The TV weatherman waved his hand over a map of the state and said that the eastern half would be partly cloudy, while the western half would be partly sunny. I pictured thousands of refugees from the early 1970s staring at that weather map while mulling over his words and then collectively saying, “Wow, man, that is so true.”
It’s how religions are formed. Some guy with an audience says something so completely incomprehensible, and yet irrefutable, that it leaves the rest of us awestruck.
I turned off the TV. But after doing so I thought about clouds. I’m a flight instructor, so I think about clouds a lot. They form the walls of my office. When I go to work at the airport, I look up to see how much office space I’ll have that day. Will there be enough room to solo a student pilot, meaning, is the sky clear enough of clouds to send a human being who’s spent about 20 hours flying with me at her side, to go it alone away from the planet for the first time? Clouds, the stuff above us, the stuff that darkens our moods, releases torrents of rain and blinding snow—those clouds mean everything to me.
Before I ever flew, I rode motorcycles. When I was 20, and stationed in Monterey, California, I invested in an almost new bike, a 1973 Honda 450, brown with shiny silver fenders. It looked like a motorcycle, but it was really a promoter that first exposed me to clouds. Machines can be sneaky. You think they’re one thing, but they shift on you and turn into something completely different. Airplanes are great shape-shifters, always reshaping my grasp of reality regardless how many times I fly. This motorcycle gave me my first taste of how a machine can transform a human’s mind. Especially with a backdrop like the California coastline.
Monterey is more of an experience than a swath of real estate. I grew up in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, and only dreamed of what might exist west of the Pocanoes. At 18 I joined the Army and, after basic training, was sent to Texas for half-a-year and then to Monterey. There, I bought my first motorcycle, a 1968 Honda 350. I thought it the most beautiful thing 300 bucks could buy, and I couldn’t get the cash out fast enough, so that I could go down that long lonesome highway Michael Parks sang about, even though he rode a Harley. And his TV show was canceled after one season, and is all but forgotten today…except by me and others who enjoy being alone and going nowhere with the wind wrapped around our heads, pushing in new thoughts to replace the old worn out ones. This motorcycle was to be my ticket to freedom—from what I didn’t know.
Having never ridden a motorcycle, I almost immediately smashed it into a ’62 Pontiac going the wrong way down a one-way street. I forget whether I was going the wrong way or the Pontiac. I just remember that as I sailed through the air, and before impacting the wet pavement, I thought: “I need a bigger bike.” So, I bought the Honda 450 and finally began what became a search for clouds.
I’ve been an airplane pilot for well over 30 years and have flown a wide range of single-engine airplanes, many of them antiques. I’ll never say what my favorite airplane is—that’s like naming your favorite ex-girlfriend, they’re all beautiful—but the airplane that I fly the most when clouds allow is my biplane. It’s called a Marquart Charger.
Most airplanes have a single wing stretching from tip to tip with the fuselage, where the pilot and passengers sit, somewhere in the middle. A biplane, as the name implies, has two wings, one stacked above the other. Not particularly efficient speed wise, but very popular before World War II and still a favorite today with aerobatic pilots.
I just love the romantic image of the biplane, especially when it’s open cockpit, meaning the pilot and passenger sit with no cover overhead. A cloth helmet and goggles keep the sun from scorching me on summer days, and nothing keeps me warm in winter. In short, open-cockpit biplane flying is like motorcycling in the sky. You feel the wind around you and can smell the landscape from a thousand feet above the trees. You’ll never get that feeling in an airline, just as you can’t fully experience the passing countryside inside an air-conditioned Prius on the Interstate.
Which brings me back to that motorcycle. Having crashed my first bike, I approached the new one with caution. And after about ten minutes that passed. Being young, I felt as though I’d already experienced the crash so couldn’t be struck twice with the same stick. There was only endless possibility ahead of me, so I spent many hours simply going where the machine would take me. And for a kid from New Jersey turned loose in California, I took it as far as time would allow.
Across the hot Central Valley in summer and deep into the High Sierras, I just rode and rode, stopping for a few gallons of gas at 35 cents each, a cheeseburger, root beer and back on the road.
I slept beside my bike in clearings away from the road, and in the morning, would roll up my sleeping bag, lash it to the seat and ride away again.
I smelled of sweat, gasoline and oil. My face became weather-tanned, and I’m sure I lost a good chunk of my hearing in those days, but I found the beginnings of something that still haunts me today—the need to be alone, moving but with no destination in mind.
But there was one stretch of road that pulled me back again and again. Highway One, south of Carmel, California where it etches a ribbon in the cliffs leading to Big Sur.
On a summer day, this old stretch of two-lane will be jammed with cars, campers and packs of Harley Davidsons, but I remember damp winter days when I’d snake along that track with the road to myself—steel gray ocean on one side and a thunderously silent mountain overhanging the other. The immense opposing forces seemed to be held a bay and prevented from crushing me in their vise grip by this thin strip of blacktop and the two-cylinder engine clacking between my legs.
And it was there along this cusp between ocean and land that clouds would form. There’s nothing so beautiful and enveloping as coastal fog. It lingers offshore while the sun warms the land, but as daylight wanes and land temperatures cool, the fog drifts off the water as though pulling a soft blanket over a tired child, putting it to sleep until dawn. And it was in that hazy twilight that I loved to glide along the highway, slipping in and out of sunlight, dropping deep into the cold fogbank running downhill, and then brushing its feathery edges as the road climbed again into warmer air, where I’d emerge with a dew-soaked jacket and a feeling of having been through another dimension.
And I had.
Once the mind discovers one of the infinite variations of possibility nature allows, it longs for more.
I’ve since left California and no longer have a motorcycle. Riding two wheels down narrow pavement gave way to flying two wings above an endless landscape in the Midwest. Someone once said about flying antique airplanes, “Almost getting there is half the fun.”
I fly almost every day when the clouds permit. Mostly I’m with a student who’s learning to land the airplane or navigate across the prairie using a compass, a few math calculations and a paper chart.
And I love teaching. I love sharing what I’ve discovered about clouds, how they look from above and how they part like silly ghosts being chased from a dream when you dive through them. And even though I no longer ride a motorcycle, I can’t imagine giving up my seat in an open cockpit biplane, far above the planet where it’s only me, a machine and a sky full of clouds that have so much to teach anyone who’s willing to get up close and learn. And you don’t need a TV weatherman to tell you which way that wind blows.
Postscript: Sadly, I sold the Marquart but kept my 1946 Aeronca 7AC Champ.