By Brian Brecht & Tom Dietz
BRIAN – This was journey brought on by wine and good company. It was a night when Tom and I had the families together, and the well lubricated conversation led to me missing the road-trips of my young adult years – the trips where the boys and I would pick a destination, make a plan, and just go. And that was it, nothing more. It was, after all, really about the journey and not so much the destination.
The conversation went on, we discussed other topics, eventually leading to “Travels with Charley,” the Steinbeck novel I read during a particularly troubling time in my life. We discussed that the National Steinbeck Museum was in Salinas, Steinbecks’ boyhood home, and how much I’d like to see it. It was at that point when Tom, ever the man of solutions, simply said, “Well, let’s do it! We’ll take the plane!”
TOM – Any excuse to explore, and even better if it involves an airplane, a best friend, and limited logistics. A flying adventure from Gnoss Field in Novato, CA to Salinas and The National Steinbeck Museum would be a relatively short flight in my Cessna T206, 61Foxtrot, of roughly an hour over the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area. Our idea was to fly down with little other than weather planning and make our way to the Museum, lunch, and back again.
B. – It was during a discussion with my friend Rick about “Travels with Charley” that we became so engrossed with the truck itself: A three-quarter-ton GMC, outfitted with heavy springs, V6 engine, and an oversized generator to accommodate the camper installed on the back. After much ribbing from friends, Steinbeck called his project “Operation Windmills” and, in that spirit, named the truck after Don Quixote’s horse, Rocinante. It was years after having read the book that I found, via the web, the truck had actually been found and was restored and sitting in the museum. For me, as fascinating as history is, the names and dates, it’s when it’s put in context of an actual place or object that it becomes real for me. With Rocinante I felt I had to see it to bring to Steinbecks’ experience of driving around the country in the 1960’s to life.
T. – Brian is our duo’s man of letters and a long-tenured fan of Steinbeck. My experience is likely common, a Steinbeck book-derived movie or required high school / college reading. In preparation for the trip, I picked up Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley and without any forewarning that Rocinante would be there in person to greet me and bring a most enjoyable adventure to life. Little did we know that, paralleling Steinbeck and Charley’s experiences, we were going to get our own view on parts and peoples of America we had not previously seen.
On the morning of our adventure we were met by a low overcast that slightly delayed our departure. Eventually we launched into a clearing sky with, for the most part, friendly air traffic controllers. Brian, whose stomach does not always keep up with our adventures, stabilized quickly and, thankfully, quietly.
B. – Airborne adventures had been discussed before with Tom, all in generalities. At one point, prior to Tom having his own plane, we gave it a shot. One particularly breezy morning at Gnoss field, we shot down the runway, Tom all the while fighting the common to Gnoss, strong cross winds pushing at us from the side. Suffice to say, that (short) flight did not end well. Though I kept my breakfast in, it didn’t look like flying in a small plane would be my “thing.” In the following years, Tom bought the Cessna T206, and we tried it again, this time being properly (heavily) medicated, the 45-minute flight went rather well, and future adventures now seemed possible.
The Steinbeck trip started slow with a heavy fog layer over Salinas forcing us to delay our take off. I met Tom for a quick coffee, watching him continually check the weather in hopes of everything clearing for the trip. We both had high hopes the forecast for clear skies over Novato and Salinas would be accurate. In fact, there would be no reason Tom couldn’t have piloted us down on instruments-only, but for today’s trip, there would be no need.
Finally it was time. We arrived at the hangar and, as the doors slowly folded upward, there sat the T206, Tom’s chariot for the sky.
I watched Tom go through the meticulous pre-flight checks every good pilot takes the time to do. It’s amazing to watch him as he moves around the plane; deep in concentration as he makes sure everything is as it should be.
With a loud “Clear!” from Tom, the engine roared to life. We taxied out; Tom ran through his final checks, announced his take off to the surrounding pilots, and 61Foxtrot accelerated down the runway to the waiting sky.
The flight down was easy and calm, with fantastic views of the San Francisco Bay. Our flight plan took us east and then south along the mountain ridge between the Bay Area and the San Joaquin valley. Assuming it would be like any other road trip where we’d spend the hour-long ride making idol chit-chat, it turned out to be anything but. As Tom explained to me the complexity of the San Francisco airspace we were navigating through, there was very little time for casual conversation as there was plenty of traffic to be aware of.
I watched and listened to Tom discuss with NorCal Approach the various radio and heading changes required to get us to Salinas. And, after an hour of easy flying at approx. 5,000 feet, we descended for our Salinas approach and landing. From there it was simple directions from ground control to park us in the transient lot.
T. – Although a busy air traffic day, we got a straight shot to Salinas and made good time. After tying 61Foxtrot to the ramp, we headed inside to the “manned 7-days-a-week” facility. Finding no one around, we called a local taxi and waited. Also waiting was Dan, a gentleman whose planned meeting hadn’t shown up yet. Not shy, and with virtually no encouragement from us, Dan jumped in about the Airfield’s Army Air Corps history. He told us about how his father was a B-25 Mitchell Pilot who, unfortunately, saw no real action in the War – and the way Dan phrased that tells of that generation in general: admirable and selfless. His grandfather was a WWI pilot who came to the Field as an instructor for the pilots training for the next great battles. He then moved on to how politics have killed the field and the crazy folks that watch air shows from active railroad tracks. And he covered all this in about 10 minutes. Dan was a great first exposure to Salinas.
Our tired-looking taxi arrived with a friendly but non-English-speaking driver and neither of us has a handle on conversational Spanish. We repeated our destination a few times, with the addition of useless hand gestures, as The Steinbeck Museum.
Unfortunately jaded by the occasional unscrupulous city taxi driver, we turned on our GPS units to monitor the progress to our goal. Just then, our driver pulled into a local petrol station and left the car – and left us a bit confused. We laughed – until after 10 minutes had passed! We called dispatch to articulate our predicament. “Never you mind,” the friendly dispatch drawled, “just give the driver $10 and call it good when you get to the destination.” Finally, we spotted our driver, water bottle and snacks in hand. We again laughed it off and we were on our way, but to where? Several minutes later, heading in the wrong direction, we showed our GPS map to the driver. After many single-word sentences, we finally surmised that he’d gotten our destination, Salinas, mixed up with our origin – San Francisco. He’d stopped to prepare for the multi-hour drive to San Francisco! Proper communications restored, we arrived 15 minutes later at our target – The National Steinbeck Museum. If only we had Steinbeck’s Spanish fluency.