When Is a Bathtub More than Just a Bathtub?

When it’s a symbol of how goals can be achieved when you’re not being held back.

When I was in college, I dated a guy whose family was pretty well off. They had two very nice homes and one of their homes included a soaking tub in the master bathroom. I was 19 when I saw it and from that point on, I wanted one just like it.

Of course, that wasn’t immediately possible given my financial situation. We graduated and my boyfriend and I went our separate ways. I lived alone for about a year and then met the man I’d eventually marry. We lived together in three different homes — well, five if you count the apartments he lived in part-time for work for several years — none of which could accommodate the tub I’d dreamed about, even though I could well afford it by then.

I should point out that my last home, in Arizona, had what’s called a garden tub. This was a generously sized bath tub that looked very inviting but was, unfortunately, not deep enough for a good soak. I used it a lot on winter afternoons, when the sun came through the glass block window and warmed the bathroom. I “made do” with what I had, with either my knees or my chest sticking out of the water while I read or sipped wine.

(Much later, during my last winter in Arizona, I drained and disinfected my outdoor hot tub. After refilling it with clean water and having the heater repaired, I spent quite a few evenings out there, soaking in the warm water. I think I used the hot tub more that last winter than I did in all the years I owned it.)

Americh Beverly 4040
My dream tub.

Oddly, on a trip to visit some friends in California around 2010 or so, I saw my dream tub again. It was in a rental home on the American River that belonged to a friend of a friend. It was installed exactly as I would have installed it: by a big window with a view. In this case, it was a view of the forest around the home, but that was enough.

I surfed the web and tracked down exactly what it was: Americh Beverly 4040.

Time passed. After 23 years together, I married the man I loved. He lost interest in me soon afterwards — but not my money, apparently — and left me for a desperate old whore he found online. (Read the posts tagged divorce if you want the sordid details.) He wanted the house and I didn’t so I left. I rebooted my life by buying 10 acres of view property in the Wenatchee Valley of Washington state and began building what has been referred to as a “custom home” but is actually just a very large garage with a modest living space upstairs.

But the more I dealt with divorce bullshit — and believe me, there was quite a bit of it — the more I realized how much I deserved to have the little luxury items I’d been denied for all the years I spent with a man incapable of making a decision without researching options until either I lost interest or the opportunity was long gone.

Little things like my soaking tub.

So when I designed my bathroom, I designed it with a soaking tub in mind. A tub by the window so I could look out and enjoy the view while I had a good, long soak.

Sadly, my dream tub would not fit in the space I designed. It had to do with my windows. You see, because I wanted to be able to enjoy the view whether I was standing up or sitting down anywhere in my home, I chose tall windows that started only 18 inches off the floor. My dream tub was taller than that. Most soaking tubs are. A built-in tub was out of the question. I’d have to get a freestanding tub.

I must have spent 20 hours in total searching the web for just the right tub. Every few weeks, I’d dive in again, looking at many of the same sites and tubs over and over. Trouble was, there’s no showroom anywhere near here that has tubs like I wanted on display. I had to rely on the Internet for photos and measurements. How many times did I sit on the floor with my legs out, holding a tape measure beside me to estimate water depth? It was vital that my entire body be covered with water. I did not want another bathtub that left my knees sticking out.

My Tub
The catalog photo of the tub I selected.

I finally settled on the 67″ Coley Acrylic Freestanding Tub available through Signature Hardware. It cost a bit more than I’d wanted to spend, but the longer the divorce bullshit dragged on, the more I was convinced I deserved it. I was tired of settling for less that what I really wanted.

I didn’t realize it, but the bathtub had become a symbol — a symbol of a new, unfettered life. A life where I was free to make all of my own decisions. A life where I no longer had to consult or debate with a sad sack old man who always seemed to have excuses for why something couldn’t be done. A man who was too fearful of taking risks that he couldn’t make anything worthwhile happen.

The bathtub arrived in January and sat in its huge box for two months. It was finally carried upstairs and installed in my bathroom on Thursday. When the plumbers left, it was ready to use.

And how I wanted to use it!

But I’d promised some friends I’d meet them for dinner and, by the time I got back, it was too late for a soak.

And on Friday, a friend came over for dinner. When she left, it was too late for a soak.

And on Saturday, I helped some friends with a catering job in town. When I got back, it was too late for a soak.

Yesterday was a rainy day. I spent most of the day finishing up electrical outlets and switches and light fixtures around my home. A friend came for a visit and we chatted for a while. When he left, I fixed the ice maker in my refrigerator — the installers had failed to turn on the valve for the water source. Then I sat in my lounge chair by the window in the living room and just listened to the sound of the rain on the roof while looking out over the gray day, with low clouds drifting over the river and alongside the hills. My almost-finished home was warm and dry. I started thinking about that tub.

My First Bath
My first bath in the new tub was exactly as I’d hoped it would be.

A while later, I was stepping into deep, warm water with a glass of wine on the windowsill, well within reach. Hot water tumbled from the faucet, building bubbles high. Before the tub was filled my whole body was submerged.

It was exactly as I hoped it would be.

And that’s when I realized that this first soak was another milestone in my rebooted life. The realization of a goal I’d set for myself almost 35 years before but had abandoned due to circumstances beyond my control. It was possible because there was no “beyond my control” anymore. I had control of my life and could do what I wanted with it.

I was free to make things happen — and I was.

Construction: Plumbing Finish, Part I

Three out of four bathroom fixtures up and running!

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse and walkthrough movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

Although I’d originally wanted to do my own plumbing here, I got a case of the smarts and decided that doing my own electrical work was enough for an amateur. I hired a plumber. On Thursday, March 12, they did most of the finish work in my home.

Plumbing and Construction

If you’ve never participated in the construction of a home, here’s some basic information you might find interesting.

There are three basic steps to putting the plumbing in a home:

Stub In

This is where they bring the pipes from the outside of the house into the house. For my home, there would be a concrete slab. The supply and waste pipes had to come in from outside, under the slab, so the pipes had to be laid before the concrete was poured. This was done back in June 2014, while my building shell was under construction. (Later, my earth-moving guy connected the supply and waste lines from the building to the water supply and septic system.)

Stub In
Because my building is a pole building and the slab was poured as one of the last steps, the building shell was almost done when the plumbers came to do the stub in.

Rough In

This is where they put pipes for water supply — including hot and cold — as well as waste and venting into the walls. They need to know where to run all these pipes and they need to have room to run them. Because I’d originally planned on doing this part myself, I made my home design very simple, with all the plumbing basically running along one wall between my kitchen and bathroom. That wall was framed with 2 x 6 lumber (at my request) so there was plenty of space. This was done back in January 2015, as I was working on the electrical system.

Rough In
Here’s one of the rough in plumbers working on a drain line in the wall between my kitchen and bathroom.

Finish

This is where they connect fixtures to the supply and waste pipes. When the finish is finished, the plumbing works. That’s what they started on Thursday.

The Fixtures

I’ll admit it straight out: I didn’t skimp when I bought plumbing fixtures. I bought exactly what I wanted.

After too many years of making decisions as part of a two-member committee, it was refreshing to be able to just get what I wanted without excessive research, debates, and delays. Everything from appliances to toilet to water heater to faucets — I looked at what was available, pointed to what I wanted, and had it delivered or loaded onto my cart. Done!

Some things I cared about — for example, my kitchen sink and faucet fixture. I wanted a specific style and look and took some time to browse the options before picking one. Other things I didn’t care much about — for example, my water heater. Any electric unit with a 50 gallon tank should be fine.

I should mention here that in addition to standard items normally connected to a plumbing system — kitchen and bathroom sinks, toilet, dishwasher, refrigerator (for ice maker), water heater — I had a few unusual items. The most unusual was my bathtub. And yes, that was something I labored over the decision-making process. The reason: I had to order online because there was no showroom where I could see options.

You see, I wanted a soaking tub. I’ve always wanted a soaking tub. Unfortunately, the tub I’d dreamed of having simply wouldn’t fit in my bathroom given the location of the window. So I had to find another tub that would fit the bill. I eventually decided on the 67-inch long Coley freestanding tub. I’d position it at the far end of my bathroom, right in front of my window, so I could take in the view while I soaked. (Sounds pretty good, huh?)

The reason this is unusual? Well, most folks don’t have a freestanding tub. Most folks have a tub that’s built into the wall or shower area. My freestanding tub required a freestanding faucet. It also required careful positioning to get the drain just right — no small task with the rafters under the floor. (As a matter of fact, we wound up installing the tub backwards with the drain opposite the faucet just so it would fit right.)

Tub Delivery
My tub came in a very large box.

The tub arrived in January, when my road was iced over and the delivery guy was afraid to drive to my home. I had to take my truck out to the main road where the tub was transferred from his truck to the back of mine. Then I utilized the services of a friend of mine who happened to stop by for lunch to get it off the truck. For months it sat in its box on a dolly under my 5th wheel RV’s hitch. It would be the first plumbing fixture to be installed.

My shower was also different. Rather than buying a manufactured shower stall, I would be building mine onsite with acrylic block walls. And I couldn’t build it until the tub was installed because they’d never get the tub past the constructed shower stall.

Because of that — and because the kitchen sink would be mounted with the countertops at March month-end — it would take two visits from the plumbers to finish my plumbing.

The Start of the Finish

I used the same plumbers for each step of my project construction. They’re good, reliable guys who do good work and have patience for someone like me — a homeowner in the role of inexperienced general contractor who is making things up as she goes along.

After a rush to get my bathroom floor done and last few plumbing fixtures purchased, Dave and his son arrived on Thursday at about 11 AM. They got right to work.

The tub was first. After securing the special faucet I’d bought for the tub, they carried the tub up the stairs. I was working on the electrical connection for the water heater in the laundry room when they wrestled it past the doorway. Within minutes, it was in position, snug at the end of the room.

Tub and Shower Pan
The tub and shower pan with drain installed.

Next was the drain for the shower stall. They drilled a hole though the floor to meet up with the drain pipe they’d installed at rough in. Back then, I didn’t have the shower pan so they’d estimated where the drain should be. They were off by about 8 inches, but would meet up with the P-trap. Before they put the shower pan back in place, I laid in some floor repair paste that would cement the shower pan to the floor.

Shower Drain Pipe
Oops! The shower drain and drain pipe were off by about 8 inches.

They went downstairs to connect the two drains to the pipes under the floor. I’d instructed the drywall guys to leave the drywall panels off the garage ceiling under those two drains — it took some measuring to figure out exactly where they needed to be once the insulation was in place. They pulled the insulation away and connected the pipes.

Water Heater
The water tank is shorter than the rough in guys anticipated.

Next was the water heater. Dave and his son carried it up the stairs and Dave left. I chatted with Dave’s son as he prepped it for installation. It was shorter than they’d anticipated. I’d wanted to put a shelf over it, but they’d run the rough-in plumbing for a much taller tank. The end result was a rather odd looking configuration with two long pipes coming out the top of the tank and going into the wall.

The toilet was next. I think he told me three times that I’d bought a very good toilet. I was just glad to see that its base completely covered the drain hole in the tile.

Meanwhile, my friend Tom had exchanged the cracked vanity top with sink at Lowe’s and returned with the replacement. I was supposed to have the top in place for the plumbers to install the sink fixture. But Tom couldn’t stick around to help me carry it upstairs. So, I opened the box down in my garage and waited.

Plumbing In
Here’s where the plumbing comes into the building. Everything under the 90° angle is mine: a main shutoff valve and a drain line with valve currently used to supply my RV with water and provide a hose spigot. The black thing after the angle is the pressure regulator. The black pipe coming out of the floor on the left will be used to supply water to a hose spigot on the front of the building; they’ll do that when they come back.

Next, Dave’s son got to work downstairs. After shutting off the water at the street, he had to clean up my Frankenstein’s monster of a pex plumbing job that I was currently using to get water into my RV. He shortened the source pipe, at my request, and bracketed the whole thing to a piece of plywood I’d fastened between the posts supporting the stairs. He then added a shutoff valve and a pressure regulator — I have extremely high water pressure here — and connected that line to the cold water pipe the rough in guys had dropped from upstairs. The resulting configuration looked funky but was functional and secure.

When that was done, I looked at him and said, “You know what’s next, right? The bathroom sink.” I pointed to the vanity top with sink sitting in its box on the garage floor. “I can’t carry it alone. Can you help me?”

He kindly agree to. I ran a bead of silicone sealant I had around the top of the vanity on three sides and we carried it upstairs. He helped me align it. And then I stepped aside and let him install the faucet I’d bought.

While he was working on that, I was finishing up the wiring for the water heater. I had a heck of a time with the grounding wire and will probably have an electrician friend check it to assure it meets code. In the meantime, I know it’s functional, even if it isn’t pretty.

Dave’s son went out and turned the water back on. Then he turned on the valve downstairs. Soon I could hear water coming into the water heater. A moment later, he was upstairs, testing the fixtures one by one.

I think I was too shocked that these things were working to really register what was happening. After all, only a week before the bathroom had been nothing more than a plywood floor with a shower pan and two stub walls. Now it was 75% done and everything installed was fully functional.

Once the water heater tank had filled, I flipped the circuit breaker switch to turn it on. Upstairs, I could hear a faint hum from inside the tank. I’d have hot water in less than 30 minutes.

Other appliances already connected to the plumbing — the refrigerator’s ice maker and washing machine — would work as soon as I turned them on.

I helped Dave’s son pack up his things, thanking him over and over again for getting so much working that day. I told him the kitchen sink would be installed by March 27 and that I’d do my best to get the shower ready for installation by then, too. It would be a quick job for them to hook up the shower head, kitchen faucet, and dishwasher. And then the plumbing would be finished.

When he left, I wired the last outlet in the laundry room, thus completing the circuit that the washing machine was connected to. I went downstairs and turned on the breaker.

And then I did something I’d been dreaming about doing since I left my Arizona home in May 2013: I did a load of wash in my own washing machine.

Construction: The Bathroom Floor

I did what I had to do.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse and walkthrough movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

One of the things holding up the progress on my home was the fact that I hadn’t finished the bathroom floor yet. I couldn’t have the plumbers in to install the tub and other bathroom fixtures until the floor was done.

And it wasn’t going to do itself.

The Difficult Flooring Decision

Throughout my home, I’m using Pergo Max wood laminate flooring. This is a “floating floor” with snap together planks. Although it’s highly rated, durable, and attractive, it isn’t suitable for areas where large, heavy items will be placed. That’s why I had to prep for my kitchen appliance installation by putting vinyl adhesive flooring on 1/4 inch plywood under where my refrigerator, dishwasher, and range would go.

I used the same vinyl plank flooring in my laundry room. It was a test — I figured that if I liked it there, I’d use it in my bathroom. Although it went down easily enough, it certainly wasn’t the kind of quality flooring I wanted in my real living space. (My laundry room is a glorified closet.) So vinyl was not the answer.

And yes, I do realize that there are different levels of quality for vinyl flooring. I still wasn’t interested.

That meant tile.

I like tile. I really do. I had it in the kitchen and entry areas of my old house and, if it were up to me, I would have had it throughout the entire downstairs. (I wanted so badly to tear that dirty old carpet out of the living room and redo the whole room with tile. Not my problem anymore, thankfully.) Tile makes sense in a dry place like Arizona, especially on a ground floor with a concrete subfloor.

But I don’t like installing tile. It’s a lot of work.

I had some experience working with tile years ago in my Arizona house, back when I cared enough about it to want to make it different and special. It had a built-in shelf area in the den — built-ins were huge in Arizona in the 1990s — and I tiled two or three of the shelves. That’s when I learned what a pain grouting was. I lost interest in projects like that once I got a good taste of how tough they could be.

I figured that in my bathroom, I’d compromise. I’d put tile under the bathtub and do the rest of the room with Pergo. That would minimize the amount of tile work needed to be done. I could knock it off in two days.

With that in mind, I bought two sheets of 1/4 inch Durock cement board for underlayment and two boxes of 12-inch ceramic tile that I thought would work well with the oak colored Pergo.

Prepping the Floor, Changing My Mind

Cutting Durock
The first piece with cutouts for my tub’s faucet and drain.

I got to work on Friday, March 6. I had to cut the Durock sheets to fit into place on the floor. To minimize the trips up and down the stairs, I brought my saw horses and tools up and set them up in my future bedroom. Then I went at the first board with my circular saw and a 4-inch hole drill. I carried it into the bathroom and lowered it into position. A perfect fit!

Placed Durock
Measure twice, cut once. It really does work.

I screwed it into place using a bunch of cement board screws and got to work with the next piece. Within minutes, the far end of the bathroom floor was covered with Durock.

Floor Contrast
Side by side, the two floor colors didn’t look bad at all.

I decided to give myself a preview of what the finished floor might look like. I laid down two tiles and placed some spare pieces of that vinyl plank beside it. The plank was nearly the same color as my Pergo, which I hadn’t picked up yet. The tile was gray with streaks of brown in it and the two materials, side by side, really did bring out the brown streaks. But I started having doubts about the way the floor would look with two different materials. And I realized that I’d have to put tile under the toilet and probably under the vanity, which was open on the bottom. That was half the floor.

Oh, screw it, I thought to myself. I’ll just do the whole damn floor in tile.

That, of course, meant another trip to Home Depot for four more boxes of tile and two more sheets of Durock. While I was there, I also bought the mosaic tile I’d need for the inside of my shower stall.

Finished Subfloor?
I thought I was finished with the subfloor preparation on Saturday.

I spent Saturday morning cutting and laying out the sheets of Durock. It wasn’t difficult — there were few fixtures to cut around. When I was finished, I shared photos of my handiwork on Twitter and Facebook, as I often do.

The advice came quickly, as it often does. More screws, someone said. Did you place that over thin-set? someone asked. You need to tape and mud it.

This was not what I wanted to hear. I thought the floor was pretty secure.

A friend of mine stopped by on Sunday to help me install the fire doors at the bottom of my stairs. (Building codes require me to have 20-minute rated fire doors between my living space and garage.) He’d built his house and he’d tiled his bathroom. I asked him what he thought. It’s fine, he said.

Sunday afternoon, I fired up my web browser and went searching for tile how-to videos. I wanted a refresher before I got to work. I found this excellent series of how-to videos on the Home Depot website and watched all the videos for the type of installation I was doing. That, in turn, included to a link for another video about preparing the subfloor. I watched that video and realized that my Facebook friends were right: I needed thin-set under that Durock and more screws. Although I’d tape the seams, I drew the line at mudding them. After all, I’d be placing more thin-set on top when I laid the tile.

I used some premixed thin-set that I’d bought for the tile to get started that evening. The stuff was expensive and I went through it at an alarming rate, despite what the package said coverage should be. Clearly I needed to buy the less expensive powder and mix it myself.

So Monday morning, bright and early, I was at Stan’s Merry Mart buying a 50-pound bag of thin-set mortar mix. I spent the entire morning pulling up those sheets of Durock, smoothing thin-set under each sheet, and screwing them back down. I carefully covered the remaining thin-set with plastic and headed out to an appointment. I’d start laying tile when I got home that evening.

Buying Thin-set (Again and Again), Laying Tile

When I got home, I was very pleased to see how solid the floor now seemed. I was convinced that I’d done the right thing in taking this extra step. (Thank you, Facebook friends, for your advice.) Although it was after 6 PM, I thought I’d get a good start on the tiling.

Of course, the thin-set wasn’t thin anymore. It was basically garbage.

I reopened the plastic container of premixed thin-set I’d started the day before. I laid three rows of tile before the container was empty. (I wound up buying a 25-pound bag of the mix on Tuesday morning before getting back to work.)

First Three Rows
I was extremely fortunate with the size of the room and tile. Believe it or not, the room was exactly 6 tiles across. That really minimized the amount of tile cutting I needed to do.

I was actually very well prepared for all my tile work. When I’d packed up my belongings in Arizona, I eventually got into the garage where I’d stored all my painting and tile work tools in plastic bins. I went through it all and packed up the items I thought I might need in my new home — including all of my tile working tools. I even packed my manual tile cutter. The only extra equipment I needed to buy was a good rubber grout float and a set of tile nippers. I even had a tile saw with diamond blade that I’d been using for my glass work for the past year. So I was pretty much set for the job.

Tuesday’s work went quickly, laying tile after tile, pausing only long enough to make a tile cut with the cutter or saw. I would have finished the entire floor except for one problem: I ran out of thin-set. Again. With just six tiles left to lay. I’d have to pick up another bag that evening when I went out with friends and finish in the morning.

Laid Tiles
All tiles laid.

And that’s what I did. Rather than mix the entire bag of thin-set, I mixed up a batch just large enough to lay the last handful of tiles.

The Race to the Finish

In the meantime, I’d been trying to get the plumber to give me a date on when they’d come to hook up the water and do whatever else they could do. I’d promised them that the tile work in the bathroom would be done the previous Friday — yeah, the same day I started. The plumber, Dave, had told me it would be at least two weeks and I knew it was vital to get on his calendar. So we’d been playing telephone tag all week and he showed up to take a look at the job on Wednesday evening.

List
I use the 2Do app to keep a synchronized list on my iOS devices and Macs. Every time I think of something I need, I just add it to a list.

He listed all the things they could do and what I’d need on hand. I had some of it — the tub, tub faucet, vanity, bathroom countertop/sink. But I needed more: water heater, toilet, shower head, bathroom faucet, kitchen sink, kitchen faucet. I already had these things on my list.

“Yeah,” he said as he prepared to leave. “We’ll be by tomorrow. But it won’t be until after about 11 because we need to install a cast iron tub.”

I tried to hide my shock. Tomorrow morning? It was already after 5 PM. Items on my list had been shifted to the top and I still needed to grout the tile. But if I balked, I’d lose this date and I definitely didn’t want to get on the bottom of his list.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll see you then.”

I was then faced with the problem of getting two pallets of Pergo, which I’d picked up on Saturday, out of the back of my truck so I had room to pick up a water heater, toilet, and other bulky items. I compromised. I offloaded just one pallet, leaving enough room for what I had to bring home, and headed out. By 9 PM, I was backing into the garage with the truck bed full again.

Although I wanted to wake up at 4 on Thursday morning and I had to wake up by 5, I actually woke up by 3. That’s how it is when I have lots of things on my mind. As I age, I seem to need less and less sleep. That’s a good thing because it seems to take longer to get things done.

I was on my hands and kneepads on the bathroom floor by 4:30 AM with a grout float, a plastic container filled with light brown grout, a paint bucket filled with clean water, and a sponge. This was the part that I hated. Grouting.


This video makes it look easy. While it’s not exactly difficult, it certainly isn’t any fun.

It’s not spreading the grout that’s a problem. That’s kind of relaxing, in a way. The trouble is, the grout gets all over the tops of the tiles, too, and it has to be removed before it dries. So you’re basically spreading grout on 4 to 8 tiles, then sponging them off. This video was extremely helpful because it gave me the key to doing it right: make the sponge as dry as you possibly can and keep rinsing it.

Grouting
By 6:10 AM, I was pretty close to being finished with the grout work. I still don’t have electricity finished in the bathroom, so I had to rely on my shop lamp for light.

I did nearly half the floor in the first hour or so. Then I took a break to get fresh water. I got right back to work. It was vital that the grout be set by the time the plumbers came because they’d be walking all over it. It would need at least three hours. I wanted to be done by 6 AM. I was actually done by 7 AM.

Finished Tile
Here’s a closeup of the finished tile. Was it worth all that work? Grudgingly, I’d have to say that it was.

And it looked great.

I’d chosen the brown grout for two reasons:

  • Dark grout doesn’t show dirt like white grout does. That was my only complaint about the tile in my old house — that freaking white grout. Who does that? It was impossible to keep clean. I remember cleaning the kitchen floor on my hands and knees, scrubbing grout for hours on end. I was never going to do that again.
  • I thought the brown grout would bring out the brown colors in the tile — and it does. It would also look good with the mosaic tile I’d bought for the shower stall.

The plumbers showed up on schedule, right around 11 AM. By that time, the grout was set and safe to walk on. They got a lot done in a short period of time. But that’s a subject for another blog post.

Stirring Emotions with Misleading Headlines and Photos

I’m sick of people sharing misleading information on social media.

The other day, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to an online petition on a site called Sum of Us. I won’t share the link, but here’s the top of the page:

Petition
This petition’s page is over the top when it comes to using misleading information to stir emotions.

When I saw the image at the top of the page, my immediate reaction was, “The Havasupai are building a mall?”

You see, the photo shows Havasu Falls, which is just down Havasu Creek from Supai, a tiny village on the Havasupai reservation inside the Grand Canyon. Supai is so remote that you can only get there three ways: on foot, by horse/mule, or by helicopter. There are no roads leading down to Supai. Because of this, it gets relatively few visitors — perhaps a 100 a day during peak summer tourism months. It’s widely known for it beautiful blue waters, waterfalls, and travertine rock formations. I’ve been down there three times and feel very privileged.

The idea of Supai having a “super mall” is absurd, so I clicked through to see what it was all about.

Apparently, I’m the only one seeing this post on Facebook who doubted the veracity of the headline/photo combination. Most of the people who saw it shared comments voicing their outrage that such a beautiful place should be ruined and assured the rest of us that they’d signed the petition.

Of course, the real story didn’t have anything to do with the Havasupai land in the Grand Canyon — which, by the way, is outside park boundaries. It was about the Navajo land on the east side of the Grand Canyon and a proposal to build a tourist attraction near the confluence of the Little Colorado River and Colorado River. These two sites are a full 50 miles apart as the crow flies.

Locations
The beautiful waterfall in the photo is 50 miles away from the actual confluence of the two rivers. On this map, green represents actual park land.

The leading paragraph spread more misleading information; they added the emphasis, not me:

Property developers want to build a super-mall smack dab in the middle of one of America’s most breath-taking world heritage sites, the Grand Canyon. The mall would include an IMAX, shops, hotels and fast food cafes. The National Park Service has called the plans ‘a travesty’.

I don’t know about you, but “smack, dab in the middle” should be somewhere near the middle of something — not on the far east end of it. As the map above shows, this development won’t be anywhere near the middle of the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is mind-bogglingly huge: 1.2 million acres or 1,904 square miles — that’s bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island. A development at the Confluence won’t be visible from the South Rim, which hosts at least 90% of the park’s visitors — many of whom spend less than an hour looking at the canyon — or the North Rim.

Grand Canyon Map
Here’s the big picture. Grand Canyon National Park is pink; Native American reservations are purple. You can download the whole map as a PDF. Note that there is a dispute over the exact location of the border between park and Navajo lands that would affect the ability of developers to move forward.

The truth about this story is that developers want to build a tourist attraction on the rim of the Grand Canyon inside the Navajo reservation. It would include shops, hotels, and a tram to the bottom of the canyon so people could actually access a part of the canyon that’s currently limited to hearty hikers, river runners, and mule riders — a tiny fraction of the park’s visitors. This isn’t too different from what the Hualapai have done on the west end with their Grand Canyon Skywalk or what the Navajo have done in Monument Valley with The View Hotel.

And maybe I should remind people that National Park Service concessionaires already manage six hotels (El Tovar Hotel, Bright Angel Lodge, Maswick Lodge, Yavapai Lodge, Katchina Lodge, and Grand Canyon Lodge) and well over a dozen gift shops on the rim of the Grand Canyon, inside the park. And a hotel at the bottom of the Grand Canyon (Phantom Ranch).

So what this petition page has done is used a photo of a beautiful waterfall that was shot 50 miles away, coupled it with a headline referring to a super mall, and led with an untrue statement regarding development in the middle of the Grand Canyon. Someone who doesn’t know the facts and relies on the information on this page might think there’s going to be a giant mall ruining the vistas at one of the world’s natural wonders.

So people sign. They provide their names and email addresses. Those addresses are likely harvested for use in other slactivism efforts. They’re likely followed up with pleas for donations to support the cause.

And people share the link to the misleading information, getting their friends to sign up, too.

And people talk about the “problem,” using the misleading information they read — if they bothered to get past the photo and first paragraph.

And this pisses me off to no end.

Now please don’t think that I’m in favor of more development at the Grand Canyon. I’m not. But I am in favor of Native American people being able to develop their land in ways that economically benefit them. I’m very familiar with the Navajo people, having spent quite a bit of time on and over the reservation. There are social problems including poverty, obesity (and related health issues), and alcohol abuse. Young people are leaving the reservation for better opportunities elsewhere. The native language — which was instrumental in our World War II communication efforts — and culture are being lost. If the Navajo people vote in favor of a project like this on their own land, I don’t see any reason why we should stop them. It would give them jobs, bring more tourists and tourism dollars to their part of the canyon, and help their economy.

Again, the Hualapai did this at Grand Canyon West and no one seemed to care. Why care about this now?

Oh, yeah. “Smack dab in the middle.”

My advice to people reading petitions like this: get informed before you let the authors manipulate your emotions to get the response they want. Don’t share misleading information.

We all know how difficult it is to find the truth on the Internet — and the problem is getting worse every day. Don’t be part of the problem. Don’t share information unless you know it’s accurate.

Pilot Motivations

What drives pilots at various career levels.

I’ve been flying helicopters since 2000, when I got my private pilot certificate. I learned to fly as a hobby but soon realized that if I wanted to fly, I needed an aircraft. Back in those days, I was earning a good living as a freelance writer and had authored two “bestsellers” in my field. I bought a helicopter and flew it in my spare time. I also worked toward my commercial pilot certificate, which I received in 2001, so I could fly for hire. After all, I wasn’t rich and who knew when the money from my writing career would dry up? Over time, I grew my business, bought a larger helicopter, and found a few lucrative niche markets for my services. Since the money from my writing career has pretty much dried up, I’m glad to have a solid standing in my flying career.

That’s the very short version of how I got to where I am today: an owner/operator with just one helicopter and a handful of regular clients, doing the occasional rides gig, tour, and photo/survey flight as need arises.

As I head home from two days of callout on a frost control contract in California’s Central Valley, I’ve been thinking a lot about what motivates pilots on each level of the aviation ladder: new pilots, experienced commercial pilots, and owner/operators. I’ve spent time in each group — although admittedly in unusual circumstances. I though I’d share a few thoughts from my experience — as well as what I’ve gleaned from talking to other pilots.

New Pilots

New pilots are mostly interested in doing one thing: building time.

Until they get enough experience as pilots, they’re not able to get a “real” flying job. Instead, they’re usually forced to take jobs as flight instructors, which most of them don’t really want to do. That’s the most common way for new pilots to build the 1,000 hours or more of pilot-in-command (PIC) time that’s usually required to get a non-training job.

This is an unfortunate time for any new pilot who doesn’t have the “right stuff” to be hired by a flight school. What is that right stuff? Flying skills, good attitude, patience, and a body weight under 180 pounds come to mind. Luck is part of it, too. Despite what flight schools tell their students, they can’t hire all graduates of their training program to be flight instructors. Sometimes new pilots need to be lucky enough to get their certified flight instructor (CFI) certificate just when one or more instructors are moving on to their first flying jobs.

For those new pilots who can’t secure a flight instructor job, things can be tough. They can’t get a job and move forward in their careers until they build time and they can’t build time without getting a job. Catch 22. These are the guys who will take any opportunity to fly, no matter what kind of flying it is, even if they have to pay for that flight time. I’ve had at least ten new pilots fly with me on long cross-country flights in my R44, paying an hourly rate much lower than what it would cost them to rent a helicopter, just to build time. There used to be a guy in Southern California who sold time in his JetRanger while he conducted traffic flights. (Is he still doing that?) And then there a few questionable operators who “hire” low time pilots to fly for them, requiring these “employees” to pay at least part of the helicopter’s operating cost when they fly.

Cherry Drying
No, I’m not interested in having a 300-hour pilot who can’t/won’t get a job as a CFI hovering at treetop level over cherry trees in my helicopter — even if he doesn’t want to be paid.

And don’t get me started on operators who use low-time pilots for potentially dangerous flying jobs, with that flight time as their only compensation. Every year I get at least one pilot calling or emailing me, offering to do cherry drying flights for free. My point of view on this: a professional should be compensated with money for his work, no matter what he does, and responsible operators should be hiring — and paying — sufficiently experienced pilots for the type of flying that needs to be done.

Time building is everything for new pilots — as it should be. Experience is vitally important for safety. And no matter how good a 300-hour pilot thinks he can fly, he’s nowhere near as good or safe as most 1,000-hour pilots.

Experienced Commercial Pilots

Once a pilot has gotten past the time-building stage and is able to qualify for a flying job, his main concern is — or should be — finding the right job. That should meet one (or all) of three criteria:

  • Be the kind of flying the pilot wants to do.
  • Give the pilot the flying experience he needs to get a future job doing the kind of flying he wants to do.
  • Pay a living wage — or better.

In other words, an experienced pilot’s main motivation is the advancement of his career down the path he prefers.

For example, someone interested in EMT work will need turbine flying experience, as well as night flying experience. He may have gotten night experience as a CFI doing all those night cross country flights with student pilots on board, but he likely didn’t get turbine time. A tour job at the Grand Canyon or in Alaska might be a good start. Those jobs are a good start for other kinds of helicopter work, including utility work, since some operators also have utility operations and might have a career path with training right into those jobs.

The $80K Helicopter Pilot Job

I want to point out here that those $80K/year helicopter pilot jobs do exist. They just don’t exist right out of flight school. If your flight school lured you in with promises of a big paycheck doing a cool job, they did you a disservice. Different types of flying pay different rates, but they all require a lot of experience to reach the higher pay levels. If your primary motivation is making a lot of money, you’re probably in the wrong career.

The more experience a pilot has, the more opportunities he has. And I’m not just talking about flight time, either. While logged PIC time is important, having a lot of time doesn’t automatically make a pilot qualified for a specific job. For example, I’ve got about 3200 hours of flight time logged, but I could never expect to walk right into an EMT job since I have limited turbine time and very little night flying time. But I could qualify for a job as a heli-skiing pilot because of my extensive experience in high density altitudes and off-airport landings. At this point in a pilot’s career, PIC time and experience, although related, are not of equal value.

So once a pilot has paid his dues and can start getting the jobs he wants, he’s mostly motivated to do the kind of flying he wants to do or that will help him further his career goals and earn a decent living.

Owner/Operator

And that brings us to where I am today and why I didn’t mind spending 40 hours traveling to and from and waiting around in California this week without turning a blade.

Owner/Operators are motivated primarily by one thing: making enough money to keep their helicopters, stay in business, and make a profit — often in that order.

In 2006, when I started seeing a decline in my writing income after riding a wave since 1998, I began to realize that if I didn’t keep my business in the black, I’d have to give up my hobby-turned-part-time-business. As the situation got worse, it changed the way I operated my aircraft. The ratio of non-revenue to revenue flight hours dramatically decreased as I flew more for hire and less for fun. While I still wanted to fly as much as I could — after all, I got into this business because I love to fly — money became my primary motivator.

Think about it: why would I let other pilots fly my aircraft if I love to fly? Because I was getting compensated for that flight time. That compensation would go toward paying my aircraft expenses.

Parked in California
Here’s my company’s most valuable asset on Wednesday, parked in California, waiting to be flown. A smart owner/operator will find ways to earn money without turning a blade.

As my Alaska Air flight descends into Seattle, I think about the chain of events that led me to seat 9A today: getting a frost control contract in December with a start date in March, repositioning the helicopter to California in late February (with another pilot at the controls), spending a few days on standby for an early contract start date before returning home. Then a phone call at 3:22 PM on Tuesday followed by a scramble to book and catch a flight to Sacramento, two nights on standby, another call to release me from standby, and a trip to Sacramento airport to catch this flight. Along the way, there were rental car reservations, hotel stays, and meals. I preflighted the helicopter once and woke up long before dawn both days.

And I didn’t turn a blade.

But I’m happy. No, I’m thrilled. Why? Because without putting any wear and tear on my company’s most valuable asset — my helicopter — I netted more money in less than 40 hours than I did during the period of from October through January. More than most new pilots make in a month.

Some people might think this is a great deal — after all, I’m making money without doing anything except traveling and waiting around. But these people are missing the big picture. I paid $346K plus interest to buy my helicopter. It costs more than $20K a year to insure it and keep it airworthy. Shouldn’t that enormous investment not only pay for itself but earn a profit? Every opportunity it can?

And, sadly, that’s what’s most important these days for me: keeping my bottom line healthy enough to keep flying for a living. That’s what’s on the minds of most owner/operators who aren’t independently wealthy.

Respect that — and don’t expect handouts.

Think About It

So here are three different ways three different pilots might look at what’s important to them about flying.

Why bring this up? Mostly so that pilots on each rung of the career ladder can better understand what’s motivating the other pilots.

I think about the new pilots and how eager they are to build time at almost any cost. I think about the more experienced pilots who are willing to be picky about the jobs they take just so they get set on a career path that’s right for them. And I think about owner/operators who have a helicopter at their disposal all the time but must responsibly choose how to deploy that asset for maximum returns.

I want the folks just starting to climb that ladder to understand the rest of us — and realize how their priorities will change if they slip into our positions some day.