It is a special series we host, here on the transatlantic diablog. Based on the special, unique and very personal stories of author, adventurer and economic innovator Garrett Fisher. Now living in the south of Germany, Fisher originally moved there from the United States – with a special airplane. Here is another one of his photo-reports – about flying with an old aeroplane.
In my last post some time ago, I enumerated my story of bringing an antique airplane from America to Germany, commencing some exploratory flights from my new country of residence. In the intervening years, well, suffice it to say that Germany didn’t quite work out. The story is a long one, a product of chaos with the family circumstances of the owner of the house we were renting, displeasure with highly restrictive German rules around aviation, and a decision that I needed more when it came to freedoms and availability to fly.
It was a few months before coming to Germany, in the fall of 2015, when I was flying over a beautiful forested ridge in the Caribou Mountains of Idaho that I had a thought pop into my head: “You won’t be able to do things like this in Germany.” Part of the thought came from where I was flying in Idaho compared to terrain in Germany, whereas the other, and more profound, part came from a premonition that operating hours and other restrictions would mean that I would not be wandering over 9,000 foot tall ridgelines, just before sunset. The decision had already been made to move to Germany, we were advanced into the process, and these thoughts were part of the reality of processing such a significant change in circumstances due to take place.
Fast forward to our departure from Germany. I found myself entering the eastern Pyrenees from the north, flying into the Val du Capcir in France in my antique airplane, stunned that scenery looked like parts of Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana. It was a clear day with blue skies like the Rockies of America and illustrious colors and texture almost unlike anything I had ever seen. The decision had been made to move to La Cerdanya, Spain, a high valley at 1100m in the Pyrenees, though the process of investigation wasn’t very long. The area looked nice, I spoke Spanish, and a local airport had hangar space with American style freedom (owing to Spanish indifference), so I was hooked at first sight. Now that I had taken the perilous journey flying through the Mistral in France, among other weather perils, I could lay eyes on the place for the first time from the air.
Some Germans later visited, the same individuals who had come to Wyoming the summer before, and they made a poignant observation that the place looks just like Wyoming. Later, a pilot who has spent time all over the world and lives in Andalusia noted that it looks like Utah. In a way, I found myself “home” even though I was thousands of miles from the place that still felt like home, Wyoming.
Since I lived very close to the airport, there were no landing fees or other silliness, and scenery was stunning, I flew as relentlessly as I could. Arriving at the terminus of summer and the onset of autumn in a new locale, I could enjoy how the seasons change in the Pyrenees, knowing very little about how weather patterns work. It helped that autumn is by far my favorite season, and while the place isn’t known for New England fall color, there was a sufficient quantity of illustrious trees exploding in color in short order to make me quite satisfied. While that was going on, the first snows came to the high peaks in October, looking and feeling rather similar to early snows in Wyoming, with storm after storm offering a window to blast above the clouds and around majestic peaks covered in snow.
The mystery of this region was incredibly alluring. I am a bit of a weather aficionado, having savored the details of weather phenomena anywhere I have lived. Life in the United States meant that, while I might have been living one area, I could follow with interest various storms and anomalies in other areas, leaving less in the way of surprise. Here, in the high mountains of Spain, that looked like a mix of New York, Virginia, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana combined, each passing day was something brand new, with nothing in the way of reference. I continued to attempt to interpret the function of weather systems as though I was in North America, and it continued to confound my assumptions.
There was the matter that the eastern Pyrenees sits on the intersection of a tremendous amount of climate zones. From high alpine, to desert, moist oceanic, and everything in between, each direction on the compass was another world, merely 50 kilometers from where I was based. What was especially new to me is the consistency of these climates zones. A frontal system that would certainly change the weather in North America for hundreds of miles seemed to merely skip over certain areas in the Pyrenees, leaving microclimates in its wake.
Flying was majestic and complicated. The Pyrenees are rather wild and untamed by European standards on the ground. In the air, there are very few resources or airports, much like wilderness areas of America, which meant many flights to probe how things worked, including figuring out massive mountain waves (apparently famous here for European glider pilots), strong mountain winds, severe inversions, and unpredictable summer storms.
Writing became something of a conundrum that I still, in many ways, haven’t figured out. In America, my focus as an author was largely geographic. I could share the story of my exploits, covering some new ground or a new goal (like the highest peaks in Colorado, one of my earliest books), and share that with an English-speaking audience that was equally as transfixed by such untouched wilderness as I was. In Europe, few things are very new. Nobody that I had met acted like the Pyrenees was an “untouched wilderness” or that it was “new.” It merely was a place, known to exist, that a person would choose to go or not, depending on their preference. The Spanish were the least to be excited by adventures in the airplane, at least when it came to covering new ground, because nothing was new to them at all.
I found that the focus of my journeys changed. Part of it had to do with the difficulty of flying in Spain, owing to a sparse airport network, and the difficulty of flying in nearby France, owing to technical complexity and language issues. I forayed at times out of the Pyrenees in both directions, usually chasing a fixation that would develop from staring at maps, or something that lingered in my mind, like the lavender fields of Provence. Otherwise, I flew on a consistent basis staying in the mountains and foothills, savoring changes in lighting, texture, and season, finding new things and visual delights around every corner.
I finally decided to write a book. I couldn’t make up my mind about a geographic subject area, as the locals wouldn’t care, and readers back home in America wouldn’t relate to a small area in rural Spain. Thus, I chose a new format, which was to include one or two photos from the first 100 flights I took in La Cerdanya. If I flew locally, it was one or two photos of La Cerdanya. If I left the region, it was one from the area and one from where I went, no matter how far. Amazingly, I took 100 flights in less than a year, meaning that I went up on average every three days, which is a tremendous amount for someone piloting an antique airplane. This new format would document more about the process of adventure and learning than the geography of the area. I felt inspired by Picasso, who over a century prior spent a summer just over the hill from the airport in Gósol prior to heading to Paris to start his work in cubism. What was, by every other standard of justification, a sequestered isolated area, was to Picasso and to me an inspiration. > The First 100 Days: Flying in La Cerdanya
During this time, I was writing book after book about my adventures in America. In the summer prior to leaving the USA, I flew over 300 hours and covered enough distance to circle the earth. I accumulated tremendous amounts of photos, though wrote nothing, as I wasn’t there very long and spent most of my time in the airplane. By the time I arrived in La Cerdanya, I had written 9 books. As of today, that number is 18. Only two are on European subjects.
It did finally occur to me that I probably should work on another European book. There is still more to be done, years later, from those American adventures, and I have accumulated hundreds of thousands of European photos since. While I probably won’t ever catch up in writing with what goes on in the air, I picked a theme that one finds now three times in my American books: a book on the highest peaks of a region. My first was the 58 peaks over 14,000 feet in Colorado (Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers Colorado’s Fourteeners), then the 40 peaks over 6,000 feet in the Southeastern USA (Appalachian Altitude: Flying the Highest Peaks of the South), then all of the glaciers in the American Rockies (Glaciers of the Rockies). Thus, I decided to wage war on the 129 peaks over 3,000 meters in the Pyrenees.
I usually pick an accepted list, and in the case of the Pyrenees, that is where the 129 comes from. I had to my surprise visited most of them already in my aeronautical exploits, with the exception of the Vignemale Group, which also happened to be the farthest away from my home airport. I eventually had a six-hour flying day, getting there and back, including refueling outside of the western Pyrenees, getting the last of the infernal peaks. This has made it into my most recent work, “> Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers the Three Thousanders of the Pyrenees.”
My exploits leave me at something of a literary conundrum. I spent a summer in Switzerland and flew to all 82 peaks over 4000m, as well as having covered a tremendous amount of ground in a variety of subjects. How can one write enough to cover what was flown? I just finished my first draft of a memoir on flying 300 hours in Wyoming, and realized that, upon finishing it, I have flown over 300 hours in Spain. Sigh… maybe I’ll catch up one day, though one can rest assured that I will keep flying, which will probably ensure that I won’t.
About the author: Garret Fisher blogs about his adventures flying an old airplane all over the USA and Europe, photographing incredible scenery. Many of these photos wind their way into books. Here is his website.