and regal, high above the Merced River.
I fell out of the plane, puckered my lips and bent down to the asphalt to dry hump the ground. I would never leave my sweet mother earth again. Coiler chuckle.
“Peaches you were a little gripped up there eh?” I nodded, dusting the dirt off, and hopping into Coiler’s mountain truck for the drive back to Chinese Camp. I looked at my pants. Two hand prints were stained on the sides, where I had gripped the cloth, terrified.
The next day I went back to the sport crag. The eagle soared around the cliff. The hummingbirds buzzed. The vultures lurked. The hawks and crows flew about. The osprey and heron fished. I climbed. Stanley and Coiler had their ambitions to evolve. Monkeys were made to climb. Flying, that shit’s for the birds.