Nate Foster felt a joy unlike anything he'd experienced in his 17 years as the mist broke to reveal the endless blue of the Pacific Ocean.
For six days, the Reisterstown teenager had glided over mountains and deserts in his two-seat, Piper Super Cub aircraft. The flight began in Ocean City and finally, on Saturday morning, another coast was in sight.
"It's indescribable how happy I felt to see the Pacific," he said Monday after a commercial flight home from California, where he completed his cross-country flight in the seaside town of Monterey.
Foster embarked on his solo journey just three days after receiving his pilot's license. He drew his inspiration from "Flight of Passage," a coming-of-age memoir about a similar cross-country adventure by teenage brothers.
He left Maryland last week, hoping to squeeze in the cross-country flight and return in time for Tuesday orientation at Friends School, where he is a senior. The trip went mostly as planned, with no technical difficulties and only one lost day when thunderstorms kept him trapped in Battle Mountain, Nev.
"It's a very, very small town," Foster said. "It only took about an hour to see the whole thing."
He thrived on advice from local pilots, gleaned at each small airport as he crossed the northern half of the country in two-hour hops. Stay near a highway, they told him, so you'll have a guaranteed landing strip if you need to go down. So Foster kept his sights glued to Interstate 80 as he soared over the Rockies.
He said he grew nervous only once, crossing a stretch of flat, brown desert as Nebraska bled into Wyoming. He saw no trees, rivers or fences. If an emergency forced him to land, he thought, who would ever find him?
"It was like flying over the moon," he said. "I felt this horrible loneliness. I just had to get out of there."
But Foster glimpsed many wonders to compensate. He hit 12,000 feet, the highest he had ever flown, as he crossed the Grand Tetons. To his right, he saw a 13,000-foot peak, to his left a 14,000-foot peak.
"It put it into perspective how massive they really are," he said. "To see those snow-capped peaks literally passing by my window was surreal."
His heart again fluttered in wonder as he climbed above the Sierra Nevada and all of a sudden saw the sapphire expanse of Lake Tahoe.
Foster's dad, Whit, greeted him in Monterey. He'd taught his son to love airplanes and couldn't believe how far the boy had taken his hobby. When the pair walked into the pilot's lounge in California on Saturday morning, Whit Foster kept telling anyone who would listen, "This is my son. He just flew from Maryland to California!"