By Lisa MB Simons
I drive to Nellis Air Force Base and find Andrew, who is using the computer to generate what would otherwise be a flight plan to our dad's crash site. He asks to see the accident report.
“I left it at your house last night,” he says.
“I didn't see it.”
“So you didn't bring it.”
He rolls his eyes, then tries to guess the coordinates. I'm pissed at both of us. Andrew explains that it doesn't necessarily matter; the coordinates would be different today than twenty-nine years ago due to the Earth's movement and other technical information I don't understand. Even the crater where a helicopter when down a few years ago is practically gone. And I think, the earth recovers so easily, repairs itself, takes craters and fills them in, takes burns and creates new life.
Andrew prints three detailed surveyor maps, in color, 11 x 17, with letters, initials, names, and numbers that I can only partially read. I'm fascinated by the technology. And thankful. If Andrew hadn't agreed to come with me, I would've tried to find the site on my own with a store-bought map and my fingers crossed.
In the short ten-minute drive from the Nellis gate to the gas station, I am reprimanded by my brother. Back in the parking lot, I put my purse and notebook in his car. But after we left Nellis and were well on our way, I noticed my feet and laughed aloud: I meant to bring my socks and tennis shoes… Andrew glanced down at the Tevas strapped to my bare feet. He did not laugh.
“Do you know where we're going?”
“Yes. I just forgot.”
“You did bring jeans though, right?”
I smirked and shrugged. Andrew shook his head.
“Don't you know anything about the desert? During the day it can be hot, but when the sun goes down, the temperature drops.” He gave me his look.
Then he asked, “Don't you know anything about survival?”
I shrugged again. Sure, I had learned a few tricks camping with my husband, but to actually sustain myself in the wild? Probably not. Andrew's intensity on the issue came from his time in the military; I should not have been surprised.
“Is that why you brought a flashlight and that flare thing?” I asked. “You know, we're not going to be there at night.”
“What if the truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere,” he said, facing me, “and we do end up staying the night?”
I felt stupid. I doubted it would happen, that we would get stranded in the desert, but he had been trained to believe that anything could happen, anytime.
“Okay,” he asked me, “what do you need as part of a survival kit?”
“More important than food.”
I knew this one. “Water.”
I hoped I redeemed myself for my naiveté.
At the gas station, we pick up batteries for the GPS and water. “Two gallons?” I question.
“One for you and one for me.”
I am getting nervous about this trip into an unfamiliar environment. All I want to do is find where our dad died. The irony is that my dad and Chuck had all their survival and escape items packed with them as required by the Air Force, but that December 21 case didn't include the complete destruction of their survival equipment, the aircraft, and their lives.
We drive. I'm the pilot and must be aware of my surroundings. Andrew calls this “good situational awareness.” Andrew is the navigator who takes care of things inside the car: the map, the cell phone, the GPS. He tells me not to look at anything but the road. But I peek: To the left, sharp tips remind me of the Rockies; to the right, a high, flat-topped mountain has a thick line of clay color sandwiched between dull brown. Then bronze- and taupe-layered mountains lie between hay-brown and chestnut ones, and others are thinly layered so unevenly like a magnified fingerprint. The spectrum of earth-tone colors and the variety of shapes and sizes in even just one mountain, captivates me and reaffirms my faith in evolution. When flying, did my dad take in such natural majesty? What shapes and colors did he see, or was his time in the jet a brown blur, his concentration not on the landscape but on his mission? I wish I could take in the full glory of the outside and not have to pay attention to the gray-black of the road, yellow-splotched Gila monsters, flattened road kill, parched in the Nevada sun.
An hour and a half later the highway curves to the west, and we're supposed to catch a road that runs parallel to the power lines. But there is no road. We drive another five minutes then a dirt road veers to the right. Andrew says to turn. The farther we drive into the hills and rocks, the smaller this path becomes, and still no poles and wires. Eventually, the tracks I am trying to follow are just big enough for an ATV. I dodge rocks and bushes, thankful we're in his Toyota 4x4 truck and not my rented Alero. I keep waiting for Andrew to say forget it, turn around, but he stays quiet. Still no lines. We finally reach a point where the trail goes between two rocks, the space just wide enough for a hiker.
Andrew motions for me to get out of the driver's seat and manages to turn us around.
“Can't we take the road by the power lines?”
“There was no road.”
“Isn't there another way?”
“Lis,” he begins, shortening my name in frustration, as usual, “I have to drive my truck cross-country next week.”
We bump and curve and dodge toward the main highway. I don't want to give up. But one of us must give in.
“Okay,” I sigh, “someday I'll rent a helicopter and find the crash site. It's okay. I'll find it someday.”
We reach Highway 93, and I want to plead to somebody out there in the wilderness to help me make my stubborn brother change his mind. But Andrew has already changed his itinerary—we do not head left back toward Las Vegas. I turn from my brother, pretending to look out the window, and smile.
Twenty minutes farther northwest, close to the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, is another dirt road. We take a right and drive a few miles when we see land ahead that looks smoother than the surrounding landscape, bare of desert plants. It is Texas Dry Lake, the Texas Lake, the one I have heard about ever since I can remember. It has always been the reference point to the crash site. Now it is my nerves, well aware of the fact that he died near Texas Lake, that tell me we're close.
We continue on gravel, cross under those damn power lines, and drive a few miles until we take our first left and continue northeast, then north. We pass cattle, tin pools of water, and barbed wire fences. The road rears up and down and then flattens out and heads toward a mountain range. Andrew pulls over, turns around, and stops. He checks the GPS and drives a half-mile south. We get out. I borrow Andrew's sweatshirt and socks. Though I wasn't physically prepared, my heart and mind told me I was more than ready to find this place, to supplement the accident report with reality.
Earlier in our journey, ovals of thin clouds covered our heads in the otherwise sunny sky, but here at the site, gray clouds hang down—as if someone started to stretch a cotton ball—and erase the brightness of the sun. It smells clean here, like freshly laundered clothes without the perfumed detergent or dryer sheets, like a national park of mountainous pines. I am surprised at the scent of this desert.
We walk west away from the truck, Andrew with the GPS, me with my camera.
I am further astonished. In my imagination the desert sand was fine like the Sahara, but in reality thick chunks of dirt are immersed in rock soup. Thistle and brush make up a sea of rooted tumbleweeds. I must step over brush at almost every turn and watch for tall Joshua trees with their narrow, spear-like leaves. Andrew is several feet in front of me. He stops and looks at the GPS. I catch up to him. We are about half a mile west from his truck, not visible from where we stand.
“This is it,” he says.
This is it.
I look around for some clue that it really is here. There is no neon sign, no flag, no cross, no plastic flowers. I'm at a loss for words. I'm at a loss for thought, really. The details I have read about and imagined no longer correspond with what I'm seeing. I am here: the earth beneath my feet as I turn, taking gradually paced steps so unlike those that must have come to the plane's rescue; the breeze on my face, through my hair, on my legs, making me hug myself for warmth; the plants and trees, green and brown, stiff and standing tall all around me. This is really it?
“It could be hundreds of feet in any direction from here with the shifting of Earth and all.” Andrew walks on.
We hardly speak. We wander on our own. He soon finds a valley and calls to me.
“Didn't the photos have a ravine?”
I swear they did, but I can't remember which side it was on compared to the crash. And I curse ourselves again for not having that accident report in hand. I follow Andrew into the ravine, and we walk up the other side. We look around, at the beginning of the mountain range to the north and the mountains so close to the east, which may all be part of the Delamar Mountains; down the slope and the way we came from the south; and at a far away mountain range to the west, perhaps the Pahranagat Range. We walk back to the other side of the ravine, and both of us think this is the place, this side, for we both search the ground. I keep looking for a nut or bolt, a scrap of metal, or a piece of plastic to prove something horrible happened here, a token I can take home to remind me of absolute fact. I pick up a rock that is half-black, and I can't rub off what I think might be, what I believe is, aged smoke and fuel. Burned. But I doubt myself and let the rock fall back to its place.
I don't cry. Not now. Later in the day I will sob, the power of that moment walking around my dad's place of death – searching for parts of the plane, searching perhaps for some remnant of him – finally lodged into my memory. We never hugged, Andrew and I, as we wandered, not until we were back in the car, and I know that if we had embraced at the site, I would have broken down, overwhelmed by what I knew had happened to our father at this place where the earth and rocks and mountains and breeze create a symphony of natural harmony, undisturbed but dishonored with a secret.
Almost 10,950 days, almost thirty years, have passed since that day in December. Time has erased the burn and buried the deep crater. Even an abandoned car near Texas Lake and several appliances near Hwy. 93 have been broken down by the elements, so it shouldn't be a surprise that destroyed earth can repair itself and give a sister and her brother no clue as to where their father actually died. Too much of me is disappointed.
But I came too far to let this lack of precision ruin what I have come to see: where my dad died. I know that had we been standing where we are today as the jet came down, we would have had to plug our ears from the roar of metal slamming ground, step back from the heat of the fire, and witness the Earth burning black.