If It Looks Bad, It Is Bad


by Jonas Dovydenas and Laurence Gonzales

This article appeared in the December 2000 Falco Builders Letter.

Jonas' photo: 'Nor more than a snapshot' ruled the editors of National Geographic Adventure magazine. It must be reshot.

When "Empty America" arrived at the National Geographic Adventure offices, the staff decided that it belonged on the cover. There was a great shot showing our campsite right in the middle of the emptiest spot in America, but despite its dramatic impact -- with a bonfire at sundown and the airplane in the background -- it was no more than a snapshot. To work as a cover it had to be shot again. It was already on deadline when the call came on Friday night: Could we return to the dry lake bed to shoot the cover?

Jonas scrambled the Falco in Massachusetts and arrived in Chicago on Saturday night to meet Laurence. Sunday morning, there was frost on the wings as we departed Pal-Waukee Airport. Things had changed from the sweltering morning six weeks earlier when we'd left on our first trip.

Eleven hours later, we descended out of the mountains into a setting sun over Elko with gear piled high behind us in a cockpit the size of a claw-foot bathtub.

We got a few hours of sleep, and Monday morning, while getting dressed, we both noticed on the Weather Channel that a vast cyclonic weather system had moved inland off the California coast and was dumping rain and snow in its wake. The dry lake bed hadn't had rain all summer. In fact, a major drought had been responsible for dozens of range fires we'd seen on our previous trip. What were the chances of rain in the desert, let alone a big storm?

After a quick photo recon flight of local canyons, we had a quick breakfast and were on our way to buy some gear that we couldn't carry. It was blowing something fierce from the south. It was about eleven a.m. Like sailors, pilots are always acutely aware of the air, the moisture, the whole ocean of energy at work in the atmosphere. Without discussing anything, we both glanced at the sky. Our pilot instincts told us that something had changed in that realm -- by turns heavenly and hellacious -- on which we depended for our lives. Over the tin building that housed Schneider's Army Surplus, we saw vast sheets of creamy white cloud, rushing from south to north with a rippling horse-tail intensity.

We looked at each other. We knew we were seeing the leading edge of a low. The signs were clear: Intense winds, high ice clouds ripping along, which would eventually erect an inverted castle all the way to the ground, and a moat around it filled with rain, and the two of us locked in the dungeon.

"You know," Laurence said, "if any rain falls while we're on that lake, it's going to take a Sikorsky sky crane to get us off." With even a light rain, that superfine alkali dust would turn to an infernal sucking quicksand in minutes, perhaps before we could even start the airplane's engine, never mind breaking camp.

"That's if anybody finds us," Jonas said.

Halfway across the parking lot, we turned back to the hotel to call for a weather briefing. The briefer told us that the low, with rain and snow and high winds, wasn't due there until at least 7 p.m., and it would only bring light rain until well into the night.

"Well," Jonas suggested, "we could fly out there and shoot until dark. Then take off and get back to Elko at night." Risky, but if we planned the flight carefully and used instruments, we might clear the mountains.

"I'd really like to see a radar picture," Laurence said. "I'd like to see this perfect storm."

We drove out to the airport, where they had a computer that hooked into the weather satellites. Sonia Erikson is a Serbian flight instructor at El Aero in Elko. We got her attention when we said we were going to fly north and spend the night on a dry lake bed. She sat at the computer with us and said, "I just flew south of here with a student and saw the storm coming. The leading edge has a dust veil that goes up to seven thousand feet. We came within fifteen miles of it and turned back."

We looked at each other. Dust veil up to seven thousand feet? That's a big storm. And Sonia could see us considering it and added that we could sit right here and watch it come in over the field. Still we held out hope.

We returned to the hotel to reinvent our plan. Standing out by the pool, watching the sky skim over with high fast clouds like a pond freezing, we talked about going out for a few quick shots and high-tailing it back. We talked about flying up the canyons for a few more of those shots. After all, the briefer had said no precip until seven p.m., and then only light rain. We were both experienced pilots with a lot of close calls under our vests, and there came a moment in the conversation when we both looked at ourselves and laughed.

"Let's get the hell out of here," Jonas said.

"Good call," Laurence said.

We threw our things in the Ford short-bed pickup we'd rented and raced to the airport. As we approached, we thought that a plane had crashed and there was a fire on the field. There was a wall of smoke rising behind the little El Aero building on the side of the field.

"That's not smoke," Jonas said, "that's a dust storm."

He raced out to the airplane while Laurence returned the truck to Hertz. As he ran back across the ramp toward the plane, the mountains were fast disappearing from view. Jonas was standing on the wing, topping off the tanks from a fuel truck.

"Get in," he shouted, and Laurence jumped into the cockpit. Jonas shouted "Clear!" and started the engine before Laurence got his seatbelt fastened.

They taxied to the El Aero building and Laurence sat in the cockpit with the engine running, while Jonas ran inside to pay for the fuel.

As the prop blast blew the charts around, Laurence looked back. Now the mountains were completely gone, and the wall of dust was nibbling away the far end of the runway they'd use to take off.

Jonas ran out of the building, jumped into the cockpit, and gunned the engine. The little airplane swung around onto the runway and the tower controller said, "Early left turn at pilot's discretion," which told us that he was looking at the wall of dust and knew we didn't want to fly into it. Not only would we be unable to see in there, but it could choke off the engine and kill it.

The wind was 30 knots directly from our left, and as the wheels lifted off the concrete the nose swung sideways so that we skated down the runway at an odd angle. Jonas threw it into a turn, as we accelerated away, climbing toward the mountains and blue sky in the east.

We both looked back at that point and could see that the wall of dust had turned into two huge claws, one from the south, one from the north, and as we climbed up the slope in the land, they closed around the Elko airport. The visibility was being reported at nine miles when we took off and now, just moments later, we could hear the tower telling another pilot that it was four. As we crossed the first ridge heading toward Salt Lake City, the airport disappeared altogether and was gone. Now there was no turning back.

Fortunately, storms, even big ones, rarely move across the land at much more than 30 or 40 miles per hour, and we were going about 170. We quickly put distance between us and the approaching low pressure area, and we skimmed along the mountain passes and out over the Great Salt Lake and up into the Wasatch Mountains.

It was raining up there, and as we crossed a high saddle at about 12,000 feet, we flew over a blue mountain lake. Above us and on either side were clouds. As we flew through that dark cave of cloud, it began to rain. We could see beyond the range to the valley below that stretched on into Wyoming, and as the rain hit the windshield, it evaporated instantly. Sheets and veils of rain streamed down from the clouds to the mountain lake, and we passed beneath it to the sunlight on the other side.

We landed at Cheyenne that afternoon in perfectly clear cool weather. We went inside the office to check the weather computer and saw the intense yellow mass of rain that had come down over the exact spot where we had proposed to land in the desert.

It was only four o'clock, many hours before any rain at all had been predicted there. If we'd gone there, the airplane would be sinking right now into mud that would dry to concrete if it ever dried at all.

Laurence Gonzales and Jonas Dovydenas in search of nothingness and solitude in Nevada.