The Path Less Traveled

 

By Lane Wallace

 

© 1999 Lane Wallace
First appeared in FLYING Magazine, 1999

I’ve never met him. I don’t even know his name. But somewhere in America there is a pilot to whom I owe a whole lot of thanks. For some unknown, fortuitous reason on a balmy May evening in 1985, he decided to take a bright yellow Stearman biplane out for a flight. On another day, he might have climbed higher—to catch better winds, perhaps, or a better view of distant landmarks. But for some other wonderful, just-by-chance reason, he decided to keep it low that evening, sailing only a few hundred feet over the Kentucky bluegrass as he headed east from Louisville on his way to who-knows-where.

Until that day, I was busily going about a life that had a lot more to do with power business suits and stress headaches than airplanes. I didn’t know any pilots, had never built any model airplanes, and only vaguely remembered the one and only flight in a small airplane I’d had as a little girl. And yet I was actually thinking about airplanes that evening as I got ready to go out for a run. Biplanes, in fact.

Despite my complete lack of connection with airplanes, a friend had, for some equally unexplainable reason, just sent me a book of short stories about flying. As I’d casually flipped through the book the night before, one of the stories had caught my attention. It was written by a young Air Force fighter pilot named Richard Bach who was flying some of the highest-performance planes the military had to offer and yet longed for a simple, old biplane ride. Because, you see, he’d never heard the wind.

Never heard the wind. Never known what it was to fly in the wild open air, with the whistling sound, eyewatering taste and tangible power of the wind flowing over him, changing and alive and close enough to touch. The image was a tantalizing one, and I was still turning it over in my mind as I headed down the country road near my home.

On another day, when my thoughts were more focused on work problems than biplanes, I might have paid less heed to the rumbling sound of the engine approaching low overhead. On another day a lot of things might have been different. But it was not another day.

I came out of a small grove of trees just as the plane burst into my field of vision in all its golden yellow tube-and-fabric glory. As if my imagination had willed it into existence, there, right overhead, was a brilliant yellow Stearman biplane, with the wind singing in its wires as it whistled by. It was close enough that if the pilot had waved, I would have seen his hand move. I stopped dead in my tracks, transfixed, as the plane and its unknown pilot sailed past me and disappeared into the distance.

Our paths crossed for only three breaths of a moment. But it was enough.

In the space of a few brief seconds, a biplane pilot transformed flight from an interesting idle thought in my imagination to something rumbling, yellow, beautiful and real, and I was suddenly hungry for something I hadn’t even known I was missing. I went back to work the next day, but I couldn’t get the yellow biplane off my mind. Finally, I decided to try to find the plane’s owner to see if I could buy a ride in it. I called every airport around Louisville, to no avail. The pilot must have been just passing through when I saw him that evening. Nobody even remembered the plane.

But sometimes the shortest path between two points isn’t a straight line. While I never found the Stearman, my search for it led me to a group of pilots who flew a collection of antique and classic planes at an airport in southern Indiana. They wouldn’t sell me a ride, but they offered to give me one if I’d come out and work on the planes the next weekend. One weekend became two, and then five. And instead of rides, I was soon getting flying lessons. A little less than a year later, I was a private pilot.

Since then, I’ve often wondered how my life might have been different if my friend hadn’t sent me that book when he had. Or if that Stearman pilot had decided he was too tired to go flying that evening. Or if he’d chosen even a slightly different route home. Or if I’d been thinking about the difficult meeting I’d had that day instead of the sound and feel of the wind. I might still be earthbound, designing marketing plans for hospitals and restaurants. 

It sometimes seems amazing to me that something which required such a combination of perfect circumstances and which crossed my path so briefly could have changed my life so dramatically. I’ve also wondered how that moment came to be. I’ll never know for sure. Perhaps from any given moment in our life there are a thousand possible paths we can take; a thousand different stories our lives can become. Every time we take the street to the left or the door to the right; every time we decide to go for a run or take the low and scenic flight home, we are closing doors to some paths and opening doors to others. But there are many paths that can take us where we need to go. From the thousand possibilities that come within our reach at any moment of any day, the challenge is to find the ones that speak to our hearts or souls the most.

For there’s a voice deep inside me that seems to know better than my conscious mind what I need and responds to possibilities that can help me find it. The route may not always be straight, and I may question my inner guide’s logic, navigational skill, and even sanity at many points along the way. But looking back, I realize that my gut has never steered me wrong.

My mind, well, that’s another matter. Caught up in shoulds and ought to’s, my mind often thinks I need many things that end up draining me instead of feeding me. Indeed, my mind can chatter on about those things so loudly that any other voices get lost in the noise. When I saw the Stearman, a part of me was slowly starving to death. Yet I was so caught up  in a ladder-climbing success track that I was only dimly aware that I was hungry. You can’t hear if you’re not listening.

But there are few voices as loud as the lumbering, staccato rumble of an old Continental radial engine; little magic quite as powerful as the wings of a biplane singing freedom from only a few hundred feet above the Earth. The Stearman didn’t just speak to me. It sang at high volume, so loud that I almost couldn’t help but listen. And it sang of a path and life more meaningful, fulfilling, colorful and real than the one I was busy pursuing. Like a Pied Piper with wings, it spoke to that aching, neglected part of me inside that just wanted to enjoy being alive. And like one of the entranced children, I responded. I didn’t know what the world of that Stearman contained. All I knew was that I wanted a ride in that airplane more than I’d wanted anything in a long time.

The path the pilot of that yellow biplane led me down has been anything but straight. I wound my way first to an airport, then to an airplane, and eventually to an entire career change. None of it was planned, and I’ve never really looked, or even been able to see, further than the next step. I never planned to change my life. I just wanted a ride. The rest of it just happened. Step by step, I wandered further and further from the path I had planned to take — and ended up exactly where I ought to be.

I will be eternally grateful to my unknown Stearman pilot … not only for opening up the world of flying to me, but for reminding me of something perhaps even more important. I can’t count on rumbling yellow biplanes coming along every day of the week to wake me up to life’s possibilities. I need to do that for myself. I can set all the goals I want, but the thing I need the most may be something I never even considered. And if I don’t try to keep my eyes, ears and mind open to the endless possibilities that brush past me every day, I might miss it.

I may not know exactly where I’m headed, but I worry about that less these days. After all, the shortest path between two points isn’t always a straight line.