In 2007 I had been going to Moab, Utah, for four years—hiking, running and sightseeing—and I was 20 years a pilot with my own Cherokee 140. A fellow at Canyonlands Airport (CNY) suggested flying to Hidden Splendor, a backcountry airstrip on the San Rafael Reef near Hanksville (HVE). Though I had landed at 336 airports, flying the backcountry was a fantasy for me, like fighter jets or ironman triathlons or racing Bugattis and Porsches.
Maybe I could make this fantasy real. So I called Canyonlands and was referred to LaVar Wells, a seasoned, savvy instructor of Utah’s backcountry. I decided the worst he could do was laugh at me for thinking I could fly a Cherokee in and out of these places.
LaVar didn’t laugh at all. He invited me to meet him at HVE on a Thursday morning at 8 a.m. We met, we talked a bit, we climbed into my Cherokee, and he had me make a short-field landing on the dirt runway. It was one of my best landings ever (don’t tell LaVar that), and it earned me the incredible flying we did the rest of that Thursday.
Our first stop was Hidden Splendor, 15 nm up Muddy Creek from HVE. Landing on the uphill runway 34 means flying an approach in Muddy Creek canyon with rocks on both sides: a full 180-degree turn left, nearly 180 degrees right, a quick left hugging the wall, and the 1,900-foot dirt airstrip appearing on the right. LaVar flew the first approach and talked me through a few more approaches, all to full-stop landings.
It’s a beautiful place for walking around, running a few miles or camping via airplane. You have to see this region’s geology to believe it, and it’s ever so much more beautiful from the air. One wag said you should see Utah with one eye closed so it only looks half as strange. The wonder is amplified by the challenge of flying here, and further by LaVar’s experience and love of the area. Fly with an instructor who loves to fly, and fly the backcountry with somebody who loves to fly the backcountry.
Mexican Mountain (UT75) was airstrip number two. It’s along the San Rafael River behind Mexican Mountain. Go around Mexican Mountain making left turns over slot canyons, fly north past the trees, turn sharply left and see the 1,900-foot airstrip on short final. The first 500 feet is overgrown and not suitable for airplanes. LaVar and I got out of my airplane and enjoyed the scenery for a few minutes. Fourteen hundred feet of dirt runway requires a short-field takeoff, and my airplane used all of it.
We took a flight over Upheaval Dome at Canyonlands National Park. I’ve seen it from the ground and wasn’t impressed. It’s like the scene in the remake of Godzilla with Matthew Broderick, where they’re standing around saying there’s no sign of a giant lizard, and the camera moves back to reveal them standing in a giant footprint. Upheaval Dome from the air is impressive—a large, round, sunken formation; geologists are still debating what it was exactly.
We learn to fly with practice exercises like stalls and steep turns. We learn instruments, practicing partial-panel and unusual attitudes. We learn precise commercial flying using lazy-eights and chandelles. For my backcountry learning experience, LaVar had me fly half an hour in the Green River canyon, 100 feet over the water, following the twists and turns of the canyon. After 10 minutes or so, I got used to flying with rocks at both wingtips and water just below, to the rhythm of the Green River’s meandering, to controlling my airplane in the backcountry world; and I felt the joy of flying here. Maybe I didn’t “feel the force” like Luke in Star Wars, but I learned to feel my airplane in a new and more precise way.
Hite (UT03) was our last new airport together on our first flight—a short, paved, zigzag runway at the north end of Lake Powell. The trick here isn’t following Lake Powell, which looks obvious, but coming in along the Dirty Devil River from the north and turning left onto the 2,000-foot runway.
On the way back to HVE, LaVar pointed to Angel Point, one of the easier backcountry strips, and suggested I land there on my way back to Canyonlands. I was “signed off for solo” in the backcountry, and I beamed with pride as I did the first time I landed by myself in a Cessna 150. I may have been its most junior member, but I now belonged to the Utah backcountry club.
This was my first time flying here. Since then, I’ve been back to these strips with LaVar, solo and with a passenger. I’ve grown comfortable, but still cautious. This wonderful place demands the best airmanship I can muster. Thanks to LaVar’s introduction and my own attitude, I can fly here.