Journey's end: We unpack plane and feelings

"It's hard to believe, but we've done it," says Arthur as we taxi toward the United States Customs office at the airport in Fairbanks. Thirty-seven days, 15 hours, and 7 minutes ago he had released the brakes on his Cessna 182, accelerated smoothly, and taken off from Windhoek, Namibia, the beginning of our journey from Africa to Alaska.

Three continents and 17 countries later, we've made it. We began the day in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. I was awake before I needed to be, peering out at the early-morning sky for signs of weather, anticipating this last leg of our flight.

We flew IFR - not Instrument Flight Rules, but "I Follow Roads." We literally followed the Alaska Highway between craggy, snow-covered mountains and along river ways. We passed many Winnebagos and other RVs migrating north. As we crossed the border from Canada into the US, I asked Arthur if he wanted to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." "Nooo," he said, then added, "I'm not unpatriotic, I just like my space."

He'll make a good Alaskan, I think.

After Capt. J.J. Ray, the US Customs Service port director here, checks our credentials and pronounces us fit to enter the country, we taxi to the small hanger where V5-SNO will get a thorough checkup, routine maintenance, and inspection to gain its US registration.

Radio and TV reporters await to interview us aerial oddities. We unburden the Cessna of its baggage for the past 12,561 miles: a 44-pound life raft, 22 pounds of survival food, another 22 pounds of tools and fishing gear, snowshoes, packages of fuel-smelly crackers that we'd bought - how many countries ago?

We're both kind of numb. No high-fives, no bearhugs, no chatter about what we'd just accomplished. Just a handshake, and then back to finishing the job - in this case, packing up.

When the interviews are done and V5-SNO is empty and locked up - looking a little lonely - we head to Arthur's house here to store the gear. It was a beautiful, sunny day in this part of Alaska: 71 degrees F. Arthur gives me a tour of Fairbanks. From the University of Alaska campus, we can see across to the Alaska Range and Mt. Denali.

Over crab cakes and caribou stew at a restaurant on the banks of the Chena River, we talk about the trip. Would we do it again?

"I'd start tonight," Arthur says, the man for whom flying is like breathing. I'm not as certain. It's been a wonderful journey, but I don't share his commitment to small aircraft - even though I wouldn't have missed the trip, despite (because of?) its challenges. We agree, in any case, that family considerations would have to come first before trying anything like this again.

It's hard to talk about it. We're still sorting out our reactions, and we're pretty exhausted. We wait a couple of hours at the airport before boarding a 1 a.m. commercial flight south. At the Seattle airport we say goodbye and head our separate ways - Arthur to Maine to join his family for their long drive back to Fairbanks, I to my home in Oregon.

"Thanks for the ride," I tell him. Later, when we're rested and have had time to reflect, there will be more to say about our Africa-to-Alaska adventure. Right now, we just want to get home.

*This Monday-and-Thursday series began May 1 and ends June 12 with a summing-up piece. See also: www.csmonitor/smallplane

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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