Living with Dial-Up Networking

It really isn’t that bad.

When I left the golf course RV park in Quincy last week, I also left behind the incredibly frustrating Internet service I’d been stuck with there. I knew that wherever I camped on or near the orchard belonging to my last client of the season, WiFi access would not be an option. (Heck, I didn’t even know for sure if I’d be able to get an electric or water hookup.)

I’ve had Bluetooth tethering capabilities on my Verizon Wireless service for more than 3 years now. It costs me $15/month extra for unlimited bandwidth. (Don’t look for that plan now, folks; current plans all cap the bandwidth; I’m grandfathered in.)

Tethering, in case you’re not familiar with the term, involves introducing your computer to your Bluetooth-enabled smartphone to pair them wirelessly via Bluetooth. Your computer can then use your phone to “dial into” the cell phone provider’s Internet service. This is referred to as dial-up networking or DUN. Once connected, you can surf the Web, send and receive e-mail, and do just about anything else you could do if you were connected by WiFi. The connection isn’t fast, but it isn’t agonizingly slow, either. The only drawback is that when an incoming call connects, you can’t work online. But when you hang up, you can continue working — a feature I just discovered today.

The image below shows what the right end of my computer’s menu bar looks like when I’m connected. The modem menu shows connection time; in this example, only 12 seconds. The Bluetooth menu shows that I’m connected to a Bluetooth device (my BlackBerry). I keep AirPort turned off because there aren’t any WiFi networks around and keeping it turned off saves a tiny bit of battery life. When I want to disconnect, I choose Disconnect Bluetooth DUN from the Modem menu. After a “disconnecting” message scrolls by a few times, the connection is severed and the timer disappears. To connect, I’d choose Connect Bluetooth DUN from the same menu.

Connected Menu Bar

(If you’re interested in how-to information about DUN, check out “Setting Up Your Mac to Use a Smartphone’s Internet Connection,” which I wrote for InformIT a while back. It should still be up-to-date enough to be useful.)

I used tethering for most of my Internet access the first season I was in Washington state. Back then, I’d arranged for Internet service but it was disconnected because an involved party had been beaten with a stupid stick. I fell back to DUN for access and was glad I had it.

Back then, however, my computer and cell phone didn’t talk to each other very well. I had a Treo 700p in those days and maybe that was part of the problem. If an incoming call disconnected me, I’d have to do a battery pull on the phone, restart the computer, and repair to get a new connection set up. It was a pain in the butt so I tended to stay online for very short periods of time, dreading the possibility of an incoming call.

The memory of that has stuck with me. But either my BlackBerry Storm (v1) is more gracious about disconnections or Apple has improved its Bluetooth connection routines in Snow Leopard because I’m not suffering the same symptoms. If I get an incoming call, I tell my computer to disconnect, talk on the phone, and then reconnect easily when done. No battery pulls, no computer restarts.

As a result, I’ve been staying connected for as long as an hour at a time.

Where I AmMind you, I’m camped on a construction site across the street from a cherry orchard 8 miles up a canyon from Wenatchee, WA. (The tiny red X on the map marks the approximate spot.) It’s amazing to me that (1) my cell phone works so well up here, usually giving me five [legitimate] bars and (2) I’m able to stay connected to the Internet for so long.

But — and I hate to rub this in for all the iPhone devotees out there — I chose Verizon and skipped the iPhone thing because I often go to places like this and I often need tethering for Internet access. Does AT&T have coverage here? Maybe. Does the iPhone offer tethering without a complex, warranty-voiding jail-break? No.

Yes, it’s a pain in the butt to have to literally dial in every time I want to connect to the Internet. But for $15/month unlimited access, I can live with it — at least until I get home.

Walking the Fence

Part of ranch maintenance — even for our tiny “spread.”

About 10 years ago, interested in finding a summer place where we could go with our horses to escape the summer heat of the Phoenix area, we purchased 40 acres of ranch land in northern Arizona. Our lot at Howard Mesa Ranch is high desert land atop a mesa between Williams and Valle, AZ, about 40 miles south of the Grand Canyon.

Originally, we had high hopes of putting a vacation home up there. Our lot has 360° views that include Red Butte and the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the north, Mount Trumbull and its companion mountains on the Arizona strip to the west, Bill Williams Mountain to the south, and the snow-covered San Francisco Peaks to the east. We envisioned a 2-story home with a loft bedroom and big windows looking out over the views.

In preparation, we got a pair of water tanks, put in a septic system, and had the entire place fenced off with a 4-strand wire fence (smooth wire top and bottom, barbed wire in the middle per the CC&Rs). When we came up with our horses, they had 40 acres to wander and graze on.

But things change. We never built our vacation home. Maybe we will one day in the future, but I don’t know when that day will come. In the meantime, we camp out there on long weekends throughout the year. We’ve spent numerous July 4th weekends, several Christmases, and even one Thanksgiving at our off-the-grid retreat.

Like this weekend. We came up, mostly to check on the place and take care of some maintenance tasks. There’s a shed on the property that needs to be checked on regularly. And, of course, the fence.

Mike at Fence

Mike standing by the east side of our fence. That’s the San Francisco Peaks in the distance.

We walk the fence each time we’re up here. There’s over a mile of it, so it makes a nice walk. We’d put up the fence to keep our horses in, but now it worked primarily to keep the open range cattle out. I didn’t keep the elk out, though. They could — and did — jump the fence. Sometimes, their weight on that top strand of wire would shift the fence posts and bend the stays between them. Walking the fence meant repairing problems caused primarily by the elk.

In the old days, when we still had horses, Mike would ride the fence on horseback. He’d saddle up his horse and my horse would follow them. I’d busy myself with some other task, leaving them to get the job done without me. But with the horses gone, the walk would take longer. Jack the Dog wouldn’t be enough company for Mike. So I went along with them.

I carried a roll of wire, Mike carried the fencing tool. We walked the fence line, stopping occasionally to straighten stays, bang post deeper into the earth with a big rock, or tighten wires. It was easy to see where the elk had jumped the fence. It wasn’t just one or two elk, either. It was likely an entire herd. We didn’t mind the elk on our property. After all, they didn’t damage anything, like cows would.

Except the fence, of course.

Frost Heave

The southeast corner fence post. Over the years, frost heave has pushed the post up.

The fence had been professionally installed by a company based down near our Wickenburg home. They’d come up about a year after we’d brought the property and camped out until the job was done. The workers probably enjoyed being away from the low desert heat for a week or so. I wonder what they thought of the dark sky with its billions and billions of stars at night, or the coyotes that trot through the property as if they own it.

On the whole, the fence guys did a great job. Where they dropped the ball, however, is on the corners. Sure, they dug about three feet into the ground and secured those corner fence posts with concrete. But what they didn’t count on was frost heave, which is something you just don’t see down in the Phoenix area. Each winter, the ground freezes solid. As the soil freezes, it expands. It pushes up whatever it can to make room. Over the years, it has pushed the corner fence posts out of the ground. The fence is still sound, but the four corner posts no longer stand properly. One of these days, we’ll have to fix them.

Dead Animal

One of two partial skeletons we found while walking the fence.

Along the way, I caught sight of something odd about 200 feet from the fence. I went to investigate. It was the partial skeleton of a medium sized animal. Based on its size, skull, and the length of its neck, I think it may have been a young elk or perhaps a mule deer. There was no sign of antlers, so I don’t think it was an antelope. The bones had been picked clean, as you can see in this photo. The legs and entire hindquarters were missing. Mike found the lower jaw about 30 feet away. We think it may have been injured jumping the fence — or perhaps had starved when the ground was snow-covered — and the coyotes and birds had finished it off. Later, not far from the north side of the fence, we found another partial skeleton that also included the neck and part of the skull. Another unfortunate animal. I wonder how many others are within our 40 acres — or beyond it.

As we walked, it was clear that a lot of snow had laid upon the ground for a long time. The long, dried grasses were flattened out as if they’d borne the weight of deep, heavy snow for weeks on end. I could imagine animals jumping the fence, looking for food. I could imagine young or weak or injured ones dying, providing food for the carnivores and carrion eaters.

It took about 90 minutes to walk the fence and make the necessary repairs. By then, it had clouded up a bit and we were ready to take a break in the warmth of our camping shed. The job was done — until next time.

Off-the-Grid Camping in the New RV

Working out the kinks.

One of the improvements I made on my old RV was to add a solar panel to the roof. It was connected to a battery charger which, in turn, was connected to the camper’s batteries. When the sun was out — which is during most daylight hours here in Arizona — the batteries were charged. This made the camper extremely useful for off-the-grid camping. My husband and I did a lot of that last year on our way back from Washington to Arizona. We never ran low on power, which was a good thing because we didn’t have a generator.

There are a few things that won’t work in an RV without a connection to A/C power:

  • A/C power outlets. This means you can’t plug in and use any device with a standard plug.
  • Certain light fixtures. Some lights are A/C while some are D/C. A/C fixtures won’t work without an A/C connection.
  • Microwave. Even if it’s standard equipment on an RV, it’s plugged into an A/C outlet.
  • Air Conditioning. It’s A/C and it sucks a ton of power when it is plugged in and running. That means that even if you have a generator, you need a pretty powerful one to run the A/C when you’re not hooked up to campground or city power.

There are a few things that will run on propane or battery (D/C) power if you’re camping off-the-grid:

  • Refrigerator. Setting the refrigerator on “Auto” tells it to look for A/C power first; if that’s not available, it uses propane from the onboard tanks (assuming the valves have been opened).
  • Stove/Oven. Obviously, they’re propane. It would be dumb to put an electric stove in an RV.
  • Water pump. If you’re not connected to a pressurized water line, a D/C pump activates when you run the water to pump the water from the onboard fresh water tanks.
  • D/C devices. Some RVs include D/C outlets — think of power ports or cigarette lighters on a car. My old RV had one and I added a second; my new RV had three and I added a fourth. These are handy for charging cell phones or plugging in low wattage inverters to plug in low wattage A/C devices like laptops.

Other appliances use D/C power all the time, but if you’re plugged in, your battery is being charged all the time, so it’s no big deal. The heater, stereo, and certain light fixtures are good examples.

As you can see, RVs are pretty much designed to be self-sufficient when you’re off-the-grid. There’s a limit, of course, to how long you can live in an RV without a hookup, though. The solar power (or a generator) helps take care of electrical needs. Eventually, however, you’ll run out of water or fill up your black water sewer tank. There are ways to get around these issues — for example, minimize toilet use by using public toilets whenever possible, carry extra water in external tanks, etc. — so two people can easily live in a well-equipped RV off-the-grid for several weeks if they need to.

Oddly, however, most RV owners do not live in the RV off-the-grid. Instead, many of them tend to pull their RVs from one parking lot-like RV park to the next, cram them into narrow spaces between other RVs, hook up power, water, and sewer lines, and retreat inside their luxury boxes to watch television.

I’m not like most RV owners.

Before trading in the old camper, I pulled the 135-watt solar panel off the roof. This past week, I had it installed, with a new battery charger and controller, on the roof of my new RV.

This weekend, my husband and I are out in the desert about 25 miles west of our Wickenburg home, testing the trailer’s off-the-grid setup. I’m out in Aguila, at a private “resort” where my clients are testing some wireless networking equipment. The test requires me to fly their equipment around in the helicopter to see how well it works with ground-based mobile and stationary equipment. There’s more to it than that, but for the sake of my client’s privacy, that’s really all I’m willing to say.

At Robson'sThe job has a lot of down time — time when I’m just waiting around for them to be ready to fly. It made sense to bring the RV out here for the weekend. It gives Mike and I a chance to get away and relax away from home and we can bring along Jack the Dog and Alex the Bird. And, of course, we can test the off-the-grid setup of the RV close enough to home so that if there’s a serious problem, we’re not suffering. So the RV is currently parked about 100 yards from the helicopter’s landing zone out in the desert.

We’ve discovered a few things:

  • When the refrigerator works off propane, it makes a noise that sounds like a fan running inside it. We’re not sure if it should be doing that. It seems to work fine and the fan noise does stop when the refrigerator reaches the correct temperature. But my last two RVs had silent refrigerators, so we’re a bit concerned.
  • The fresh water in the tanks smells like shit. I do mean that literally. We’re not drinking it, but we are washing with it. It’s making the RV stink a bit on the inside, so we have a lot of windows open to keep the air cleared out. This is our fault. We should have flushed out the system before using it. We’ll do that after this trip and likely run at least one tankful of clean water through it, too.
  • The new solar setup works great. It had the batteries fully charged before 10 AM. While it was doing that, we were using the lights, stereo, cell phone chargers (all D/C) and a 300-watt A/C inverter to charge my MacBook Pro and some aviation radios.
  • The 2000-watt Honda generator I bought so I could run A/C devices if I wanted to works great. It’s easy to start and can be very quiet. We gave it a good test on Saturday night when we ran it to see if we could watch a DVD (Up) on the 32-inch (or thereabouts) flat screen TV the RV came with. It ran hard when we first started it — likely to recharge the batteries we’d run down a bit after sunset while giving us A/C power — then settled down to a lower, quieter power setting. I don’t think I’d run it in the future just to watch TV, though.

Everything else works exactly as expected.

At this point, I consider this second test a success. It proves to me that the new RV can be at least as comfortable — more so, of course — than the old one when camping off-the-grid. Even though I didn’t get the solar power system I wanted, I think my less expensive solution — one solar panel to charge the batteries and a portable generator for more power when needed — will work fine.

One thing’s for sure: having a portable house along on these weekend long gigs is very nice indeed — even if I’m not plugged in.

Getting Away from it All

We spend a weekend at our “summer” place on Howard Mesa.

It’s no secret that central Arizona, near Phoenix, gets brutally hot in the summer time. Daytime shade temperatures in July and August typically 110°F or above, and you can add 20 to 30°F if you happen to step out into the unyielding sun. We realized after just a few short years in Wickenburg that we’d need a place to escape to.

I heard about Howard Mesa on a radio commercial advertising 10-, 36-, and 40-acre parcels near the Grand Canyon. Mike was away at the time — he telecommuted to a job in New Jersey and spent about a week and a half each month there — so I hopped in my Toyota and made the 154-mile drive alone to check it out. I was soon seated in a big sedan beside Larry, who would be our sales guy, driving up well-maintained dirt roads to the few lots that were still available on top of the mesa. I fell love with the second lot he showed me, a pie-shaped wedge near the mesa’s highest point. The wide “crust” of the pie shape was flat and bordered state land, where I was assured nothing could be built. The rest of the land dropped off gently toward the west. Every inch of the property was buildable, but the obvious building site was right before the dropoff, where an old two-track road used by ranchers and hunters led to a clearing, where a single cow rested in the shade of a pinyon pine.

The land was off-the grid — that means no electricity, water, telephone, gas, or cable television — five full miles from pavement and about ten miles from the nearest store where one could buy a quart of milk. Williams, AZ, which had a supermarket and restaurants, was 20 miles south. Valle, the crossroads of Routes 64 from Williams and 180 from Flagstaff, was 14 miles north. The entrance to Grand Canyon National Park was another 30 or so miles north of that.

It was the quiet, beauty of the place that hooked me. Not a single building was within sight — just rolling hills of golden grasses, studded with the dark green of juniper and pinyon pines. Once Larry shut off his Buick, all I could hear was the wind, with the occasional call of a crow or raven.

San Francisco PeaksBut it was the 360° views that sold me. To the north, is Red Butte and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. To the west and northwest, are distant mountain ranges near Seligman, as well as Mount Trumbull on the Arizona strip 85 miles away. To the south is Bill Williams Mountain, just south of Williams. And to the east is snowcapped Mount Humphreys and the San Francisco Peaks, the tallest mountain in Arizona.

The price for all this amazing remote beauty? Less than $1,000 per acre. And our lot was priced higher than most others because of the view.

That’s how it all started. And what we realized just last night is that we’ve owned this place for ten years now. It was the Toyota that trigged the date memory. I bought my Jeep in the summer of 1999 and I was still using my Toyota as my primary car when we bought the place. That meant April/May 1999.

Our use of the place has varied over the years. In the beginning, we camped there on weekends in a pop-up camper, which we kept folded up on the property when we weren’t around. We had a round pen for the horses, which we’d bring with us. We got the entire 40 acres fenced in so the horses could run free. Then we began preliminary work on getting a house built. After a false start getting ripped off by Lindal Custom Homes — they told us we could build a home for $60/square foot but needed $600 to draw up the plans; the plans resulted in a home that would cost $120/square foot to build — we started exploring other modest custom home solutions. We had a septic system put in. I spent the summer of 2004 in a trailer up here while I flew for one of the Grand Canyon helicopter tour operators. And then, to give us a place to store our stuff while we were preparing to build, we put in what we call our “camping shed.”

And that’s where things got stalled.

You see, although I still love our place atop the mesa and would love to build a full-time residence up here, Mike thinks it’s a bit too lonely and remote. With so much going on for us in the Phoenix area these days, we don’t come up here nearly as often as we used to. To further complicate matters, the future of the area has become questionable. Much of the land up for resale and several property owners have put up commercial style buildings or trashed up their lots with a lot of junk. All this takes away much of the charm of the place. It seems senseless to pour a lot of money into a permanent residence when we’re not sure whether our new home will be looking out over a bunch of used shipping containers and broken down cars or another oversized Quonset hut or a second-hand mobile home left to deteriorate in the sun and wind.

Camping ShedSo we come up here on the occasional weekend and soak up the silence or the sound of the wind. If the nights are moonless, we can see almost as many stars as Hubble — or at least it seems that way — along with the distant glow of Las Vegas, 173 air miles away. Jack the Dog spends most of his time investigating the rocks, looking for lizards or pack rats, or chasing rabbits. Alex the Bird hangs out in his cage, playing with his toys and whistling along to the music on my iPod. Mike and I go for walks or do odd maintenance tasks to keep our camping shed in good condition. Sometimes we’ll go for lunch and a walk along the rim at the Grand Canyon. Other times, we’ll drive out to Flagstaff for some Thai food and to pick up some odds and ends in Home Depot or the RV repair shop. Still other times — like this weekend — we’ll just lounge in the shade on the camping shed’s “porch,” reading or talking.

Its restful — the perfect antidote for the poisons of modern civilization.

When I’m finished with this year’s cherry drying gig, I’ll probably spend a month or so up here with Jack and Alex. Mike will join me on weekends. I’ll work on the last of the three books I have contracted for this year. I’ll make day trips to Williams or the Grand Canyon or Flagstaff. I’ll enjoy the violent thunderstorms that roll through during monsoon season. I’ll take my Jeep to explore the forest roads bordering Grand Canyon National Park and likely find one or two new places to look down into that vast abyss without a tourist in sight. At night, I’ll look out at the stars and listen to the coyotes. It’ll be a simple life — an escape from reality.

Something I need more often than most people.

Landing Zones: Howard Mesa

Not my regular landing zone, but it worked.

A while back, I started a series of posts showcasing some unusual landing zones. I knew I had a picture of this one, but couldn’t seem to find it. Today, while labeling old backup CDs, I found it.

Howard Mesa LZN630ML at Howard Mesa, November 2008

This is my helicopter at our Howard Mesa property. You can see our camping shed in the background. I normally don’t land here — instead, I have a regular landing pad that’s covered with gravel. But because we didn’t get rid of the tumbleweed on the pad during the season, it had grown to be several feet tall. Landing on it with a hot engine would probably have caused a fire. We we landed nearby where the tumbleweed was a lot shorter. When Mike got out, he cleared away any dead tumbleweed from the back of the aircraft where the engine could heat it up. Since then, we’ve manually burned a lot of it away, hoping to kill the seeds and curb future growth.

I land here several times a year. It’s a good LZ, protected by intruders — including open range cattle — by a barbed wire fence.