Cross-country Flying Adventure

flying14With overseas travel cancelled, and us unemployed due to the pandemic, my husband and I decided to explore this great country of ours, the U.S.A.  We purchased our current plane in June, a Centurion turbo, better known as a Cessna 210.  We would familiarize ourselves with the plane and some different instruments enroute to Cincinnati, Dakotas, and our farthest west destination Montana.  

Our flight to Cincinnati took us above the Appalachians at 9,500 for terrain and weather, dropping down through a hole 20 miles prior to landing, pretty much diving towards the short runway.  We visited my family, staying with mom and dad.  My husband kept himself busy doing much needed handyman work, with my nephew and dad helping when needed.  We dined with my brother, sister-in-law and three-year old niece.  It was a short visit, as we had to depart a few days later due a front moving through.  We didn’t need a delay so early in our trip.

We traveled over 900 nautical miles from Cincinnati to Spearfish, SD, with a lunch stop in Fort Dodge, and a change of pilots.  The Pilot in Command (PIC) flies from the left seat and makes the ultimate decisions while the right seat pilot’s duties include talking to air traffic control, navigating with the iPad and VOR’s, weather checking along the route and finding alternative airports. We switched each stop when possible to give each other a change of responsibilities.  We encountered hazy, almost IFR conditions from west coast fires, turbulence and 40+ MPH winds upon both landings.

A beautiful cabin near historic Deadwood awaited us.  

“Can you google liquor stores?” My husband asked, as we neared our accommodations.

“The nearest is 25 miles in Sturgis.”

“Don’t tell me it’s a dry county?”

“No, just none in Deadwood.”

We stocked up on drinks, and some food, then later found out that all gas stations carry liquor and wine. We had plenty of those within five miles.

We got an early start to Mount Rushmore the following day.  I was in awe upon first glance at the national monument.  A very easy visit, and I snapped pictures from many angles.  We had a full day in the area, checking out Crazy Horse, Custer State Park where the buffalo roam, and scenic, winding Needles Hwy.  I got a kick out of our dog whining at the intimidating animals blocking our car.  

I welcomed a more leisurely pace the next day exploring Deadwood, a step back in time to the Wild West.  The small town offered plenty as we browsed shops, lunched, and had a beer at historic Saloon 10 while checking out memorabilia.  With old pictures, newspaper articles, and plaques displayed on the wall, it seemed more like a museum with a bar and slots.  The pedestrian streets outside bustled with tourists drinking and dancing to live music.  Nobody wore masks, so we kept our distance, returning in the evening for dinner.  We met our friends from Bimini who took us up to a rooftop bar, where we viewed the crowds from above.  A vintage car show and competition gathered for the weekend, adding to the old town ambiance and experience.


We decided to visit Devils Tower in Wyoming the following day, and it didn’t disappoint.  The monument visible 50 miles out, looked otherworldly.  I see why Spielberg chose it as a scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  We hiked around the rim, getting glimpses up close from many angles while taking in the natural pine forest habitat.  It formed from cooled magma and slowly eroded from wind and water to create its current façade.  The Great Plains tribes has considered it sacred for thousands of years and still do today.  As we drove back down towards the exit, I noticed several signs warning not to feed prairie dogs.

“Look at the squirrels.”  Hubby said while pointing.


I noticed a field full of little furry creatures popping in and out of holes, and others standing up while nibbling nuts.

“Those are prairie dogs.  Pull over.”

We stopped by our plane to prepare it for an early departure and drove back to the cabin via the scenic Spearfish Canyon.  Our flight plan involved a direct flight to Great Falls, Montana then a hop over the mountains to Glacier Park. 

Our flight over the Black Hills and beyond was turbulent, so we made an unexpected stop at Sheridan for a break before continuing onwards. The winds blew over 50 mph upon landing at Great Falls. We spoke to some local pilots familiar with the area and our conversation went something like this.

“If you cross the ridges, enter at a 45 degree angle for less turbulence.  You will still get bounced around and it’s not unusual to hit your head on the ceiling.”

“We’d like to fly the valleys, and follow the roads.” I said.  “We have a small dog and prefer not to put her on oxygen.”

“If you do that and you’re on one side of the valley with strong updrafts move to the other side for the downdrafts. There’s a 90 degree turn towards the end.  Just when you think you’re trapped between the mountains it opens up.  But you have to be tight on that turn.”

My husband and I looked at each other, wide-eyed.  He said, “We’ll rent a car.”

“Good choice, we’re not even flying today with these winds.”         

The drive to my Sister-In Law’s ranch took us around Glacier Park, but not through it since the east entrance was closed due to Covid. Still a beautiful drive we arrived at the ranch in less than three hours. After Annie and Tom showed us around their place, they left as they had previous commitments out of town for the night.  It was a much needed chill evening and an easy pace the following day.

As our tour guide and driver, Annie took us on an amazing tour of Glacier with its majestic cliffs, glaciers, meadows and serene lakes. While driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road, I felt like she was speeding. My hands sweated, and heart raced as I peeked over the cliffs off my right shoulder.  I didn’t remember it being so terrifying when I visited over ten years ago.

My husband glanced back at me.  “I think she wants you to slow down.” He said.

Annie glimpsed at me through her mirror.

“I’m okay, just keep your eyes on the road.”

“At least you’re not gasping for air, like one of my relatives did on this drive.”  She said.

I’d look up, take a few photographic shots then turn away.  It should be better on the drive down as I’ll be away from the cliffs, I hoped.  After reaching the peak we drove a bit further for a short hike. The stunning walk took us through an array of colors with mountains in the background and a waterfall at our turnaround point.  In the evening we met Tom and his colleagues at a beautiful lodge for dinner and drinks.

On our last full day we lunched in the town center, and visited two lakes.  The first was one small but picturesque, I imaged swimming in it on a warm day.  At the other lake we packed drinks and sandwiches for a sunset cruise on their friend’s boat. 

The next morning Tom treated us to a homemade Sunday brunch.  He made eggs, tater tots, and my favorite huckleberry pancakes with fresh fruit and syrup.  We said our goodbyes and drove back to Great Falls for the evening.  We knew wherever we ended up the following night we’d have to stay a few days due to a cold front pushing through the region.

Cody, WY just to our south seemed like a great place to stay for a few nights since it’s one of the gateways to Yellowstone.  We stayed at a cute lodge near the park’s entrance, but still close to town.  Millstone Brewery became our choice restaurant for dinner, although they were understaffed and usually crowded.

A full day in Yellowstone awaited us at dawn, cramming in as much as possible along the loop.  Lake Butte overlook, Hayden Valley where we were stopped by bison again.  People were even taking selfies with them, and I realized why yearly somebody gets mauled in the park.  Mud Volcano and the Sulphur Cauldron were active and we did a short hike in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.  We cut across to the Midway Geyser Basin and viewed several hot springs with my favorite Grand Prismatic Spring.  By then the cold front came through and the steam from the spring warmed me.  By the time we arrived at Old Faithful it was snowing.  The snow continued as we worked our way back to Cody, and the park closed to traffic just after our exit.  Temperature in the high seventies in the morning turned into a cold windy twenties in the eve.

We stayed another two nights waiting for the front to move.  Our flight plans were to get back to Helen, GA in a southeasterly direction, but the weather didn’t cooperate.  We flew to Rapid City for a night, then Souix Falls for a few nights.  A cute town with amazing restaurants, but by now were wanting to get home.  Hubby called weather brief daily, I checked online weather resources. The front didn’t want to move south, just east as we followed behind.  Tired of hotels, we stopped by Cincinnati again to stay with my family a night then finally back to Helen.  It was an amazing adventure, and I’d like to do it again after some training for mountain flying.

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Mammoth Mountain and Beyond

We arrived at the base of Mammoth Mountain in time for lunch after a scenic and sometimes terrifying drive through Tioga Pass.  Looking at the menu I unconsciously grinned realizing that I was indeed in the Northern California mountains.  With more than five vegetarian choices I ordered a sandwich loaded with veggies including sprouts accompanied by a locally brewed beer.  My husband stuck to his meat and cheese as my famished ten-pound Snorkie loyally sat by his side waiting for a scrap.  Smart pup with her nose that can detect a hamburger ten miles away.  Eating lunch outside I spotted the famous Schat’s bakery next-door known for their cheese bread. Fresh sourdough bread filled with melted cheddar is a must while hiking.   A staple, a reward, and easy to eat on the move.  I picked up a loaf for the following day, just in case I didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy Schat’s cheese bread during the rest of the trip.

Our boutique hotel was the ideal getaway for a few days.  Dog friendly and human friendly the place was cute, comfortable and modern.  In October, the down time for Mammoth, in-between summer and winter sports, it was very affordable.   We had a private balcony, fireplace, kitchen, living room and a large bedroom loft.  The afternoon was sunny and warm but as the sunset a winter chill filled the air.

The following morning I had one of the best runs of my life, surreal in its beauty.  At 8,000 feet, the hotel manager reminded me of the altitude then pointed me towards a close-by running trail.  “Nike, is building a high altitude training center here,” he beamed.

As I worked my way into a jog the trail seemed routine at first until I opened my eyes and mind. Breathtaking beauty halted my run, feeling as if I was in a Monet painting.  A perfect pairing of mountains, valleys, wildflowers, desert scrub and a cobalt blue sky.  Combined with the crisp air mingling with my heated body and sweat, perfect.  If only Monet was around to paint my dreamlike scene.  Instead, I settled for a picture on my iPhone.

My afternoon was filled with an internal need and desire to hike alone, and Devil’s Postpile was the backdrop for this journey.  The hotel manager confidently endorsed the trail as being well-traveled and safe for a solo traveler.  My husband briefly visited the national monument agreeing to pick me up in a few hours as he set off in search of a driving range to hit a few golf balls.

The trail was flat and peaceful as I faced nature and my overly imaginative mind.  A blessing sometimes and a burden others, especially when fear and doubt creep into my thoughts.  After 45 minutes of not seeing anyone I started to think about bears, mountain lions and snakes.  I considered turning around but chose to pick up a walking stick and soldier-on while contemplating  my relationship with nature.  Fearless, became my mantra as my confidence in myself and my surroundings restored over a two-hour period.

I ended up encountering a few hikers near Rainbow Falls, apparently a few trails merge near the falls.  I chose to return on the same lonesome path back to Devil’s Postpile with a renewed love for hiking alone and an intrepid friendship with nature. Amazing what the mind and nature can accomplish when forced to live in harmony.

After a blissful dinner we decided to explore the hotel’s steam, sauna and hot tub located in the basement.  We had the spa to ourselves. Turning everything on we waited, but with the rock-lined coolness nothing heated above our body temperature.  We got wet, dried off and went to our room to warm up.

The following day I embraced Tioga Pass and it’s turns, cliffs and moonscape-like surroundings.  In no-time we were cruising back through Yosemite and into the heart of the California agricultural district.  Passing endless farmland we arrived at yet another mountain base.  This side of the Sierra Mountains was hot and dry compared to west mountains we had departed just hours prior.  We had arrived in Three Rivers.  Population 2,600, entryway to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Forest, and the location of my friend’s wedding set for the following day.  She was my BFF twenty years ago and although we reconnected on Facebook we hadn’t seen each other since.

With the wedding at 2:00 and being so close to the largest trees in the world, at noon we decided to take a hurried drive into the forest.  Construction, twisting roads, and biting nails ensued to the top of the mountain.  We snapped a few pictures and quickly turned around as I checked my watch constantly. Traffic suddenly halted as I glanced out the window and loudly whispered, “holy shit.”

“What,” my husband alarmingly shot back.

I rapidly searched for my camera.  “Bear,” I exclaimed.  As the car in front of us scooted forward the bear was within arm’s length of my window.  I snapped a few shots while watching the lovely creature eat grass on the side of the road.

Let Yoda see it,” he claimed. Referring to our small dog.

After verifying the window was up, I mindlessly held up our dog.  She instantly started whining with uncertainty, or with certainty that the creature was a danger to her.

We continued speeding down the mountain with just twenty minutes to prepare for the wedding.  Good thing I get ready quickly.

It was a small wedding and I was the first person my BFF saw as she entered the church.  An instant smile simultaneously graced our faces.  I held back tears throughout the ceremony and outside the church we embraced a twenty year friendship renewed.