I met up with Mike at 7AM at the gate to the Alpine airport, slightly sleepy from the half pill of Dramamine I took for the impending flight. We were to join Cade, our pilot, for Mike’s weekly search of the pronghorn that had been moved from the flatlands of Pampa to the sere hills of the Trans-Pecos. The animals had been living here just about as long as I have: seven months. This was to be my first survey flight.
I was more worried about airsickness on the flight than anything else, despite the fact that Cade’s tiny plane, a 1972 Cessna, was older than me, and probably twice as old as its baby-faced pilot. Cade proved himself a skilled pilot, however, moving us around the mountains and flats with studied ease. We all wore heavy headphones to hear each other, though my pair’s microphone didn’t work, so I had to communicate with the guys via hand gestures and shoulder taps. This was no real problem, as the inside of the plane was so noisy, and Mike was so focused on listening to the radio telemetry signals from the pronghorns’ collars, that idle chitchat just wasn’t possible. I was glad for that. Dramamine always makes a zombie out of me. Cade made sure to check in with me to make sure I was ok, and I always gave him a thumbs up. (I’d heard some horror stories about a passenger barfing all over Cade’s back. I made sure to pack a barf bag, too.)
Mike is a combat veteran, and has suffered significant hearing loss. “You’ll have to help me listen to the signals,” he told me, which I did, tapping him whenever I heard the errant beep in my headphones. Cade did most of the noticing, though, so there really wasn’t much for me to do, though I still kept my eye out for pronghorn. They moved along the fields below, tiny white dots sailing over fields newly green from the summer rains. Most of the time, we didn’t even see them at all. If Mike heard a particular pronghorn’s collar signal on his radio, he checked it as “found” on his list and moved on to the next. I was glad to listen for the signals, as it kept my mind off of my growing motion sickness.
I saw many other things from high above: jackrabbits, mule deer, bleached piles of bones. Each tank or stream sparkled with water, and game trails radiated out from each like stars made of dust. We buzzed over the remainder of the There Will Be Blood film set, where only the little church remained. We came within spitting distance of hilltops and mesa flats. Occasionally, if one of us spotted a herd of pronghorn, Cade would dramatically bank and fly alongside, which set my stomach to quivering. Though the motion sickness wasn’t as bad as I feared (my first and only foray on my Dad’s fishing boat remains a hellish memory I will never repeat), I was glad to reach terra firma, about 2 1/2 hours after we took off.