My wife and I were always minimalist travellers: two kids, a Honda Civic and whatever fit on the roof rack. We had no air conditioning, no car payments and no complications.
Then I decided to travel with an airplane. And things got complicated.
The days of travelling light were gone. In the Civic era, I could prepare for our summer trip in a single afternoon – I changed the oil, checked the tires and threw in the luggage. Now I was a general preparing for a mechanized invasion: I had an aircraft, support equipment, a custom-built trailer and a new Honda minivan to tow it all.
No one makes a trailer designed to carry a French-built ultralight plane, so I had to come up with one myself. I bought a trailer designed to carry motorcycles and modified it. I had to make a wing holder, a propeller bracket, anchor systems for my toolboxes and fuel containers – the list went on, and I spent every spare hour on it for nearly two months.
My wife thought I was insane and there were moments when I agreed with her – I seemed to be turning into Allie Fox (the manic inventor dad in Paul Theroux’s novel The Mosquito Coast). Fox had been consumed with building an ice-making machine in the jungle. I was obsessed with taking an ultralight plane on a three-month road trip through eastern North America.
There are times when you have to make a dream happen, and this was one of them. Like any decent quest, mine had come to me in a vision out in the desert – in this case, the sands of southern Afghanistan. I went there in the fall of 2001 to cover the war for The Globe and Mail, and this was no pleasure cruise. Somewhere south of Kandahar, I stopped my Land Cruiser by a blown-up tank and looked inside. The remains of the crew were still inside, and flies buzzed through the mangled steel interior. I walked away and sat out in the desert for a while.
That week had been a bad one. One of my interpreters was dead after stepping on a mine. A teenage Taliban supporter had aimed his cast-off Soviet rifle at my head. There had been no edible food for days, and the bathroom facilities were limited to the shoulder of the road (the further you walked off the road, the better your chances of hitting a mine). I hadn’t been home for a long time. I headed to New York on the morning of Sept. 11, when the planes hit the World Trade Center and stayed there for weeks. Then it was on to Afghanistan, where my only connection to the outside world was through a satellite phone powered by a gas generator. Christmas was spent with a Pashtun interpreter in a hotel room that had taken a direct hit from an artillery shell – the balcony was gone, along with one of the walls.
For months, I had been obsessed with the story of Sept. 11. Now I wanted to be with my wife and kids, and go on the longest, coolest summer trip of all time. To me, that meant flying.
My flying career started back in the early 1970s with a flight in a dented Cessna. I soon moved on to hang gliding, the closest you can get to flying like a bird. In the 1990s, my wife and I spent a year living on top of a mountain in Georgia so I could fly gliders every day and write a manual. Then I took up ultralights, which have a major advantage – you can take off and land almost anywhere.
I dreamed about taking one on the road with us, travelling into green country and flying at every airport and field we could find. I wanted a summer in the sky.
By the time school ended, my trailer was ready. I loaded the ultralight while the kids packed their toys and books. It was time for the trip I’d dreamed of so many times out in the desert. For the first few miles, I questioned my sanity. The trailer was crazy looking – a streamlined white box with a folded wing loaded on the roof like a torpedo. People in passing cars stared at us, and every gas stop produced an army of curious onlookers. I’d done my best to design a good trailer system, but the road was the acid test – would it all hold together?
Two days later, we were in Georgia. The trailer had done its job, and my ultralight was unscathed. I set it up and flew out of a field below Lookout Mountain. For the next two weeks, I flew every day, usually with a friend in the back seat. We flew by the cliffs, buzzed low over the green mountain slopes and landed in farmers’ fields.
Next up was North Carolina. I took off from the little airport by the Wright Brothers monument and looked down on the sand dunes where Wilbur and Orville learned to fly. Then it was on to New York, zigzagging through back roads and flying at grass airports. Taking my airplane trailer into Manhattan was out of the question, so I left it with a friend in New Jersey while we explored Manhattan.
Now it was time to head to Nova Scotia. The kids were happy in the back of the van, and my trailer was holding up fine. My mother-in-law burst out laughing when we rolled up to her house and the neighbours poured out to see our apparition. The next day, we were at a friend’s farm in the Annapolis Valley. He pulled out his tractor and we made a landing strip by mowing a section of hayfield.
Over the next three weeks, I took dozens of people flying. We flew through deserted green fields, so close to the ground that we could almost reach out and touch it, then climbed up high and headed out over the ocean. We landed at sunset, gliding in over the farms.
It went on like this for the next three years. Our summer trips were with an airplane, and we flew everywhere we went. It was a lot of work travelling with my flying machine, but dreams are rarely easy. The payback was doing all the things I had imagined out in the Afghanistan desert. I flew with hawks. I circled over the Nova Scotia field where I proposed to my wife and I looked down on the hospital where I was born. My oddball trailer kept working.
And then things changed, as they have a way of doing. We renovated our 100-year-old house and spent more money than we ever dreamed possible. I sold my ultralight and the trailer. Then the minivan had to go. We were back to a worn Accord and a simpler way of travelling. That was just the way it had to be. But I did get those three summers in the sky.
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