I've spoken of my impressions of the people experience and the flying experience but what of the tourism? The scenery and physical aspects of the trip.
It's not until you learn to fly small planes, or at least travel in them that you realise that there are things you will see from this vantage point that you could see no other way. Indeed it goes some way to explaining why light plane pilots love doing what they do.
The USA is a big country, there's no doubting it. From airliners at thirty odd thousand feet flying over the USA it is clear there are vast areas of not much. Indeed any logical thought process would conclude that it's unlikely that the whole place could be populated. But what would we find filling the gaps?
I don't think I had considered it much. I knew that I had little knowledge of the landscape. Sure we hear of passing comments of certain areas but geography was not my strong suit at school and only as I grow older does it interest me along with history and dare I say it, politics.
With its vast area one would expect there would be something for everyone if you could find what you were looking for. But it would require some prior knowledge in order to know where to find certain features. I on the other hand, was approaching this trip largely ignorantly. From a flying aspect I had considered terrain features and likely hazards from density altitude and weather to some degree from a fairly unscientific observation from a year prior, but still had largely no real idea of what things would actually look like.
Right from the first flight I was lucky enough to do with Frank Holbert in his Bellanca I was surprised.
The LA basin is an incredibly beautiful place when appreciated from the right vantage point. It's unfortunate that most visitors, or even locals to that end, only experience the LA basin from the ground. The population has negative effects on the environment. It's no surprise that with so many people living in a valley, the pollution would have trouble escaping. That linked with salt haze from the sea and marine layers formed under temperature inversions really cut down any visibility. Those lucky enough to be able to get above the inversion get an incredible vista of trees and valleys fenced by some rather majestic mountains rising above 9000'. It's a real sight to see and one so close to a large population who would be largely oblivious. I found it quite remarkable.
I read on others blogs that many pilots never really leave California in their flying ventures. I can see why now. It is a vastly varied and beautiful state offering so much that travel further afield is an expense that could be difficult to justify with so much on ones doorstep.
How do you ever prepare for such stunning beauty. Vicki had told me of Sedona. She tried her best but even with photos you can never really appreciate the true grandure of Sedona.
Even landing on the Meza (I use that word like I always knew what it meant but truth be known its new to me, one of the many appreciations I now have from my trip) was quite an experience with such stunning scenery all around. Vince told me Sedona was one of the most beautiful places on the planet. He's not wrong. It's certainly one of the best kept secrets that I can't blame anyone for keeping.
Flying further East to Santa Fe we felt it surprising how we had traversed desert to find Sedona then tree lined valleys and canyons only to change back to what would probably best be described as 'almost desert'. It doesn't have the severity of the true desert but by the same token it doesn't appear to be a place that people have considered persevering with to farm or harvest. The terrain continued to rise. We cruised at 9500' with the land only a few thousand feet below but for all intents and purposes it's flat. The occasional rolling hill rises above the vastness but it certainly didn't have a mountainous feel to it.
Santa Fe itself was a short night stop. We didn't have a car so didn't get to explore but the feel of the architecture, if that's the correct word for it, certainly gave a novel feel to the town. The state being New Mexico was certainly displayed in the style of buildings with square buildings with flat roofs. A lot of the locals seemed a bit alternative with a more hippy like feel to them. I think we saw more Harley's here than any other town with the exception of Sturgis. It looks like a fun place to visit with more time.
We were also starting to see the expected display of summer desert weather by now with large thunderstorms brewing most afternoons, indicating our choice to fly in the mornings was the correct one.
The next flight, to Longmont, was to be our first real Mountainous Terrain flight and also proved to be our most surprising. Planning these flights from 6500 miles away, you can only get a loose appreciation of what to expect from looking at terrain relief features on maps. From this we had generated our expectations of sharp peaks protruding from flat plains, much like our own south island. From that I had made the descision to skirt around what I considered a minor potential annoyance if weather didn't play ball. Due to not having much in the way of alternate airfields available, we had to take the most conservative approach in all flights and so for this flight, rather than flying over a mountain pass, we flew right around the mountains.
When we got airbourne we tracked around the southern edge of the most prominent ranges before turning north toward Denver. The controller went to great pains to warn us of the fact that we were in designated mountainous terrain and even asked if we were familiar. I said were weren't but we were comfortable. In all reality we were shocked to some degree because where we were expecting sharp rock jutting skyward from flat plains, instead we had reasonably flat plains pushing up to around 8-9000' and rolling up into what really appeared to be more of a large hill. Obviously as we approached Denver this became more of a prominent mountain as we know it from our South Island but by that stage they were well off to our West. I was quite surprised at the concern, or maybe I was surprised due to its lack of extremes. The peaks were high I guess but since the surrounding land was high also they just didn't seem so intimidating.
With all that said, we flew over some very pretty rivers and wooded camping areas that I can see would make for regular annual camping spots. It truly was picturesque landscapes, just not what we were expecting. That all changed as we approached Longmont.
Flying over Longmont it became apparent the area is more affluent. It least the way we flew was. A very pretty town with all the houses placed between trees, the flora becomes the dominant feature. This continued all the way out toward Boulder. On the ground the feel was the same. Incredibly pretty suburbs with what we would probably describe as typical American style modern houses placed thoughtfully between trees and shrubs.
The trees being dense enough that the whole house is rarely seen. It's very tasteful and I can certainly understand the desire to live in a place like Boulder. Of course just on the edge of the city is a staggering display of high mountain peaks pushing out of the most green fields. It's picture postcard stuff and something everyone should see if they get the chance.
Eastbound toward Omaha the land slowly drops away back to lower elevations. It begins fairly parched and appears again to be fairly useless for farming. As we head East the land slowly becomes greener and transforms into flat farmland broken into typical square plots with large irrigated circles. The Farmland continues on through Nebraska and Iowa slowly getting greener as you go.
As we tracked toward Appleton in Wisconsin the land remains flat. Visibility remained around 10 miles or so with a fairly heavy haze layer which I can only assume is dust. We crossed the Mississippi which clearly supports heavy irrigation on its banks for farmland and on into Wisconsin supporting more farmland.
The farmland differs to New Zealand in that the terrain is largely flat and relatively featureless. It's attractive in its own way and it becomes greener as you position East. It doesn't even resemble the Canterbury plains really. You can't help but feel that farming is a continual battle with the elements to some degree, which it is anywhere I guess, but while there wasn't evidence of it, water seemed a commodity particularly in the more Western states.
Once we visited Oshkosh and survived its 40+ temperatures coupled with high humidity we headed back West but this time via a more northerly route.
The first stop was Lake Elmo, at least that's the airport. A lovely little spot on the outskirts of Minniapolis Saint Paul. A super friendly little field that is immaculately groomed. From there we spent the night in Stillwater on the border (it's river) between Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Stillwater is a lovely little town with a rich history in logging. Sitting on the banks of the St Criox river. Full of pretty old houses from its logging days, many of which are now B&Bs. The town itself is very compact but has a really interesting old town feel with character in spades. We took a trolley tour as recommended by Mary and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think both of us put Stillwater in our more favourite collection of places we visited. I'd love to go back but take Vicki next time.
Further westward we saw lots of small lakes and rivers. Many of which I would assume be vacation spots. We were to visit Alexandria but unfortunately it was booked out. I'd still like to visit it someday.
Since Alexandria was booked out and we didn't have a lot of options available to us due to TSA requirements we decided to turn an alternate into a destination and visited Pierre in South Dakota. The FBO there was one of the flashier ones we saw with friendly counter staff. Unfortunately it wasn't really a representation of the town.
Being the state capital it had some lovely central state buildings with pretty gardens and a man made lake but the surrounding town was almost the other extreme. It looked to us like the town was a true representation of hard times. Perhaps a victim of poor economic times. The were few shops. Many were empty and people seemed to be on a low. It stood out to us as it was the first and only time in the whole trip where we experienced a depressed feel.
The following day we spent touring the area by car. The local scenery is very pretty but I must confess that we didn't really appreciate its true beauty as it is very similar to parts of New Zealand. In fact it's exactly like some area just minutes from home so I guess rather than stunned with beauty we were more comfortable than anything.
We visited the two popular attractions in the area. Mt Rushmore and Crazy Horse. Both monuments are quite something and well worth a visit. I never thought I would get to see Mt Rushmore in my lifetime so feel privileged to have been. Crazy Horse on the other hand is a complete other issue. Approached as a 'tack on' to seeing Mt Rushmore it became the highlight of the day. It was even quite moving. The size of the monument is quite breathtaking. The undertaking itself is impossible to describe. How one man can take something on of this magnitude is quite unbelievable. Clearly he would have known he would never see it completed. I won't see it completed. Larger than the Pyramids it is the largest monument in the world. My advise, go see it. It truely is amazing. I know I've run out of superlatives but I'm not sure there is one to do it justice.
After sharing a hotel with the Hells Angels, another story in itself, we headed off to Lander in Wyoming to stage for a high altitude flight into Jackson Hole. In itself not really necessary but ran in the conservative nature of the trip. The flight to Lander was another surprise. Again we expected sharp mountains bursting out from flat land forming the Rocky Mountains but instead flew by some really tall rolling hills that stretched well about our 8500'. Certainly not what we expected but still some stunning scenery with magnificent colour changes in the soil. Even the man made scars in the land from huge open cast mines were impressive if only for their size.
What a treat Lander is. Another small town that sits in our favoured list. Unfortunately AT&T don't service Lander so we had no contact but who needed it. A great little town with some stunning mountain scenery right on its doorstep. Lander is placed in the top 100 adventure towns as selected by National Geographic magazine, something I learn as I write this but something well deserved. The local Sinks Canyon was one of the highlights of the trip for me. Just 10 minutes drive from town the scenery had everything from towering mountains to gorgeous Redwood and Pine forested hills to the most wonderfully classic rolling stream with footbridges and overhanging trees. Even if Darryn did lose parts of his camera and discover a less than impressed rattle snake it was a highlight for me for sure. The signs cautioning of Bears, which we didn't see unfortunately, or the torrential downpour didn't put me off either.
The town of Lander has a quaint cowboy feel to it but has some of the best coffee we've experienced on the trip along with some terrific food and locally brewed micro brewery beer at the Cowfish. It's a little town I would highly recommend. While its unlikely I'll visit again in his lifetime, I certainly would like to. Again it's a place few who don't fly will ever see. Thanks for the recommendation again Duane.
The next day was the main high altitude flight for the trip. The pass into Jackson Hole from Lander would require 10500'. On the climb up again we were treated to a wonderful kaleidoscope of colours in the soil and mountain rocks. The left wing was flanked by steep rock, just what we expected. What we didn't expect was what greeted us at the top of the pass. Again a high altitude flat and rolling terrain with trees, streams and lakes just 6-700' below. Quite a surprise and very pretty.
From there we had to descend fairly quickly through a wide gorge in order to be in reasonable shape to land on a runway not yet in sight but a few thousand feet below and not a lot of miles away. As we broke out of the gorge the full splendour of the Tetons opened out for us. The whole western side of the massive valley of Jackson Hole is fenced by massive mountains. The mountains were just what we had been expecting on so many legs prior to this one but hadn't seen. These mountains jutted straight up from the flat terrain of the valley floor just as the Southern Alps rise from many parts of New Zealand's south island.
I feel like I'm not doing the scenery justice. The Tetons are very grandiose indeed and reach very high but as a New Zealander it's not a sight I haven't seen. I wasn't dissapointed by any stretch but I guess you build expectation on reputation so to find something that reminds you, in part, of home it's a surprise. Then bartender at Lander had told us of a great place for breakfast. The name escapes me but you sit outside on picnic tables and take in the view of the Tetons while you eat your pancakes. It's pretty easy to take!
The next day we flew on to Cedar City UT. This flight had one of the absolute highlights of the trip. The flight down from Jackson was very pretty with rolling green hills. Again it could be parts of New Zealand. The sky was beautifully blue and visibility was some of the best we'd had. Where then flight struck the highlight was as we approached Provo.
The mountains were again becoming classic mountains poking skyward from effectively flat terrain adding to their grandeur. I'd known that we had to navigate a mountain pass to get through to the western side of the ranges but I wasn't prepared for the Provo canyon. The dramatic effect as the city and lakes open up as we traversed the canyon has to be witnessed to be believed. I couldn't help but pop out a 'yee-har'. Derwood managed to stay poker faced but I knew he was having fun really.
On to Ceday City and again we we were seeing hills with Multi coloured rocks and a mild rolling desert. The town was probably what I expected of a town built in a fairly dry climate. Our hotel was on the edge of town and didn't enjoy many sidewalks. In fact we wondered at times if we would come across another unhappy rattler. The afternoon was spent blogging while enjoying yet another soy mocha coconut frappacino followed by Thai for dinner. Overall we didn't get to experience too much but noted friendly folk as usual and some characters for taxi drivers.
The next day we found ourselves back over the extremes of the Nevada desert with rich red layered rock on parched sand on our way back to Chino. The desert while beautiful from our 8500' vantage point also returned us to our slight unease of desert flying.