The art of staying at home—a letter from a monk to pilots
I fly a Carbon Cub in the 4.5 million acre wilderness of Idaho known as the Frank Church, or River of No Return. It’s the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48 and it affords a tremendous opportunity for solitude. Our airstrips (over 800) are used by river guides, “flying the mails,” and even flying bishops; some places are only reachable by five-day float, three days on a horse, or two hours in a plane. Many of the famous backcountry airstrips like Smiley Creek see a lot of traffic from pilots crossing our country seeking to experience hot springs, fly-in breakfasts, or a taste of Alaska without the weather.
I am also a student monk and spend extended times at The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, founded by Suziki Roshi. It’s the strictest Zen monastery outside of Japan and is located at the end of a rugged dirt road deep in the coastal mountains of California. Many people are surprised these peaks reach almost 6,000 feet. There’s only a handful of roads between Carmel and Los Angeles so this wilderness, known as the Ventana Wilderness, reminds me a lot of Idaho. We have bear and perhaps over 3000 mountain lions.
This fall, as the heavy flying of summer in Idaho abated, I took out a two year lease on a Bonanza A36 to ease the commute between California and Idaho. Though I’ve flown the Cub to Baja Mexico and across much of our country, work demands that I not spend so much time chasing wild horses in Nevada.
The Bonanza was a big step up for me and as Mike Borden at High Performance Aircraft (who leased me the plane, $4000/mo.) said, “it can get away from you real fast.” We spent a few days flying around California and I learned a lot, but one of the most important things he taught me was a personal checklist, which concludes with the simple question: are you fit to fly?
Before we get to this question, a word on checklists. While aviation owes many things to medicine and emergency rescue, the medical community owes pilots one very important industry practice, and that’s checklists. Surgeons use them, labs use them, and they are common practice in the emergency room. Checklists emerged from a fascinating theory called Door Theory, which goes like this: if you give someone ten objects to carry across a room and ask them what they carried (having taken them away), they can recall nine with perfect memory. If, however, you ask them to carry ten objects across a room, but then have them walk through a doorway, they will be lucky to recall three on the other side. The reason for this is simple and ties to our evolutionary biology: emerging from a cave, or a forest, we were wired from the start to assess threat. This comes at a cost in modern day life equal to wiping our operating system clean when new circumstances emerge. Engine out or heart surgery, we now have checklists.
The personal checklist that concludes with a simple question (are you fit to fly?) I believe is the most important. Bad decisions are usually the result of runaway lesser decisions. In other words, we become reactive rather than proactive. But the profound nature of this question is yet deeper still. We might ask ourselves, am I clear of mind, are my emotions or needs involved in getting to my destination? My uncle, who was the lead designer on the 737, never flew for work: “the temptation to make it home on a Friday night was simply too great, should I be tempted to overlook fatigue or personal limits or weather.” These are good questions but only scratch the surface.
I propose there’s a deeper, more philosophical aspect to this question as well, and we would do well to ask: must I fly?
As pilots we will always say yes. We fly because we can. We fly because it’s a way of life and many of us can’t imagine another way. Movies like the Disciples of Flight illustrate this beautifully.
This question deepens when we look at it proactively versus reactively. The proactive mind says yes when we are at our center, well grounded, assessing risk and assessing pleasure. These are our Saturday mornings flying the pattern, or along the coast counting whales. What the Zen call the “reactive mind,” however, is activated when we are overwhelmed by outside circumstances (“bombardments” is what my teacher calls them). You could say that our self agency gets hijacked. In Idaho, this is when we forget that it’s best to arrive by noon in the mountains, not depart by noon. Or Friday nights anywhere, trying to get home at all.
The pandemic provided a new perspective on the must I fly question. When our country returned to the road and the skies in unprecedented volumes this summer, business travelers took back up their commutes and families were reunited. This is good; we have always been a country that likes to be at work and our families are often spread across great distances. But as a monk, I also ask us pilots to sit with the profoundly transformative question: what happens if I stay still?
And before we get to this question, a bit about the Bonanza. It’s appropriately named. There seems to be no end of its capability. With the help of back-country extraordinaire Steven Garman, I have flown it off the 2500 ft. grass airstrip at my grandparents’ gold mine and used it recently to fly a California condor back to Idaho for breeding. The barn doors accommodate tandem bicycles, my kids, and my kids’ dogs. It’s been a great tool to commute to work to Texas and next week to Washington, DC. I don’t get invited to airshows or many fly-ins anymore, but for now I’m enjoying the challenge of a complex plane with 300 horsepower and retractable gear. I’m often able to beat the minimums of the jetliners that service our tiny mountain airport only to cancel and bus people in.
It turns out, however, that Mike’s question at High Performance Aircraft is all the more important in the Bonanza. Not only does it get away from you really quickly, but gone are the days when I could casually hop in and then think about my destination once airborne. To put it simply, I’m not going to find a cow pasture or sandbar to ditch into should something go wrong.
This means that I now fly with more intention. And this should hold true for any pilot. The unexpected joys, however, are found on the days I determine I’m best to remain on the ground. I read. I call an old friend or take a walk. Maybe I let someone else fly. I discover music or, as Suzuki Roshi said, I notice the joy of the barely perceptible airflow over my fingers as I walk. Pico Iyer wrote a book about this, The Art of Stillness:
“In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.”
Days at Tassajara, the Zen monastery in California, are highly structured and our practice adheres to strict routine. Outside the student dormitory on the brass gong used to wake us up, there’s a saying etched in wood: “Wake up! Life is transient, swifting passing. Be aware of the great matter. Don’t waste time!”
Not exactly what you would expect at a tranquil center known for long periods of meditation.
But Zen practice understands that stillness is the byproduct of routine. Which for pilots is the checklist. We only get to know ourselves, our situations, by being with them directly. Leonard Cohen, both an artist and a Zen student, came to understand late in life while living at a monastery in the mountains above Los Angeles that “going nowhere isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”
Here we can return to the simple joy of the Cub. Flying at 500 feet off the shore or ruttering S-turns over the river is one of the most meditative things I’ve ever done. Thoreau, who as Pico Iyer reminds us was “one of the greatest explorers of this time,” wrote in his journal, “It matters not where or how far you travel—the farther commonly the worse—but how much alive you are.” Flying the Cub with the doors and windows open is the most alive I’ve ever felt.
This brings us full circle to our question of must I fly? Disciples of Flight answers this unequivocally, as we must. For pilots understand life only with some perspective, that of being above it on some level. Observing how things are connected, why things are located where they are, or how a thing came to be. “One of the strange laws of the contemplative life,” the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton wrote, “is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves. Or until life solves them for you.”
Pilots cannot afford to let life solve things for us. We must ask the questions of am I fit to fly or must I fly with resolute austerity. To fly, or to not fly—to be proactive or reactive—is to understand that life trades on the thinnest of margins. This is what it is to be alive. To live a contemplative life. To be both still and to fly.
Today is a Saturday morning and I’m choosing to fly. There’s a pancake breakfast at Johnson Creek, a beautiful grass airstrip on the edge of Idaho’s wilderness. Monday, I will head to Washington, DC. And here I will remember the simple wisdom of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz:
“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”