The Master of Dead Reckoning Runs Out of Road

These days you could use a cell phone to navigate in a light aircraft. But before GPS, beginning flight students had to learn to rely on paper maps. We learned how to identify features on the map and to correlate them with what we saw on the ground. For example, you’d see a road on the map beside a town with a radio antenna. Then, you’d look around to see if anything on the ground matched up. You’d mark your course with a pencil on the map and study the landmarks you expected to find along the way. A water tower here, a small town there, an intersection of two freeways. You might follow a road, if there was one, or a river. You could see how your pencil line angled towards a lake or a hilltop and see if it lined up from the cockpit. Navigating by means of nothing more than a compass and a map is called dead reckoning. I became, if I say so myself, a master of dead reckoning. Eventually, I would stretch it to the point where I could cross mountain ranges in dim moonlight and nail a course with the precision of a World War II bomber pilot. It’s always been a point of pride.

I loved that part of flying, especially since I had always been an amateur of maps. I have a collection of them covering the entire surface of the world, huge things, four by five feet each, and dozens, if not hundreds, of other maps I’ve picked up around the world. Nothing has ever fascinated me more than maps. So much so, that the first time I traveled around the world, I chose my route by looking at a Times Atlas of the World and choosing the places that were the most alluring on the poetry of their names as they appeared in the pastel gamut of those lovely maps. Do not try that. Things like that are reserved to the Masters of Dead Reckoning.

Early in the training of any pilot, right after establishing a rough ability to take off and land and keep the airplane from plummeting unnecessarily to the ground, the student begins to learn how to fly cross country. The flight instructor shepherds the student through the phases of flight planning on the ground — charting the course on the map, anticipating the effects of predicted wind on speed and heading, airport information, fuel calculations, weight and balance — and then sits in the co-pilot’s seat for a flight to and back from some nearby airport. 

In the 1970s, when I learned to fly, there were something like 14,000 airports in America. Many of those are gone now, but when there were that many, they gave flight instructors the opportunity to pull the same time-honored trick on every student. They would command you to fly to an airport that had another one that looked just like it nearby and see if you tried to land at that one by mistake. There were a few like that in Connecticut that my instructor tried to fool me with, but it never worked. I, like most students, figured the trap out and avoided it. I was not yet a Master of Dead Reckoning, but I was on my way, and no such silly error was going to mar my progress.

Then came yesterday.

Roo and The Master of Dead Reckoning left the Eureka Springs area and headed east at an altitude of zero feet above ground level. Temps were in the mid 90s, and, without a cloud in the sky, it was a real broiler for Roo. She won’t lie down in the shade of the back seat on cross country rides. It’s part of a strict dog ethic as she sees it. She won’t do it, no matter how badly she gets roasted in the right seat.

On top of not having cooled off in days, her paw was also bothering her. Even in the air-conditioning she had been panting non-stop, all through the night. On her walks she had been slowing down to the speed of a wheelchair with a flat. Still, she insisted on the front seat where she could make sure I heard her grunting and groaning as she became more uncomfortable and annoyed.

Between Roo feeling bad and the fact that we’re just drifting now from town to town to see if we can find a place to land, I selected a destination only 100 miles east, a place called Mountain Home, a town that takes great pride in being the center for folk music. I don’t know if it is or not, but as a failed mandolinist, that drew me and I thought we might as well have a look.

When we got there, there was no sign of anything but a few miles of the same Family Dollars and Pizza Huts as anywhere else. It didn’t seem like much of a town at all. But there we were.

We went to a small campground in a state park east of town. The vibe was bad. A couple of drunk crackers, extra hot in the high temps, were yelling at each other about who forgot the motor for their bass boat. Each blamed the other and they were at an impasse that looked like it could take a bad turn, even this early in the day’s Bud Light cycle. They had a little chihuahua who was participating in the fight and who was occasionally told to shut up but wouldn’t. There was another camp nearby and we drove over to try that one. It was much nicer, even though the woman attending the pay station was prone to distraction and took 25 minutes to check us in because a park ranger threw in a remark once in a while, like, “Looks like we’re starting to get a line going here,” as the traffic at the gate backed up, and that would derail her and the only way she could get back on track was to start from scratch. Sometimes something else would go wrong even without being asked anything, like forgetting to enter whether my card was credit or debit. It didn’t matter. Somehow she had to start all over again every time. My name, my phone number, my address.

When we drove into the campground it looked familiar. Then I remembered: Roo and I had been there once, in cooler weather, back when this journey began. When you start running into towns as tiny as Gamaliel, Arkansas twice, you’ve run out of road. As unthinkable as it might be, the Master of Dead Reckoning had run out of road. Clear run out, as they might say here in the Ozarks.

Roo’s paw was starting to finally look a little better. There was a good scab on it and I was estimating that within a week she would be as good as new. Seeing the lake here, she was miserable. Being kept out of a lake in which you know from experience is perfectly okay to swim in is an insult to a dog like Roo. And in this heat.

On her walk this morning, though, she put her paw down. She had to get in that lake. She lay down on the road staring at it, panting with a tongue long and inflated by the heat. She wouldn’t move. She broke me with that and I let her in.

Roo hasn’t been in the water for weeks. She dunked her head underwater and swung it from side to side, washing her face and getting the water in her ears and eyes and coming back up for air snorting and looking happy for the first time in a long time. She dunked another forty or fifty times for the sheer pleasure of it. She must have really felt she needed a good wash. She might have been right, too: her paw looks better now than it did before. Maybe reducing her body temperature was the key but the Master of Dead Reckoning was too stupid to know it.

I took advantage of Roo’s good mood to dremel her claws, clean her ears and trim the fur from her paws. Back in the camper I got online to try to figure out just what in the hell it was that Mountain Home was talking about with all that capital-of-folk-music stuff. I figured I’d at least have been able to buy a pack of mandolin strings here. I would justify the expense on the off chance that fresh strings might produce a tone less annoying to Roo. I owed it to her to try. I looked up music stores in Mountain, leaving the rest of the field blank, because why bother when there’s autofill on the online app, another town named Mountain View popped up. Fifty miles south of here. Mountain View is the music town. Not Mountain Home. The Master of Dead Reckoning had flown to the wrong airport. He did not have to admit this to the dog, however. As far as she was concerned, my navigation had been perfect. As far as she was concerned, it was about time. She had been worrying that the Master of Dead Reckoning had forgotten something as simple as getting her to the water.

Her swimming ban is lifted. And tomorrow, the Master of Dead Reckoning will load her up and take her to Mountain View, America’s Capital of Folk Music.