Above Suspicion

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, February 1997

Above Suspicion

Touring foreign lands with fake credentials, an unflappable cohort, and a Cessna 182
By Randy Wayne White

Meeting hellish deadlines when in the field is tough enough without attempting to compose while strapped into a Volkswagen-size Cessna 182, flying at 7,500 feet across the border of Baja California en route to undetermined destinations with my friend G.H. "This time," he said from the left seat, "when the military tries to arrest me, I want you to snap a picture. Last year they detained me 32 times, and I don't have a single photograph to prove it. You know--something I can frame for my office wall. They're camera-shy and trigger-happy. It's a dicey combination, so try not to be obvious about it."

In terms of dicey combinations, the trip ahead of us seemed daunting enough: ten days in an overloaded single-engine two-seater, exploring the deserts and mountains and desolate coasts of the Baja peninsula. As a lifelong tight-sphincter flier, I found the prospect of dozens of bush landings and takeoffs sufficiently frightening without adding the potential for gunplay."Photograph the Federales?" I asked. "Why don't I save us all some time and just open the door and jump?"

Like most pilots who are focused on flying, G.H. was numb to hyperbole. "Don't even think about it," he said. "We're tail-heavy as it is. Without your weight, we'll rear up like a horse when I try to land."

G.H. is Galen Hanselman of Hailey, Idaho, a bush pilot who looks the part, with his leather flight jacket, his beard, and his Indiana Jones fedora. But he's also the publisher and author of a valuable little book called Fly Idaho! The book was originally intended for working bush pilots, but because planes go where cars can't, it's proved to be a popular guide for anyone interested in the Idaho backcountry. G.H. was now working on a kind of sequel, Air Baja! "Baja is a terrible place to drive," he said, "but it's perfect for small planes." Like his previous book, Air Baja! would be a no-nonsense, ring-bound air traveler's guide and would contain precise aeronautical data as well as low-altitude photos of landing approaches.

I'd joined G.H. on the trip for a couple of reasons. One was that he'd promised me that there's a quantum difference between traveling by plane and exploring by plane--a distinction few of us get the chance to experience.

The second reason I was sitting sweaty-palmed in that cramped cockpit was that he needed someone to help him photograph and measure some of the 100 dirt airstrips that would be featured in his new book. And as I'd already been warned, he was unable to obtain a permit to take commercial photographs, so all photos would have to be made surreptitiously--a task that had seemed mildly adventurous at first but now, with the news of G.H.'s many detainments, seemed decidedly unsound.

G.H., who is in his late forties, looks and acts more like a kindly physics professor than a bandit. So why would anyone give him a hard time? "Some of the landing strips were built by drug runners," he explained. "And since I do a lot of quick landings and takeoffs and scouting around, I fit a certain profile. So remember: When they surround the plane and raise their weapons, just stay calm."

Coming through his little plane's scratchy communications system, G.H.'s voice had a rock-solid, Right Stuff quality that should have been reassuring, but wasn't.

Below us was a valley bordered by small, peach-colored mountains. From horizon to horizon, earth tones were as subtly stratified as a Hopi sand painting, and the only indications of life were vultures circling beneath us, their shadows sailing across the hardpan.

Then the hills tilted precariously as G.H. banked, and I had to fight the nauseating sensation that I might tumble out the door. The little plane rattled and bucked as the altimeter swept counterclockwise. The earth grew larger and swelled with detail through the front window. G.H. leveled her off, and we sped across the mottled desert at a mere 100 feet. We passed over an expanding salt flat funneled like a river delta, then suddenly shot out over the Gulf of California, shimmering in the sunlight.

For 50 miles, we flew along the beach, where there were only wading birds and gulls and big fish flushing from the shallows: no boats, no houses, no man-spore of any kind.

In the last year, G.H. has made ten research trips to Baja, and he has a solid work routine. He establishes a base camp, unloads gear to lighten his plane, and then takes off again to scout out interesting places and usable airstrips. When he finds an unfamiliar strip, he lands and measures its length and width with a calibrated measuring wheel. Then he hikes off and asks people the kinds of questions travelers ask: What's the local history? Are there good spots to camp and fish and go nosing around? His readers, he says, want more than just information on where to park their planes.

How many pilots would be willing to pay $40 for such a book? I asked him."There are close to a million of us in the U.S.," he replied. "People who travel in private aircraft make up one of the quietest subcultures around. They're self-reliant and good at what they do, so you don't hear much about them. Not that they all buy my books--I sold about 5,000 copies of Fly Idaho! But I don't do the books because I expect to make a lot of money. I do it because I love the research. It gives me an excuse to fly and explore--my two favorite things to do."

We'd already done a good bit of exploring. The day before, we'd made a base camp near the Bay of San Luis Gonzaga at a funky little settlement of beach shacks called Alfonsina's. We'd had to wait for the falling tide to expose the mud landing strip before we could wheel the Cessna up behind our room. Soon after our arrival, a Humvee loaded with soldiers charged up the strip after us and demanded our papers. But the soldiers were cheerful and polite. They kept their weapons slung and didn't even bother to search the plane. The officer in charge gracefully accepted G.H.'s gift, a 25-pound sack of beans.

"Maybe they've relaxed their attitude toward private aircraft," G.H. said, pleased not only by the reception but by the chance to part with all those heavy beans. Or maybe it was just that the kicked-back attitude of Alfonsina's was contagious. A dozen or so men had just rolled in from Tijuana, and they hadn't even knocked the dust off their clothes before they invited us to the bachelor party they had planned for that evening.

"Do you know those guys?" I asked.

"Never seen them before in my life," G.H. said.

We sat on the beach eating roasted clams, drinking Pacifico Clara beer, and watching a full moon emerge from a windy sea. Even G.H., who doesn't drink alcohol while on flying trips, was unable to decipher who the prospective groom was, but it didn't much matter to us and seemed to matter less to them. We were part of their group, and they made sure that we were included in every toast and every joke.

"Go ahead-drink up and have fun," G.H. said before heading off to bed. "I'm not flying tomorrow."

About midnight, someone produced a trunkload of musical instruments, and I spent the next couple of hours playing maracas and bongos to songs I'd never heard before. Soon I was getting teary-eyed right along with my compañeros at every sad song.

The next morning--it couldn't have been much after sunrise--I awoke to G.H. pounding at my cabana door. "The plane's all set," he said. "You ready to go?" I blinked my way around the room--whitewashed walls, raw cement floor, bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, seatless commode coated with sand.

Thank God, I was still in Baja.

I sat up and said, "You told me you weren't flying today."

"I'm not flying today," G.H. replied, already turning toward the little gray and white Cessna parked just outside. "I'm taking pictures while you fly."

Eight hundred miles long and only 60 miles wide, Baja California is a fragile land-break immersed in the open sea. Isolated by geography and its own poor road system, the peninsula is intimately connected with wind and stars and the cataclysms of geology. When the Transpeninsular Highway linked Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas in 1973, cynics predicted that Baja would be overrun with tourists. While that's exactly what's happened to Cabo, that thin ribbon of asphalt otherwise has done little to destroy the peninsula's pristine wildness.

Over the next few days, while steadily working our way south, I spent longer and longer stints at the controls, stints that at first left me white-knuckled and breathless. Gradually, though, all the flaps and flight gauges that had been a blur to me began to assume individual consequence, and I began to master the niceties of trim. G.H.'s prediction was on the money--I was coming to enjoy exploring by plane. Often, when crossing the mountains that run down the spine of Baja, we flew at an altitude that allowed us to see both the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California. The peninsula between--wrinkled, jagged-stretched beneath us like some immense topo map.

The strangest place we visited was an island in the gulf, San Marcos, where there is an industrial village that houses employees of a large gypsum mining company. Landing on San Marcos was like landing on the bright side of the moon. On one of the hillsides sat a bone-white church, and to the left of the airstrip was a baseball stadium complete with bleachers and a wooden outfield wall that proclaimed HOME OF THE SAN MARCOS STARS in bright orange paint. We saw men riding in mining cars, men dwarfed by rock-grinding equipment. The island was controlled by the scream of a steam whistle. Each time we heard it, there was a flurry of human movement in the far quarries. No one ever came to inquire why we were walking up and down their airstrip, pushing a measuring wheel.

Another odd place was the Diamond Eden Hotel, near the town of Loreto. It was originally built as a golf resort, but poor returns inspired its transformation into a 183-room nudist colony, which now boasts the largest and "hottest" in-the-buff Jacuzzi in all of Mexico."If we try to take pictures here," G.H. told me as we flew low over the place, "we might have our first real trouble with the military."

At first, G.H. seemed grateful that the Mexican military was being so nice to us. But slowly his gratitude turned to disappointment, as more and more soldiers kept meeting us with grins. "What the hell's happened?" he asked me one afternoon after yet another pleasant encounter. "Truth is, it takes some of the adventure out of things."

If so, then the adventure was suddenly put back into the equation upon landing at the Pacific Coast town of San Carlos, a popular tourist destination during the winter whale-watching season. As we taxied to a stop, we found ourselves surrounded by Mexican marines, dressed in blue field uniforms and boonie hats and carrying Heckler & Koch G-3 automatic weapons. These guys weren't smiling. Indeed, they appeared irritated and eager for action. "Pin on your ID tag!" G.H. whispered before he climbed out of the plane-by which he meant the officious laminated identification cards he'd had made for us because, he said, soldiers are impressed by such things.

I clipped my tag to my pocket and stepped out onto the tarmac. The biggest marine--a sergeant with bulldog shoulders and a state cop attitude--started interrogating us. Why had we landed in San Carlos? Where else had we landed this morning? When G.H. told him about the several isolated strips we had visited, I saw the sergeant raise his eyebrows in interest. In that case, he said, he wanted to see our passports immediately and would have to inspect our plane.

I returned to the Cessna and dug through my backpack until I found my passport. It wasn't until I turned around that I realized one of the marines had followed me and was standing there with his rifle up and ready. I offered my passport as if it were a soiled tissue.

For 20 minutes, we answered questions and signed forms that I did not understand. It wasn't until we were back in the plane again and taxiing that I realized, for the first time in my life, I actually looked forward to the prospect of being aloft, alone and unencumbered by bureaucrats or mountains or sea barriers. I yearned for the sky's vantage point, for the illusion of omniscience that is, illusion or not, a kind of freedom.

G.H. drew back on the yoke, and the Cessna lifted off the ground. Soon the village of San Carlos was but a speck in the distance, and the desert hills and jade water of Baja were once again wide and easy and wild beneath us.

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