Walden in the Foothills
A Long, Solitary Search
By Peter D. McQuade
Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence. — Henry David Thoreau
It was 1971, and the brilliance of the late-May sky shone through the model airplane’s translucent white wings as it glided high overhead in wide, majestic circles. “Go, Falcon!” I shouted to the glider and to my audience, the empty hills and canyons of Hulls Gulch overlooking the Boise Valley.
Something was different about this flight. I’d only made a minor change to the angle of the horizontal tail, but it was enough to help the tiny gas motor, a Cox Pee Wee .020, to loft the three-foot-span balsa-and-tissue model a bit higher than last time, perhaps to 150 feet. And when the motor stopped, the glide was shallower and more stable than before. But the biggest difference was in the air itself—I had unwittingly launched my Falcon into the powerful updraft of a thermal. The Falcon looked smaller and smaller as each circle took it both higher and farther away in the gentle breeze. This was a free-flight model, with no radio control. Where the wind went, so went the airplane. I began to trot, reveling in the idea that after three years of trying, I’d finally lived to see one of my own designs soaring upward like the hawks and eagles.
This is going to be the best summer ever, I thought. Why not? I’d just finished the last final exam of my junior year at Bishop Kelly High School. My model was flying well. And above all, my heart was buoyant with thoughts of a young lady—my first girlfriend. Six weeks before, the petite, dark-haired, effervescent Polly (not her real name) had unexpectedly invited me to the annual girl-asks-boy dance. We’d been on a few dates since. The future looked bright. Life was good.
Suddenly my path was blocked by a deep gully the model had just flown over as it continued above the miles-long upward slope of Hulls Gulch. I faced a dilemma: should I stop and just watch the model until it disappeared, so I’d at least know its direction of travel precisely? Or trust my track athlete’s legs to carry me the hundred feet down into the gully and up the other side quickly enough that I wouldn’t lose sight at all? I decided to run, and that decision changed my life.