New Year, midnight, alone. Standing atop a 70-foot concrete arrow pointing west. The nearby revelry drifted in and out of my awareness on winter’s whispery breath. Aerial explosions suddenly illuminated my surroundings: rocky cliff, creosote, curve of the Virgin River. And the incongruous arrow. Surrounded by desert, apart from and a part of the celebration.
I stood atop the simplest of aviation aids, navigating this life on a wing and a prayer.
Early in our nation’s acquaintance with aviation, few navigational aids existed. Pilots flew with railroad maps and picked their course across the topography below. In the 1920s, concrete arrows were constructed 10-30 miles apart across the nation, offering childlike route markers for the daredevils of the ether. Though night flights were deemed suicidal, it was our need for connection, communion and correspondence that finally drove men to take to the starry skies.
The Postal Service sought to prove to a circumspect Congress that the air was the most efficient route for the country’s mail. This assertion was true only if pilots made use of the light and dark hours. So they did.
The first night fliers relied upon Postal Service employees and friendly farmers lighting bonfires and torches on the ground, illuminating a path across the Midwest and toward the dawn. The most rudimentary innovation carried our most advanced invention safely through the unknown.
The arrow on which I stood above St. George directed commercial and airmail flights from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. A steel post once held an oil lantern to illuminate the arrow in the darkness. A string of these lanterns spoke to pilots — this is the way … this is the way … this is the way … — a small, flickering prayer. Warmth in an otherwise empty sphere.
The early aviators flew on faith: that someone on the ground was thinking of them, that the lanterns would be lit, that morning would come.
The concrete arrow held my weight as I searched for the same assurances: that the darkness would end, that light would follow. The fireworks were my beacon into a new year, toward something more.
When I was a child, as the New Year crept forward, I would ritualistically comb my hair, brush my teeth, put on my pajamas and cuddle the cat — my last chance for the year — each act filled with great significance due to its finality. Every movement was slow, methodical, a way to draw out the final moments before the end, before I could never do these things again within the comfortable embrace of a known timeframe. As a child, I approached transition with such great care, putting the endings to bed and tucking them in before I could greet the beginnings. Hanging onto the befores until the afters left me no choice but to be swept along into tomorrow.
But this New Year, there was none of the care of yesteryear, none of the ritual or grasping. The previous months had been a time of hasty transition, reckless release and grand leaps into the unknown. In one fateful day, I found myself homeless, carless, jobless, penniless — divorced at age 28. Necessity dictated there would be no tenderness toward the finalities.
Instead, necessity dictated flying onward, alone in the darkness — on a wing and a prayer — toward an uncertain dawn, searching for navigational reassurances that this is the way … this is the way … this is the way … somewhere. Perhaps home.
Senior correspondent Jen Jackson’s last story for MG was “When In Doubt, Pee on the Fire,” which appeared in #183. Her blog, “Desert Reflections, can be found at mountaingazette.com. Jackson lives in Moab.