Olympian for an Hour
For some people, afternoons in
San Felipe are limited to Scotch over rocks, or sand
rails over rocks. But for a few privileged ones, oh
so very few, a third alternative is available. It is
an expensive option, but a liberating one... an airplane.
A friend recently flew from Wyoming
to our local airport in his 1978 Cessna T-210 Centurion.
He reasoned San Felipe would be a good launching point
for exploratory excursions throughout the Baja peninsula.
In the meantime the mountains, canyons and deserts of
San Felipe warranted aerial investigation and he asked
one morning if I would like to join him for a sky safari
later in the day. Well, that was a little like asking
a twenty-year-old Warren Beatty if he wants to meet
The Centurion was parked alongside the tarmac as Patrick,
owner and pilot, along with his wife JC, loaded some
extra gear aboard the plane. After the necessary airport
red tape was acquitted, JC and I climbed into the back.
Then Dennis, the third member of the Cessna's passenger
pigeons, clambered to his place beside Patrick.
JC read out the pre-flight check list as Patrick affirmed
each point. Then he radioed the tower for permission
to line up and take off. He was given the typical San
Felipe controller response, "Okey Dokey."
As the plane taxied into position, we put on our headsets
and tested the microphones.
For a small aircraft, the T-210 performed powerfully
on takeoff. It's turbo-charged engine roared to life
and almost drowned out the sound of the retracting landing
gear. We lifted into the air and went into a steep climb.
Then we turned on the port wing and swung toward the
The tour was leisurely, over the town, ejido, north
campos and then toward the mountains. One thing that
stands out with regard to the geography of this area
is how desolate it seems from the air. Some parts were
virtually indistinguishable from photos I've seen taken
by the Mars Exploration Rovers.
Another thing that became apparent from a high vantage
is how nature abhors a straight line. In fact, the presence
of man is easily detected, even from many miles away,
simply by looking for anything linear within the reticular
debris of a landscape. In the desert, the tiny rectangle
or square of a building stands out like a clown in a
nunnery. The unswerving line of a trail or road shows
the aggressive, goal-oriented nature of nature's only
environment tamer. The planet's own dynamic exercises
always seem to flow without advice from blueprint as
they effortlessly unburden its engines along paths of
The mountains were an odd combination of awe-making
and anticlimax. When something immense attains to a
high level of visible clarity, or seems remarkably detailed
and intricately chiseled, it crosses over from a mythic
tone (as mountains veiled in mist often appear) and
enters the level of tactile accessibility. With great
intricacy comes the falling away of perspective. There
are days when one sees the mountains in such detail
that they feel almost within arm's reach and you feel
you could pluck them from their display case. In the
Cessna, just a few hundred feet above the peaks, the
effect of the mountains toggled between awe and disrespect.
Every tree and crag was crystal clear and seemed toy-like.
Our perspective gave the summit a table-top model quality.
It was easy to understand the source of that old expression
"to look down on someone" and why royalty
frequently built their palaces on the highest ground
and sat on thrones taller than any other chair.
Looking down the flanks of the mountains, the canyon
mouths plumed outward like spray from a nozzle. A few
of them offered tendrils of water that meandered through
the crevices, cut a slender ribbon of reflected sunlight
in the center of the plume, then disappeared into the
sand a short distance beyond their freedom.
The mountains fell away as Patrick caused the Cessna
to pirouette and head east. We dropped altitude and
flew over El Dorado. The houses seemed like scattered
pieces on a Monopoly board.
We swung southward at the shrimp farm. The north campos
were essentially themeless except for the condos at
El Dorado, which looked like clusters of rusty mussels
clinging to a sandy bank.
Around the point at El Macharro, the town opened up
and sprawled away to the north. The civic gridwork,
so unobtrusive at the level of a dirt road, was like
an etched pewter plate from the air. We flew over the
blue and white 'V' of Costa Azul and then the square
brackets of the harbor. Patrick contacted the control
tower and was cleared to land. He told the tower he
would taxi to the fuel pumps but was told he would have
to do it the following day as they shut down at 4pm.
The landing was sweet. The tower asked if we could
park in the same location and Patrick agreed. We rolled
to our place and two federales were there to
greet us. They routinely searched the plane and our
It had been a great afternoon. I walked to the parking
lot and before getting into my car, glanced over at
the mountains, now shrouded in a light dusty haze.
They were awesome.
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