As we set off for the High Sierra Fly-In, the Flight Outfitters camper in tow, I couldn’t help but think of Lewis and Clark. It felt like we too were on an expedition into the unknown. Obviously the stakes weren’t quite as high as in 1804 and we had a teardrop camper equipped with all the modern amenities, but it was a grand voyage nonetheless. We had never been to what has been dubbed the “Burning Man for pilots” before, so this new experience was one of mystery and intrigue, excitement and admittedly some trepidation. For us, the company tagline was coming to fruition—we absolutely were piloting our own adventure.
Before we get to the good stuff of the High Sierra, first thing’s first… the journey of driving from Kentucky to Nevada. The road ahead was staggering: 33 hours, 2,200 miles, and 10 states—a pretty daunting task. For you pilots out there in your personal aircraft it’s not even the shortest of trips, but for my husband and I, it fit our adventurous spirit.
We wanted to add some fun stops along the way before our final destination. After all, driving 33 hours out West and not stopping anywhere seemed like a crime. Having spent extensive time in Colorado and southern Utah, we chose to visit some of the lesser known areas. First stop was the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Talk about having a park all to yourself—only a handful of people could be found, which was fine by us. Gone were the hoards of Yosemite and Yellowstone visitors. Here you could enjoy nature as God intended: birds chirping and wind whistling through the changing leaves. If serenity was your goal, here you could achieve it.
We then took the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway through northeastern Utah and spent a few nights outside of Park City. I jokingly proclaimed we were taking the Flight Outfitters camper to new heights as we towed it above 10,000’ through Bald Mountain pass. The fall foliage was amazing. I simply don’t have enough superlatives to give the scenery we witnessed in these precious few days in October. Aspens were in full fall color and in the sunlight cast the most amazing yellow glow. No camera filters, no HDR necessary.
The next day we set out for a five mile hike to the amazing Silver Lake in the High Peak Wilderness. Again, solitude was found. While the lake water was far too chilly to take a plunge, sitting on its rugged banks beneath the cirque was good for the soul. And then the aspens. Part of the hike was through an aspen laden forest and they were spectacular. We hit the lottery: we happened to be there because of the High Sierra, but we stumbled upon fall splendor.
One more stop before the High Sierra, and this time it was at Great Basin National Park. While it’s one of the least visited parks in the country, it proved to be worth its national park status. We hiked among the bristlecones and alpine lakes for spectacular views of 13,167’ Mt. Wheeler, the second largest peak in Nevada. Next it was time to take on the “loneliest road” in the country, where Nevada would live up to its “wild and weird” moniker. We were finally on the last leg to our destination.
However I’m about to describe the way into Dead Cow Lakebed won’t do it justice. We weren’t prepared for this. I knew it might get a little “bumpy” the closer to the lakebed, but “bumpy” is not the right word to use. We were moving right along around beautiful Pyramid Lake until the normal paved highway turned into a washboard rutted gravel road. If creeping along at 15 mph, bracing for each dip, bump, and rut weren’t enough, the constant fear of the contents of the camper made for a stressful drive—and I wasn’t even behind the wheel.
The good news is the washboard gravel road finally ended, but the next challenge was desert sand and dirt. Dodging sage bushes and monster ruts, we began to cut over towards the lakebed with no certainty we were headed the right way. Thankfully we spotted taildraggers buzzing around the sky, which acted as our North Star guiding us to the right location. After nearly giving up a time or two, we found what thankfully wasn’t a desert mirage—we had finally made it to the High Sierra Fly-In.
Buried in desert sand and dust, we claimed our spot in a row of campers and other sponsors of the fly-in. Right across from a heap of bonfire wood, we staked our claim and began to set camp. Within minutes we were greeted by friendly neighbors offering up help and inquiring about our trip. We were re-energized and ready for STOL Drag racing, ready for airplanes, and ready for the days ahead. What we found though was much more. We found family, we found community, we found a home.
I learned a lot about STOL racing. Watching qualifying rounds and exciting finals made for an exhilarating time. The engines would roar at the start as racers made their way down the course. After cutting the engines, with a slip and a bouncy landing they slammed on the brakes and waited for their complete stop to determine the winner. Pilots lived up to their STOL Drag name: with quick takeoffs and landings, they tore through the course, leaving only spectators in the dust. Tenths of second separated runs and determined winners, and all of this with up-close views from the flight line. While I learned a lot about STOL drag, I learned a lot more about the STOL Drag community.
While the racing was top notch and the occasion that brought us all together, the High Sierra was much more than that. This was a makeshift community. Didn’t bring enough for breakfast? That’s OK, your neighbor was more than happy to share. Itching to take a ride in a Carbon Cub? Pilots were more than willing to take you out for a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the backcountry. Each night commenced with a bonfire, the contents of which were provided by locals wanting to pitch in. Have a drink, a bite to eat, and enjoy the company of pilots and enthusiasts alike.
Attendees were clever too, a bit of backcountry ingenuity on full display. Motorized coolers on wheels became preferred modes of transportation. Lawn chairs mounted on the backs of ATVs provided a full array of reclining options and motorized one wheelers, skateboards, and bicycles roamed the grounds. A full fledged impromptu parade formed as “motorists” hopped on their “vehicles” and in unison circled the grounds, bringing much delight to other attendees.
Everyone was there for fellowship as much as racing. We swapped war stories about getting to the lakebed (well at least those of us who drove in did). We would bond over airplanes, tire sizes, horsepower, and landing techniques. People from all over the country congregated to share—whether it be stories of epic backcountry flights, cross country drives, or pancakes for breakfast, everyone had something to give. We might forget the silver class STOL Drag runner up, but what we won’t forget is the experience. We won’t forget about the journey, we won’t forget about the late night bonfire shenanigans, and we won’t forget about the friends we made.
This isn’t Burning Man. No, this is High Sierra. We really did pilot our own adventure. And now we begin the countdown until next year!
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Watch our video series “Piloting our Adventure to the High Sierra” below.