“When I’m in the air on a clear day, I don’t want it to end. When I’m on the ground I can’t wait to be back up in the sky,” wrote Barbara Cushman Rowell for her forthcoming memoir, “Flying South: A Pilot’s Inner Journey,” from Berkeley-based Ten Speed Press. “The cascading sensations of feeling vulnerable and exhilarated at the same time are much like falling in love.”
Today, those words might serve as a sad and ironic epitaph for Rowell, a pilot, photographer and long-time Berkeley resident who died with her husband Galen Rowell, a world-famous nature photographer, in a plane crash early Sunday morning outside Bishop, California.
“The fact that she died in a plane crash is a bittersweet ending,” said Kirsty Melville, publisher at Ten Speed. “It’s very sad that she’s not able to see the publication of the book.”
Rowell, 54, was born in Hawaii to Lucille and Irving Cushman while her father was stationed at Pearl Harbor with the Navy. At the age of 5, her family was transferred to Texas for a brief stay before settling in California.
A UC Davis graduate, she met her future husband in 1981 while working at The North Face clothing company as director of public relations. The two married within months and settled in Galen’s native Berkeley.
Rowell soon became president of the couple’s Emeryville studio and press, Mountain Light Photography. A year and a half ago, the pair moved to Bishop in the eastern Sierra Nevada, bringing Mountain Light with them.
Last weekend, the couple flew into Oakland after a three-week circumnavigation of the Bering Sea and chartered a twin-propeller plane to Bishop.
The plane crashed two miles south of the Bishop airport at 1:24 a.m. during the approach, killing the Galens, pilot Tom Reid, 46, and Carol MacAfee, 38, of Bishop.
The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the incident, but findings will not be available for months.
Rowell’s memoir, due for release in October, chronicles a three-month airplane journey that Rowell took in her Cessna 206 single-engine plane from Oakland through Latin America and back in late 1990 and early 1991.
The book includes her own photos and several by her husband, who accompanied her for portions of the trip.
In her memoir, Rowell wrote that she took the trip because she loved flying, and more importantly, because she wanted to do something independent of her famous husband.
“I did take personal pride in watching Galen’s career skyrocket,” she wrote. “We complemented each other in business: his writing and photography paid our bills, and my organizational skills and vision took us to higher levels.
“Still, it was a rude awakening when a man at a party given in Galen’s honor cornered me and asked, ‘How does it feel to be living in someone’s shadow’,” she wrote.
Rowell noted that the flight offered an opportunity to step out of that shadow.
“I wanted to know what it felt like to be on my own expedition and in control of my own destiny,” she wrote. “I wanted to wake up in the morning challenged to my core.”
Challenged she was. During the 58-leg trip, which took her through Mexico, Peru and Argentina among other countries, Rowell suffered serious dental damage after a white water rafting accident, eventually requiring six surgeries, and faced continual sexism as men doubted her ability to fly.
But she emerged with a new confidence in herself.
“It was sort of a metamorphosis for her personally,” said Lyla Wolden, Mountain Light gallery manager and a close friend. “She lived in the shadow of her husband for years and this helped her define herself.”
Melville of Ten Speed said “Flying South” gives powerful voice to Rowell’s metamorphosis, and after receiving approval from her family, the company will proceed with publication of the book.
Melville said that decision dovetails with Rowell’s own wishes. In a recent conversation, Melville said, Rowell asked, “If I die in a plane crash, you will publish it, won’t you?”