San Felipe Sky Tour

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San Felipe, Baja, Mexico


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 your sister.

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 shoreline.

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 least resistance.

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 bags.

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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