Wasps and Perpetual Motion
by gringoluke

It was 9 am, it was 98 degrees, we were 4,000 feet up in the Cuyamaca Mountains in South Eastern California. A few years earlier man-made forest fires in this area had wiped the slate clean on nature's handiwork, leaving behind nothing but dry scrub and the spindly grey carcasses of burnt-out trees. The brittle vegetation clung to the dust and the dust clung to our socks and bare shins. Everything was dry and thorny.

A narrow path had been whittled through the brush, carving its way up and round the ridges where I imagined Native Americans had been raising their head-dressed silhouettes for centuries. We were always on the lookout for cougars and hawks, for rattlesnakes and coyotes, for anything my father and I, sunburned and suburban, could find to remind us what a hostile environment we'd plunged ourselves into.

We had a rough idea of where we were going, knew that we were northbound on a trail that would eventually take us to the 'Airplane Monument'. I imagined a massive boulder that someone had generously described as airplane-shaped, just a simple rock that was used to designate our trail. I wasn't concerned with finding the monument, I'd only set out to enjoy the adventures of the trek. The monument was only there to guide us.

The trail carried on upwards and soon the sun had dried up our conversation. The only sound now was our panting and grunts of effort, mostly drowned out by the steady drone of insects in the thick brush that shouldered either side of the path. Occasionally a creature would scramble away ahead of us, long before we had the chance to even see what it was. Birds glanced off our peripheral vision but for the most part the sun was too hot to pay them any attention. Every few minutes we would nervously scan the horizon for the Airplane Monument, aware that the sun was only rising higher and higher in the sky.

The overwhelming feeling in this part of the Cuyamaca Mountains was one of death. Not death in the morbid, frightening sense, but death as a total absence of life. The vegetation had been sucked dry of moisture, what animals existed didn't want to be seen, didn't want us to know we were stumbling through their homes. We were unwelcome in this moribund paradise and it was almost as though that was exactly what the crackling undergrowth that scrabbled for our skin and our blood was trying to tell us.

We nearly missed it. A smaller, even narrower fork in the trail, corridored by rising brush either side, veered down the ridge to our right. A partially obscured sign read 'AIRPLANE MONUMENT, 0.2 MILES'. With elbows protecting our faces we set off down the new path. It wound further and further down the ridge, to a point where we both realised what an effort it would be to backtrack our way to our original path. Finally we lowered our nicked forearms from our faces and found ourselves in a tiny clearing. The Airplane Monument I had expected to find rising out of the earth before us wasn't there. The giant boulder I had been anticipated was nowhere in sight. Instead, before us, on a battered stone base sat a charred and dilapidated V12 cylinder engine.

Back in 1922 when they still built planes out of wood, US Army pilot First Lieutenant Charles F. Webber and his high-ranking passenger Colonel Francis C. Marshall set out in a DeHaviland DH4B model biplane from a nearby Californian airfield to Fort Yuma, Arizona. The plane never arrived and it was only after many months of painstaking searching that the wreckage was finally found. Due to a combination of foggy weather conditions and a malfunctioning engine, the plane clipped a tree while trying to fly over the Cuyamaca mountains, tearing off its tail and leading to a crash that killed both men. The life expectancy of pilots in those days was particularly low, though this incident was made particularly notable by the huge international effort made to locate the crash site. In the end it was a horse rancher who stumbled upon the charred remains of the airplane and its occupants, many weeks after the authorities had given up hope of ever finding out what happened to 26 year-old Webber and his 55 year-old passenger.

I could make you cry with stories of Webber's old co-pilot who spent many months combing the dangerous flight paths searching for any sign of his friend's plane, or the “great relief” experienced by Webber's parents when they knew their son had been found, albeit long dead. Far more thought-provoking are the actions of Webber's friends back at base who, knowing that removing the wreckage from the steep ridge would be nearly impossible, simply built a concrete base around what remained of the burnt-out engine and installed a plaque in memory of the two men who had perished.

Despite what occurred there, the monument is not a sad and solemn place. The brush has been cleared away and stone steps frame a circle around the massive engine. It is hard to believe that the towering pines that sent Webber and Marshall's plane crashing to the earth once stood here. No tree grows higher than six feet or so and there is nothing to block the view of the quiet valley nearly five-thousand feet below.

I approached the engine to take a photograph and suddenly stopped dead. As I stood near the monument, I could hear that the engine was running. A mechanical buzz churned out from its gutted innards. Despite a crash that had killed its passengers, a massive forest fire and nearly eighty years of relentless sun, it seemed this lump of steel and brass had suddenly whirred back into life. I turned to my dad whose face expressed the same look of perplexed fear that I felt, and together we approached the engine.

It only took us a few moments to see the wasp's nest. From one of the inlet valves we noticed wasps regularly trickling in and out. The sound we had mistaken for a running engine was actually the cavernous echo of thousands of insects beating their wings inside the tubes and valves of the defunct machine. They buzzed back and forth, oblivious to our presence.

As we silently snapped a photo and left the monument, letting the ghostly sounds of the engine fade out behind us, a funny thought struck me. Amongst all the death and frailty that the forest fire had left in its wake, one machine appeared to keep living, buzzing on constantly through the day, inattentive to the comings and goings of the hikers who stumbled across it. There was something comforting in the fact that a monument to the dead continued to beat with life, that nature had infused the silenced pistons and valves with new energy and that the engine would continue to run nearly a century after the men who controlled it perished beside it. I tried to think of a complex metaphor to assist these thoughts but the sun was too hot. I just smiled and closed my eyes to the sky.