January 2000Commentary

Flying Carpet

Ninety Minutes To Another World

Magic! The whining of the gyros gave way to mystical drums and rhythmic chanting, crazily mixing images of flight with those of ancient and sacred ceremonies. Chills traveled up and down our spines-we could scarcely have been more astonished if we had arrived by flying carpet.

Adventurer Richard Halliburton would have appreciated our situation. After hitching 'round the world by freighter and camel in the 1920s, he became obsessed with visiting remote Timbuktu, a legendary mid-Sahara caravan stop. The way to get there, he decided, was by Flying Carpet, a black-and-crimson Stearman that he bought and shipped to England in 1931.

With pilot Moye Stephens guiding the Stearman, Halliburton traveled the ancient world to exotic places such as Baghdad, the Dead Sea, headhunter country in Borneo, and, yes, Timbuktu. During the course of his journey he enthralled princes and paupers alike as he took them on their first airplane rides.

It's tempting to look back at those times and think we missed the real adventure of flying. Well, we didn't. Flying was out of reach for all but the wealthiest people in Halliburton's day, so most people could enjoy flying only vicariously through his writing.

Today we live exploits that Halliburton's readers could only dream of-piloting our own flying machines on our own adventures.

On this particular day, our flying carpet had taken us to a mystical and exotic place in the New World-Window Rock, Arizona, capital of the Navajo Nation, where my wife and I had invited some friends to spend the day exploring the annual Navajo Nation Fair.

Our journey carried us from the Sonoran Desert near Phoenix, over mountains dotted with ponderosa pine, to the remote high-desert Navajo homeland, where wind- and water-sculpted rock formations culminate in the famed Monument Valley to the north.

Beautiful and varied as the flight was, nothing could have prepared us for the sound of drums that filled the air when we arrived, beckoning us to a parade already in progress only a quarter-mile away. There we were captivated by sights and sounds that Halliburton would surely have appreciated-lovely Native American princesses riding horses and accompanied by their courts, and senior ladies of the tribe with their massive, traditional squash-blossom necklaces of silver and turquoise.

Mystical dancers flashed colorful feathers, prancing to rhythms that everyone in the audience seemed to know but us. We strained to understand the parade announcer until we realized that the sound system wasn't garbled; he was speaking the Navajo language. Ninety minutes in an airplane had carried us a whole world away from home.

Alongside Native Americans in traditional costumes and Navajo cowboys, marched high school bands, church groups, and country-western combos-even the Window Rock Detention Center had a float. It was just enough like parades in my Midwestern hometown to make the contrasts all the more exciting.

The spectacle would have pushed all thoughts of the flight home to the remotest corners of my mind, had it not been for the dark, rumbling clouds appearing from the northwest. By the time we walked to the fair and dined on "Navajo tacos" of frybread, beans, and vegetables, the wind was howling.

We realized that this might be one of those times when the weather would prevent us from getting home as planned, but we have always been willing to accept the occasional night away from home as the price of a safe flying adventure.

Our little group wandered the fairgrounds, admiring everything from giant squash to jewelry, and we were on the way to the pow-wow dance competition when the thunderstorms fulfilled their threats with an hour-and-a-half downpour, crowding us and herds of other fair-goers into a shelter with the smell of damp straw and the murmur of soft talk.

Later, we slogged through mud back to the airport, just in time for another downpour. Worse yet, the terminal was locked, and the only telephone was inside. "Fat chance these friends will ever fly with us again," I thought as the four of us huddled cold and wet under an awning, knowing that the only two hotels in town were full.

Fortunately, a passing family loaned us a cellular telephone so that I could get a weather briefing. Although a massive area of thunderstorms blocked our route home, Gallup, with its plentiful motels, was accessible in better weather to the southeast.

Once we were airborne, however, a cheery voice from Albuquerque Center offered us guidance around the weather, via detours to the east and south. Although it meant flying from one tentative destination to another, we ultimately made it all the way home VFR.

With skies clearing as we neared home, I suddenly remembered our nervous, first-time passengers. "Are you two OK?" I asked.

"Are you kidding?" they replied in unison, grinning from ear to ear. "This is incredible!" The rain and mud hadn't discouraged them.

We touched down in the brilliant orange glow of a Western sunset, and were home in time for dinner. And all our friends could talk about for days afterward was how great the trip had been.

Richard Halliburton's flying carpet might have been more colorful than ours, but I doubt he had many days of adventure that were better than this one.