A Glider, A Mule and A Bottle of Scotch
My wife and I had just passed the village of Des Moines, midpoint between Clayton and Raton, New Mexico, when I turned off at a sign indicating the direction to Folsom. She was used to my shortcuts and diversions and said nothing, just kept reading a magazine. After about 15 miles of getting further and further from nowhere, she finally asked, "Care to let me know where we are going?"
I pointed off to the north to a few buildings half a mile away and answered, "Remember the time I told you about landing out and having to ride a mule..."
"Yes, and I still think it's another one of your wild tales," she replied.
I turned onto a narrow dirt road, nearly grown over with grass, leading toward the house. I stopped at a gate, locked shut with a chain and padlock. "Care to go with me?" I asked as I opened the door to get out.
We had been on the road long enough that a walk sounded good so she slid out the other side. I pressed the middle strand of the barbed wire fence down with my foot, raised the top one, helped her through and we walked toward the house.
It was a small log house with a corrugated metal roof and a stovepipe sticking out at an angle. You could tell that a room had been added onto one end after the main part was built. Since it was obvious that the place was vacant, knocking on the door would have been a futile gesture. There was no lock, just a rusty bolt sticking in the hasp to keep the door shut.
As the door scraped open, a mouse skittered across the splash of sunlight that angled across the floor. My wife recoiled and said, "Looks like a good place to get snakebit."
"No snakes in here," I replied as if to assure her. "If there were, that mouse wouldn't be here."
"I happen to hate mice almost as much as I do snakes," she replied coldly.
As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, everything was just as I remembered it: kitchen table with peeling paint and four mismatched chairs around it, wood-burning stove, old freestanding cabinet with the tilt-out flour bin and a stand with a wash pan on it. There was even a few sticks of firewood and some kindling stacked neatly by the stove.
The last time I'd seen the place was in the spring of 1971. We had left our sailplane at Las Vegas over the winter so we could fly in the wave off Truchas Peak to the west of town. Now that spring had come, my son, a friend and I had come to take the ship back to Amarillo.
I picked up a newspaper off the table and read the date, it was from December 1971. I went to the cabinet, opened the bottom door, reached as far back as I could and found what I was looking for. It was a square bottle with about two inches of amber liquid in the bottom. I took a jelly glass from the cabinet, dumped out a dead spider and poured a shot. I raised the glass in a silent toast to Mr. McCurdy and downed it. I put the bottle back where it had been.
"How in the world did you know that bottle was in there?" asked my wife.
"I just knew," I replied.
The place where Mr. McCurdy survived 84 winters. (click the pictures for larger views)
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By the time we got to the airport at around 9:00AM, puffy little white clouds were beginning to speckle the sky, a true harbinger of a great soaring day. I concluded that it would be just as easy to disassemble and trailer the ship somewhere between there and Amarillo as in the hanger so there was no reason to let a great soaring day go to waste. Arrangements were made with the airport manager for a tow, I smoked and secured the barograph, turned on the oxygen and checked the battery. It was a bit low on charge but there was no time to bother with that. I was in the air and climbing by 10:00AM. They hooked up the trailer and headed east out of town as I was going through 10,000 feet in steady lift under a building cloud right over the airport.
I had noticed that the best clouds seemed to be back toward the mountains and the sky was cold blue to the east. I headed out on course when I reached cloud base 12,000 feet but felt not a bump as I slowly sank to 10,000 where I turned back while I had enough altitude to reach the airport. I called my crew and told them to hold up for a bit. They were already ten miles east of town.
I found good lift over the airport and was soon back to cloud base, which had now gone up over 500 feet so I made another try to the east. Same results and I was soon back looking for lift over the airport. I called the crew and told them to head back because it didn't look all that good to the east. Better to land at a perfectly good airport instead of some strange pasture.
I kept looking at all those beautiful clouds marching off to the north and decided not to waste a good day. I called my crew and told them to head north on I-25, I was going to Black Forest, Colorado. The fact that I didn't have a Denver chart made no difference; I knew where I was going and could just follow the highway. I also told them that if we lost radio contact to go to the Flight Service Station at Trinidad and wait for me to contact them there. They said the radio was breaking up so I turned it off to conserve what power might be left in it.
It quickly turned from a good soaring day to a fantastic one. Clouds lined up like toy soldiers to the north with bases soon reaching 15,000 feet. I could actually pull up in lift and dive through sink while maintaining my altitude band. Even though I didn't have a chart, I recognized the distinctive hill that gave Wagon Mound its name. Raton slid by to my left as snowflakes swirled over the canopy. Off to the right I could see the TO Ranch airstrip with the distinctive red roofed buildings. The clouds pinched downward toward the mesa in front of me. I lowered the nose and dove for the gap of clear air between the clouds and ground.
It wasn't until I flew out from under the roll of cloud that I realized what had happened. The sky ahead was clear and a headwind had reduced my ground speed considerably; I had flown through a cold front just as I reached the north edge of the mesa. Ahead lay a tumble of hills and trees and while I could see the Trinidad airport, there was no way I could reach it into that headwind. I turned into the ridge lift to conserve what altitude I had left. I was so low that even with a tailwind, I knew that I couldn't make it back across the mesa to land at the TO ranch.
I could stay up in the ridge lift but was trapped in sort of a bowl in the ridge and couldn't escape from it in either direction. I tried to call the crew and then the Trinidad Flight Service but the battery was dead. The only thing to do was pick a safe place and land. No use staying in the ridge lift if I couldn't go anywhere.
There was a house with a pickup truck parked beside it. Chickens in the yard and a couple horses in the corral indicated that it was occupied. There was a cultivated field next to the house with short green stuff growing in it, not tall enough to pose any problem. Checked for power lines and saw no poles. Good a place as any. Easy landing and I let it roll to within about ten feet of the fence so I could tie the wings to it.
A friendly mutt nuzzled me while I tied the wings to the fence and walked with me to the house. A little man who looked to be around eighty answered my knock on the door. He blinked in surprise when he saw the glider. After a quick explanation of why I landed there, I asked if I could use his phone. He smiled and said that he didn't have a phone and then I noticed that he didn't have electrical power either. No wonder I hadn't seen any poles.
"Any chance you could take me to a phone in your pickup? I need to call my crew and tell them where I am."
"Shucks fellow, it ain't run in twenty years," he replied.
"How far is it to the nearest phone?" I asked.
"Bout five miles at the Turner Ranch down off the mesa," he replied. "It's a long walk but if you can ride a horse, I'll let you take mine."
We walked to the corral and I noticed that the vintage of the pickup was prior to WW-II and it was perched on blocks with no wheels. Its main purpose now was as a chicken house. There was a rather ancient looking horse and a long-eared mule in the corral. He took a saddle from the corral fence, looked at the horse for a few seconds and then threw it on the mule. "Take old Clyde here," he said. "He knows where to go and he's smarter than you anyway. Just be sure to tie him up really good or you will be walking back." He instinctively headed out on a trail leading toward the edge of the mesa.
Clyde did seem to know where he was to go because he plodded along the trail with his head down as if he had done it a thousand times. After a while we came to a fairly impressive ranch with several barns and a huge rock house. I tied Clyde to the gatepost and remembering what his owner had said, gave the reins an extra couple knots.
The lady who answered the door recognized the mule and asked how Mr. McCurdy was doing. Up until then I hadn't even learned his name. I asked Mrs. Turner if I could use her phone and if she had a roadmap so I could tell my crew how to get to me. When she found where they were coming from, she told me that the road from Raton was washed out and they would have to go all the way to Des Moines and come back in from the east. I was only ten miles from my crew but they would have to drive well over a hundred miles to get to me. After I gave my crew instructions on where I was, she handed me some mail, a couple newspapers and a bag of cookies to take back with me. Clyde was working on the last knot with his teeth when I went back to the gate and another five minutes he would have been gone.
By the time I got back to Mr. McCurdy's place, I could smell the aroma of something roasting in the oven. It was then that I realized that I hadn't eaten since breakfast early that morning and was getting a bit lank. I began to munch on one of the cookies that Mrs. Turner had sent. He smiled and said, "Don't ruin your appetite, I got a leg of antelope in the oven. If I'm going to feed those speed goats, they are going to feed me. I shot a nice young one for supper just after you left."
I protested that we didn't want to intrude on him but he insisted that the least he could do was feed us, after all he didn't get company all that often. Considering where he lived, I didn't doubt that at all. I asked how long he had lived up there and he replied, "My daddy built this place when he and mom came here from Scotland because he said it reminded him of home. I was born in this house and I've survived eighty-four winters up here."
By the time my crew arrived two hours later and we had the glider loaded, he had dinner on the table waiting for us. He had home-canned green beans, fried potatoes and biscuits to go with the roast antelope. We were famished and it was some of the best food we had ever eaten.
When we finished eating, he went to the cabinet, opened the bottom door, reached back as far as he could and brought out a bottle. It had perhaps half an inch in the bottom and he carefully measured it out equally into four glasses. "I love scotch," he said "But I drink it only when I have the Grippe or have company." I gave a toast to our host and asked what I owed him as we were about to leave.
"It wouldn't be right to let company pay for anything," he said. "I just appreciate you folks coming." I asked for his address before I left. When I got home, I bought the best bottle of scotch I could find, wrapped it very carefully and put it in a box with a lot of styrofoam peanuts to protect it. I never heard if he got the package or not.
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We stopped at the small church a couple miles away and I walked through the cemetery next to it. I found his grave marker with the date of death as January 6, 1972, the winter after I had landed at his place. I guess he didn't survive his 85th winter up there. At least I knew that he received the present I sent to him.
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