A thick red line mars the weathered U.S. map in David Grabowski’s office, running from Lodi down to Los Angeles and across the vast expanse of middle America to Linden, N.J. The bearded 27-year-old, flipping through his leather-bound flight log on a recent afternoon, can recall every stop along that 4,000-mile route.
Over the past two years, Grabowski raised the funds to buy and set up his trike – a small, motorized aircraft with cloth wings that he maneuvers with a metal bar. He went on to modify it and earn a sport pilot license all while continuing to save money from his job at Insight Coffee Roasters in Sacramento.
With everything set, he took off from Lodi’s airport in September with little idea how far he would retrace the exact route of Cal Rodgers, the oft-forgotten aviator who in 1911 became the first American to fly coast to coast. Rodgers crashed 17 times when he made the journey in 1911, and Grabowski had far less piloting experience.
On the ground below, a two-person film crew followed Grabowski in a sponsored camper van piled high with production equipment and extra gasoline. The idea was to make a full-length documentary of what he calls his “authentic, honest-to-God, no-one-has-ever-done-anything-like this adventure,” set to the backdrop of a divided America.
Grabowski is back in his Land Park home now after an adventure that he believes makes him the youngest person to fly across the United States in a trike.
“I was able to experience America and really kind of look for America in a way that I don’t think a lot of people get to see,” he said. “It was, at every moment, an incredible adventure.”
The ambitious route required Grabowski fly roughly 150 nautical miles a day, going 50 mph at 1,500 feet or higher. He flew about three hours each morning, sometimes with filmmaker Stephen Tonti in the backseat, before landing in a city or a rural community to interview locals. Then the whole crew would pass out in the cramped camper van and wake up at 5 a.m. to start all over again, he said.
Grabowski’s route started officially in Los Angeles before dipping into the Imperial Valley, where he and the crew explored a desert art commune in Slab City with help from a hippie tour guide named Balu. They popped into Bible towns in Arizona and chatted with mechanics in rural Texas before getting stranded in Dallas for 10 days waiting for a storm to pass.
When the skies finally cleared, the team worked through Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, where they lost two days repairing a trike malfunction that they thought would ground them for good. They continued east to Pittsburgh, before Grabowski made a stop in his hometown of Lancaster, Pa. and another in New York, where his pregnant girlfriend had traveled from Sacramento to meet him.
Meeting so many people in the run-up to the presidential election gave the team a sobering look at the country’s growing political tensions, Grabowski said.
“America, after seeing it from the air for that long and experiencing it on the ground for that long, is an incredible place, but it doesn’t feel like one whole unit to me,” he said. “It really does feel like a lot of small countries sewn together. … I came out of the trip and into Donald Trump’s presidency thinking, ‘This country is made up of incredible people. Why are we so dissonant, so opposed to each other in this way, when I’ve managed to get along famously with all these different types of people all over the country?’”
Cultural commentary will make up a healthy chunk of the trike team’s upcoming film, “Tilt Shift,” which they hope to finish in 2018. The interviews will be rolled out between stunning panoramas of the mountains, rivers, deserts and valleys that Grabowski experienced from the cockpit, he said.
The film will also pay homage to Rodgers, the pilot whose not-so-famous motto “I endure, I conquer” got Grabowski through some of his toughest times, he said. On one of their first stops, the team visited a tiny replica of his plane, the Vin Fiz, in the L.A. Convention Center.
“There was one moment I remember, I had just taken off in Arizona and the landscape was so scarce that the only thing there was train tracks and these two beautiful mountains to either side,” he said. “There was no sign of humanity. And I said, ‘This has got to be exactly what he saw. Same railroad, same place.’”
Since returning to Sacramento in November, Grabowski has been preparing to face a different kind of adventure. His child is due in a month. He plans to be a stay-at-home dad while he continues to edit his film.
The journey has taught Grabowski a lot, especially about how he can use art to connect all the people he met along the way.
“As soon as I left everything here behind, I began to really get a grip on what it is that is important to me,” he said. “It’s not becoming famous or even successful. … The people who seemed happiest were the people who were really integrated in where they lived, who really were a part of it in some way. It’s really important now, more than ever, that we reach out to the people around us in a physical way. … That’s what I want to bring back to people.”