Our plane is registered with a vanity tail number, N971RD. It means that Rudy and Dexter were nine and seven when we got the plane (and I have just the one wife). It seems astonishing, but Rudy is now seventeen and in the fall will enter his senior year of high school. So it is time to start thinking about colleges.
In the spring we were on the east coast and we managed to do a proper tour with just my parents’ MINI Countryman. In New York City (where we were based for a week) we saw NYU and Columbia. We took a day trip out to Princeton and then another out to Swarthmore, University of Pennsylvania, and Drexel. We headed north to celebrate the boys’ grandfather’s eighty-fifth birthday at a big party in Cambridge. Along the way we stopped and saw cousin Johnny at Wesleyan, and since we were in the Boston area we saw MIT and Tufts. On the way back to New York City to fly home we stopped at Brown. (Last summer we took our first college tour, which was Dartmouth.)
Rudy said he was not interested in Chicago or Texas (both places which have been inhospitable to our little plane on our flights across the country, maybe that made an impression on him), but there were a few we should visit on the west coast. For that, the plane made the most sense. So once the boys were out of school, after going to one more charity event, after I took one more ride on the mountain bike through the Santa Monica Mountains, we saddled up. We were packed incredibly lightly. Because of a work commitment (the Women In Film awards show), Nell would have to return early, flying commercial out of Portland back to Los Angeles.
The plan was to fly up to Oakland first, spend the night and in the morning tour Berkeley. After the tour we’d hop back in the plane and do our longest flight up to Portland, Oregon and see Reed College the following morning. After lunch in Portland we’d head inland to Walla Walla, Washington and take a look at Whitman College. It was nice and simple; we had few firm appointments and an entire week to accomplish the tour of a trio of schools. We were looking at it more as a nice family trip to take since Rudy would head to Oxford for the summer and we weren’t sure how the rest of the summer was going to shake out.
With Nell’s work writing Lean In during the past year or so, we’ve made quite a few trips up to the Bay area. So I’ve gotten pretty good at anticipating the NorCal controllers’ requests, referencing the visual reporting points they are used to hearing about, and selecting a route that keeps me out of the passenger jet arrivals into San Jose, SFO and the Oakland airports. It’s a really busy piece of airspace. We’ve been landing at San Jose (and treated well by Atlantic Aviation there), but for our visit to Berkeley we set down at Oakland and the folks at the Jet Center had the rental car pulled up for us before we had the boys out of the plane. It had been less than two and a half hours since leaving Santa Monica, but the brisk breeze off the Bay made it seem like a different place entirely.
In general when we travel we do not book hotel rooms. We had a bad experience trying to get into Chicago, being turned away by a tornado and having the hotel be unsympathetic about the cancellation. We usually just Hotwire from the FBO when we land and Nell is amazing at getting us a comfortable place for a good rate. For this trip we wanted to be sure of where we were going to be in relation to the colleges, so each stop had the hotel selected. In Berkeley we were staying at the Shattuck Plaza, but we weren’t allowed to check in for a bit. Nell called her friend AW who lives in Berkeley with her four kids. Her husband had already flown east (we might visit them in Maine), but she invited us to stop by for lunch. We even brought the lunch with us from a great taqueria she pointed us to.
After checking into the hotel, and pausing to catch our breath for a moment, we abandoned the boys to the WiFi and went for a hike with AW in Strawberry Canyon. There was mist, shafts of sunlight down through pieces of fog bank that were rolling in, and I was really glad to have a warmer jacket on. It was a great contrast between the hills just north of our home in Santa Monica. Like Los Angeles, it is amazing to be in such a densely populated area and then to be strolling through such wilderness. We came down through a glade of redwoods taller than any of the apartment buildings we drove by minutes before. If I had gone to school on that UC campus, I would have been in those hills every week to decompress. (Instead, I was in the gorges of Ithaca. Also strikingly beautiful.)
Years ago Adam was working on a post-doc at Berkeley and Rudy and I came up for a visit. We had a great dinner (Rudy has talked about it for years). So a little email back and forth and we had a reservation at Rivoli. Well, we thought we had a reservation, but they let us sit in the front room even with the mixup. It was fantastic, even better than Rudy and I remembered it. We had ice cream nearby and we could have skipped that (especially since the sundaes at Rivoli were apparently “not to be missed;” dang, we missed them).
That afternoon and evening set us up nicely to get up early, grab something at a bagel place and troop right onto campus. The information session was interesting and Dexter was happy to answer the trivia question correctly about how many elements were discovered at Berkeley (sixteen). While we toured the campus we went past parking spots reserved for Nobel Laureates (not very nice cars for those clever folk…). We stayed with the tour for a little more than half of it, but Rudy admitted that he felt that Berkeley was too big for him. We peeled off when they started talking about going to the dorms and Greek life. (Rudy has said that the living accommodations are the least important part of a school for him.) We hunted around so we could take a peek at the computer science building and then we headed back to our (already packed) car to scoot to the airport.
This would be our longest day of travel until we headed back south. We were pushing for Portland, but that was four hours of flying and past the endurance of at least one of the bladders on board (mine). So we had a stop planned in Klamath Falls, Oregon (KLMT). The word online was that it was one of the most beautiful spots in the state to drop into, so I was excited to see it.
The weather gods had other plans. There were clouds pushing us to lower altitudes over mountainous terrain, and the clearances ahead seemed uncertain. Without too much regret, I dialed in a new route taking us over Redding, California and on to a fuel stop in Medford, Oregon. The FBO was amazing, prompting a review on AirNav . They had a nice quiet sleep room for my sixteen minute pilot nap, they let us borrow a crew car which was a late model Mercedes with only a few thousand miles on it, and they pointed us to the mall where Nell found a windbreaker and I found a candy apple. I love those: it’s dessert but it seems like it’s healthy. On the way back the boys hit Dairy Queen.
After the standard pilot nap, we saddled back up. Dexter has been hard at work on a fantasy novel of several volumes. So he was tapping away on his laptop while Nell was tapping away on hers (working on introductory speeches and other script items for the awards show that would rehearse the follow day). On the return flight when I wasn’t monitoring the autopilot or enjoying the view I proofread a printout for Dexter. So the flight south was him tapping away on the laptop and me madly trying to stay ahead of him while scribbling in ballpoint on the hard copy.
Oregon is a beautiful, rumpled blanket of pine trees. Valley after valley with a tumbling river down the middle of it, and miles and miles of trees uninterrupted by human habitation. I am not sure what most people experience of the state, but I need to go back to see more of these rural parts. We were less than ten minutes from Crater Lake and neglected to fly over it. We need to go back.
The landing at Portland International was exciting. There was a Dash-8 on short final and we were cleared to land immediately after them. The Columbia River was glittering below us as we overflew the airport, turned onto a right downwind and then onto a short final. The FBO (Atlantic) was sumptuous, especially after a long day of flying over not-enough-airports-in-gliding-distance terrain. We hadn’t arranged a rental car ahead of time, but they had one pulled up with the trunk open so the boys were able to load the luggage while I filled out paperwork. Nell sent off a script and we headed into downtown Portland to find our hotel and to walk along the river.
We liked our hotel, although it had these HUGE tubs. Unreasonably large tubs. I had just flown over the river, I knew how much water the city had available (it *is* the Great Northwet), but I couldn’t bring myself to fill it. It had a warning sign, too. I wasn’t going to tempt that.
The fellow two floors above us was more daring. In fact, at midnight he was daring enough to start filling the tub and then, one presumes, was so relaxed about the whole thing that he fell into a slumber. Or was equally distracted some other way. The result was that at 12:20am there was a trickling sound inside our wall. I knew that noise and even in a fairly solid sleep registered my nightmare: water intrusion, interior. In a half sleep I lay there assessing whether it could be something in OUR room, or the boys’ (next door). I decided it wasn’t and didn’t really affect us. Then it sounded like a portion of a Rube Goldberg device tipped over and I heard several gallons of water slosh along a wall’s interior and into a dropped ceiling… directly over our bed. I sat bolt upright just as it began to piss water out of a light fixture. After stumbling to the bathroom to grab a lined garbage pail to park under the leak, I had Nell call the front desk while I popped in to check on the boys. They were fine, no leaks over there.
The hotel put us into “one of the quietest rooms in the hotel,” which I assume was because there were no windows (as an architect I do not know how that makes it past code requirements for egress). Nell and I did a bag-drag to the new room and tried to head back to sleep.
Oddly, there are no photographs of Rudy on the Reed campus. He really loved it and said that it was the only place so far where he enjoyed every minute of the information session, the tour, and the question time. Dexter wished to remain at the hotel writing, so he didn’t get a look at Reed. He did enjoy Portland, for the most part.
We returned to the Portland airport, using Yelp to find a Japanese lunch along the way. Dexter managed to find Yuki and Song while we were scooting along the highway en route, which was impressive. After one more nice meal as a family, we made it to the FBO with enough time for Nell to make her commercial flight. There were showers in the vicinity and a lot of broken layers of clouds in the Seattle and Portland bowl. We would be heading almost directly east through the Columbia River pass, over the rapids known as The Dalles (Facebook has a big data center there, cooled by the river).
Whenever I have both boys in the plane I am a little more anxious about the flight, and I’m less likely to take photographs. It’s a shame, because the landscape leaving Portland was just beautiful. The mountains and river below, the clouds with the light streaming through the breaks between, lighting up the little towns along the highway that snaked beside the river, it was all a delight. I had the terrain rendering turned on for the moving map, I was talking to Cascade Center, while I navigated between walls of granite as the cloud cover kept me down below 5,000 feet. A lot of the trip was about seeing a new part of the country, since we had yet to fly up the west coast to the north, and this was definitely all new.
We left the mountain range behind. It held all of the clouds over the coastal cities, leaving the plains wide open under a sapphire sky. I wasn’t sure what Whitman College would be like, but the ride from Portland to the eastern edge of Washington state was epic. Endless farms and communities sprinkled along the river and tiny, tiny towns slipped under our wing. We were pressed onward by a tailwind that grew to forty knots.
That tailwind was great for accelerating our arrival at Walla Walla, but it made for a very exciting landing. The boys had napped once we exited the pass and started the trek across the plains, so they awoke to the plane jumping around the sky a bit as I brought it around on final for Walla Walla’s little airport. There are ostensible three runways, but there is only one that seems smooth and in service, which meant there was a bit of a crosswind for my landing. Maybe more than a bit. It was what I think of as “a full-focus landing.” The airport had the feel of a former military field: huge ramp areas but not much commercial activity around the airport edges. There were no trees in sight and the wind whipped across the concrete and tore the hat off Dexter’s head. Rudy helped me get the luggage out of the plane while Dexter chased his headgear. We had a car reserved in the “main terminal” of the airport, so we trudged along a tiny service road and across a wide grassy lawn to find it. At one point as we braced for more wind rocketing between a few quonset huts, Dexter asked, “Is this the entire town?” I admitted that I wasn’t sure.
Fortunately, it wasn’t. We drove in and checked into our bed and breakfast (The Fat Duck Inn, on the off-chance that you are headed to Walla Walla it is a wonderful place to stay). Then we met my brother’s friend Kate Jackson for dinner. She’s a professor and herpetologist at Whitman and told us a lot about the school over a couple burgers. We got a private tour of the biology building and part of the campus before we returned to our Inn for the night. In the morning Dexter said he really liked that way of traveling, that staying in a place that felt like a home made him feel “more at home,” even though he was far from his actual home.
In the morning we found a place with some pastries and headed to the campus for our official information session and tour. While Rudy and trooped after a sorority girl to hear tales of great parties and how the isolation made you study harder, Dexter stayed behind and worked on his writing. It was a decision that I could see Nell making in exactly the same instance.
Along with his friend Kate, Adam had found two other professors who would talk to Rudy about being a prospective student. After our drive around the town of Walla Walla, dinner with Kate, and the campus tour Rudy said that was unnecessary. We did stop in and talk with the math professor Adam knew, but right away he told Rudy, “If you were hoping we’d have a real computer science department here, I’m afraid you will be disappointed.” We had an amazing lunch at Graze (thank you, Yelp and Dexter), and climbed back in the plane. As we climbed out over the little airport Dexter said, “The thing that is the most fun about this town turns out to be its name.”
We had talked about stopping in Aurora to see a Facebook friend for lunch, but a glance at the weather showed that wasn’t in the cards. Instead, we climbed to 10,500 feet and headed nearly directly for Friday Harbor where my brother would meet us at the airport. I hoped that Nell wasn’t peeking at the weather radar right while we skimmed over Seattle. The trouble with those radar images is that they don’t show any vertical information. While Seattle was hammered by afternoon thunderstorms, we glided over the top of them, occasionally banking between two towering clouds but always in the clear and always with a transcendent view of the Pacific Ocean ahead of us. There was a little arc of showers that looked like they were closing in on Friday Harbor, but I had multiple alternatives if we had to land somewhere and wait out a passing raincloud.
During this flight I wondered, as I often do in our plane, what it was like twenty years ago when you had so much less information aloft. I suppose some of it you could gather by telephone on the ground, and a little bit of it you could get from people on the radio if you were clever enough to know exactly where to call and what to ask, but this exact trip would have been a nail biter back then. I knew the whole way that the destination was clear. I knew that there were VFR airports within half an hour of my path the entire time. And I knew the weather at the airports below me, what the winds were like and how high the cloud ceiling was. It made decisions so much simpler to have this sort of situational awareness. I fear that a generation ago I would have been a fair weather flyer at best.
I loved flying into Friday Harbor, one of the San Juan Islands. I’m not sure it was the best landing, but I was so thrilled to be at the end of our journey that I might have been high and fast. After a little confusion, and my failure to get the engine started again (hot start fail, one of my few in the seven years of owning the plane), we were refueled and tied down. We piled into Adam’s car and bounced out of the airport. We stayed with Adam, Sharalyn, Ellie and Abel for two nights. It was great for the cousins to spend time together, wonderful for the boys to see a little bit of life in a more rural setting (they went out with Ellie and Abel to gather eggs from the henhouse and slept in the camper van that my parents keep there for their visits and adventures).
We had a fancy dinner on the porch of Duck Soup, which was delicious (although my gnocchi was not as fantastic as the gnocchi at Ravoli). On the ride to the restaurant Dexter, a Marx Brothers fan, kept joking about how the waiters should be dressed like Groucho. Of course, on arrival we found that they had not ignored the reference.
We visited Adam’s laboratory at the Friday Harbor Fish Labs, had ice cream overlooking the ferry landing, took a few of Adam’s friends for short rides in the Diamondstar (we buzzed Adam’s house, so Sharalyn called him a moment after we flew over and said, “Was that you?” but he was on the ground at the airport and said “No! Oh, maybe”), and generally relaxed with few plans. Dexter came into my room there, looked out at the mountains beyond the woods that lay past the fields and said, “It looks like a postcard.” Here is hoping we can make it back to the postcard before Ellie is in high school. (Ellie currently has changed the spelling of her own name to Elly, but Adam said that doesn’t mean anyone else has to.)
On Friday morning the weather looked good and we packed up the little plane. We had a bag full of pastries from the coffee shop in town, a few bottles of water, and a hankering to get back to Santa Monica. Hugs all around and a final wave to Abel saw us on our slow roll over to KFHR’s little runway. There was a overcast layer and we had to circle a bit before Whitby approach would give us a clearance to climb through it on an IFR flight plan. We had one hiccup as we approached the Class B airspace of SeaTac. As far as I can tell (after a bit of consultation with aviation friends), the plane was tipped back to climb and we were headed south. Early in the morning, with the GPS satellites mostly in the southern sky, the two GPS antennae on the top of the plane lost sight of the required three signals. The result is that the G1000 pinged me and said, “GPS failure, no position data,” and promptly stopped moving the little airplane on the moving map.
I am always prepared. And I am always talking to Air Traffic Control. I told them I was trying not to enter the Bravo airspace on my climb to 11,500 feet, but that I wasn’t positive I’d skip the last corner of it. They cleared me in. I had already cancelled the IFR flight plan when I broke out on top of the cloud layer on my way to Seattle, so I was on my “own nav,” responsible for my own route to where ever I was trying to get to. We did not yet have a destination for our first fuel stop because it would depend on our tailwind (or lack thereof), and how we felt once we were at altitude. Dexter had settled in to continue his sleep from the night before, but Rudy was reading away on his iPad. I had my iPad at the ready with Foreflight loaded and current. In two minutes I had the low altitude en route IFR chart up and had the VOR ahead of us dialed into the NAV1 radio. I told the autopilot to follow the radio beam and I found two more VORs along our route of flight. Before GPS was available to civilians the pilots flew the whole country navigating VOR to VOR. They are spaced in a triangular grid across the nation, sixty miles from one another. So I could follow a line of them all the way down the coast. We were tuned to GRF (Graye), and we could link a list all the way to SMO (Santa Monica), a radio beacon at the west end of the runway at our home airport.
I sort of hoped it wouldn’t come to that. It wouldn’t be difficult, but it would be more work and the course would not be as straight. I wouldn’t have the usual automated tools figuring out our distance to the next airport and I’d be doing a bunch of math every half hour or so. As the plane leveled out the antennae on the roof of the cabin saw the GPS satellites in the southern sky and the moving map snapped back into action. (When I got home I ordered a Bad Elf, a little portable GPS which can feed the iPad if the same thing happens again. It seems like a prudent backup.) We turned toward Medford, Oregon.
It was our longest leg of the day, but we were able to make it to KMFR to refuel and rest. That was great, since it meant that we had reduced the rest of our trip home to just two hops: one to Napa Valley (less than two hours) and then home along a route we often flew from the Bay area. That last one I could do in my sleep (and Nell often has). The people at Millionaire were just as great on the way south as they were on the way north. We had the big Mercedes for a ride in to town to get a candy apple and some Dairy Queen as a snack for the boys. I had my sixteen minute nap (it’s a timer on my iPhone), and we took a couple of cold bottles of water for our next leg.
Sadly, of all of our landings on the trip KAPC was the most disappointing. When Bob Whitehead and I flew up to Friday Harbor in 2006 (and back the following day), we stopped at Napa and had a wonderful steak for lunch. Right at the airport there was a killer steakhouse. It was so good that Bob and I stopped on our way back down, too. I told the boys about the steak house and how it determined that we were stopping at Napa instead of a few other options in the Bay area (particularly KSQL where there is a diner on the field). We parked the plane at the FBO, clambered out and announced to the lineman that we were there for lunch, excited to sit down in the steak house (we could see it, right there at the edge of the ramp). He said, “Oh, that place closed down two years ago.”
I was tempted to fly us on the Harris Ranch (where we have yet to stop), or to San Carlos, but since we had been in the plane nearly three hours we decided it was better to cut our losses and find somewhere nearby to have a quick bite. That turned out to be In-N-Out for me and Rudy. Dexter held out for some Chipotle, which was sad since that ALSO was closed (or replaced by a Jack In The Box where it showed Chipotle on our Google Maps). Crushing. But the horses could smell the barn and there were no complaints as we climbed back into the fully fueled plane and took off for the south. Soon we had very familiar landmarks sliding beneath our nose, and the magenta line on the map took us over Hollister, King County, Paso Robles, Santa Ynez and the San Marcos VOR. At 6:05pm we entered the right downwind leg for runway two-one at Santa Monica. The boys were great and helped get the plane tied down in record time. We stopped at Tender Greens on the way home and grabbed Dexter a late lunch and dinner. Nell was thrilled we were home and all back together again.