Yesterday, I had a surreal experience. This afternoon, I had a bitter one. And fences figured into both.
Yesterday evening, a friend and I were flying across the desert a few miles south of Phoenix, when my fellow pilot asked, “Hey, wanna look at the horses?”
A wing dropped, and I found myself looking down at 30 horses that ignored us as we spiraled down around them. They were in a loose bunch in the sagebrush. Some were grazing, others were lying down, while a couple chased each other around in what appeared to be an equine game of tag. Every color and pattern was represented and spring had obviously arrived, as a number of colts frolicked about.
“Whose are they?” I asked.
“They’re wild. They don’t belong to anyone, but they’re on the reservation, so the tribe sort of watches out for them.”
As we circled around, I was mesmerized. I had always heard that there were places in the West where horses still roamed free, but I had no idea they were so close. I had chalked it off as yet another unverifiable western legend. But there they were.
As I looked up at the mountains a few miles away, I saw a B757 coming into view, its gear still down, as it left Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Then I looked back at the horses. The contradiction was enormous. The sixth largest city in the country was in plain sight, yet I was looking down at a wonderful wildness that you can’t help but feel good about. It’s so nice to know that we haven’t corralled everything. Or have we?
I saw the interstate in the distance and asked, “This all looks like free range. How do they keep them from getting onto the interstate?”
“Oh, there are fences.”
“Fences? Where? “
“Over there, by the interstate.”
We have a fence running down the interstate to keep the wild horses out. Or is it there to keep the wild humans in?
Looking down, I had this urge to be down there, sitting in a lifeguard’s chair, just watching. I wanted to soak in what it must be like to just “be.” To be alive for the sole purpose of living, not to accomplish any goal, but be born with the express reason of enjoying your life and perpetuating your species while, in this case, bringing an enormous amount of beauty into the world by your very existence.
When I woke up this morning, the horses were the first thing to hit my mind’s eye. Then the business of business took over as I scurried around doing what I do. Today, that included driving north out of town to pick up some airplane parts on a route I always enjoy taking because I pass a huge radio-control model airplane field and I get a kick out of stopping by just to watch and sometimes chat. Airplanes are airplanes, regardless of size.
As I turned into the drive, I was startled to find a new gate. As I stopped, another car came through from the other direction; the driver got out to open the gate, then pulled up alongside me after relocking it. As he did, I noticed a couple of buzzard-sized biplanes chasing each other around the sky in the near distance.
He rolled down his window and asked, “Are you a member?”
Since I don’t belong to a single organization on the planet except the EAA, I didn’t have to ask him what I would be a member of. So, I answered, “No, I guess not.”
“Yeah, well, only members can go through the gate.” Giving no further explanation, he rolled up his window and was gone.
The biplanes still cavorted overhead, but I was some distance away on the other side of the fence, which didn’t satisfy my urge to watch, so I left. Suddenly, I flashed onto people I’ve seen standing by the taxiway fence as I taxied out. Quite often, there’s a father with a small child on his shoulders. Inevitably, little hands would wave, and I would make it a point to wave back, sometimes revving the engine as punctuation. If I were a trucker, I’d honk the horn every single time some kid would do the chain-jerking motion. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.
Still, there are the fences—a not-so-subtle form of us-versus-them discrimination. I know the fences have to be there; we can’t have civilians wandering on the ramp any more than we can have horses trying to get at the grass on highway medians, but damn if I don’t hate those fences.
When I was watching the horses, the very thought of them roaming free in the world made me feel a little freer myself. Then, when I was told they were at least partially fenced in, some of that feeling went away. Civilization had hemmed them in just as it has the rest of us.
As I’m driving out and glancing over at the smiling faces on the other side of the chain-link fence, I sometimes wonder if civilization is really all it’s cracked up to be. I wonder if we aren’t our own worst enemy. For instance, we want aviation to grow, but we throw barriers of unimaginable proportions around everything we do, and the fences are just the visual reminder of the rest. Regulations, cost, inaccessibility, etc., keep the rest of the population out of our world just as surely as fences do. Is that what we want? Do we want a private club where only members can get through the gate? I think we need to seriously rethink the fence concept in aviation. We’re keeping others out, while at the same time, making ourselves the closely guarded inmates in a three-dimensional zoo that others love to watch.
There still are lots of places where horses run free. And there is uncluttered sky that, to those of us with wings, is free range. I also know that there are airports and radio-control airfields out there without fences. If, for some unfathomable reason, I’m not here next month, look for me “out there.” I’ll be the one with the silly grin and the fence cutters in my back pocket.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & A, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at www.airbum.com.