Late Adventurer Barbara Rowell's Memoir Takes Flight

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 21, 2003

Watching her husband Galen's career as a world-trotting adventure photographer from the sidelines, Barbara Cushman Rowell yearned for adventure of her own. She found it by learning to fly.

Before her death, Barbara embarked on a swashbuckling, if hazardous, 25,000-mile (40,234-kilometer), 57-leg flight through Central and South America. The trip would prove to be journey of self-awakening, both incredible and inspiring. Rowell finished her manuscript before her untimely death in August 2002 (In an ironic twist to the tragedy, Rowell perished with her husband Galen when the small plane they were riding in crashed near their home in Bishop, California).

Why embark on such a hazardous journey? As Rowell explains in her account: "From the outside, I appeared to have everything I could possibly want: a wonderful, loving husband; a successful and exciting business; interesting friends; and the opportunity to travel around the world to photograph glorious landscapes, wild creatures, and vanishing cultures," she wrote. "What I was missing was something that I couldn't quite define at first."

Barbara Rowell's organizational and creative skills were a driving force behind Mountain Light Photography, the successful business built on her husband Galen's 35-year career as a photographer. For better or for worse, it was Galen's passions and career that had become the couple's way of life—and a demanding one at that. Barbara Rowell wrote that she began to feel "emotionally bankrupt."

"I began to envy adventurers and wanted to know what it was like to be out on the edge, to experience the rush of one's own passions," she wrote. "My desire to fly arose from this deep longing to do something rewarding in life. I wanted to know what it felt like to be on my own expedition and in control of my own destiny. I was seeking to wake up in the morning challenged to my core. I wasn't going to let life pass me by without experiencing something like this just once."

After nine years of living an exciting life as a "support person," she craved an adventure that was deeply personal. She found it by learning to pilot her own plane, an exciting step that spawned an incredible, inspiring journey of self-awakening that unfolded during a 25,000 mile Latin American odyssey.

Surviving the Tempests of Nature and Politics

Flying South is not solely one women's story of self-discovery. It's a rollicking adventure tale in its own right. The 25,000-mile (40,234-kilometer) flight proved to be adventure trip of a lifetime.

Rowell recounts events such as landing during a bogus Panamanian "coup," narrowly surviving instrument failure over Peru, and battling Andean winds and fierce Brazilian storms. Strangers Rowell encounters share kindness and vulnerability.

Rowell writes such experiences not only tested her skills as a pilot, at times, but made her a more complete person.

Rowell's vivid descriptions of the hazards of small plane navigation are honest and emotionally gripping. Consider this account of an attempted landing in a Lima, Peru whiteout when some key instruments were malfunctioning:

It suddenly occurred to me that I might not have understood the controller's instructions. Did he say turn to a heading of 360 degrees, due north? Or did he ask me to make a 360-degree turn, and then continue heading almost due south to the runway? My mind went blank. Panic flamed through my entire body, and I felt out of breath as if I'd been punched in the stomach. Everything outside my body and inside my mind was white. Sheer terror paralyzed me into silence. I no longer had any idea where I was or where I needed to go…"Fly the plane, Barbara," I said out loud. "Just fly the plane."

Continued on Next Page >>


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