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Enchanted journey

The beauty of evil, viewed from afar

“It’s 112 degrees outside, Greg, and mom has her thermostat set at 83. I can’t take it anymore! Will you pick me up tonight instead of tomorrow?” Just yesterday I had delivered Jean to Phoenix to help her mother prepare for surgery. I’d planned to retrieve her tomorrow morning when the air would be cooler and free of thunderstorms. But after a hot, sleepless night and then being unable

to access the Internet for work, my wife is desperate to escape.

“I’ll do my best, but currently thunderstorms blanket northern Arizona. When do you want to leave?”

“Could we meet at Scottsdale Airport at 7 p.m.? I promised to dine with mom and Lee.” I counter that if we need to dodge weather, I’d prefer not do it at night. So we settle on a 6:30 p.m. rendezvous, which will get us home just before dark.

Weather on this 45-minute flight is usually benign, though the elevation gap between 7,000-foot Flagstaff and 1,500-foot Scottsdale results in vastly dissimilar climates. On summer afternoons like today, monsoon storms brew over northern Arizona’s cool peaks. Likely they’ll fade toward nightfall, but possibly they won’t.

At 4:30 p.m. thunderstorms still menace my route, but they appear to be diminishing in proximity and intensity, so I head for the airport. When a corridor opens to Scottsdale an hour later, I take off. If the passage closes and we can’t get home, I’ll at least effect Jean’s escape to some well-chilled hotel and a night on the town. Southward I cruise, savoring sights of Sedona’s scarlet spires against a towering curtain of ivory thunderheads. How beautiful evil can be, when viewed from a safe distance! Such reverie ends, however, when I descend from cool air aloft to brutal summertime in the Arizona desert.

Plunging from 9,500 feet into the Valley of the Sun, I strip my sweatshirt, open the vents, and guzzle ice water. Sweat-drenched by touchdown, I pop the windows on rollout and dangle my arm into the stifling blast, futilely seeking relief. Then I don my broad-brimmed hat and hike to the parking lot where Jean and I will meet, there to slouch, sizzling, on a curb.

“Boy, am I glad to see you!” says Jean, rolling up in our old airport car. “I got stuck in traffic on the 101. How’s the weather look?”

“Flyable, but interesting,” I say, noting radar returns on my smartphone. “There are lots of cells, but for the moment they’re well separated; with 12,000-foot cloud ceilings, we should easily see and avoid them. For alternates, if necessary, we have Prescott, Cottonwood, Sedona, and all the Phoenix-area airports behind us. I’m glad we arranged to fly before nightfall, though.” Sweltering, and with Jean exhausted and a bit depressed, we launch northward toward distant towering cumulus.

“Wow! Look how the setting sun silhouettes those showers west of Phoenix,” says Jean, perking up. Suddenly our fatigue and anxiety wash away, as if by the cool rivulets of light rain caressing our windshield. In an instant this trip has transformed from run-of-the-mill errand to enchanted journey.

Gawking, we bypass a fearsome gunmetal-gray rain column, then steer for Flagstaff down a wide but imposing gauntlet. Now the sun squints through misty veils from beneath an ebony overcast. Soon it kisses the horizon, splashing iridescent color into the murky clouds and transmuting silvery rain to gold.

Spellbound by crimson rain shafts spilling from ginger and sapphire clouds, I ponder the way nonpilots so often quiz us, trying to comprehend the lure of flight based on practical measures of time, efficiency, and expense. “You flew to Scottsdale?” someone will ask tomorrow. “How long did it take?” Questions will follow regarding fuel cost and ground transportation.

How could I possibly quantify this evening’s alchemy in terms the groundbound would understand? Convey that in the course of returning home from a rather painful errand, we’ve savored an eternal hour of ecstasy? And express how journeying among the clouds brings joy to even the most mundane of missions? Even the most amazing views from the ground rarely compare with the unending miracles we enjoy from the air—vistas of land and sky, tempered through prisms of cloud and light.

Jean breaks my sunset trance with a shoulder tap and points silently in the other direction. There, bold rainbows slice a quicksilver cloudburst. We’re treading a two-mile-deep florescent canyon, its shimmering satin walls stitched with lightning. Even Sedona’s normally vivid pinnacles mute to buff under assault by a fiery deluge etched with rainbows.

“Now look!” says Jean. Ahead through this pinball passageway of now-ruby showers, hulking black mountains jab an indigo sky. Is that a pinch of fairy dust at their feet, sprinkled with colorful sparkles like a magical cupcake? Or just the glow of our little city, and the welcoming lights of its airport? Tonight we’ve discovered new meaning in “the magic of home.”

“As eager as I was to get here, I’m sorry to see this flight end,” says Jean, squeezing my hand as we join the traffic pattern in amethyst twilight.

“Me too,” I say, dazzled but suddenly exhausted. “Thank goodness your mom refused to turn down the thermostat.”

Greg Brown

Greg Brown

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

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