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Saturday, 21 May 2011

Renting a plane is no simple matter. Phil has already had to jump through several hoops, both in the U.K. and here, in order to demonstrate his competence as a pilot to the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority); now he had to convince the guy at Valentine that he could indeed handle a 1965 Cessna 150 - and that would require a check flight, with the owner sitting alongside at $135 an hour.

We’d got off to a later start than we intended. It began with us getting most of the way to Merriman before realising that the Chainsaw had forgotten a couple of papers. Like his pilot’s licence, for example. And here’s where I really enjoy being the age I am, because twenty years ago I would have got pretty exasperated about that kind of a delay. Not now – even though I had to negotiate the gumbo along the dirt road all over again, and the re-configured track that leads to the red house. The rain, which finally let up in the early hours of this morning after depositing another couple of inches or so, has turned that into something resembling a stream bed, with several new rocks projecting from the vagrant ruts.

So we collected the licence, set off again and then of course remembered that Valentine is on Central Time meaning that it was almost , local, when we got there – and I was starving. After we’d eaten, we went out to the airport, where the rental man told us that sure, he could do a check flight.  Just one problem: he had to figure out how to get the computer-operated fuel pumps to deliver – so how about we came back in an hour or two?

No problem: the delay gave us time to call in on Duane Gudgel at his bookstore, then  pop across the road to Janine’s for coffee. Phil finally got his check flight around three, while I called in at the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS office. I think that stands for Natural Resource Conservation Service. I had an appointment with a guy who does range surveys all over northern Cherry County. I wanted to ask him if he would be willing to take me out with him some time so that I can fire off endless questions about soil, wildlife, plants, water supply and management techniques.

The response to my request has been interesting. The people over there have been courteous and hospitable; and very helpful. The first thing they did was to put their heads together to figure how best to categorise me, because there are security and confidentiality considerations, as well as the usual personal liability issues. The answer was to recruit me as a volunteer researcher and give me a few duties, like taking photos or notes as my guide drives around. This all requires a security clearance, and I have been given a procedural manual with a series of questions attached, which I must answer and mail in – mainly as evidence that I have read the manual.

It all sounds a little convoluted, but it makes sense. When I do go out in a few weeks’ time I will be on private land and will see/hear confidential information pertaining to the rancher’s business. I’m just pleased that the NRCS are being so accommodating, and taking me seriously, because there are a lot of things I want to know about the Sandhills and they are very well qualified to give me answers.

I returned to the airfield just in time to see the Chainsaw land, taxi, and help shove the plane back in its hangar. By this time it was and any chance of flying today had gone. But we’re happy to go back Monday morning when the weather promises to be better.

We had one more call to make before heading home, to collect a brand new toilet for the red house.  In fact, not just one but two. Kitty was so impressed with the price she figured we might as well replace the upstairs one as well. Once we’d stacked those in the car we decided that, this being Friday, we deserved a beer. And because we were parked outside Jordan’s sports bar and had a couple of thousand  dollars’ worth of cameras, laptops - and toilets - in the vehicle, we’d better lock it. It was only as I slammed the driver’s side door that I realised I was holding in my hand the ignition key. Which is why the Chainsaw is seen here crawling in through the rear window to release the locks.

All the way home we had sun in our faces, and cloud behind us, and couldn’t resist stopping to photograph what is, I dare say, a pretty commonplace sort of view around here.

Today I plan to hike and catch up on the flowers and grasses that are poking through with some vigour now that the rain has stopped and the sun is out – like this penstemon (I think) that I spotted last night just before dark.

Then tonight, the ranch party.  Woo-hoo! Expect a bleary-eyed, and perhaps late, posting tomorrow.

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