It was a cloudy day all across the U.S.

On the tarmac.

It was a cloudy day all across the United States. My wife and I flew five hours from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.

A blanket of gray covered the entire area of the northwestern United States and southwestern Canadian provinces. On liftoff, it didn’t take long for the jetliner to punch through the clouds, and quickly climb above them.

As the plane leveled out at its cruising altitude, splotches of brown and green peeked through the gray and puffy white clouds. Were we over Washington, Idaho, Montana? I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter.

Evening clouds.
We were winging it home after a two-week stint of sampling nearly every type of transportation imaginable. On our extended trip, we hopped on planes, trains, buses, cars, vans, SUVs, boats, old Army troop trucks, ships, and even repurposed school buses. We walked a lot, too. Now we were back on a jet heading home.

It was Alaska or bust for us this time. Unlike too many of the old gold prospectors of long ago, the 49th state was no bust for us. Neither was the Yukon Territory, which geographically mirrored much of Alaska’s towns, mountains, and inland rivers.

We had crossed back and forth between the two countries several times. But now in the sky, borders were insignificant, indefinable. They were unrecognizable as God meant them to be until man intervened and contrived invisible boundary lines. Bees, butterflies, grizzly bears, bald eagles, and migrating birds deemed them meaningless.

The clouds thinned over America’s breadbasket. Their charcoal shadows indiscriminately cast jigsaw-like puzzle pieces onto croplands and the Badlands alike.

Evening clouds.
From the jetliner, more ominous storm clouds appeared, and the earth again disappeared. We flew south of the sharp anvil-shaped thunderheads that towered 20,000 feet higher than the 37,000 feet we reached.

Once clear of the storms, I saw the mighty Mississippi River turn and twist beneath the haze as the plane began to bounce in the turbulence ahead of the weather front we had breached. Fastened seatbelts kept us in place until the skies smoothed and summer’s famous white, fluffy clouds steered us eastward.

The clouds were broken enough for me to finally distinguish details on the ground seven miles below. Jagged rows of giant windmills sprouted in the quilt-patterned patches of midwestern agriculture. I wondered if the farmers regretted or relished the decision to take the money and let the monsters run.

Directly to the north, I could see an airport and a city butted up against the end of a large lake. It had to be Duluth, Minnesota at the western tip of Lake Superior.

East of the Big Muddy, clouds blanketed the states like one continuous unrolled sheet of quilt batting gone ballistic. Then the cottony layer transitioned into cotton balls. I could see Michigan’s western shoreline, even the little inlet to Traverse City.

The plane began its gradual descent. Lake Erie appeared through the summer haziness, then Columbus, and then the squiggly Ohio River. In West Virginia, rows and rows of hundreds of windmills towered above lush hardwood forests on old, folded mountain ridges. John Denver played in my head.

As the sun waned, the plane drew lower and lower. We crossed the Appalachians, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Blue Ridge Mountains, all in less than a minute. Through the haze, we landed with a gentle bounce.

We had had a marvelous trip, but it was good to be home under a cloudless sky.

Home.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

A change of venue for the grandkids

By Bruce Stambaugh

When our daughter told us that her husband had accepted a new job in Harrisonburg, Virginia, we were ecstatic. Although we enjoyed our visits to Texas with our family and their neighbors and friends, we found the flights from Ohio tedious.

With the move to Virginia, our grandchildren would be a quick six-hour drive away. I mean quick in the most liberal sense.

We enjoyed flying but to fly three hours to Texas without a direct flight really consumed an entire day. Add together the drive time to the airport, check-in, security navigations, waiting at the gates, and flight connections and a good day was gone.

Driving to Virginia would be a whole lot easier. To be sure, we knew the route by heart. We drove it often to visit our daughter in college in Harrisonburg. She had met our son-in-law at Eastern Mennonite University, and they had lived and worked in the city for a couple of years after their graduation and marriage. Now he works for the school.

There were multiple ways for us to get to Harrisonburg, an expanding city in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley. As long as the weather was good, our favorite route was also the most demanding, climbing and descending eight mountain passes. It was a scenic, curvy drive.

Last week, we made our first trip to Harrisonburg in a decade. Our daughter and her family had moved from Texas, but settling in with three youngsters and a husband who works full-time isn’t the easiest thing to do.

Our excuse was to help our daughter and her husband unpack and to get organized in their Virginia home. Our motive was to see the grandkids. The ever-thoughtful Nana packed up containers of frozen sweet corn and applesauce and we headed southeast.

It was fun to travel again through familiar towns like Elkins, Harman, Franklin and Seneca Rocks, all in West Virginia. Not surprisingly, little had changed in those 10 years. But once we hit the mountains, the road seemed windier than I had remembered, even though it was clear some of the curves had been softened and widened.

I would have gladly crossed 18 mountain passes for the chance to see our two grandsons and granddaughter again. I last saw them in Texas at the end of February.

I was amazed at how much they had matured, if indeed you can say a six-year old, a four-year old and a nine-month old mature. But there were definite differences. The two boys, Evan and Davis, played together well, yet were equally content to play independently, too.

Evan surprised me with how well he could read, even though he had just finished kindergarten. Davis, too, showed his inquisitive prowess with delving questions. When we weren’t watching the World Cup on television, we played soccer on their expansive wooden deck.

Maren cuddled right up to me. She seemed more intrigued with my beard than my conversation, however. When the discussion went sour, Nana was the designated diaper changer.

Maren is crawling, curious and exercising her best operatic voice, although not always in harmony with her energetic brothers. She is one adorable little girl, and has saucers for eyes that match the same Paul Newman blueness of her brothers.

Our stay was much too short. You can be sure that now that they are only hours away, there will be many more visits to come. After all, we have the drive down pat.

The case of being too fat to fly

Black Vultures hang around a large alligator at Myakka River State Park near Sarasota, Florida.

By Bruce Stambaugh

As the plane sat on the tarmac waiting permission to take off, I filled my idle time peering through the thick porthole. Meadowlarks chased one another and American Kestrels swooped for rodents above the broad grassy areas between the concrete avenues.

I watched other jetliners defy both logic and gravity, race down the runways and lift into the air. Aerodynamically, their appearance belies the fact that they actually can get airborne. The jumbo jets especially seemed too fat to fly. Yet, they taxied, throttled and despite their bulkiness climbed into the sky effortlessly.

When the words “too fat to fly” came to mind, I flashed back a month to our time in Florida. My wife and I and our good friends had taken a boat tour on a lake at Myakka River State Park. The guide filled us in on the unusual appearance of hundreds of vultures gathered all along the shorelines. Most were Black Vultures with a few Turkey Vultures thrown in, their red baldheads making them conspicuous.

We had gone to the park to see alligators, shorebirds, birds of prey, and to learn of the local floral and fauna. The congregations of vultures were an unexpected bonus, present everywhere. To the locals, the flocks of homely birds were a necessary nuisance, even roosting on campers and cars.

Their appearance was easily explained. Prior to our arrival in the Sunshine State, which was mostly cloudy and cool while we were there, an extended cold snap had settled in.

Between the below freezing temperatures and the lack of sunshine, both the water and air temperatures had dropped well below normal for a sustained amount of time. In fact, the Gulf of Mexico had registered 49.6 degrees Fahrenheit, amazingly cool for that expansive tropical body of water.

Citrus and produce farmers fought the cold conditions by misting their nearly ripe crops. The cold temps effectively coated the fruit with ice, saving most of the delicate commodities. Fishermen had no such option. The unusually cold water killed tens of thousands of fish.

Upper Lake Myakka was no exception. The guide said that at least 30,000 fish had died from the shallow lake’s much reduced water temperature. Of course, the dead fish soon washed ashore and the throngs of vultures voluntarily arrived to clean up the mess. Their sense of smell is truly amazing. The fishy smell we sensed was equally amazing, even weeks after the big kill.

The impressive, black birds had cleaned up most of the carcasses by the time we took the tour. Nevertheless, the pungent odor lingered, as did the vultures.

Days after the fish kill, park officials noticed something odd about the vultures. The unsightly creatures just lay around as if they were sick. Concerned, biologists easily caught and examined a few of the birds to find the cause of their lethargy.

After running multiple tests, the scientists came to a very logical conclusion. The vultures had eaten so many dead fish they were simply too fat to fly or even walk for that matter. All they needed to do was to stop eating, and they would be fine.

By now, it was our plane’s turn to take off. I double-checked my seatbelt, readied myself for the runway sprint and sudden ascent into the cloudless sky. But with the overstuffed vultures on my mind, I didn’t want to take any chances. I said a silent prayer that this particular bird wasn’t too fat to fly.