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Flying Carpet

Sky City

A Vacation They'll Never Forget
We stand atop a lonely New Mexico mesa, in a thousand-year-old adobe city. Sun-warmed spires of crimson rock pierce the surrounding canyon and touch the distant silhouette of Mount Taylor. Overhead, squadrons of bubbling cumulus sail a cobalt sky, commanded from the horizon by darker clouds that may soon deliver lightning. Jean and I look to our guests. Like us, they are awestruck - from here, their home in French Canada must seem a galaxy away. We clasp hands.

Only a week earlier, Jean had asked me, "Where can we go with Marcel and Lise that they'll never forget?"

"That's a tough one," I'd replied. "In Quebec they always take us somewhere incredible. How do you top whale-watching in the St. Lawrence River?"

Finally we'd settled on Santa Fe. Marcel and Lise had visited the Southwest only once before; they'd enjoy the unique Spanish and Native American character of the nation's second-oldest city. En route from Phoenix, the Flying Carpet would take us over wooded mountains, volcanic cinder cones, and the desolate malpais, massive prehistoric lava fields that look from the air as if they just hardened yesterday.

"We'll even overfly Old Acoma Pueblo," I observed to Jean. The words had barely left my mouth when I realized that she'd never visited the ancient Native American community, nor could a more exotic destination be imagined for Lise and Marcel. Scanning the Albuquerque sectional, I spotted a nearby airport for the tiny communities of Grants and Milan.

"We'd love to have you," welcomed Wes, the airport manager, when I phoned to inquire. "We've just extended the runway to 7,100 feet, and you can rent a car from the upholstery shop here in Grants." Visiting Wes's special strip sounded like returning to boyhood at my hometown airport.

"Lots to do around here," he said. "Ever been to the ice cave, down in the malpais? Stays frozen year around, even when it's 100 degrees outside." Also nearby are El Morro Monument, marked by travelers' graffiti since ancient times, and historic Zuni Pueblo with its incredible jewelry. These being remote places that few people visit, I became increasingly excited about stopping. We'd land there on the way home.

A week later the four of us touched down in colorful Santa Fe. There we munched chile rellenos and visited the Governor's Palace - built in 1610, it's the oldest public building in the United States. But even as we wandered art galleries and historic sites, I found myself preoccupied.

Acoma's "Sky City" has haunted me since I first spotted it from the air 25 years ago. Daydreaming during my first flight to the Southwest, I'd randomly looked down. There, atop a mesa in a lonely canyon appeared an adobe city, seemingly untouched from its primitive origins. I couldn't believe my eyes. Since then I'd ogled it from aloft many times, but visited on the ground only once, some 10 years ago. Old Acoma would offer my wife and friends sights never to be forgotten.

The next morning we departed Santa Fe, clutching complimentary sunflower-seed salsa collected with our fuel purchase. Within an hour we skimmed the wooded flank of Mount Taylor, then plummeted down to the 7,800-foot pattern for Grants-Milan Airport.

"Welcome, Greg," offered the unicom when I radioed for winds and active runway. Wes was waiting outside when we taxied in - tall, white-haired, and dressed in overalls. He lives on the field, offering his services as aircraft mechanic and flight instructor. Based on his hospitality, Wes must have many loyal customers.

"I'll be here 'til six," he said, "but if you miss me, just leave cash for the fuel and I'll pick it up in the morning." That sort of offer is found only in the past; for a moment I was indeed transported back to the rural airports of my youth.

Acoma's isolation is emphasized by a lack of road signs on the reservation. Whether by luck or magic, we finally find the place, towering almost 400 feet above us. Until recently, the only way to the top was via secret stone ladder carved in the folds of the mesa. Despite its idyllic location, Sky City claims a turbulent history. The oldest continuously occupied community in the United States, Acoma was already more than 500 years old when occupied by the Spaniards in the 1500s.

Stopping at the mission church, our guide describes how pueblo residents were forced to carry the giant roof timbers by foot from distant Mount Taylor. Acoma rebelled against its conquerors in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, but that ended in tragedy - the Spaniards amputated the right foot of every native male upon reconquering the area 10 years later.

Fortunately, the rest of our tour reflects happier times, hospitable people, and unearthly beauty. With 50-mile vistas as their backdrop, Acoma artists sell their wares directly to the public.

There's just time to visit Malpais Monument and the ice cave before returning to the airport. Evil clouds now spurt lightning and black shafts of rain to the east, but fortunately for us, fair skies beckon westward toward Arizona. Not so lucky is the Bonanza pilot waiting forlornly on the ramp - he's bound for Abilene. Rotating skyward, we climb red rock canyons toward Gallup, destined to enjoy a kaleidoscopic sunset over the Painted Desert and the last rays of light caressing Meteor Crater.

"Traveling the Southwest by airplane...," says Marcel to Lise out of nowhere, as if continuing a conversation started silently in his head. "Our friends back home will never comprehend what we've seen."

Greg Brown was the 2000 National Flight Instructor of the Year. His books include The Savvy Flight Instructor, The Turbine Pilot's Flight Manual, and Job Hunting for Pilots. Visit his Web site ( ).

Greg Brown

Greg Brown

Greg Brown is an aviation author, photographer, and former National Flight Instructor of the Year.

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