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Saturday, 14 May 2011

The fun started in earnest when we got to Chadron.


We’d taken one look at the weather this morning – windy, overcast and 42 degrees – and hit the road. Drove to Gordon and checked out the airport there. Nice blacktop runway, beautiful lounge with a sofa, reclining chair and coffee machine (as in the photograph); they even had a refrigerator loaded up with soda-pop. But no aircraft; and no people either, just a phone number or two pinned up on the notice-board beside the deserted office.

I’d better explain.  About a couple of years ago the Chainsaw decided he wanted to learn to fly. And knock me down with a feather if he didn’t take off for New Zealand, shack up with a long-lost uncle and come home several months later brandishing a pilot’s licence. So now, everywhere he goes his eyes dart to left and right and it’s ‘Right, where’s the airport mate?’

‘Airport?’ I said, when he got off the plane at Rapid the other day and threw me the question. ‘Why, take your pick. They’re dotted along Highway 20 like pearls on a string.’

So next stop it was Rushville. Grass runway, nice red wind-sock but not much in the way of sofas; or soda-pop for that matter. As for Hay Springs, that was way across the fields and didn’t look as though it had a terminal building at all.

‘Tell you what,’ I said, ‘we’ll try Chadron. College town; 5800 inhabitants. We’re bound to find something there. But, first things first: we’ll drop in at the Bean Broker and refresh ourselves.’

Now this is another shameless piece of product placement. I like the Bean Broker (see the photo above). I like it very much. It’s quiet, it’s relaxed, they serve terrific coffee, they make decent grub, and they play great music. 

And I’ll tell you something else about the place. Back home I’ve been in many a pub where they’ll let you taste the beer before they pull you a pint, but I’ve never been offered a sip of coffee before I chose what kind I wanted. But then again I’ve never had the nerve to breeze up to the counter and tell a proprietor, ‘Listen, we’re in for a long day and I need a seriously strong brew.’ What I got was a large mug of their regular Colombian organic plus an added shot of Espresso. Man, it hit the spot – in fact, I think that’s what’s keeping me eyelids open right now, thirteen hours later. ‘When my better half comes out in June,’ I said, ‘remember this, because it’s what she’ll be having.’

All this time, of course, the Chainsaw was trying to switch the conversation around to airplanes, but he couldn’t get a word in edgeways. I’d just  established that our proprietor Andie – you see, I hadn’t even got my wallet out and we were on first-name terms – Andie lives south of Hay Springs and is a neighbour of the people who own what used to be old Jules Sandoz’ place. I reckoned there was a fair chance I might have whisked her across to the courthouse and married her there and then if the Chainsaw hadn’t piped up, ‘Scuse me, but where might a guy rent a Cessna 172?’ then added, ‘Or a 150 would do.’

She gave him phone numbers for a rancher of her acquaintance, the kind of cattleman who uses a plane to survey the pastures, the water supply, the stock, etc., then added, ‘But I think you ought to go out to the airport, just west of town.’

Phil couldn’t get his coffee and banana bread down fast enough. He just about frog-marched me out of the place. When we pulled in at the airport five minutes later I paused to wonder what the smell of scorched metal and assorted chemicals was, and looked around the yard to see who was burning trash. But Phil was crouching down, dabbing a wet finger on a rear wheel-hub – and withdrawing it rapidly. ‘You left the damned emergency brake on,’ he said.

Inside the terminal we met a kind of duty supervisor who rattled off the names of one or two likely renters, then had a think and said, ‘But maybe you oughta ask our manager, fellow by the name of Doug Budd.’

Now this is where you have to stop a moment, shake your head and admit that – yep, it really is a small, small world.

‘Doug Budd of Crawford, Nebraska?’ I said. ‘Used to ride broncs?’

‘Why, matter of fact he did.’

I knew very well that he did. In 2006 I travelled with the veteran pro circuit in Utah and Nevada for a couple of weeks, and got a few nice photos of Doug preparing to mount a bucking, snorting bronco. One thing he said always stuck in my mind. I was watching him strap on some body armour and a kind of sheath around his leg. ‘It’s for my knee,’ he said. ‘Keeps popping out.’ And then he eased himself into the saddle  and was away around the arena, while I winced at every jolt and jar.

Once we’d got the reminiscences out of the way, Doug suggested we would be better to try Alliance, 56 miles to the south.  And then he started talking technical jargon with the Chainsaw, who wanted to know about radio procedure.

‘Well, some guy’s get out on the runway and call in with ‘downwind’… ‘on the base leg’… and ‘on final’, but I don’t say anything. You don’ have to talk to anyone if ya don’ want to. A lot of these places don’t have control towers. You need to keep your eyes open.’

‘Because?’

‘Because there’s a lotta guys flying around without radio. Some planes don’t have `em.’

While I digested this, Phil rubbed his head and considered his next move.

‘Hats,’ he said. ‘I promised myself a cowboy hat and I reckon it’s time I went and got me one.’

Well, that takes us to about on our day out. It’s now coming up to one in the morning and I’ve run out of steam, so I’m going to leave the rest of our adventures till tomorrow’s posting, go to bed and hope this damned wind – and rain – will let me sleep.