Ranchlands V, Happy Trails

In 2001 South Padre Island is beautiful as I glide the VariEze in to the nearby old WWII airport. The island is still a strong draw. Lots of fun. There is a Shlitterban Water Park and numerous hotels and restaurants and interesting shops. Interesting, fun place. In the rent car I drive to the north end of the one main island road just to see how far it goes. After five of the ten miles, the sand dunes take over. Heading back south, I stop for some fun and exercise and ego dunking at a wind-surfing area in the calmer water between the island and the mainland. After lunch I decide to turn in the rent car and head back.

Lifting off in the Eze I fly south toward the border.
South of the Border… I remember repeated flights across the river in the ‘70s, flying for the Dept of Agriculture on the Screw Worm Eradication program. There was some kind of insect housefly invasion. On the range, flies normally lay eggs on dead animals. A good thing.

When I was growing up we were always doctoring cattle where flies had laid their eggs in an open wound. In the 70s there was an infestation crisis with huge swarms of flies engulfing cattle and covering them with maggots even though they weren’t injured. Lots of cattle were being lost.

We started our Fly-drop flights from a few hundred miles north of the border. North/south lanes were laid out two miles apart all the way across the Rio Grande Valley. We started on a specific lane at a thousand feet. In the back of the plane were hundreds of little boxes of irradiated sterile maggots that had just hatched into flies. At specific intervals a guy in the back slid the boxes down a metal chute out the belly of the plane. A tab opened the box in the slipstream, releasing the flies. After traversing the Rio Grande Valley we continued south across the Mexico border continuing to drop for about twenty miles, and circled around to pick up a parallel lane two miles over for the return trip.
The fly population decreased because they only mate once. The fly drop program resolved the problem. I hope all those flies appreciated my efforts to get them out there to the party and hooked up. Surely there’s an insect spring break one-liner here somewhere.

Approaching the Rio Grande I turn the Eze east toward South Padre. Not going to mess with the border. At the beach I circle out over the water a few times and turn north heading for Corpus Christi and Kingsville. After five miles, civilization gives way to the marauding sand dunes. From here on along the endless beach, except for sand dunes that have been relocated by hurricanes, it looks the same as when I was there in the 1970s. And probably like it did when my dad was there in the ‘30s.

I follow the coast to a remote fishing town that reportedly has the best fuel prices. As I approach the airport over the coast I fly over rows of fishing huts on stilts spread out a few hundred yards off shore. To the east are the off-shore oil rigs. My mind ratchets back and forth between my life now and the flying job that once beaconed from out there.

That was to have been my next flying step after the ranches. After leaving the cattle work and securing an off-shore job there, I made a clandestine visit to the area. Twenty some years ago I came to the fork in the road and took it and decided instead to head north into the wingless unknown. Out there was the road not taken.

After I land I see that the strip is abandoned and even has a rusty lock on the gate. I’m trapped inside. A truck pulls up and says he will call the Harbor Master who also manages the airport. She arrives in about thirty minutes. One of those places that appears out of nowhere and is like no other you have ever been before.

Lifting off I am much more interested in getting back than doing any more scouring of the lowlands. I climb to my more comfortable ten thousand feet where it’s smoother and cooler and there are more options.

Ahhhh. From here I head north and soon swerve into the very spot where I viewed the ranchland twenty some years ago, hovering over the lumbering thousand red bulls. And the close encounter with the Navy trainer. Again I can span the horizon south from the Rio Grande River, all the way around to Corpus Christi on the north, one last time. Smooth and cool at ten grand. Now this is the way to work the ranchlands. Ezily spoiled, yes I am. A couple of circles over the pens brings back mixed memories of what could have been, and what is, and that this is still the Navy’s training turf. And that on that day below with the T-2, fifty feet was as good as a mile. I agree again that I am a lucky guy.

Heading north
Out ahead on the horizon I can focus on the span of my great-great-grandfather’s life from 11 o’clock to 2 o’clock on the horizon. He arrived from Germany at Galveston, moved inland a hundred miles and settled, eventually riding a donkey to distribute Bibles from Victoria to north of San Antonio Texas. His daughter was among Stephen F Austin’s “Three Hundred”, populating the Texas territory in the time just before the Battle of the Alamo. And no WalMarts.

We have my grandfather’s handwritten accounts. His personal story told how as a boy he galloped on horseback for three days, across that area out in front of me, using pre-staged horses and whatever replacement horses he could find, to get medicine for his two-year old sister. He arrived back home with the medicine just before she died.

Early on, their toughest daily struggle was to protect their garden, the mainstay of their survival. Along with the backbreaking manual cultivation and planting and harvesting, they tried everything to keep the rabbits and deer and such out. They built and rebuilt wooden fences. Lightning started brush fires that burned the wooden fences. The deer just jumped over those fences anyway. They tried deep ditches, also backbreaking. They tried thorny cactus. They took turns standing guard. Nothing worked. Until distant civilization brought wire fencing.
I take a guilty sip of my icy soda. And consider the steady airspeed needle with respect and appreciation. The Wright Brothers would have killed devils on hills to be doing this.

Lulled humming motionless at 10 K, finding, plotting and passing the maze within each occasional small town, a thought penetrates. At this altitude I’ve got Kleberg airport made. Banking and lofting gently through the descent I offer one respectful contemplation back toward the south ranchlands. The intensity of the sunset has peaked. The focused brilliance softens and spreads overhead, reflecting off the distant clouds over the Gulf.

The airport is hidden just below the dark western horizon. At one o’clock out ahead two orange and white Navy T-45 Goshawk Trainers blink and pass low and clear, inbound for NAS Kingsville.

I consider this trip good for Claudene and me. Her, taking care of solemn family matters, and me making glancing blows through a significant past. I decide that providence has dealt kindly moving us north, but another return to this historic land will be in order.
Turning downwind, gazing back into the exploding sunset and trying to hold on to this moment, I reset black sunglasses and before I can stop it, mouth Arnold’s promise, “Ahl Be Bach.”
I’m home in Fort Worth, after a good sunset run. Looking back on the ranchland trip I remember why I didn’t take that last flying job I had in the bag twenty years ago. For me at that time, any where I looked at flying for a living, it soaked up my time and options, and took me away from the place I wanted to be, and things I wanted to do.

Now, Eze flying mostly takes me where I want to be, doing mostly what I want to do. Not perfect, but close.

Relaxed and refreshed, still glowing from the day’s therapeutic sunset run,
I look again out at the vast harsh ranchland

- from my comfy couch
- the ranchland well under control on the hand-marked sectional map framed on the wall.
- And no rattlesnakes or ticks

And an Eze cooling down, but waiting in the wings

Happy Trails
Bill James, Fort Worth VariEze

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