On Becoming Homeless

Home ownership — gained and lost.

Back in January 1986, I purchased my first home with the man I’d later marry. We scraped together the 20% downpayment we needed on the $164,000 house on a small lot in a northern New Jersey “bedroom community.” I contributed the remaining $10K or so of an inheritance from my grandparents; that required the approval of my father, since I hadn’t yet reached the age of 25 when I would be able to make my own decisions about the money. The man I loved and wanted to make my home with contributed the rest — more than half, as I’m sure he’ll point out to a judge later this month. As if a 27-year-old inequity gives him some sort of additional rights in the war he’s current waging against me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

The “Bomb Shelter”

Back then, the only way we could afford the house was with a 30-year amortization. Even then, the mortgage payments, which included high property taxes and insurance, were upward of $1500/month. We split the cost 50-50. It was difficult for me at first, but as my first career progressed and I moved up the ladder of success, it became easier. Then difficult again as I launched my second career. And finally easier once again.

The house was built in 1926 and was only about 1,200 square feet. It was made of poured concrete — walls, floors, ceilings, basement, attic — and had small rooms and lots of windows. Our neighbors joked that they’d come stay with us in the event of a nuclear war. The lot was only 73 wide by 135 deep and Conrail trains ran a stone’s throw from the back door at any time of the day or night. There were lots of trees and the kind of canopied street you don’t see very often. Autumn was beautiful but the fallen leaves were a serious chore. Summers were nice but winters were cold and gray.

In 1994, there was a terrible snowstorm that dumped 20 inches of snow on us. I remember not being able to get the front door open. I also remember the snow staying around, gray and dirty, for months.

We’d been out west several times by then and I decided that I didn’t want to spend another winter in New Jersey. So in November 1994, I went out west to find a place to spend the winter. I drove all over, from Vegas to Tucson, and wound up with a basement apartment in Yarnell, AZ. I drove out in my little Toyota MR-2, weighed down with a roof rack full of suitcases, right after Christmas 1994.

I stayed for three months: January, February, and March 1995. My brother visited. My future husband visited. I worked on books. I went to the Grand Canyon and Los Angeles. My future husband drove back with me in March via Big Bend National Park, where we soaked in the hot tubs along the Rio Grande, watching wild horses across the river in Mexico. We stopped in Florida where I spoke at a writer’s convention. I drove home along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive.

The Move

I stayed home for the winter of 1996. We had more severe winter weather. I decided that between the weather and the high cost of living in the area, I was ready to move. My future husband seemed to agree. We put the house on the market. When it didn’t sell by Christmas, I packed up half the furniture and moved into an apartment in Wickenburg, AZ. I remember wearing a T-shirt as I walked across the parking lot of a Home Depot on New Year’s Day. Back home in New Jersey, it was freezing.

Removing half the furniture made the house look bigger and more appealing. It sold.

But about that 30-year amortization? Despite paying an average of $1400/month for 11 years, we’d only paid off $11,000 of the loan balance. Did that ever teach me a lesson!

By May, we packed up the rest of the furniture and headed west. We rented a second apartment in the same complex to use as offices; I got one bedroom, my future husband got the other. We stored our boxes in the living room. We commuted by walking down the sidewalk between the two apartments.

And we started looking for our next home.

The Ranchette

Although we were living in Wickenburg, we didn’t necessarily want to buy a home there. We needed someplace close enough to Phoenix’s big airport. My future husband would be flying back east once a month for work. He’d telecommute from home the other three weeks each month. I just needed a place that had Internet and overnight courier service.

We found a house in New River that we really liked, although I admit it wasn’t perfect. Then we found out that Del Webb would soon be building a huge community near there: Anthem. We had no interest in living anywhere near a place like that so we began concentrating on Wickenburg.

It was a long, hot summer. I think we saw every single house that was for sale. Our Realtor was giving up on us.

Finally, we found two homes we liked. My future husband liked one on the east side of town; I liked one on the west side of town. We were tired of looking. The houses were both listing for about the same amount. It was time to make an offer. He was in New Jersey for work when he told me to pick one and make the offer.

I picked the one he liked and made the offer. The owned rejected it and didn’t counter. So we made the same offer on the one I liked. And the owner countered close enough for us to accept.

It was brand new construction, a “spec house” that wasn’t quite finished but occupied by the builder and his family. 2400 square feet, three bedrooms, 2 baths, a huge kitchen with Jenn-Air appliances throughout. All sitting on 2-1/2 acres of horse property with great views out the front and back and huge windows to see them. Best of all: quiet and private.

Does he remember carving our initials into the wet concrete that October day? And will he sandblast them away when I’m gone?

We paid extra to have the driveway paved. The cement was still wet when we carved our initials and the year into it: M + M ’97.

We moved out of our apartments and into our new home, each of us taking one of the downstairs bedrooms for an office.

That was in October 1997.

Our Home

Over the next 15 years, we worked together and separately to make this house our home. We bought furniture and linens. I made curtains to match the kitchen chair upholstery and the guest room linens. I worked with a friend to add color to the plain white walls. We arranged souvenirs of our lives together — handmade objects from vacations in Mexico and elsewhere, photos, rocks and pine cones and sticks — in various places throughout the house.

After a delay due to paperwork not being quite right, we began work in the empty yard. We laid in a flagstone walk and irrigation system. We planted pieces of cactus and young agave that have since grown to be as tall as us. We nursed seedlings that had taken root naturally, protecting them and watering them so they’d grow to mature trees. We planted fast-growing eucalyptus trees for shade. He put out his Pawley’s Island Hammock. I put out birdseed blocks and hummingbird feeders. And I put in garden beds out back, working with a level and bricks to get them just right on the slope, filling the beds with topsoil and manure. I remember growing so much zucchini one year that I never wanted to eat zucchini again.

Howard Mesa
We bought 40 acres of “ranch land” at Howard Mesa back around 2000. For years, we went there on weekends, mostly in the summer, staying in a pop-up camper that I’d bought. It was rough living and it was fun. I got pretty good with a dutch oven, cooking great meals at our huge fire pit. We’d bring the horses and go riding during the day. Later, we stayed in a horse trailer with living quarters that I’d bought, and still later, we fixed up a wooden shed as a sort of primitive camping cabin. Once that was done, we had a year-round place to stay and often went up on holidays — I remember spending at least one Thanksgiving and one Christmas there. I wanted to put a real house up there, but he claimed it was too remote. Eventually, we both lost interest in the place; he’s since told people that it’s my “white elephant.” I guess it’s easy for him to forget the good times we had there. Sadly, I’ll never forget.

For the first ten years I lived in the house year-round. My future husband got an apartment in New Jersey where he’d spend at least one week a month. It was a little lonely at home by myself, but I got used to it. I had plenty of writing work to do, a dog, and horses to care for. I still had friends in town — they hadn’t all moved away yet — and the time went by quickly.

When he was home, we spent all our time together, often going for a horseback ride in the afternoon (when it was cool) or in the morning (when it was hot). He used to joke that all his friends back east told him that we lived on vacation.

It was a great life.

Somewhere along the line, I decided to move our offices out of the house and into a condo I owned downtown. I’d had a series of bad tenants and was tired of dealing with them. I liked the idea of an office in a separate place. So we moved our offices there. I got new office furniture and took the living room for my office. He took the master bedroom for his.

He eventually gave up his apartment in New Jersey, although he continued to go back periodically to spend time with his family and he still worked for that company part time. He tried to start a consulting business but didn’t get anywhere with it. I gave him a job at the airport but he quit after a short time. After a while he went out and got a regular job for a company south of Phoenix — 70 miles away.

By then, I was building my flying business. I spent every other week in 2004 at the Grand Canyon, flying for a tour operator. I’d had a great career as a writer and had invested wisely in real estate. I sold off one of my properties and bought a larger helicopter. It was time to get serious in my third career.

We got married and I think that’s when things started unraveling.

The Condo

It was a long drive for him to go from Wickenburg to Tempe every day. When the real estate market tanked, he bought a condo down in Phoenix.

Although he involved me in the purchase decision, he didn’t buy the unit I liked — a bright and airy second-floor condo with a big patio overlooking a park and tree-lined streets. Instead, he bought a cave-like apartment on a busy street nearby. I wasn’t happy about it, but it was his investment — he’d never said anything about mine.

I started moving things in, preparing to make it our second home. But my husband decided to get a roommate to help cover the cost of living there — indeed, it was more costly per month than our house. They moved my office furniture out of the second bedroom and a friend of ours who lived in Williams AZ and worked in northern Phoenix moved in.

It wasn’t long before I felt unwelcome.

My Home is in Wickenburg

That’s right around the time I started doing agricultural work in Washington for the summer — the work that would finally make my flying company profitable. I was away for June and July in 2008 and managed to extend my season each year after that.

But when I was home the rest of the year, I lived in Wickenburg. That’s where my things were. That’s where I felt comfortable. That’s where I spent most of my time. Even though my husband spent four days a week in Phoenix, I usually spent all seven in Wickenburg.

That all changed in 2011. When I got home from my seasonal work, my husband’s roommate was gone. I moved my office back into the second bedroom of the condo. We got new living room and bedroom furniture there. We bought new blinds for all the sliding glass doors. I added a wine rack. I put up framed photos. I began making the condo into the second home I thought it was going to be.

But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t home. It was dark and noisy and depressing and there was no privacy. Although I enjoyed taking our dog Charlie out to the stores or the farmer’s market or the dog park as part of my day, I didn’t like the traffic and crowds.

To make matters worse, I could never adjust to the schedule my husband wanted to keep: four days in Phoenix and three in Wickenburg. I felt that every time I got settled into one place, it was time to go back to the other. I was tired of carrying the same things back and forth every week, of keeping two refrigerators and pantries and trying to remember what was in each.

And I only had one office; when I had to work, I had to work in Phoenix. He often went back to Wickenburg without me. That made no sense — I was stuck in a “home” I didn’t even like just so I could be with him and he wasn’t even around all the time.

And although my husband had told me he wanted me there with him, once I was there, he didn’t seem very happy. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I thought it had something to do with his latest job, which he’d grown to hate by then. But I was apparently wrong.

Becoming Real Home Owners

Back around the time we got married in 2006, my husband told me that when he turned 50 (which would be in 2011), he’d join me on the road when I traveled with the helicopter. He even got his helicopter rating so that he wouldn’t be stuck driving the RV all the time.

I figured that he’d go into a sort of semi-retirement and finally pursue some of the things he claimed he wanted to do: become a flight instructor, open a bicycle shop, do solar consulting. I even found detailed notes in his desk from when he’d brainstormed for ideas on what he could do to make money when we traveled. I had ideas, too — ideas of things we could do together that would be fun.

I realized that there was a possibility that we’d have to rely on just one income — mine — when that time came. And with my writing income fading quickly as traditional print publishing entered its death spiral, we’d be relying mostly on my flying income, which could be iffy, at best. I realized that the best way to face a situation with reduced income was to reduce our living expenses. And one of the best ways to do that was to pay off the house so we’d no longer have to worry about mortgage payments.

I remember discussing this with him many times. I used to say that there are only three things a person absolutely needs: a roof over his head, food, and medical care. Paying off the mortgage would guarantee that we always had a nice place to live. We’d certainly have enough money for food and medical insurance. And when we got old enough, Social Security and Medicare would kick in. Combined with our retirement savings, we’d be fine — as long as we owned the house.

So I did what I could to accelerate the mortgage payoff. We had a joint checking account and every time there was a decent surplus, I’d put it toward the mortgage. We’d already refinanced and had a good rate. Through this extra effort, we were able to pay off the mortgage more than two years early: by February 2012.

I was proud of myself. At the age of 50, I co-owned a home outright.

I finally had the financial security I’d always dreamed of. When my helicopter would be paid off the following January, I’d be completely debt-free.

Locked Out

I left for my fifth summer season in Washington at the last day of April 2012. I was hoping to get some early cherry drying work in Mattawa, but that never materialized. Instead, I picked up an excellent charter client who soon had me flying for him twice a week. May was more profitable than ever.

I started talking to my husband about spending the summer in Washington with me. He’d just gotten a new job that would allow him to work from home again. I saw it as the job that would make everything right with us.

I was wrong.

He asked for a divorce on my birthday at the end of June. He came to see me in Washington three weeks later. I showed him a wonderful piece of property I hoped we could buy and make a summer home on. By then, I was earning 90% of my income during the summer in that area so living there half the year made real sense. It was beautiful and cool with plenty of recreational opportunities. I was hoping he’d finally sell the condo, which he no longer needed, so he could get out from under its financial burden. We’d sell our property in northern Arizona, too. But he clearly wasn’t interested in the property or any plans I might have.

Meanwhile, I continued paying my half of the house expenses by contributing to our joint checking account. I paid the bills as I always had from that account.

I found out about the other woman in August.

By that time, he’d stopped returning my calls or emails or texts. I had no idea what was going on at home — my only home. I was stuck in Washington until nearly the end of August, a frantic bundle of nerves the entire time.

On Saturday, September 15, knowing that he’d be out of state for his mother’s birthday party in New York, I flew home with my dog. My friend Janet met me at the airport — I suspected I’d need her moral support and I wasn’t wrong. We rented a car and drove home.

The locks on my house had been changed.

I went to my hangar, where my car had been stored for the summer. There was a garage door opener in it. But my hangar lock had been changed, too.

I was locked out of my home and hangar — locked away from almost everything I owned.

I broke into the house — my house — the house I had every right to be in.

The next day, I had a locksmith change the locks on the house so I could secure it but still gain access. He cut the padlock off my hangar and I put a new one on. Since it wasn’t ethical for me to lock my husband away from his airplane, I had it moved out onto the ramp and tied down. That’s how he found out I was back. Someone called him to ask him why his airplane was out.

He came on Wednesday with a police escort. He wouldn’t make eye contact as he quickly walked through the house. I tried to talk to him, but he mostly ignored me. At one point, I blurted out: “You locked me out of the house!”

He replied coldly: “You weren’t supposed to be back until October.”

“And what would you have done then?” I asked. “Would you have been waiting with a welcoming committee to keep me out?”

He didn’t reply.

He had the nerve to show up at Wickenburg Airport with his girlfriend one Sunday morning. I felt that he was flaunting her in front of our mutual friends, showing them that his wife didn’t matter anymore — this new woman did. I was enraged. I dragged every single item of his out of the hangar and left it on the pavement in front of it. I put a note on his car, telling him that he and his new helper could take it away.

Even though he was living with his girlfriend in her Scottsdale house and he still had the condo in Phoenix (which also had its locks changed), at the temporary orders hearing a few days later, he fought me for exclusive use of the house and the hangar I had been leasing for my business for eleven years. He lied in court, saying that he could have changed the locks back (impossible because he’d had the lock cylinder changed in the hardware store) and that my company was based in Deer Valley and not Wickenburg (when the FAA clearly had Wickenburg as my base of operations) and that he’d “built a helipad” for me at our vacation property in northern Arizona (when he hadn’t “built” a damn thing up there). He also had the nerve to tell the judge that I’d abandoned him and sputter something nearly unintelligible about me preventing him from buying a business years ago. He was delusional and, after knowing him for more than 29 years, it was frightening to see him like that.

Fortunately, the judge is not a stupid man. He ruled in my favor on the house and hangar but allowed my husband to keep our dog, Charlie.

I wonder how often my replacement takes Charlie to the stores or the farmers market or the dog park or throws balls for him to catch in midair.

And I wish I could see Charlie play with my little dog Penny just one time.

Losing My Home

So I’ve been living in my home — my only home — since my return in September. And I’ll live here until the court tells me I have to leave.

After presenting me with an absurd settlement offer that would ruin me financially and then refusing to negotiate, my husband had the nerve to offer to pay for half the expenses if I lived in his condo until the divorce was finalized. I responded: “Why would I pay you to live in a condo I always hated when I could live in my own home for free?”

But it’s extremely difficult to live here. Every day, I’m faced with reminders of the man I spent more than half of my life with, a man who betrayed my trust and cruelly discarded me for someone else. The souvenirs on the fireplace mantle, the ashes of two of our dogs, the tail of the horse I bought him so we could ride together, photos of us together and separately at home or on vacation as our lives went by, entwined in a partnership I thought would never end. I cook the same meals I made for him but I eat them alone, day after day until the leftovers are gone. I sit on my lounge chair on the upstairs patio, scanning the sky, always amazed by the number of stars, seeing high-flying satellites or shooting stars but having no one to share them with. I lie on my side of the bed with his pillow beside mine and I know that he’s lying elsewhere, beside another woman that now he loves more than me. Even the remaining cape honeysuckle bushes we planted together that last spring remind me of a life that’s gone forever, torn from me by the man I loved.

And I cry, like I’m crying now, wondering how it could happen, wondering how he could forget these things.

Right now, I’m sitting at his desk, looking out on a windy gray day. If there wasn’t so much blowing dust, I’d be able to see the mountains off in the distance. His desk in the upstairs den has the best view in the house and I’m glad I moved my laptop up here.

When I was Young
Two photos on the ledge beside my husband’s desk. They were face down when I got home.

Beside me is the photo of me that he shot way back in the early 1980s, not long after we met. My skin is young and fresh — not yet aged as it is today — and my eyes look at the camera, smiling ever so slightly, as if I have a secret that I’m willing to share with just the photographer. He always had that photo of me beside his desk, but when I got home in September, it was face down. Perhaps he saw that face and eyes as if they were accusing him of his lies and infidelity. Perhaps they stoke the guilt he must feel at what he’s been doing to me since last May when he started shopping for my replacement. I righted the photo and I look at it now and then. I remember how young I was and how I spent more than half my life with the man who made it and enlarged it and framed it for the place beside his desk.

I’ve been traveling a lot — I’m only here about two thirds of the time — but even that’s more time that he spent here since buying that damn condo. I’ve been on at least one trip a month — Penny is becoming quite the frequent flyer! I’ve been to see friends in California and Washington and Utah. I’ve spent time with my family in Florida. And I’ve gone on business and pleasure trips to Lake Powell, Las Vegas, Washington, and California. Traveling is my relief; it keeps me away from the memories and helps me look to my future.

When I’m not traveling, I’m sorting and packing or discarding my things, then storing them in a safe place for the day I can move to my new home.

Because I will have a new home — that’s for sure. Despite the fact that my husband’s company offered to move him to Tampa, he apparently still wants our house.

None of my friends or family members can understand how it could be so easy for him to move his girlfriend into a home he made with another woman. But I guess if you have no conscience and can push aside memories like the ones haunting me, it might be easy.

I just wonder whether she’ll make a good companion on the upstairs patio on a star-filled night. And whether she’ll cut fresh napolitos from the prickly pear cactus for him to grill up with a steak. Or if she’ll be able to make him yorkshire pudding with a rack of lamb for dinner. Or if she’ll keep bird feeders filled and spend winter afternoons on the back patio watching the birds come.

I doubt it.

Our divorce trial is in less than three weeks. Although his lawyer claimed just the other day that they wanted to try mediation again, they backed down when I insisted that we meet face to face. I know why and I’m sure he does, too.

The outcome of the court trial uncertain. I could lose a portion of everything I’ve worked hard for my whole life. The law is supposed to be fair, but it isn’t always. I’ll see just how fair it is by the middle of May.

I know the outcome will be better for me than the absurdly damaging deal he pressured me to settle for by harassing me month after month all winter. But after the judge makes his decision and my lawyers are paid, where will I be?


The one thing I could control to ensure my financial future — the paid-for roof over my head — will be gone.

I only hope I’m left with enough money to get a decent start on my new life. That 10 acres of view property in Washington is waiting for me and I have big plans for it.

Keep your fingers crossed for me, huh?

My Desert Dogs

A bit about my Arizona dogs.

I’ve had dogs almost my entire life and four of them have lived with me in Arizona’s Sonoran desert.

Spot and me in front of my old house in New Jersey. Spot didn’t really like the desert much.

The first was Spot or “Country Squire Rorschach,” a Dalmatian that I got for my birthday years ago when I lived in New Jersey. Spot was getting on in years by the time I moved to Arizona and he wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree. He never quite understood the importance of finding and standing in shade on hot days. I took him hiking out in the desert just once with me and I thought he would die of heat stroke by the time we got back. I have a photo somewhere of him standing by a big saguaro cactus, but I can’t seem to find it right now; if I do, I’ll post it here.

Next came Jack the Dog, a Border Collie/Australian Shephard Mix. My soon-to-be ex-husband and I adopted him from the local shelter about a year after Spot died. He proved to be an excellent hiking and horseback riding companion. He liked going out on horseback rides so much, that he once followed two friends of ours when we let them ride our horses without us. He was a true “desert dog,” spending most of his time loose in the backyard, overseeing the scant traffic on the road that led to our house and barking at any vehicle that didn’t belong. When he was forced to spend time in Phoenix, in the tiny condo my husband had bought, we did what we could to get him out and about on long walks. But I know he was happiest at home and on the 40 acres of ranch land we owned near the Grand Canyon.

Jack at Howard Mesa
Jack the Dog taking in the view at our Howard Mesa property in northern Arizona.

Charlie on a Rock
It’s hard to believe that this photo was shot only a year ago, when my soon-to-be ex-husband and I were on a hike out in the desert behind our house. He’s taken Charlie from me; all I have left of him are photos and memories.

Charlie came about a year after Jack’s demise. My husband and I had gone to an adoption event in Phoenix, feeling ready to bring home a new dog. After taking two unsuitable dogs for short trial walks, I spotted Charlie, wet from a dog wash and looking pretty ragged. We took him out for a walk — against his will, I might add — and decided to make him ours. It’s unfortunate that he spent most of his time at that damn Phoenix condo, but when I was with him there, I took him to various Phoenix dog parks so he could run free with the other dogs. We also played catch daily with tennis balls at the condo’s unused tennis courts. Like Jack, he was happiest in Wickenburg, though, roaming around the yard or accompanying us on Jeep rides or hikes in the desert. The horses were gone by then, but I sure think he would have liked accompanying us on rides. It saddens me to think of his current life with my husband in Phoenix and Scottsdale, in walled-in yards and boarding facilities. A dog like Charlie needs to roam free.

Penny on a Rock
I shot this photo of Penny just the other day — on the same rock I’d shot the above photo of Charlie on the year before. She’s hard to take photos of; she just won’t sit still!

I got Penny the Tiny Dog in Quincy, WA near the end of June, 2012 as a foster dog. I missed Charlie terribly — he had become an important part of my life during the long days I was stuck at the Phoenix condo the previous winter. Although my husband and I had been talking about him and Charlie spending the summer with me in Washington, my husband had gone silent (again). Still, for some dumb reason, I had high hopes of them arriving, perhaps on my birthday at month-end. I really looked forward to seeing Charlie and Penny playing together — Charlie loved playing with our neighbor’s Chihuahua in Phoenix. But three days after I got Penny, I got the birthday call from my husband asking for a divorce. Penny has been a huge comfort to me since then — I officially adopted her only two weeks later. She travels almost everywhere with me — even in the helicopter and on airlines — and, like Jack and Charlie before her, loves hiking out in the desert. She’s outside now, as I type this, walking along the top of the short wall around the backyard, looking for lizards on the hillside below her.

My days in the Arizona desert are numbered now — when the divorce winds up, I’ll finally be on my way with Penny. Although I’ll miss the hiking and Jeeping here, I know there are new adventures ahead of us — in other deserts and in canyons and forests and along rivers. Penny and I are both up to the challenge.

A Four River Flight

I thoroughly enjoy a flight from Wickenburg to Chandler on a beautiful Arizona winter day.

E25 to CHD
Direct flight = boring flight.

I recently had to reposition my helicopter from Wickenburg (E25) to Chandler (CHD) to get some maintenance done. That meant a cross-country flight which, if flown directly, would take about 40 minutes and fly right over the top of Sky Harbor Airport (PHX).

But the helicopter was going in for a 100-hour maintenance and had 6 hours left before it was due. It seemed to me that I should try to use up as much of that time as I could.

Unfortunately, I did have a time constraint. I was meeting a friend at Chandler Airport at 1 PM. I had plans to spend some time with him and then another friend afterwards. And I even had a dinner date down in Tempe.

But as I loaded Penny and an overnight bag into the helicopter, I figured I had about an hour and a half to kill along the way. Why not take the scenic route?

I didn’t realize then that I’d be treating myself to a four-river tour.

The Hassayampa River

The Hassayampa River flows through Wickenburg, AZ, the town I’ve been living in for the past 15 years. Its name supposedly means “river that flows upside down” or something like that. That’s because although water flows year-round, it doesn’t always flow on the surface of the river bed where it can be seen. Instead, it flows mostly under several feet of sand in the river bed. So, when you drive over the bridge in town — usually on your way to or from Las Vegas, which is how most people know Wickenburg — you won’t see any water down there. Just sand. And tire tracks. And occasionally, some cattle.

River? What River?
If you know Wickenburg and the Hassayampa River well enough, you should be able to see where it “flows” on this Google Maps terrain view from the canyons near Box Canyon to just past Constellation Road.

Indeed, the Hassayampa River is so un-riverlike that it doesn’t even appear on Google Maps’ terrain view.

But it had rained a few days before — a constant, steady rain that had lasted for hours. Although it hadn’t been enough rain to get the wash that flows through my property flowing, it apparently accumulated in streams upriver from town. When I flew over the river two days later, I could see a small but steady stream of water.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

For some reason, I headed south from the airport — not east toward the river. I think my initial idea was to fly south to Buckeye and slip between the Estrella Mountains and South Mountain, approaching Chandler from the west. I also wanted to glimpse the roads I’d been on a few days before with a local Jeep group.

When I got to Vulture Peak, I decided to see if anyone was on top. So I started a steep 1500-foot-per minute climb, reaching the top in about 10 seconds. No one up there. I dropped down on the other side and followed some wash beds east past Wickenburg Mountain. And then I found myself at the Hassayampa with the water flowing by beneath me.

And I stopped thinking about Buckeye.

Instead, I turned north, passing to the east of Wickenburg and joining up with the Hassayampa River just past the bridges. The river’s flow wasn’t much to brag about, but it was something — a lot more than I’d seen there in a long time. I followed the flow, flying a lot lower than I usually do with passengers on board, gently coaxing the helicopter left and right as I followed its winding course. In the narrows past Box Canyon, in the place I usually refer to as “the slot,” the water filled the canyon, wall to wall. Beyond that, where the riverbed was wide and sandy again, the water returned to an ambitious trickle.

I flew past the nearly abandoned ranch formerly operated by the Gatehouse Academy as part of their treatment center for young people with addiction problems. I remembered flying by and seeing my husband’s old suburban parked in the lot the house. I remembered all the times I’d flown the owners out there with various VIPs. I remembered the time a cowboy and his dogs had chased off a herd of cattle closing in on me and my helicopter as it sat parked in a field. I remembered the Christmas day I’d flown Santa and a bag of toys out to the ranch and had wound up giving rides to about a dozen young men who had taken a detour from their lives into drugs or alcohol. Gatehouse was gone, closed up over the summer while I was away. Their properties in town were for sale and there was no sign of life down on the ranch.

Beyond the ranch, the river flowed in a twisting canyon. I stayed low, about 200 feet up, following the river on a less twisting path. I saw that the old mobile home at the edge of Jesus Canyon had collapsed into a million pieces and that someone was using heavy equipment on a patch of old farmland across the river. I flew over most of the goosenecks that the river had carved through the rock, admiring the tall saquaro cacti that covered the hillsides and marveling at how all that rain had washed the dust off everything below me.

Did I mention that the flying conditions were perfect? On the ground at Wickenburg Airport, there had been a bit of a breeze, but a few hundred feet up, any breeze was completely unnoticeable. It was smooth flying at any altitude I chose. And the cool air made the helicopter’s performance better than I was accustomed to. I had great speed, great climb rates when I wanted them, and great response to all my control inputs. Flying was effortless, leaving me to enjoy the scenery and the freedom to be able to move in any direction I wanted.

Although I could follow the Hassayampa all the way up to its source in the Bradshaw Mountains — which is something I’ve done in the past — I left it where the Williams Family Ranch sits on the side of a hill at the mouth of a tributary wash. It takes at least an hour to drive from the ranch into town on unpaved Constellation Road, but I could cover the same path in less than 3 minutes in the helicopter.

From there, I slipped between two rocky hillsides, following a canyon southeast, roughly toward Chandler. The terrain here was rough and unforgiving; an engine failure would have been a huge problem with absolutely no suitable landing zone. I followed wash beds and dirt roads, climbing with the terrain the whole time. Then the land dropped off in front of me and I descended down into the canyon where Buckhorn Creek flows. Although it was still wet from recent water flowing, nothing wast flowing that day. I followed the creek bed downstream, past where it met with Castle Hot Springs Creek. I began to see homes and then Castle Hot Springs with its green lawn and tall palm trees. A fifth wheel RV was parked on its ruined tennis courts.

And then I was at the shining blue waters of Lake Pleasant.

The Agua Fria River

Decision time. Which way to go? If I headed south, I could still do a route to Chandler that would take me between the Estrellas and South Mountain. But after passing the lake, I’d be spending much of the flight time over suburbia — subdivisions of houses on postage stamp sized lots, surrounded by tall walls to keep out the world. I hated seeing homes like that. I hated knowing that people lived like that when there was so much open land so closely. I hated thinking that people actually liked that way of life.

Without thinking nearly that much about it, I turned east. I flew low across the northern arms of the lake, mildly surprised that the water level was so low after all that rain. There were a few fishing boats on the water, but not many. I made a half-hearted attempt to spot some wild burros (donkeys), but knew I was probably going too fast — 110 knots — to see them.

Lake Pleasant
The northern half of Lake Pleasant is a series of “arms” where tributary streams and washes enter the lake.

A pair of C-130 cargo planes flew over the lake in loose formation about 3000 feet above me, heading northwest. The only reason I know their altitude is because a flight instructor on the practice area’s radio frequency announced them. The pilots didn’t say a word and were soon just a pair of specks in the distance, climbing over the mountains to the east.

Agua Fria River Near Lake Pleasant
The Agua Fria River where it enters Lake Pleasant. Indian Mesa is near the lake.

I headed toward the Agua Fria River arm and climbed steeply to take a really good look at the prehistoric Native American ruins atop Indian Mesa. I even slowed enough to considered a few possible landing zones. Then I pointed the helicopter’s nose up the river and continued on my way.

Agua Fria is Spanish for cold water. The river flows much of the year, but often not more than a serious trickle. That day, it was flowing much more than usual. It drains the mountains up I-17, past Black Canyon City. I didn’t want to follow it that far. I didn’t want to go that far out of my way. So I struck out to the east again, crossing over I-17.

New River

I picked up New River almost immediately, on the other side of the freeway. I realized that I although it was only a 20-minute flight from my home, I had never followed it upstream. Never. It was time to remedy that situation.

The river had a good, strong flow as it came through the canyon from the northeast. I saw a parking area with a bunch of trucks and empty flat-bed trailers. Although it was midweek, there were ATVers out and about. I saw a dirt road that generally followed the river — Table Mesa Road, according to the map — and wondered whether I’d see the riders along it.

New River
New River winds mostly east through a canyon.

I followed the river upstream, keeping a sharp eye out for wires. I wasn’t very low, but low enough that wires stretched high across the canyon could be a problem. The water rushed by below me. I looked for waterfalls, but didn’t find any.

I climbed with the canyon. The road meandered alongside the river, sometimes disappearing from view to the south before coming back. It climbed to a high point overlooking the river and there were the ATVers — about eight of them, parked at the overlook. One of them waved up at me. I waved back.

Other streams fed into the river as the main channel turned to the northeast. I needed to go south, so I chose a tributary canyon and followed it toward the south. It climbed steeply and widened, with a flat-topped mesa on either side. The water disappeared. The rock was volcanic — dark basalt. I started noticing rock walls alongside the east wall of the canyon. There were quite a few of them, hundreds of feet long, parallel with the top of the mesa at different heights. Fortifications from ancient indians who had likely made their homes atop the mesas. As I got level with the mesa tops, I started looking for rock foundations. But with all the jumbled rocks and yellowed weeds and cactus up there, it was hard to see any patterns at all.

I was surprised when I found myself at the broken mesa that I had dropped off two passengers for a camping trip years before. I had climbed to over 4,000 feet; when I reached the edge of the mesa, there was a 1,000 foot drop to the valley floor. I lowered the collective and began a steep descent, heading northeast again.

And that’s when my sister called. My new Bose headsets have Bluetooth, so I’m able to take phone calls while I’m flying. The music I was listening to stopped, the phone rang, and I touched a button on the headset cord to answer. We chatted. I brought her up to date with the bullshit being flung at me by the lying, cheating bastard I was still married to, the man who’d told me to my face less than two months before that he still cared about me. But I was descending down into a small canyon area northeast of Scottsdale. As I expected, my cell phone dropped the signal. The music from my iPhone resumed. My mood immediately lightened as I descended to follow one of the many canyons cut through the sedimentary rock that had been deposited into the valley millions of years ago.

I flew over an ATV speeding down the sandy canyon floor with two people on board. I wondered if they heard me coming before I flew over.

Then the canyon opened wide to the last river on my trip.

The Verde River

Verde River
The Verde River shows up as a blue line on the map, likely because it flows year-round.

The Verde (green, in Spanish) River flows year-round. Its source is up near Ash Fork. It winds through a narrow canyon into the Verde Valley, flows past Camp Verde, and then enters another long, narrow canyon. Beyond that, two dams create two lakes: Horseshoe and Bartlett. I reached the river just downstream from Bartlett Lake; I could see the dam off to my left.

I turned right, dropped down low over the river, and sped south. The river was wide here — about 50 to 100 feet across — and shallow. It was about ten past noon and the sun shined into the cockpit warming me and penny asleep on the passenger seat beside me. I followed its course downstream, gently banking right and left. At one point, I saw three wild horses standing in a row in the middle of the stream, drinking. The sun reflected off the water all around them, displaying them as silhouettes. One of them looked up at me as I flew over.

By then, I was getting back into civilization. The community of Rio Verde was to the west and the McDowell Indian Reservation was all around me. I crossed the Beeline Highway. I knew there were wires up ahead and I knew I’d have to talk to a few airport towers soon. The fun part of my flight was over. I was at the confluence of the Verde and Salt Rivers, on the eastern edge of Phoenix’s sprawl.

I climbed to 500 feet above the ground, tuned in the frequency for Falcon Field, and got ready to finish my flight.

Finishing Up

The last part of my flight required me to navigate through Falcon Field’s airspace, avoid Gateway’s airspace, and slip into Chandler’s airspace to land at the heliport.

I made my radio call to Falcon Field’s tower, requesting a transition through the east side of their airspace. When I released the mic button, all I heard was static and two men having a conversation.

It sounded like a flight instructor with a student.

Falcon Field is a class Delta airspace. That means I can’t enter until the tower responds to me, including my aircraft N-number. But the only sound on the frequency I was tuned into was the sound of a flight instructor and a student.

I checked the frequency with my cheat sheet and with the chart on my iPad. I was tuned into the right frequency. I banked to the left, beginning a circle just outside the airspace until I could figure out what to do.

It was pretty simple to me. If I couldn’t communicate with the tower, I could detour south, on the east side of Falcon’s airspace. I could then use my GPS to navigate the narrow space between Falcon and Gateway. Or I could call Gateway and get permission to transition through the north side of their airspace.

As I was thinking about this, the two men on the radio were musing on why no one was answering their call. “Stuck mic!” I wanted to scream into the radio.

And suddenly the static ended and the controller came on. He sounded annoyed. He identified the aircraft by number and told him to make a full stop landing because his mic had been stuck. Again.

The flight instructor responded. The mic got stuck again, but only for a moment. I seized my chance and made my call.

The controller’s voice clearly indicated his frustration when he gave me my clearance. He then started issuing instructions to everyone else who needed guidance.

I was glad I wasn’t the guy with the stuck mic. I knew that the ground controller would be giving him a phone number when he landed.

I headed southwest, giving Falcon’s runway plenty of space. Then I banked right. I pushed Go To, Enter, Enter on my GPS to get a solid pink line from my current position to Chandler, which had been programmed in since before I took off. I flew over roads and golf courses and canals and wires. And houses. Thousands of houses. No wild horses here.

Falcon cut me loose and I switched to Chandler’s frequency. I’d already listened to the ATIS recording on my second radio, so I knew the airport conditions. I asked for landing on the Quantum ramp. The controller cleared me for a straight in approach. There were no planes in the pattern. Just helicopters.

A while later I was setting down on one of the big circles in front of Quantum Helicopters’ hangar. R22 helicopters were coming in and spinning down all around me. As I was shutting down, my phone rang again. It was my editor, Cliff. He said he’d had a dream about me the night before and wanted to check in. Weird, because I’d been thinking about him earlier in the day.

I put Penny’s leash on and dropped her onto the pavement outside my door while I finished shutting down. My friend walked out to the helicopter just as I hung up.

I was done flying for the day.

A[nother] Trip to Quartzsite

A quick trip to Quartzsite — perhaps my last ever.

I flew to Quartzsite, AZ on Tuesday with Penny the Tiny Dog. I wanted to visit one of my favorite weird desert destinations one more time before I move north to my new home in Washington State.

Quartzsite, in case you don’t know, is a tiny community in the desert right on I-10 a bit east of the California border. During the summer months, it has a population of about 3,600 people. In the winter, especially during the big RV show week in January, the area population grows to at least 50,000. Most of the winter visitors are RVers who live in trailers and motorhomes out in the desert on BLM land. They come there for the warm climate, but also for the continuous string of shows and swap meets in the area.

I’ve been going to Quartzsite for years. I really like going for a few days and staying in an RV out in the desert, but it was often difficult to arrange, given my soon-to-be ex-husband’s schedule. I bought my fifth wheel RV (the “Mobile Mansion“) there back in 2010 and that was the last time we stayed there overnight. Almost every year I managed to get at least one visit in. Last year, I visited for the day; my friend Janet was living there, selling her artwork at one of the Tyson Wells shows.

This year, a Twitter friend was staying in the area and I used that as an excuse to go out there during the RV show week. (I don’t know why I need an excuse these days; my life is finally my own to do as I please. But old habits die hard.) I didn’t feel like driving — it’s about 100 miles each way. So I went out to the airport, dragged the helicopter out, preflighted, fired it up, and took off with Penny on board in the passenger seat beside me.

It was an uneventful flight. A typically perfect Arizona winter day with temperatures forecasted to get into the high 70s, no wind, and no clouds. I had a bit of a problem with my door on takeoff — I’d lifted off with the door unlatched — and had to land in the desert about 4 miles west of town to close it properly. But then we were on our way, zipping across the desert about 500 feet up at 120 knots ground speed. Foreflight on my iPad told me we’d get there at 9:23 AM.

My landing zone (LZ) was a crapshoot. I honestly didn’t know for sure where I’d land. Quartzsite is surrounded by BLM land and I am allowed to land there, provided I don’t have paying passengers on board. But I wanted to get as close to Tyson Wells and the RV show across the street as possible. I thought I might try an empty lot south of I-10, but when I got near there, I saw a few trailers parked nearby and a man walking across the lot. Too much going on. So instead, I found a nice LZ a bit south of there. It was probably about a half mile from the traffic light just east of Tyson Wells.

Quartzsite Helicopter Parking

I shut down, put Penny on her leash, and locked up the helicopter. We walked over to the RV show. It was still early — only about 9:30 AM — and things were just waking up. That’s one of the things I like about getting to Quartzsite early; you get a real feel for the “behind the scenes” life of the vendors. Along the way, I got a text from my friend Jim in Idaho and decided to give him a call. We chatted while I walked around outside the big RV show tent.

By the time we finished, I was in the vendor area nearby, just outside a pet supply booth. I made my first purchase of the day: a new harness/collar for Penny. Finally she can stop wearing that kitten collar!

Artisan Village
One of the weirder vendor RVs at Tyson Wells.

We walked Tyson Wells next. The show was not nearly as big as it had been in past years — hell, Quartzsite has come a long way down since its glory years. There was still plenty to see and buy, including the usual collection of junk of interest to RVers. There were also quite a few bible and prayer booths. As I walked past one of them, a guy outside asked me if I wanted to participate in a “bible survey.” I said, “You don’t want to hear what I have to say,” and laughed as I walked away.

I looked at jewelry. I’m still trying to replace a pair of earrings I aways wore that my husband gave me. I simply can’t bear to look at them anymore. But I didn’t see anything better than the pair I’d already bought that were slightly too big for everyday use.

Wouldn’t this be a great way for a caterer to display his business cards at events?

I bought a business card stand made out of flatware for a friend of mine who owns a catering company. I figured it would be a neat thing to put out at events to display his business cards.

I also bought an excellent, right-out-of-the-oven cinnamon roll without all that icky icing Cinnabon uses. Delicious!

In the meantime, Penny was trying to say hello to all the other dogs she saw — and there were a lot of them. Sadly, a lot of the smaller dogs were confined in dog strollers — if you can believe that — or being carried. Why won’t people let their dogs be dogs?

Finished with Tyson Wells, we walked back to the RV show. I wanted to buy a sign.

Last year, when I’d gone to the show, I’d bought five wooden signs designed to hang one under the other. The top one said “Mobile Mansion” and the bottom ones each had names: “Maria,” “Mike,” “Charlie,” and “Alex.” You see, my husband was supposed to join me on the road in the RV and I thought it would be fun to have these signs hanging outside to show who was in residence. It’s an RVer thing. I had them with me in Washington last summer and was having a sign stand made so I could hang them outside the RV. Of course, when my husband told me he wanted a divorce, I sent the “Mike” and “Charlie” signs back to him. Although I aways hoped I could get Charlie back, it doesn’t seem as if my husband will give him up. But I do have Penny so I wanted to have a sign made for her. I’ll hang the remaining signs when I go back to Washington and set up the RV again.

I found the wooden sign guy and placed my order. I paid him $15 and he told me to be back in an hour.

I put Penny in my tote bag with her head popping out. I didn’t want to carry her, but I knew that walking her though the big tent on a leash was not a wise idea. With her safely tucked away under my arm, we went inside.

Teeth Whitening at Quartzsite
For some reason, I found the teeth whitening booth disturbing.

Plug and Play Solar
Someone’s version of my husband’s idea: plug and play solar.

Inside the tent was a zoo: crazy crowded. Vendors were selling RV timeshares and providing travel information about various destinations. They were selling cooking appliances and utensils. They were offering massages and pain relief and teeth whitening. They were selling solar panels — including the “Plug and Play” systems my soon-to-be ex-husband had wanted to design but never moved forward on. They were selling clothes and cell phone cases and solutions to clean RVs. The whole place reeked of RV septic system fluid — like someone had dumped a case of the stuff on the floor. It was crowded with retirees shuffling from one booth to the next, making unexpected stops. I was very glad Penny was safely tucked away — she would have either been trampled or her leash would have tripped an old guy.

I looked at a cell phone case, but left without one when I realized they wanted $19.95 for the same thing I could buy at Tyson Wells for $6.

Turkey Leg
Smoked turkey legs, anyone?

Loaded Baked Potato
I call this lunch.

We exited back into the fresh air on the west side of the tent, right outside the smoked turkey leg booth. I took Penny out of the bag, set her on the ground, and got on line. My husband never left Quartzsite without a smoked turkey leg — he loved them. In fact, last year when I went without him, I brought a few back for him. I liked them, too, of course, although it was too much food for lunch. So I ordered one wrapped to go (which I’d eat for dinner over the next two days — they really are huge) and got a fully loaded smoked baked potato for lunch. Penny and I retreated back toward the outside of the tent, where we sat on a flattened cardboard box to eat in the sun. By this time, I’d stripped off most of my layers of clothing and was very comfortable in a tank top and jeans. (Yes, in January.)

Penny's Sign
The style and color of the sign is different, but last year’s sign man wasn’t around. The “Maria” and “Alex” signs are in my RV.

With lunch finished, we walked around the outside of the RV show tent again, eventually winding up at the sign guy. The sign was ready, although he had run out of the spray stuff he uses to protect it. I told him I didn’t want to wait for his companion to arrive with some, confirmed that the paint was dry, and stuffed it in my bag of goodies.

We were done and it was time to go home.

Dog Ice Cream Cone
How cool is this? An ice cream cone for dogs! It was about 3-4 inches total, including the ice cream on top.

I did want ice cream, but I didn’t want to wait on the very long line for the ice cream vendor outside the big tent. And I certainly wasn’t going to pay the other guy on the way out of the area $7 for an ice cream cone. But we did find an ice cream place not far from the corner with the traffic light. I got a huge 2-1/2 scoop serving on a waffle cone. And when they saw that I was with a dog, they gave me a tiny vanilla cone just for her.

We walked back to the helicopter. I did a quick preflight, added a half quart of oil — which I managed to spill quite a bit of — and climbed on board. A while later, we were airborne over the town. I managed to take one photo of the RV show and Tyson Wells area before turning east toward Wickenburg.

Aerial Quartzsite

We were back on the ground at Wickenburg Airport 40 minutes later.

It had been a nice day out — and possibly the last time I’d ever go to Quartzsite. I’d miss it.

Lost in the Desert

I do a “search and rescue” and come up empty. Again.

First of all, understand that I don’t do search and rescue with my helicopter. I do search, but rescue isn’t part of the deal. I’m not equipped for it.

As for search — well, I’ll do it, but I don’t usually find what it is that we’re looking for. I’ve looked for hikers and dogs and even a truck and have not had success. I did find three out of four bulls once, but I think that was a fluke. Or just luck.

When people call and ask me to do a search, I tell them about my track record. I don’t want them to throw away $545/hour on a low-level helicopter flight that’s likely to come up empty. I basically talk them out of it. Hell, I did it a few weeks ago, when I was asked to search for a dog. Been there, tried that, failed.

I like money, but I hate taking it from disappointed passengers.

The First Call

I was at a wine tasting at Vistancia with some new friends when I got the call. It was so loud in the wine bar that I had to go outside to talk to the caller.

It was Edwin from another helicopter operation based in Glendale. A woman’s husband was sick and lost in the desert on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation south of I-8. What was he doing there? I asked. Crossing in from Mexico illegally, he admitted. The woman needed someone to look for him, someone with a bigger helicopter than the R22s he operated. Would I do it?

I told him about my track record. I said I didn’t want to get in hot water with Border Patrol. He said I wouldn’t have to pick him up. I could just call 911 with his coordinates. He was sick and needed help. I told him he could have her call me the next day. I told him I was up as early as 7 AM. Then we hung up and went back to my wine tasting.

Red wines from Paso Robles are very good.

The Client Call

She called at 7:56 AM the next day. She had a Mexican accent, but her English was very good — she’d obviously been here a long time. She told me he’d been lost since Wednesday. She said he often had problems with tonsillitis and reminded me of the cold snap the week before. Nighttime temperatures had been in the 20s. She said his cousin had abandoned him in the desert and because it was on the reservation and they only had 4 rangers, no one was looking for him.

It was Sunday. If he really was sick, given the cold weather, he was likely dead.

But he could be alive. She apparently thought so.

I told her my track record. I told her that things were hard to find out in the desert.

She assured me that the area to search was small — only about 10 miles. She said it was mostly flat. She said he had a maroon blanket that should be easy to see.

I told her my rate. I told her I’d need a credit card deposit before I went to Glendale to meet them.

She said they’d pay cash. She said she’d fly down to Glendale with me to pick up the other two passengers for the search. She said one of them was familiar with the area. She said she’d talk to her brother-in-law and call back.

I went upstairs to get dressed.

She called back. She asked if I could do anything about the rate. I thought about the flight — 4 hours minimum. I thought about losing a loved one out in the desert. I thought about how she considered me her only hope. I thought about actually finding someone and saving his life.

I didn’t want to do it, but I made her a deal. And I reminded her again about my track record.

I couldn’t talk her out of it. She said she’d meet me at the airport in an hour.

The Clients

It was 10 AM when we met at the airport. The helicopter was already on the ramp. I’d refuel at Glendale to maximize flight time for the search.

She was surprisingly young — maybe in her late 20s — petite, pretty, and surprisingly calm. It’s odd, but the divorce crap I’ve been going through has really been affecting me in horribly negative ways, putting me in tears at odd times for the slightest thoughts. (After all these months, the memory of being locked out of my own house by my husband still gets me every time.) But this young woman, whose husband was sick and had been missing in the desert for more than half a week, was amazingly calm and collected. I believe it has to do with the way Mexican people deal with life problems. They’re so accustomed to hardship that they can be strong when most Americans would be falling apart.

There’s something to learn there.

As the helicopter was warming up, she showed me their wedding picture. It was a 5 x 7 print, a closeup shot, professionally done. She looked stunning, with flowers in her hair, a made-up face, and a white dress. He looked a little bit older than her with short hair and a nice suit. They looked like a nice couple. She looked at the photo with me, then slipped it back into her purse.

Death is Not Fair

In the past month, two of my friends have become widows suddenly and unexpectedly.

Linda’s husband of 40+ years, Ron, died due to complications during what was supposed to be a relatively routine surgery. Just this afternoon, I got a thank you card from her for the fruit basket I sent. In it was a card about Ron’s life and a poem and photo. I read it and cried. I’ll miss Ron, too.

Pamela’s husband Terry died several hours after having a heart attack. They stabilized him in the hospital and said they were going to let him go home in the morning. She was sitting with him that night when she watched “the light leave his eyes.” She cried to me when she told me what a wonderful partner he had been.

These two women — and the young woman I flew for on Sunday — loved their husbands and their husbands loved them. They lost their husbands unexpectedly or even tragically.

Yet my husband, who has turned into a hateful, vindictive bastard, still lives. Why couldn’t he have died instead of one of them? Why couldn’t he have died before he broke my heart? Yes, I’d still be in pain, but at least I’d have the illusion of thinking that he still loved me when I lost him. And at least I’d have some closure by now.

Death is not fair. It takes the wrong people.

I thought about this young woman with her whole life ahead of her. I thought about her husband, who she loved and wanted to find. And I all I could think about was my husband, who had lied to me, cheated on me, locked me out of my home, and was trying to use Arizona law and the court system to take as much of my hard-earned money and assets as he could. Surely life would be better for both her and me if it were my husband sick and lost in the desert instead of hers.

We flew direct to Glendale. It was a 20-minute flight. I landed on the ramp and called the FBO for fuel. She went to the terminal to bring back the other passengers.

I had to get them back through the gate. It was two men — a younger man who was amazingly jovial, considering the situation — and an older, more heavyset man who didn’t speak much English. I did a safety briefing, loaded them on board, I started up, warmed back up, and headed out.

Along the way, they gave me texted GPS coordinates, which I punched into my Garmin 420 GPS. It took us 30 minutes to get there: Ventana, AZ.

The Story

The story had many versions which evolved during the course of the day. My clients were receiving texts throughout the flights. And later, when we landed at Casa Grande for fuel, we got even more information from a Border Patrol officer who met with us briefly.

The original story was this: Oscar and his Cousin had crossed the border on foot with a party from Sonoyta with a Coyote. Oscar had gotten sick, which slowed them down near Ventana. The Coyote and others had abandoned them because they were too slow. Oscar and his cousin got as far as Ventana, where they got water. Then they continued on, walking toward the glow of the Phoenix lights. Oscar got too sick to walk, so his cousin left him in “a flat area near a tank with water within 1 mile of a paved road between Ventana and Kaka.” His cousin then walked for 10 hours before he got to Kaka at about 5 PM and turned himself in at a house. Border Patrol picked him up, but it was too late in the day to start a search for Oscar.

There was some talk about a pipeline that the illegals often followed on their trip. The pipeline went right through Kaka, but didn’t go anywhere near Ventana.

Coyote Route

My clients had some information from Oscar himself, when he called on a cell phone from where he’d been left. He was apparently very sick but in good spirits, telling his wife that he wanted to surprise her with his visit. I didn’t ask why he was illegal, whether she was, or anything else like that. It wasn’t my business. I didn’t care.

And my clients also had some information from the Coyote, but it was clearly incomplete.

So our initial search area was between Ventana and Kaka a distance of only 4.5 nautical miles.

The First Flight

I wish I had photos to show you how flat and featureless most of the terrain between Ventana and Kaka is. But I don’t. I wasn’t expecting anything beautiful, so I didn’t rig up my cameras for the flight.

If you’re reading this and you live anywhere near a metropolitan area, I guarantee you’ve got no idea of the kind of remote and empty terrain I’m writing about here. You can go 50 miles or more without crossing a paved road or seeing any kind of man-made structure. There’s no shelter from the sun or the wind. During the day in the wintertime, it can get into the 80s; the same night it can go down into the 20s. There are coyotes in the flats and mountain lions in the hills. This is the landscape Mexican immigrants often walk through to get a better life in America.

From Glendale, we flew past the Estrella mountains and into a long valley between mountain ranges. The ground was mostly flat, with dusty soil, and scrubby cacti, mesquite, palo verde, and other typical Sonoran desert vegetation. The only thing missing were saguaro cacti. They were all on the rocky mountainsides.

In some places, the ground was covered with tall yellow grass. In other places, it was sand. In still other places, it was eroded into shallow washes lined with somewhat taller trees. My chart showed some of the terrain as dry lake beds, but they were more grassy than the dry flat basins I’m familiar with.

We crossed the pipeline, which ran from the southwest to the northeast. The man familiar with the area, George, wanted me to go all the way to Ventana, but we began checking near cattle tanks — man-made ponds out in the desert designed to gather and hold water during rainstorms for cattle. We were looking for that maroon blanket.

Closeup of Search Area

A satellite view of the thriving metropolis of Ventana, AZ. That stuff that looks like dusty dirt? It is.

We got to Ventana. It was a settlement of about 50 buildings. It was miserable blotch on the desert landscape. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to live there. (Apologies to the people who do.) The only thing it had going for it was a paved road leading out of town.

First Track
My actual track from the first search flight. I came in from the north, worked my way around the area, and then departed for fuel to the northeast.

I tried a search pattern between Ventana and Kaka. (Kaka was as bad as, if not worse than, Ventana.) George, kept directing me off my pattern. That was okay. If we searched where they wanted, they couldn’t blame me if we came up empty. But there was no sign of anyone — not even the usual trash left behind by illegals regrouping before moving on.

There were, however, wild horses. I have never seen so many wild horses in my life. They were all over the place in herds ranging from 5 to 20 animals. All different colors: brown, white, black, paint. They didn’t seem the least bit interested in us, even when we flew just a few hundred feet over their heads.

There were also shrines or memorials along the side of the roads. Crosses and hearts and flowers. I counted at least ten or twelve. Others had died in the area. Were they victims of car crashes or of the desert’s hostile terrain? Would there be a memorial near there for Oscar one day soon?

The Questions

As we got a better idea of the area, the questions started coming. If they were walking from Sonoyta to Phoenix along the pipeline, how had they gotten anywhere near Ventana? And if they were in Ventana, why did they walk northwest (instead of northeast) to Kaka? And why had it taken Oscar’s cousin 10 hours to walk from Ventana to Kaka, a distance of less than 5 miles? And if they were walking along the pipeline, how could they be within a mile from a paved road?

None of it made sense.

We followed the pipeline west past Kaka, exploring the low mountains in that area. I had strayed into a restricted area which, fortunately, was closed on Sundays. We found ourselves in another valley with the same featureless terrain and wild horses.

The pipeline road was littered with trucks and minivans — the vehicles stolen by Coyotes in Phoenix to smuggle illegals in. They drive them until they break and they leave them in the desert to rot. There were also wheels along the road. When a vehicle gets a flat, they change it and leave the old wheel behind.

And bicycles. Some of the people use stolen mountain bikes instead of walking. When the bikes are destroyed by the rough terrain, they’re simply left behind. I wondered if my bicycle, stolen last year from our Phoenix condo, was out in the desert nearby.

George directed me to fly south down a dirt road from the pipeline. That eventually dumped us in Hickiwan, another Indian village on a paved road. This one was a bit bigger. We saw a Border Patrol vehicle. We searched the area, around cattle tanks. I couldn’t understand why he’d be so close to a town and not go to get help. They told me he was very sick — too sick to walk. Again, I thought that he must be dead by now.

When George pointed southwest down the paved road between two big hills and told us that the Coyotes usually came up from there, I suspected that he’d worked with Coyotes in the past. He just knew the routes too well.

We followed the paved road to Vaya Chin, searching on the north side as we went. Then back up to Ventana, searching on the west side of the road. Then to Kaka again, where the paved road ended.

By that time, I needed fuel. Casa Grande was the closest airport with fuel and it was a good 20-minute flight away. So we took off northeast, following the pipeline most of the way. We even did one or two brief searches on either side of the pipeline. Of course, this was nowhere near a paved road.

Fuel Stop

At Casa Grande, I let them out while I shut down the engine, refueled, and added a quart of oil. They were hanging out near the terminal building in the sun. It was a beautiful day in the high 60s with very little wind. They couldn’t ask for better weather for a search.

At various times, each of them were on the phone. At one point, my client called the Border Patrol guy who’d picked up Oscar’s cousin. He said he was in the area and would meet us.

A while later, a hispanic guy showed up and introduced himself. By that time, I’d fetched a chart from my helicopter which clearly indicated each of the points of interest we’d searched near (see above). He proceeded to tell us the effort Border Patrol had put into finding Oscar. SUVs, ATVs, guys on foot, dogs, and even helicopters with infrared capabilities. They’d even gone so far as to follow tracks in the desert on foot as far as five miles. Nothing.

He mentioned looking for buzzards (vultures) — which I’d already been doing — and the fact that the infrared gear picked up body heat. Clearly, he didn’t think Oscar was alive at this point either.

I didn’t want my client throwing away more money, but if she wanted to keep flying, we would. It was already after 3 PM; the sunset would be at about 5:40 PM. We didn’t have much time. I mentioned this and asked her what she wanted to do.

Keep flying, she said resignedly.

So we said goodbye to the Border Patrol guy and climbed back on board. I made a beeline toward our original GPS point.

The Second Flight

Track 2
My phone’s battery was nearly dead, so I started this track on my iPad after we’d begun the second search. You can clearly see the search patterns I attempted.

We started in the vicinity of an old mine not far from the pipeline north of Ventana. We searched the valley to the west of there and I pretty much insisted on some sort of search pattern. Then we moved south of Ventana and Kaka, getting almost as far as Vaya Chin.

That’s when my client started getting text messages with more information. Oscar’s cousin had turned up in Mexico. He insisted that he and Oscar had walked through Ventana, stopping there to get water. He said he’d left Oscar within a mile of a paved road near a tank — in other words, it was the original story again. He said they’d been walking in the dark toward the bright lights of Phoenix (north-northeast). He wasn’t clear on how he’d gotten to Kaka, but it was late in the afternoon after he’d left Oscar in the dark.

So we began a search between Ventana and Kaka again, and then a pattern north of Ventana. I think we went too far north — after all, we should have stayed within a mile of the paved road — but I did what I was told. We came up empty.

And with the sunlight beginning to fade, we were also beginning to spook all those wild horses. When they heard us coming, they’d often start to run.

The light was pretty, with a golden hue and long shadows. But it was also difficult to see, especially when we faced the sun.

Finally, at around 5:30, I pulled the plug. I was getting low on fuel again and planned to go all the way back to Glendale — a 30-minute flight — to get more. It didn’t make sense to go to Casa Grande and then Glendale.

As we flew north, they kept getting texts. They talked about Ventana Mountain (Window Mountain) instead of the town of Ventana. They talked about bringing leaves from a tree near Oscar to Kaka where his cousin surrendered to Border Patrol. They talked about the Coyote being purposely vague and the locals not wanting to get involved. The last few mentioned that an Indian woman in Kaka claimed she knew exactly where Oscar had been left. If so, then why wait until the end of the day so long after the search had begun? Did she see the helicopter and think she could get some money from people who were that desperate to find the missing man? It seemed likely, since she said she wouldn’t take them anywhere without being paid. Still, there was nothing they could do other than try.

I felt bad for them. Very bad.

End of the Flight

We got to Glendale and I shut down. It was a little after 6 PM. They went out toward the parking lot while I arranged for fuel. I didn’t have enough to get back to Wickenburg.

My client returned, looking sad. She climbed on board, I got clearance from the tower to depart, and we headed northwest.

Along they way, she told me about how they’d married only three years ago. She told me about her first two pregnancies, both of which ended in miscarriage. She told me about her third pregnancy and the little girl they now had. She was clearly on the verge of tears when she told me how happy they were and how much he looked forward to being with her and his daughter.

I knew that Oscar was likely dead, his bones probably scattered by the coyotes and other desert carnivores who had found a free meal in an unexpected place.

And I thought again about my broken marriage and wished there was some way I could trade Oscar for the man who was tormenting me regularly.

We landed in Wickenburg and I let her go while I shut down. There was no reason to keep her from her daughter and the others who waited for news.

I asked her to call me if they found him.

And as I watched her walk away on the dark ramp, I decided that the next time I was asked to do a search like this, I’d say no.