The only other Americans living in El Estor were Annie and Dell, bush pilots from the state of Iowa. Dell was a giant of a man, glasses thick as magnifying lenses. Annie had the energy of a song bird, soft spoken and unflappable. She went to school to get her pilots license at 55, after she’d met Dell. They flew medical emergency missions, taking people from remote villages to the hospital in Puerto Barrios. The jungle valley rose at sharp angles to both the north and south, ringing the lake with mountains, so there were a number of landings and takeoffs that required a great deal of panache. They’d flown pregnant women, burned children, men both living and dead, shoot through and slashed by machetes. They drove an old Land Rover that Dell was perpetually working on. And when they came over for dinner, they brought beer from town and talked about their Iowa no-till farm.
More than three years after leaving Guatemala, we were driving through Iowa so decided to take the back roads to Fonda. Dell and Annie had a ranch house in town. Hanging on the wood panel wall was a framed photograph, an 8 x10 aerial view of the farm. “I took that,” said Dell. “And see those two white specks there? That’s a goose and a little blind horse.” And he told me the story of how they came to be best friends. “Like a story from a kid’s book, don’t you think?”
We drove to the hangar, built at the edge of the cornfield Dell’s father used to farm. Dell unhitched the latch and rolled the doors open. Annie helped wheel the plane out. We walked the bumpy strip, Annie pointing out the craters best to avoid. And then we climbed in. Dell got the propeller spinning. It was louder and bumpier then I'd imagined it would be. I gripped the seat, Annie yelling that she hoped she could avoid the biggest of the holes, the plane pitched so high, all we could see was sky.
Just when I sure the plane was going to rattle apart and crash into a bank of trees, the world turned smooth. Suddenly, we were floating. We soared up, circling the farm. I waved at Dell who had agreed to hold the baby. Our son hid in the cab of Dell's pick-up, his hands clasped over his ears.
We leveled off and Annie took us along the county line, Iowa flattening out like a quilt. She told me about how she often flies alone to Seattle, to visit her sister. Aren't you scared? I asked.
"Goodness no," she smiled. "It's the most peaceful feeling in the world."