We wake with plans. We wake thinking our day will go a certain way. We plan for these plans. We make lists and schedules and abide by rules and we have dates and dinners and deadlines. We allow for chance and change. Or so we think. But rarely do things blindside us. Truly blindside us.
I woke this morning having no idea I'd be here at the end of the day, in wisps of wonder.
I had 3 hours of sleep, frustrated by plans being delayed, travel not running smoothly the prior night. I woke in a rush, 25 minutes to catch an airport shuttle after a night that went later than I'd wanted and too little sleep for comfort for the long day ahead. At the last minute thought a shower might wake me up (how prescient). I wore my most comfortable "sleeping on a plane" outfit, hues of greys and browns, baggy and invisible. I'd packed my overstuffed bag of everything but the guitar and the backpack holding the essentials and the laptop. No extra clothes. No medicine. No guitar gear. A well-thought out travel plan: a flight from Baltimore to Memphis, a tight connection to Omaha, pick up the rental car, drive 4.5 hours to McCook, have 2 hours to spare to nap, shower, change, soundcheck, do 2 sets of music. Easy peasy. Cept the flight was late getting into Memphis due to storms and I sat at the back of the plane watching people slowly get their gear and amble or saunter off the plane, as I waited and waited for my guitar to be brought off gate check, the minutes ticking, as I realized my flight to Omaha had left without me, as I went to plea my case to the Delta ticket agent, Ursula (I won't soon forget her) who informed me she couldn't help but pointed apathetically to a bank of phones under a "Customer Service" sign. I went to the phones and none worked. Ursula came over and slowly (I mean s-l-o-w-l-y) tried each and said "Huh" as if surprised (did she not hear me?), "These do not work" and then shrugged and went back to her desk. I was busy on my mantra "Don't make it worse, don't make it worse" so that I wouldn't get all Jersey on Ursula. I called from my cell to find a lovely operator who helped me, insomuch as she couldn't possibly redirect me to any flight into either Omaha or Denver earlier than late afternoon, making it totally impossible for me to make the show. Plus, I was adamant that I had to be on a flight where my bags would be able to make it WITH me, as I'd be leaving Omaha (or Denver) to drive 4 hours to the middle of nowhere so I couldn't risk having delayed bags. I was defeated. I accepted that I'd be stuck at the Memphis airport for 5 hours, waiting on the afternoon flight to get me to Omaha without enough time to get to McCook and make a show I was really looking forward to (as I'd played there last year and had a great time) and I slunk to a restaurant to get coffee, to wake my sleep-deprived and getting cranky body. I called my manager to deliver the bad news. He made a joke:
"Well, you're going to Nebraska. Isn't there some cropduster that can take you there?"
When I called the owners of the cafe I'd be playing to tell them I wasn't going to be able to make the show, one of them said, "Maybe there's a private pilot that can help out. I'll make some calls and get back to you."
An hour later, I had the name of a pilot who'd be meeting me in Omaha to take me on his private plane to McCook. Dick Trail. A stage name if I'd ever heard of one. Dick Trail is John Wayne's best friend in a movie set in Utah or Wyoming. Dick Trail is the trusty sidekick who's always got the answers, has the fastest horse, the best gun, never leaves your side, will bloody up some enemies for you. I'll never forget this name.
I got to Omaha to meet a smiling gentleman about my father's age, in a red, white and blue button down who carried himself with the sturdy deportment of an ex-military man, patriotic and steady. Dick Trail. He carried my guitar, was friendly and direct. We went to collect my bags, which I'd been informed were "certainly on the plane ma'am, I eyeballed them myself" said the steward in memphis at Gate A16. However, no bags showed, and I was back in the Kafka-esque nightmare. Dare I add to this saga that my monthly cycle had begun and mine comes on like a hurricane: all gale force winds and tempest storms, both physical and emotional and at this point, I ducked into the ladies room to make a call to a friend to collapse emotionally. I blamed the night before. I blamed Delta. I blamed myself for taking too much on, for trying to do everything. I blamed my love life. I blamed my parents. I blamed everyone and fought the darkness and splashed water on my face and walked outside faking it. No gear. No merch. No clothes. No toilettries. And Mr. Trail would be flying me to the middle of nowhere. I got 25% sassy and the Delta baggage claim dude promised me it was coming in on the next flight and they'd deliver it to McCook in the middle of the night, and Dick Trail offered his address, this stranger who reminded me so much of my father, was taking me under his, em, wing.
So we drove from the Omaha airport to the smaller private airport, Dick pointed out Warren Buffett's hanger, and we went to another where his Piper was lodged. And I almost fainted. I'm afraid of heights. Not all but some. And I've got a small fear of flying, no matter that I fly all the time. And I'm definitely a chickenshit when it comes to small planes. This would be by far the smallest plane I would be in. A 2 seater (w/ 2 jump seats in the back), Dick handed me a pair of clunky headphones w/ a mic and told me I'd be co-piloting. He said, "you'll be getting your first flying lesson today" and I was astonished. What? I said. Then he went onto tell me his history. Born in 1937, graduate of the first Air Force Academy class, tours of duty in Vietnam, a commercial pilot, a lifelong teacher of flying. He wasn't kidding. I'd be working on this 1 hour 58 minute flight. There was no time for nerves. Dick Trail was a man on a time frame. The engine started, the propellers started and we were taxi'ing down the runway and I was learning immediately how to steer with my feet and Dick took his feet off his pedals and allowed me to steer us down the runway to our takeoff point. He gave me a few quick lessons in reading the instruments, what was essential, what the feet control, what the hands control, fuel gauge, etc. and vrooooom, the plane took off and we were up there, in the sky, the blue blue sky, over the rolling green plains of Nebraska, our shadow below us, up 3800 feet into the columns of cloudpuff. Dick let go and I was steering the plane by myself. He pointed out the line of dust that looks like a horizontal cloud but is really particles, the line where the heat is captured. Told me of how thunderclouds form, how to read them, how to read the air and the mists and the bumps of the sky. He pointed toward a tophat cloud and said, "Go through it!" I said, "really?" he said, 'Yep" and then, I was pointing the plane directly at this large white pufffield and we were INSIDE THE CLOUD and for a brief moment everything went white and I couldn't see and then we were through to the other side and I let out a 5 year old "Whoooop" and tears ran down my face. I'd never ever ever even entertained a flying fantasy. Never had that in me. Never thought about it. It wasn't on my bucket list. But there I was, piercing a cloud with this small plane, coming through the mist and the blue of the sky burst open and the ground below rolled by and I was floating on air, literally.
And so the hour and fifty-eight minutes went by and we followed the North Platte River as it wound around the plains and Dick pointed out where Lewis & Clark were and I imagined looking down at bountiful plains of plenty with animals and grasses and no roads and no buildings. I watched the sky change, I watched the ground go by, towns go by, and soon we were near McCook and I was rocking the plane back and forth, rolling it down the descent, comfortable now with the feel of the wingspan. We talked of history and life and Dick asked me about my life as a musician and said, "Now see, we're the lucky ones. We found our passion. Yours is music and mine is flying and I've been flying my whole life" and I immediately thought I want to stay in touch with this man and his family. And then, safe and sound on the ground, I was whisked to the show, just in time, in the same grey-hued clothes I'd been in all day, no makeup, not a brush on me to smooth my hair, no jewelry, nothing fancy. No tuner or mic or DI. No set list. No anything but my bare face and my unadorned guitar and a sold-out crowd of people waiting for me.
It might have been the best show of my life.
And the following day, today, I went back for my second lesson. This time on a smaller plane. A champ. One that felt thinner and more vulnerable, but more...I don't know...'sporty'. Like that scene in "Out of Africa" where Meryl Streep is sitting in front of Robert Redford as he flies her low over the Kenyan grounds, antelope herds below them, the shadow of the plane trailing behind and her scarf waving in the wind. That was my plane. We flew low over the grasses, the earth opening up in fissures, rolling hills with crevices. We flew over creeks and lakes, flew over Dick's parents' house, where he grew up, his elementary school, his house, his neighbors' house (where we flew low and pretended to be landing only to bank upwards at the last minute, laughing). We flew over trees and over bare earth and over water and up to the sky and down again, low enough to see the sunflower fields and the shadow always there, like a movie scene. I didn't close my mouth the whole time: it was set somewhere between a laugh and a cry and sheer joy. That kind of joy you got when you jumped on a trampoline or went on a roller coaster. And today, I landed a plane. Three times. I also took off. Three times. I landed a plane on a grass runway. Me. The girl who was afraid to fly. And Dick Trail presented me last night at the show with my Pilot Log Book, signing for my hours of my 2 lessons on the first page. I met his wife Ann and hugged her as if she was my own family, as he'd told me stories of his great-grandparents homesteading there in Nebraska and her own family's farm and their life together and children and land and history. Mr. Trail's hangar has his Champ, a wall of photos of his history, his first car (a 20's Model T), and looks about as sacred a space as my music room with my guitars hanging on the wall, my piano, my photos of inspiration leaning against windows and walls.
In the end, I never got my luggage. I still might not find it. And there are things in there I need, but I spent two shows not thinking about what I looked like or what I was going to play and instead enjoyed myself even more in the moment. I laughed and stayed present. And just maybe I'll get home and get rid of some things. In the end, I turned around to see the batallion of strangers and friends following my plight and offering to help, or helping, or just offering solace. I had strangers in a small town in Nebraska calling friends and strangers helping me. And I had a stranger teach me something until 24 hours ago I thought wasn't essential in my life and now feels as natural as breathing.
And as I was flying over the ground I thought of love and how wonderful it is when it comes and fills your skin with breathing and no matter the challenge of it, when it comes full like that and natural and fits in that way that you just know it fits, that regardless of the circumstance, you celebrate it and move toward it and allow. I remember when my Dad said to me, "Life is short. Follow love." And I feel like in so many ways that's what I am trying to do with my life, with my choices. How appropriate that a man who reminds me of my hero Dad, Republican and strong-minded and patriotic and funny and full of life, was the one to help me ride the sky.
The rain bursts above our heads in the highest part of the sky and falls just a bit and evaporates before landing. Or changes into hail. The rain goes its own way, making trails of cloud or dustspray, like curtains against the blue. We think we have it all figured out, or at least we hope we are in the query. And then something blindsides us. Or someone. Someone unexpected. Someone we don't expect who washes in like a big tsunami and changes everything and suddenly all plans are out the window and life rearranges itself into something unrecognizable and sometimes unmanageable but always always wonderful. And so it is with weather. And so it is with love. And so it is with clouds.