This week marks the 10 year anniversary of the social networking site, Twitter. It’s been getting a lot of press and there are a lot of tweets from Twitter highlighting events throughout its history. I read through a bunch of them yesterday and remembered more than a few.
That got me thinking of how long I’d been on Twitter. I went to my profile page, and saw that I opened my account in March 2007. Almost exactly nine years. But what day in March? Had I missed my anniversary?
I Googled “Twitter anniversary date” and discovered Twitter Birthday, a site that exists solely to tell you when a twitter account was opened. I put in my user name. And I discovered that my account was opened on March 20, 2007. Exactly nine years before.
My Twitter “birth certificate,” retrieved exactly nine years after my account was opened.
I’ve met several of these “virtual friends” in person, including Andy (who lives in the U.K.), Shirley (California), Esther (Arizona), Mike Muench (Florida), Mike Meraz (California), Daniel (Arizona), Ann (Utah), Bryan (Utah), Patty (Maryland), Terry (Texas).
Barbara (Massachusetts) and Jodene (Washington) have gone on helicopter rides with me and Amanda (Washington/Louisiana) has actually flown my helicopter in Washington while I was tending to some divorce-related business in Arizona.
I wrote a book with Miraz (New Zealand) and was interviewed once by Marvyn (U.K.) for his Inspired Pilot podcast and multiple times by Chuck (New Jersey) for his MacVoices video podcast.
I’ve also used Twitter to keep in touch with people I already knew from my personal and business life. And organizations that tweet information that interests me. Those lists are too long to recite here.
Twitter has changed my life in another important way, too. In 2009, I authored and recorded the first of several video courses about Twitter for Lynda.com. This turned out to be a real contributor to my income with impressive royalties year after year as the course was regularly revised. (Sadly, I no longer do this course for Lynda and can’t recommend the current version.)
I blogged about Twitter and my relationship to it. My very first post about Twitter concerned then presidential candidate John Edwards using Twitter way back in 2007 to attract voters. That’s not a big deal today, but it was huge back then. Another post from 2007 titled “Reach Out and Meet Someone” covered my thoughts on social media and meeting people online. I felt as if I needed to explain it — it was that new. I also blogged “Four Steps to Get the Most Out of Twitter,” which, nine years later, is still valid. You can read more of my posts about Twitter by following the Twitter tag.
Nine years after joining Twitter, I’m as enthusiastic about it as ever. While it’s true that I’m not thrilled about some of the changes I’ve seen — notably the preponderance of “promoted tweets,” the Moments feature, and the algorithm now used (by default!) to sort your timeline — Twitter has remained unique enough to make it an important component of my social networking efforts. It’s still my “water cooler,” the place I turn to get social when I need a break from my daily activities.
While I lot of people just “don’t get” Twitter, I’m pretty sure that I do. And I expect to be using it for a long time to come.
I have a very small front lawn. The only reason I have a lawn at all is because my dog likes grass. She likes to roll in the grass and drag her belly across the grass and yes, even poop in the grass.
I created my front lawn in the late summer of 2014, when my building was done but my living space was barely started. I bought some sod on Craig’s List for $20. It turned out to be enough to do half the lawn. I seeded the rest. It grew and, before long, the lawn looked like one nice patch of grass.
I bought a push mower. You know — the kind you push and the wheels spin some blades. It’s a small lawn. I don’t need more. It takes about 15 minutes to do if I do it often enough. I’m thinking of buying an electric mower, but I like the exercise the push mower gives me.
In the spring of 2015, I set up a sprinkler system. In the hottest part of summer, it waters the lawn twice a day for about 10 minutes. The grass grows quickly. At the peak of the season, I have to mow twice a week. Otherwise, the grass gets too long and it’s a real bitch to mow.
Last season, I turned off the sprinklers in the fall and waited for the lawn to go into winter mode. It took a long time, I mowed it once in a while and then, when the first frost came, I put the mower away.
It snowed in November. And it snowed some more in December. A lot more. I went away and while I was gone, it snowed even more. The front lawn was covered with snow throughout December and January. It took its time melting in February. I watched while I was away, looking at it through one of my security cameras. Even when the snow was mostly gone, there were still patches on the lawn.
My neighbor called this frost burn. I just call it ugly. It happens when a lot of snow sits on the grass for a long time, crushing and killing it. At the top of the photo, you can see where I’d already raked and added soil.
When I got home in mid February, I discovered that they weren’t patches of snow. They were patches of dead, flattened grass. Frost burn, is what my neighbor called it.
I went to California, hoping the grass would somehow miraculously recover while I was gone. But it didn’t. It looked the same when I got back in early March.
Of course, it isn’t as if it was warm here. It’s true that the land around where I live is “greening up,” for spring, but it’s still in the 30s at night. While the grass is just waking up from its winter slumber, I wasn’t convinced that it would shake off this layer of dead grass on its own. So I began raking it.
It was a tough job, especially when the grass was still wet. I was raking up clumps of it. For a while, it looked as if I were raking more than I was leaving behind.
Still, I kept at it, doing a little bit every day. It was a real upper body workout. I had two different rakes I used: my old RV rake (recently used to roast marshmallows while camping) to really dig down deep and a wide plastic leave rake to gather up all that dead grass. I worked on it, off and on, for a week. I just finished it earlier this afternoon.
While I was doing all this, I also removed my half-hearted front walk, which I’d created when I put in the lawn using some very ugly rectangular concrete pavers. I never liked the way it looked and it was a pain to mow over. No one used it except me. Everyone else walked up the paved driveway.
I also finished the “retaining wall” separating the grass from the gravel driveway. I’d started the wall when I put in the lawn, wanting to avoid sloping the grass right down to the driveway. I used local stone — there’s no shortage of it in the talus slopes of basalt rock that sometimes cross the road. I’d go out on my ATV with the trailer attached and load up the biggest pieces I could find, bring them home, and stack them carefully. I’m actually pretty good at it — but that might be because of my Italian blood. (Italians are excellent stoneworkers.) I’d stopped the wall at the walkway, but when the walkway was removed, I figured it was time to finish the wall. So I did.
I’ve had a lot of good luck with this grass seed.
I then spread about 8 cubic feet of lawn topping on the lawn, concentrating on the low spots that needed to be built up. I bet I could use another 8 cubic feet — but I’ll save that for next year.
I finished up with some Scott Turf Builder Sun/Shade grass seed. I used about half of a seven-pound bag, spreading it with a hand spreader I have. It was important for me to get it done today; there’s rain in the forecast for the next few days and I wanted to let mother nature do the watering, at least for now.
At this point, my lawn is done until it starts growing. I fully expect it to be lush and green in about a month.
Here’s a shot from the paved driveway. Yes, I know it looks like crap here — I bet it looks great in a month. You can see where most of the soil went.
I do have a few more things to do:
Fine tune and test the sprinkler system I installed last summer. I’d actually like to replace the two impact sprinkler heads with the kind of head that drops down into the ground when it’s not working. That’ll make mowing a lot easier. I figure I have about a month to do that.
Finish up the space under the deck. This is a huge project that consists of:
Removing the beehive planters. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I think it looks trashy.
Leveling the ground under the deck. Although it’s mostly level, there are some bumps that need to go away. I’ll be using a shovel, a rake, and a piece of wood for scraping to get that done.
Laying weed preventer cloth on the entire surface. I’m tired of grass growing where I don’t want it.
Setting border stones between the lawn and the space under the deck. I want a definite divider between the two areas.
Laying down pavers. I chose ones that look like a mosaic of stone. I figure I’ll need about 60 of them to get the job done.
Planting shrubs between the walkway and border stones. Not sure yet what I’ll plant. Hoping to buy something native that makes berries.
Surrounding shrubs with mulch or bark. I want the weed preventer cloth completely covered.
Filling in the area between the walk and building with river rocks. There’s too much shade under the deck against the building to plant anything there.
Dress the driveway edge with additional gravel. I’ll be getting a truckload of gravel delivered, possibly as soon as next week. I want half spread on my driveway to fill in some low spots and the rest dumped where I can use it as needed.
This angle shows the retaining wall I built to avoid the lawn sloping down into the driveway. It also gives you a good idea of where the additional gravel needs to go.
Owning a home is a lot of work. But it’s worth every minute when the jobs are done and you get to admire the results of your labor. And its nice to know that in this case, a little exercise also saved a bunch of money that I could have spent hiring landscapers to do this for me.
But the biggest challenge is not the work — it’s dreaming up ideas to make the space more attractive and usable. Two years ago, as I got ready for the construction of my home, I knew I’d have to put in a lawn somewhere. Later that year, when the building was in place, I had the earth work done to prep for where the lawn would go. I then added the grass and the retaining wall. While the path I added turned out to be a bad idea, it wasn’t so difficult to remove. Since then, I’ve been building on what I have, making the ideas I’ve come up with become reality — which is basically what my entire home project has been all about.
Yes, it’s a lot of work. But I’m loving every minute of it.
I need to start this account with some back story to put it into perspective. If you’re tired of reading about my old life, skip the following section and start reading at The Drive.
The Back Story
One of the things that bothered me most in the last years of my marriage was the fact that my husband’s 9 to 5 job and his insistence on living in a condo in the Phoenix area instead of our Wickenburg house made it very difficult for us to have any fun together. Although my time was extremely flexible — I was still in my declining writing career and didn’t do much flying when I wasn’t away for my summer job — his wasn’t. He worked every weekday. Even when I moved into the condo with him that last winter we were together, we seldom did anything during the week. Dinner and a movie gets old after a while, but not nearly as old as watching him channel surf every evening we didn’t go out. On weekends, he insisted on making the 90-minute drive back to Wickenburg on Friday afternoon, returning with a 90-minute drive back to Phoenix on Sunday evening or Monday morning. I tagged along when I could, but the irony of our work schedules was that I was more likely to fly on weekends than weekdays. Besides, on weekends he’d spend a lot of time catching up on car shows he’d DVRed from Dish Network. Doing something “different” meant taking the same old motorcycle ride up to Prescott. He wouldn’t take his plane out unless the weather was perfect and forecasted to be perfect until after his return.
To make matters worse, he was nearly constantly in a foul mood. His job — like the others in Phoenix before it — had become a dead end, with an unpleasant work environment and a micro-managing boss who made it difficult for him to make the sales he needed to earn a better living. He was struggling financially to not only cover the high cost of the condo he refused to sell, but the loan on his Mercedes, expenses for a plane he seldom flew, his other living expenses, and his regular contributions to his niece’s education, which had entered the PhD candidate phase. He couldn’t see how his debt and expenses had made him a slave to his job. He was never happy and he seemed to take it out on me, accusing me of being the reason “we had no friends,” and complaining when I preferred reading or doing crossword puzzles over spending another frustrating evening in front of the television while he channel surfed.
When that job came to an end in early February and he seemed to have another job lined up behind it, I pushed hard for us to go away for a five-day trip to Death Valley. We’d take the Mobile Mansion, set up camp at one of the park’s campgrounds, and take our cameras out to explore Death Valley. February was the time of year when the wildflowers started blooming. Our previous trip together to Death Valley — way back in the 1980s — had been limited by the rental car we’d had; we’d be able to go a lot farther off the beaten track in a 4WD truck.
I saw the trip as an opportunity to leave troubles behind, to remember the other great trips we’d had together, to go back — at least mentally — to a better time when our relationship was better and our love for each other was stronger. I hoped it would recharge our relationship and bring us closer together again.
Unfortunately, the trip was not to be. His mother was in town — as she was every winter for a month or two — and although we’d put her in a great two-bedroom home that was part of an assisted living community in town, she was at our house every single day and long into the night. For some reason — fear, perhaps? — he didn’t tell her about our upcoming trip. As the days to departure ticked down, I kept waiting for him to tell her. Surely she could live without us for five lousy days.
Lucy, the toothless pug, basking in the morning sun at our Colorado River backwaters campsite. She survived that February 2012 night in the desert by hiding under a neighbor’s porch.
And then the day before we were supposed to leave — the day we should have been packing — he let our dog and my friend Janet’s dog out and later let our dog in without remarking on the absence of the little toothless pug. It was hours before I realized that she was gone, lost in the desert. After spending the entire day looking for her and feeling nearly as heartbroken as Janet about her loss, I snapped. I told him I’d had enough of him and cancelled the trip. The next day, I went down to Phoenix to work on a book in the office I’d ironically moved there to be closer to him.
I cooled down after a week or two and agreed to go with him to a marriage counsellor. And although I thought things were on the mend and looked forward to him starting yet another job that would give him more free time, he apparently had other ideas. When I left in May for my summer job in Washington, he signed up at Chemistry.com. A month later, he was sleeping with the desperate old whore who convinced him to dump me — after a 29-year relationship — and go after my money. He even told the judge at the first hearing that I had abandoned him. (WTF?) You can read about the rest elsewhere in this blog.
Anyway, that’s the back story. I’ve been wanting to visit Death Valley for the spring wildflowers for at least four years. This year, I finally got a chance to make that happen.
(Funny how much I can make happen without a sad sack old man holding me back.)
It wasn’t an uneventful drive.
I left Valley of Fire around 10:30 AM and got on I-15, heading southwest. I was just settling in for the three-hour drive with the cruise control locked in at the highway speed of 65 MPH when I felt a weird vibration in the truck. I got into the right lane and killed the cruise control about the same time the right rear tire on the truck blew.
I’d always wondered what it felt like to have blowout at highway speed when towing a 15,000 pound trailer. Now I know.
I kept control of the truck and managed to bring it to a stop within about 1,000 feet on the narrow shoulder of a very long overpass. Because highway traffic was just three feet away from my door, I lifted the center console and slid across the seat to get out on the shoulder side. The tread on the tire was nearly completely gone. Moving forward to get off the overpass was not an option unless I didn’t mind destroying the rim. The tire would have to be changed right where I was.
For the second time in less than two months, I called AAA.
My damaged mud flap, sitting up on the guardrail with a big hunk of tire tread on the shoulder beside it.
While I waited, I walked back along the highway. I recovered a big chunk of the tire, but more importantly, I also recovered the mudflap that had been torn off when the tire blew. I brought them back to the truck and threw the mudflap into the bed.
A flatbed tow truck arrived an hour later. A guy came out and set about lifting my truck’s rear end with a hydraulic jack and lowering the spare tire fastened under the truck bed. In just a few minutes, the tire was changed. Of course, the spare’s pressure was low, but that wasn’t a problem. The truck had a compressor and the tire was soon inflated and I was ready to go.
Honestly, anyone who travels — especially alone — really should have roadside assistance like AAA. This was the second time it helped me on this trip. And yes, I probably could have changed the tire. But it likely would have taken me hours to do it and the tire pressure still would have been low. I got the job done without getting dirty for the cost of a $20 tip.
While I’d been waiting, I’d been working the phones. I called Discount Tire in northwest Las Vegas — a location that was along my route to Death Valley — and arranged for a set of replacement tires. In all honesty, I never did like the off-road tires that had come with the truck. I just hoped I’d get a year out of them. I obviously wasn’t going to. Best to just replace them all now with an all-terrain tire that was better able to handle the weight I was towing. I wound up with a set of four Toyo Open Country tires. Even with a $100 rebate, it was quite a chunk of change. With luck, however, I won’t have to replace them for at least 5 years.
So my next stop was the Discount Tire location I’d called. There was a long line inside. I was told it might be two hours. I secured my place in line, paid for the tires, and then pulled my rig into an empty lot next door. I disconnected the Mobile Mansion, topped off the truck’s tank with diesel, and parked it back in the lot. Then Penny and I went into the RV and had lunch.
That’s one of the nice things about traveling with a house. The fridge and bathroom are always handy.
It was about 3:30 PM by the time the new tires were on and I’d hooked up the Mobile Mansion again. Sunset was two hours away and it didn’t look as if I’d get to Furnace Creek by then. But I put the pedal to the metal and drove. I got on Route 95 and followed that to Amargosa Valley. Then south on route 373 to Death Valley Junction. Finally 190 west to Furnace Creek. There wasn’t much traffic at all and I was able to do (at least) the speed limit all the way. The new tires felt great — and were amazingly quiet compared to the old ones.
I took the highlighted (blue) route from Valley of Fire to Death Valley.
On the descent down to the valley, the sky to the west, which was full of high, light clouds, turned brilliant pink and orange and then violet. It was probably the best sunset of the trip.
It was nearly dark when I pulled to the curb across from the office for Furnace Creek lodging. I checked in for the campsite I’d have for the next two nights. Then I walked back to the truck and drove it the final half mile to the campground. It was a back-in site between a giant luxury motorhome and some tent campers. I’d never parked the Mobile Mansion at night, but it wasn’t as if I could wait until morning. I set out a lantern on the driver’s side at the back of the site and a flashlight on the driver’s side in the front. And then, with a little guidance from the tent campers, I backed it in.
Got it on the first try. Sometimes I really surprise myself.
Setting up camp was easy because the site was level and there were no hookups. I disconnected the Mobile Mansion from the truck and put out the slides. Done.
The only drawback: that luxury motorhome had a generator running and it was loud. (What is it with these people?) Fortunately, they shut it off at 7 PM sharp.
Dawn at the Dunes
Although I’d hoped to get some exploring in on the afternoon when I arrived, arriving in the dark made that impossible. So I started my explorations early the next morning after a quick breakfast. Penny and I climbed aboard the truck before dawn and headed north toward Stovepipe Wells. I had the idea of photographing the dunes near there around sunrise. Unfortunately, so did a bunch of other people. When I arrived, the parking lot was half full and there were people all over the dunes. Getting a shot without a bunch of footprints or a tourist in it was not likely.
So I backtracked down the road and parked on the shoulder. I climbed into the back of the truck with my tripod and camera and framed a few shots using my 85-300 telephoto zoom lens. The focal length compressed the perspective, as I suspected it would, bringing the distant mountain tops closer. I got a few shots I liked before climbing back into the truck to continue on my way.
Not long after sunrise along the road between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley.
And here’s where I made my mistake. Back in January, I’d had lunch with my friend Rebecca, who had been to Death Valley earlier in the year. She’s showed me some locations on a National Geographic map that I bought and had shipped out to me when I was staying at the Colorado River backwaters south of Ehrenberg. I’d studied the map and had decided to try finding a set of dunes to the west of Ubehebe Crater in the north part of the park. But I guess I hadn’t “studied” the map enough — for some reason, I thought the road through Stovepipe Wells was the right road. It wasn’t until I was at Emigrant Campground that realized something wasn’t quite right and pulled over to check where I was going. I’d gone about 40 miles the wrong way.
Pro tip: Maps can only help you when you use them. Duh. (I should have grabbed one of these maps at the Visitor Center. It’s not as detailed as what I had, but it’s easier to manage in the truck.)
So I came up with a Plan B: explore the west side of the park up Emigrant Canyon Road. The map showed two interesting townsites: Skidoo and Harrisburg. I like wandering around ghost towns and figured I’d check them out.
I headed south on Emigrant Canyon Road, climbing ever higher into the mountains on the west side of the park. Outside, the air was cooler — in the low 40s, according to the truck’s outside air temperature gauge. But it was clear and I knew it would warm up. I found the sign to Skidoo and turned left onto a nicely maintained gravel road. Ahead of me, in the near distance, were two white SUVs and a white pickup truck. Soon, I caught up with them and was driving in their dust. When I saw an old cabin on a short road off to my left, I turned and used it as an excuse to let some miles get between us.
One of the neatest abandoned buildings I’ve ever come upon.
The cabin wasn’t anything interesting other than the fact that it was in remarkably good condition and would still make a very usable shelter. That in itself was remarkable: most unused buildings in this country — especially those in remote places — are targets for vandals who destroy for the pure satisfaction of destruction. There were no signs to keep out so I did what any explorer would do: I opened the screen door and wooden door inside it for a peek. I found an old spring bed frame and some litter inside. No smashed beer bottles, no graffiti, no vandal debris. I carefully closed both doors up the way I found them.
I don’t know why, but I like this image.
In general, the place wasn’t very photogenic. The most interesting shot I got was through a hole in the boards covering the back window: the light shining through cracks on the door. It was the cleanest abandoned building I’d every seen. I hope it stays that way forever.
Yes, I do realize that I probably looked pretty silly driving around Death Valley with two kayaks on my roof.
Penny and I got back into the truck and crossed the road. Soon we were climbing up a hill to an old mine site on the opposite hillside from the cabin. I left Penny in the truck — I don’t like to worry about her falling into mine shafts — and explored on my own. There wasn’t much there that I hadn’t already seen before at countless mine sites in Arizona and Nevada: the support structure beside the main shaft, several smaller horizontal mine shafts going into the hillside, and the remnants of old buildings. The site was neat and clean. Thinking back on this, I have to wonder if the park service or volunteers clean these places up. Or if vandals simply avoid National Parks.
We got back on the road and continued the drive to Skidoo. In most places, the road was wide with gentle curves and a bit of washboarding. In other places it was narrow and rocky as it wound along the edge of a steep drop-off. I passed the ruins of another building on my left and decided to explore it on the way back. I was eager to see Skidoo and wanted to be there before the sun had risen much farther.
Here’s the sign that tells you you’ve arrived at Skidoo. At the top is a quote: “Here the golden goddess is again singing her siren song of enchantment and California is again beckoning the world with a finger of gold: the world is listening, and coming — TO SKIDOO!” Apparently, the Rhyolite Herald was pretty good at dishing out bullshit back in 1907. All I could think about was where did they get their water?
When I got there, I didn’t even know I was there. It was just a flat area among the hills with lots of dirt roads going off into different directions. I drove up to an interpretive sign set alongside a turnoff in the road that announced I’d reached my destination. Wikipedia calls Skidoo a “virtual ghost town” but I don’t see any “virtual” or “town” about it. There’s really nothing of the town left other than foundation rubble and broken glass.
I’ve been doing some video journalling lately and apparently made one from the top of the hill. I didn’t turn toward the sun, probably because I knew the video in that direction would be crappy. I sound nasal because I was fighting a cold and I’m not sure if the snowcapped mountains are the Sierras.
I saw a road going up a steep hillside and decided to check it out. It would be a good test of my new tires. I drove over to the bottom of the hill, popped the truck into 4WD and started a steep climb. There was plenty of room at the top to park and (fortunately) to turn around. So I parked, shut the engine, and climbed out with Penny for a good look. From my vantage point, I could clearly see where the town had been (despite there being no real traces of it), as well as several mine shafts with towers. The two SUVs and pickup truck I’d seen earlier in the day were parked by one of the mines far below me. Off to the northwest, I could see snowcapped peaks.
I could see the white trucks and the men who had been in them near a mine site across the ravine from my observation point. A photo shot with my 300 mm lens revealed the Noreas logos on the SUVs. One of the men was dressed as a ranger and had likely come in the unmarked pickup with the big antenna on the roof.
There wasn’t much left of the truck and what was left was half-buried in mine tailings.
I turned the truck around and headed back, realizing that the road looked a lot steeper from the top than it had from the bottom. I took it slow in 4WD low gear. Then I found my way to another mine site I’d seen from the top of that hill, parked off the road, and got out for a look, again leaving Penny in the truck. What interested me most about this site was the wrecked truck there. For some reason, I like to photograph abandoned vehicles so I really spent quite a bit of time on this one.
I like the textures you can find among old, ruined things: a rusty car door, a wall made out of wood planks.
By then I was pretty sick of Skidoo and ready to skiddoo. (Sorry, but I couldn’t resist that one.) I turned the truck around again and retraced my route back to pavement eight miles away. I did stop along the way to visit that other abandoned building, but there wasn’t much there of interest so I didn’t stay long. Not even worth sharing a photo of it.
Harrisburg / Aguereberry Camp
Back at Emigrant Canyon Road, I had to make a decision: go back into Death Valley and explore elsewhere or continue on my way. I decided to go a little farther down the road to see if anything else was interesting. That’s how I wound up taking the turn to see the ghost town of Harrisburg, which was partially visible from the paved road.
I drove about a mile or two down the unpaved Aguereberry Point Road and parked with two other vehicles in a tiny parking area in front of a closed gate. The folks from the other vehicles were just leaving their cars and walking toward the ruins about a quarter mile away. They had a dog with them, too, so Penny and I hung back to give them space. I’d later discover that they were part of a group of three, two of which were in period costumes for a photo shoot. We were the only people there.
A look through the wall of Pete Aguereberry’s old house.
Although maps identify this spot as Harrisburg, a sign at the ruins called it Aguereberry Camp. The main site consisted of three buildings, an outhouse, and the remains of a mine. Farther up the road I’d walked was the ruins of an old Roadmaster sedan and still farther were the ruins of the Eureka Mine, which I did not visit. (There are only so many mine shafts a person can see in a day.) While the photo shoot folks were working around the car, I explored the buildings. They were in disrepair and vandalized, just as I’d come to expect of ruins, but not nearly as bad as I’d seen at other vandalized sites.
From there, Penny and I hiked another 1/8 mile or so to the old car, passing the photo shoot folks on their way back. The car made a remarkably interesting subject for photography — at least in my mind. The original color, teal (?), could still be seen among the rusty patches. Even the logo of the car was visible in one spot — which is how I knew it was a Roadmaster. I took quite a few shots, many of which featured Aguereberry Camp’s buildings in the background. I even got to play a bit with my 10-24 mm lens, which I seldom use these days.
A wide angle (16 mm or 24mm full frame) shot of the car with Aguereberry Camp in the background.
A very wide angle (10 mm or 15 mm full frame) shot of the car with the buildings visible through the windshield.
We walked back to the building a while later and spent some time chatting with the photo shoot folks. The two models — a man and a woman — had changed back into regular clothes. They were all sitting in the shade, snacking on peanut butter and apples and other tasty treats. They offered me some, but I declined. We talked about Death Valley and photography and they urged me to continue up Aguereberry Point road to the point. “The view is amazing,” the photographer assured me.
Although I felt as if I’d had enough driving along bumpy back roads for the day, I’m not one to pass up a view — especially one that isn’t crowded with tourists. So when I left the photo shoot folks, I continued along the road.
Aguereberry Point was only about six miles from pavement, but much of the road was very narrow for most of the way. There was a section that it wound through a narrow canyon that I could imagine being treacherous in a rainstorm. Then it came out onto a hillside and continued climbing out in the open. Up and up and up, finally ending in a small parking lot that looked as if it were at the top of the world. Penny and I were the only ones there.
The view was good from the parking lot, but the photographer had advised me to take the trail to the point. After walking (and climbing) a bit on the wrong trail, I got on the right one and followed it as far as I could go. The view of Death Valley was unobstructed to the northeast and southeast, with a mountain due east that blocked the view that way. At an elevation of 6,433 feet, we were at least that high above the valley floor, much of which is below sea level. It was dead quiet.
Photos really can’t convey the full picture of what this place is like, but here’s a panoramic image to give you an idea. Was it worth the drive? Hell yes.
Here’s a panorama taken at the point. Click the image for a larger version that you can scroll to see details.
Ravens like dog food. Who knew?
I walked back to the car and put out some food and water for Penny. A young couple drove up and parked next to the truck. As they donned backpacks, we chatted about places to visit in the park. I had nothing to offer except a recommendation to skip the drive to Skidoo. They told me that the wildflowers were amazing down near Ashford Canyon, where they’d camped overnight. Then they were off down the trail, leaving me to chase off the ravens that were eating Penny’s food.
From there, I retraced our route back to pavement and, from there, back down into Death Valley. We passed through Stovepipe Wells and headed toward Furnace Creek. That’s when I noticed the wildflowers I’d missed that morning on my predawn drive. The roadsides were full of them. I didn’t realize it, but Death Valley was heading for a once-a-decade “super bloom.”
I thought there were a lot of flowers here, north of Furnace Creek. But this was nothing compared to what was about 50 miles down the road.
After a brief stop to check out the desert pupfish at Salt Creek, I continued past Furnace Creek on Badwater Road. I was back among the tourist crowd, with lots of cars and buses along the way, especially at Badwater, which is the lowest point in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level. There were lots of people walking out on the salt flats there, but I didn’t bother to stop. I was aiming for Ashford Canyon, where the young backpackers had said there were so many flowers. The further south I got, however, the more flowers there were. People were parked alongside the road where the flowers were thickest, taking photos and walking among the bright yellow blooms. I couldn’t resist a few stops myself, although I knew I’d get better shots when the sun was lower in the sky.
The light wasn’t as good as it could have been, but I couldn’t resist stopping for a few photos along the way to Ashford Canyon.
I was also surprised to see standing water in various places alongside the road. I’d heard that there had been a lot of rain in Death Valley that fall, but I’d assumed the water had run off or seeped into the ground. Instead, there were a few dry lake beds that weren’t exactly dry. Some were almost swampy. Although I hoped for an opportunity to get some good reflection shots, conditions were unfavorable; a breeze put just enough ripples on the water surface to break up any good reflections.
Desert gold wildflowers at Ashford Mills.
I arrived at the remains of Ashford Mills after 4:30 PM. The same big yellow flowers — appropriately named “desert gold” — I’d been seeing along the way were scattered all around the ruins. I wandered around the ruins and took photos while Penny sniffed here and there. It was amazing to see hills in the distance yellow with blooms.
Here are several close-up shots of some of the smaller flowers I spotted while wandering around.
There were also some smaller flowers that were less obvious and required careful attention to spot. I did a lot of crawling around with my 16-85 mm lens — I don’t have a macro lens — to get close-up images of them. The group of four people sitting out at a picnic table near the parking lot, eating a late lunch or early dinner, must have thought I was nuts. I was really getting into it.
The turn for Ashford Canyon was right across the road from the road to Ashford Mills. It was a narrow two-track road that wound up a hillside and then into the canyon. The young backpackers had said the flowers were good up there, but as I began the slow bumpy drive I began wondering whether they meant that the flowers were good in that general area. They certainly were amazing. I drove for about a mile when I realized it wasn’t going to get any better than what I was already seeing. I found a place to turn around and started back.
By this time, the sun was sinking quite low. Mountains on the west side of the park would make sunset a lot earlier than I expected after consulting Siri that morning. (Ask Siri what time sunrise or sunset is and she’ll tell you and provide a weather report.) I wanted to head back for a late afternoon shot of a particularly flower-filled area along the road. So I headed back toward Badwater and Furnace Creek. I reached the location I was thinking of just as the light was getting very good and got out to take a few photos.
The carpet of yellow flowers is a stark contrast to the bare rock walls on either side of Death Valley.
Leaving the Valley
By the time I was ready to go back, the hillsides were in shadow. It was dusk when I pulled up to the Mobile Mansion.
If you’re wondering why I bothered to give you the backstory at the beginning of this post it’s because of this: While I drove and hiked around and explored and photographed Death Valley with my dog, I spent a lot of time thinking of what the trip might have been like four years earlier with the man I thought was my life partner. With five days to spend in the park, we would have seen a lot more. But would the trip together have gone as smoothly as I’d hoped? Or would he have been stressing about his mother left behind? And would the trip have been a repeat of all those amazing road trips we’d taken together in the 1980s and 1990s? Or would we have bickered over every little thing we did?
I know now, in my heart, that our relationship was like the walking dead — existing with no life, no future. In February of 2012, I wanted to go back to the way things were when our relationship was good and strong, when we were two people of one mind who shared ideas and dreams. But he had already given up and was just biding his time, waiting for his escape. I loved and trusted him too much to see the truth about what he’d become: a bitter old man, blaming me for his failures in life, eager to take revenge on imagined offenses.
Although my trip had been short — too short, I think! — it had been taken on my terms, without pressure or a need to compromise. I’ve been traveling alone since long before my 19-day “midlife crisis road trip” back in 2005. While it’s nice to travel with a companion, good travel companions are hard to come by. I lost mine years ago, many years before my divorce. While I’m sad that he’s gone, there’s no denying how much better off I am without him.
Although I’d considered doing a little early morning photography the next day, I realized that the locations I wanted to visit were too far away to get there and back and still leave the park by 10 AM. It would be better to come back another time, when I had more time to spend. My next stop was in the Sacramento area of California, where I’d be based with the helicopter for a frost contract. It was a six-hour drive and I looked forward to seeing a few friends when I arrived. Wednesday would be my travel day and Thursday would be a day to kick back and relax before taking Alaska Air home to fetch the helicopter.
To minimize the noise I’d make on departure the next morning — keeping in mind that my tent-dwelling neighbors would hear every sound I made — I decided to hook up the Mobile Mansion that evening. So I cranked down the landing gear, backed the truck into place, and lowered the front end of the Mobile Mansion onto the hitch. Within a few minutes, the chains and power plug were in place and the landing gear was up and locked. All I had to do in the morning when I was ready to go was to close up the slides.
I had a nice salad for dinner. I tried hard to ignore the sound of the generator next door. I don’t understand how I can camp day after day in my rig without running a generator when these people in their fancy motorhomes can’t seem to spend any time in theirs without their generator running full-time. Fortunately, they turned it off at 7 PM sharp.
After dinner and a quick clean up, I relaxed in bed with a book. Penny curled up in her bed beside me. I was dead asleep by 9 PM.
In the morning, we were on the road by 7 AM, heading west on the road past Stovepipe Wells toward Panamint Springs. That drive didn’t go anywhere near as planned — but that’s another story.
Back in December I took delivery of 1/4 cow: about 100 pounds of local grass-fed beef. The meat was butchered and packaged and frozen and most of it is still in the freezer I bought primarily to store it.
Here’s what my first try looked like. I cut the green onions too long. (Not sure what I was thinking there.) And yes, I know I can benefit from a course on food photography.
Among the cuts of meat I got in my package was a lot of stew meat. I’ve been using it to make a variety of things, including beef barley soup, in my Instant Pot pressure cooker. The other day, while looking for something different to make with an Asian flair, I found this recipe for Mongolian Beef.
I made it today, tweaked to the beef I had on hand. I wasn’t thrilled with the results. In general, it was too sweet and not flavorful enough. I made some minor changes to the recipe that I think make it better — at least for me. Here’s my version.
2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes. The original recipe called for sliced flank steak.
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon Chinese five spice. This was not in the original recipe, but I think it adds flavor.
1 tablespoon sesame oil. Vegetable oil may be substituted.
6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/2 cup soy sauce. Low sodium would probably be best, since this recipe can be quite salty. I might even consider cutting the soy sauce in half the next time I make it.
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup brown sugar. The original recipe called for 2/3 cup dark brown sugar, but I think it comes out way too sweet so I cut it in half. I use light brown sugar.
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger. The original recipe called for 1/2 teaspoon.
2 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons cold water
4 green onions, sliced into 1-inch pieces. The original recipe called for only 3 green onions.
These instructions assume you’re using an Instant Pot or a similar electric pressure cooker.
Mix salt, pepper, and five spice in a medium bowl. Add beef and toss to coat as evenly as possible.
Add oil to the pot and press Saute.
When oil begins to sizzle, add meat and brown on all sides. You may have to do this in multiple batches so as not to crowd the meat. When browned, transfer meat back to the bowl.
Add the garlic to the pot and sauté for one minute.
Add the soy sauce, 1/2 cup water, brown sugar, and ginger. Stir to combine.
Add browned beef and any accumulated juices.
Press Keep Warm and then press Manual. Set the timer for 20 minutes. Make sure High pressure is selected.
When pressure cooking cycle is done and beep sounds, press Keep Warm. Then release the pressure (carefully) by turning the release knob. When all the pressure has been released, carefully remove the lid.
Combine the cornstarch and 3 tablespoons water, stirring until smooth.
Stir the cornstarch mixture into the beef mixture in the pot.
Press Saute and bring to a boil, stirring constantly until sauce thickens.
Stir in the green onions.
Serve with rice and steamed vegetables or a salad with a ginger dressing.
This is not spicy at all, although I think it could use some heat. If anyone has any suggestions on what kind of chili or pepper I should add, please leave your suggestion in the comments for this post.
I’m currently based in the Sacramento area of California for my late winter/early spring job as a frost control pilot. I live part-time in a nice farm town I’ve grown to know and like over the past four years, waiting for the weather to turn cold and a phone call telling me to get ready to fly. At that point, “passive standby,” when I get paid by the day to have my helicopter on-site, turns into “active standby,” when I get paid by the hour to wait. When the fly call comes, I theoretically spring into action, firing up the helicopter and heading out over my almond orchards to circulate air and keep the frost from damaging the developing nuts.
I say “theoretically” because although this is my fourth year as a frost pilot, that fly call has never come. Instead, each season I wind up being paid by the flight to fly to California, being paid by the day to hang around in very pleasant weather doing whatever I like while it’s still kind of dreary at home, occasionally being paid by the hour to sit in my truck at the airport at night waiting for a fly call, and eventually being paid by the flight to fly the helicopter home. I earn enough in two months to carry me financially until cherry season starts in May — and beyond. Along the way, I have a grand old time in Northern California’s Central Valley. I’ve made some friends, done a ton of hiking, gone wine tasting, kayaked the American River and Lake Solano, learned to fly a gyro, gone ballooning, and even given my bees an early start to the spring season. In general, it’s just an extension of my winter travels, with lots of flexibility to go where I like and do what I want — as long as I can get back to base by midnight when I’m put on active standby.
Anyway, my point is that I don’t have a lot of flying to do for this job. So instead, I take the helicopter out on “maintenance flights.” This is where I start up the helicopter to make sure it’ll start when I need it and since I’ve got the engine running, I may as well take off and since I’m taking off, I may as well go somewhere interesting like up Cache Creek or into Napa Valley or around Sutter Butte.
My favorite “maintenance flight”? Low-level up Cache Creek, especially just after dawn.
Yesterday’s Excuse for Flying
My helicopter is coming up for overhaul soon and I’ve begun interviewing service centers to find one that’ll do the job the way I want it done at a price I’m willing to pay. I’ve already visited a shop in St. Augustine, FL, and have talked to the folks in Hillsboro, OR, who sold me my helicopter nearly twelve years ago. (Hard to believe it’s been that long, eh?) I’ve recently gotten more motivated to learn my overhaul options; one of the magazines I write for has agreed to a 1000-word article about my search for a shop. So I obviously need to visit more shops.
I was not interested in driving to Salinas. The 170-mile drive would take at least 3 hours each way. Obviously, I’d fly. Foreflight told me it would take about an hour and 20 minutes and that was fine with me. (I have 200 hour to burn off on the helicopter before November.) A review of the direct route showed that it was pretty easy, with no serious concerns about airspace or mountain terrain. Weather was forecasted to be good on Wednesday, although rain was moving in north and east of San Francisco (where I’m based) later in the week. It was a no-brainer. I made tentative plans to fly on Wednesday afternoon.
The Flight Down
I spent Wednesday morning taking care of odds and ends: writing a blog post, updating a friend’s website, answering email messages, scanning receipts, walking to the closest RedBox to drop off a video and pick up another one. The man I needed to meet at Airmotive would be at the office all day, so there was no rush. I had lunch just after noon, then climbed into the truck with Penny and headed out to the airport. A while later, after setting up my GoPro “nosecam,” iPad with Foreflight, and phone for music, I fired up the engine. I was heading south by 1:30 PM with Penny lounging on her bed in the front passenger seat beside me.
It was an uneventful flight. Well, mostly.
Why I Tend to Avoid Towered Airspace
I think a sidebar is in order to explain why I didn’t fly right through Livermore’s airspace and talk to the tower.
First of all, my direct route would have put me less than 1/2 mile into Livermore’s airspace — nowhere near the runway or tower. It wasn’t a big deal to adjust course a tiny bit to the left (east) to avoid it.
Second, my experience with towered airports has been a real mixed bag over the 15+ years I’ve been flying. If an airspace is directly on my flight path, I’ll ask the controller to transition. I might make a request like “Helicopter six-three-zero-mike-lima, 10 miles northeast, would like to transition southbound on the east side of your airspace.” (That’s what I might have said on Wednesday to Livermore.)
About half the time, the tower will allow me to “proceed as requested,” sometimes asking me to “ident” (push a button on my transponder which momentarily makes me more visible on his radar) or even assigning me a squawk code (an unique 4-digit code for my aircraft on radar). All that’s quite reasonable and fine with me.
But other times, the tower will require me to follow a certain route through the airspace — for example, over the top of the airport, midfield at a specified altitude. This can waste time and fuel. And still other times, the tower will instruct me to climb to an altitude above the airspace — usually 2500 feet AGL or higher — to “transition.” (Technically, this is not transitioning the airspace because I’m technically not in it when I’m flying that high over it.) This is nosebleed territory for helicopter pilots who typically fly 500-1000 feet AGL, not to mention a real waste of time and fuel. And other times — admittedly rarely — the tower will simply deny the request and tell me to stay clear. (Scottsdale liked to do this.)
So the solution I’ve come up with is this: if my direct route doesn’t take me within two miles of the runways or tower, I adjust my path to fly around the airspace and monitor the tower frequency to listen for traffic. At my altitude, airplane traffic — other than crop-dusters — is seldom an issue.
There was a close call with a biplane crop duster who apparently didn’t see me where I was cruising at about 1000 feet AGL (Above Ground Level) just to avoid crop-dusters. I guess he was going back to base. I dumped the collective and dropped down to about 300 AGL quickly while taking other evasive actions. He passed above and behind me and I continued on my way, climbing back up to at least 700 AGL and keeping a sharp eye out for others.
And then near Livermore, another traffic situation. I’d tuned into Livermore’s tower to monitor the frequency as I flew southbound just east of the tower-controlled airspace. I heard the controller warn another pilot about traffic that sounded just like me. I stayed quiet until the controller came back on the radio about a minute later, sounding a bit alarmed that the traffic (me) was only a half-mile away. I looked up and left and saw the Cessna flying at least 500 feet above me, westbound. I keyed the mic button and said: “Livermore Tower, helicopter six-three-zero-mike-lima, just east of your airspace, has that airplane traffic in sight. I’m passing below him, no factor.” The controller sounded more than a little relieved when he responded with thanks.
You can see the marine layer moving in on the right side of this shot. I was about 5 miles from Salinas Airport here.
I was in the mountains, abeam San Jose Airport, when I started noticing the marine layer moving in from the west. I fiddled with Foreflight’s settings to get visibility information for the nearby airports. All of the ones in my vicinity — including Watsonville and Salinas up ahead — were reporting 10 miles or more. But I didn’t like the way those low clouds look. I know from experience that the marine layer can turn an airport from VFR to IFR in fifteen minutes when it’s moving just right.
I landed at Salinas and followed the controller’s directions to “the biggest hangar on the field.” I parked in an empty airplane tie-down spot nearby. As I shut down, I looked at the windsock and the low clouds. The wind was clearly pushing the marine layer in from the west. I might not have much time if I wanted to get back that day.
My meeting went extraordinarily well. I met the boss, had a quick tour of their facility, and chatted with him about my options. He and his crew have done more than a few Robinson overhauls, including one for a helicopter that was parked right outside his hangar door. He’d learned a few things that would save me money while keeping me safe and in full compliance with FAA requirements. He had local sources for aircraft painting, upholstery, and parts inspections. Best of all, he could get the work done within my stated time restraints — I would need it back by mid February for next year’s frost season.
He and his helicopter guy came out and looked at my ship. They said it looked good — I have to wonder if they say that to everyone or if so many other ships don’t look good that they feel compelled to say something when they see one that looks better than usual. I have to agree that it doesn’t look 11+ years old. I’ve taken very good care of it over the years, getting quality maintenance done by good shops and keeping it in a hangar (or garage) for most of its life.
My visit ended by giving him my complete contact information so he could work up a quote. I’d have to order the overhaul “kit” from Robinson at least six months in advance to get it in time. Clearly, I’d need to choose a shop a lot sooner than I expected to, possibly as early as May 1.
By the time I got outside, it was overcast and downright cold. The marine layer had indeed moved in, with clouds just 1200 feet above the field (according to the ATIS recording) and mountain obscuration to the north, where I needed to go. It looked as if the only clear routes were to the south. I’d need to fly around the weather to move north.
But first I needed fuel. I’d burned half of what was on board on my trip down and did not want to go into any weather situation without full tanks. A call on the unicom frequency got me nowhere, so I walked over to the general aviation terminal and found someone in the Airport Manager’s office who gave me a phone number to call for fuel. While I waited for the truck, I fiddled with Foreflight to get additional weather information. But I didn’t need a computer or weather report to see that I wasn’t going to be taking the direct route back.
Around this time, I realized that I’d forgotten to text a Facebook friend who worked at the airport. She’s a medevac pilot who was on duty that evening. I was supposed to text her when I arrived so she could drop by. But the incoming marine layer had distracted me and I’d forgotten. Now, with the weather getting worse by the minute, I couldn’t wait around. I texted her my apologies. Another time? Chances are, I’d be back in November; I’d very much liked what I’d seen and heard at Airmotive.
The Flight Back
My actual track, as logged by Foreflight, on my return flight from Salinas. Talk about circumventing weather!
Once the fuel was on board and I’d added some oil, I climbed back on board and started up. The ATIS mentioned ILS approaches but the airport was still VFR. I asked for a departure to the east, got clearance, and took off.
I had my GoPro “nosecam” running for the whole flight. With the sun behind me — if it made an appearance — I knew the light would be much better than it had been on the way down. (I don’t record every minute of every flight. I already have too much mediocre footage; now I just try to get good footage.) The camera captured the situation well: very low clouds for quite a distance. I aimed for some brightness on the horizon, stayed at an altitude that kept me below the cloud layer, kept a sharp eye out for towers, and flew southeast.
I really wanted to steer left in this shot, taken less than a mile from the airport. But instead I aimed for that bright spot in the far right — southeast bound.
Don’t get me wrong. I could have tried scud running a path up the valley to the north. And I might have found a comfortable way to get where I wanted to go. But I’ve run scud enough times and have found my way blocked enough times that I’ve learned not to even bother trying if there’s an easy way around it. I know marine layers well enough to know that they don’t usually cross mountains. If I could get to the far side of the mountains east of the airport, I’d find a clear way north.
And that’s exactly what happened. I aimed for the brightness, which got bigger and brighter the farther I went. Suddenly, I was in sunlight, climbing the bright green foothills of the mountains on a northeast heading. Soon I was at cloud level just to the east of the clouds heading due north. Before long, I was above the marine layer, looking out at islands of mountaintops in the clouds to the west.
Only six minutes passed from the time the previous photo was snapped to the time this one was snapped. At this point, I was banking to the northeast, climbing above the marine layer just east of where it got “stuck” in the mountains.
I adjusted my course on both my helicopter’s Garmin 430 GPS and Foreflight and attempted to fly direct back to my base. The lush green hills were amazingly beautiful and the shadows from the sun shining through the marine layer gave them an extra depth. It was hard not to detour in a few places to get some better views. I let the camera run, figuring I’d get a few good shots along the way.
California’s hillsides are gorgeous in the spring. You can see the marine layer trying — but not succeeding — to climb over the hills on the left.
I flew for a while to the east of the marine layer, but as I crossed the valley near Hollister, the marine layer moved in beneath me. I was already about 2500 feet up, having just crossed some mountains, and knew I’d have to cross more mountains on the other side of the valley, so I stayed at altitude and crossed above them, with glimpses of the farm town beneath me. The air up above the clouds was a bit rough and we got bounced around a bit. So the next time I had the option of flying above or below the marine layer — near Livermore — I elected to fly below it. That had me flying just below the clouds along a hillside east of the airport there, almost on my original flight path down.
I flew above the marine layer clouds at Hollister and was rewarded with a bumpy ride.
I couldn’t resist flying down this lake-filled valley east of San Martin.
While I didn’t overfly any of the buildings at Lick Observatory, I did fly close enough to get a good look. (Hope I didn’t wake anyone!)
I was over this Livermore area golf course at 4:39 PM when one of my Twitter friends saw me fly by.
The rest of the flight was pretty uneventful. I made a straight line back to my base, over two wind farms, a handful of small cities, the Sacramento River, wetlands, and lots of farmland. It was just after 5 PM when I set down on my grassy parking spot at the airport.
Windmills that had been still on my way south were turning by the time I flew back north.
All of the wetlands in northern California are full of these large white birds that take flight as soon as they hear a helicopter approaching. This was a big flock — yes, every white dot here is a bird. Fortunately, they stay very close to the ground.
On final approach to this year’s base of operations west of Sacramento.
I gathered together my things, let Penny out to run on the grass, and locked up the helicopter. I chatted for a while with one of the line guys about the upcoming rainy weather and placed a fuel order. (The helicopter must always be topped off with fuel when I’m on call.) Then Penny and I headed back to the truck and our temporary home.
I’d logged a total of 2.7 hours of flight time.
@mlanger Golfing at Wente in Livermore and see this Red R44 streaking by on a NW track 4:30pm. I said could it be ML???
Later, after I drove back to where I’m staying and relaxed for a while, I checked in with Twitter. I found a tweet from one of my twitter friends who had apparently seen me from the ground while he was golfing in Livermore. How’s that for small world syndrome?
It had been a good flight and a nice day out and about. Although I could have done without the detour — which probably added 20 minutes of flight time to my return trip — I certainly couldn’t complain about the views along the way.