When I Became a Pilot

An essay from years ago.

Let me start with an introduction.

Thanks to the enthusiastic encouragement of a local writing group I joined a few months ago, I’m working on a book project about my flying experiences.

I’d started a book about flying back in 2010, intending to document my first 10 years as a pilot, but set it aside when life got busy with other things. Then, when my crazy divorce started, I forgot all about it. Rebooting my life in a new place and building a new home kept it on the far back burner of my mind. I recently discovered the manuscript on my computer’s hard disk and submitted one of the stories to the group. They seemed to love it and asked for more. With an overabundance of free time during the winter months, it seemed like a good idea to dive back in and possibly get it ready for publication by this spring.

I spent most of yesterday learning to use Scrivener, the writing tool of choice among so many of my writing friends. I moved the manuscript into Schrivener and organized the existing content into subchapters while expanding the outline. Then I continued the process of tracking down old blog posts to form the basis of stories that would make up the subchapters for the book.

I have a lot of blog posts about flying.

Although many of the early posts never made the transition from my original iBlog-based blog to the WordPress-based blog I started in January 2006, some of them did. Among them is a post called “The Big, White Tire,” which I wrote on November 6, 2003. (Yes, I’ve been blogging for more than 12 years now.) Near the beginning of that post, I wrote:

In my essay, “When I Became a Pilot” (which has since been lost in various Web site changes), I discuss the various flights I’ve made that have led up to me finally feeling as if I really am a pilot. One of these flights was my private pilot check ride. And in one of those paragraphs, I mention the big, white tire.

I got curious about the essay. Was it really lost? When had I written it? Was it possible that it was on my computer somewhere, hiding in plain sight?

So I did a computer search for “when I became a pilot” and found a Word document with the same name. It was the “missing” essay.

Here it is.


When I Became a Pilot

I became a helicopter pilot this past year, although I’m not sure exactly when.

It wasn’t the day I took my introductory flight. That 0.9 hours on the very first line of the very first page of my logbook isn’t even a clear memory to me. I know my instructor, Paul, and I left Chandler Municipal for the practice area at Memorial field, as we would do for most lessons over the course of my private pilot training. I assume he spoke to me about flying and I have a vague memory of handling the controls, although not all of them at once. I certainly wasn’t a pilot that day.

It wasn’t the day I first soloed, after months of squeezing hour-long training flights into my busy schedule. I remember that day clearly. After doing a few traffic patterns at Memorial, Paul told me to set down. He had a hand-held radio with him and he tuned it and the one in the helicopter to the frequency the flight school used.

“Now when you pick up,” he told me, “the front left skid will lift off first. You’ll have to compensate with forward and left cyclic. Do a few traffic patterns. Make all your radio calls. I’ll be listening and keeping an eye out for traffic.”

He lowered his head as he walked away from the helicopter and its spinning blades. Then he stood facing me, only thirty feet away. I could see his face clearly.

“Go ahead,” his voice came though the radio.

I pulled the collective up slowly. The helicopter became light on its skids. Then the left skid came up while the helicopter seemed to tip backwards. I panicked a little and jerked the collective up. The helicopter popped up ten feet. Paul’s eyes opened wide and his face displayed his concern. I’m sure mine did, too.

I did three or four patterns, landing near him on the cracked asphalt of the runway on each pass. Then he told me to set it down and he got back in. I could tell he was proud of me. (He told me later that the reason he remained a flight instructor so long was because he felt a real sense of achievement every time a student soloed for the first time.) But I still wasn’t a pilot.

It certainly wasn’t the day I did my first cross-country flight. Paul and I had planned the flight and I had circled all the waypoints I expected to see. The chart was folded and strapped to my leg with the flight plan clipped on top of it. It was a warm day in April and the doors were off. But the late afternoon thermals were brewing as we flew south to Eloy and they were particularly nasty as we flew over the Santan Mountains. That’s when I started feeling sick.

Studying a map on my lap while the helicopter bumped through rough air was too much for me. I found all the waypoints and we stayed on course, but about ten miles short of Gila Bend, our second stop, I’d had enough. I asked Paul to take over.

I didn’t get sick. Keeping my eyes on the horizon and off the damn map saved me. I was able to land at Gila Bend. Paul decided we should get out and walk around a bit, so we shut down on the ramp near a small building. Inside was a table, a few chairs, and a soda machine. We bought Cokes. A Mexican man was sitting at the table, patiently cutting the spines off young cactus pads that were neatly spread out in a flat cardboard box. Napolitos. We spoke briefly to him; he didn’t speak English very well.

A while later, we were back in the helicopter, starting up. The wind was howling. I felt Paul’s steadying grip on the controls as we took off. We had a tailwind, and according to the winds aloft information I had, it might be even stronger higher up. So instead of flying back at 500 AGL, we climbed to 2000 AGL. According to the helicopter’s GPS, we had a ground speed of 103 knots. The airspeed indicator read about 85. We were in a hurry to make up for lost time, so we let the wind help us out. I learned a lot about flying and the remote airports of Arizona that day. I also learned not to study a map strapped to my leg while I was flying in bumpy air. But I still wasn’t a pilot.

New Pilot Maria
I found this photo in my logbook case pocket. My flight instructor, Paul, snapped this right after I passed my first check ride in April 2000.

It wasn’t the day I took and passed my private pilot rotorcraft helicopter check ride, either. At that point, I was flying out of Scottsdale, which was a bit closer to home. Although more than a year had passed since my first lesson, Paul was still my instructor. I’d spent the whole week at Scottsdale, staying at a local hotel, flying during the day and studying at night. I think I did more autorotations that week than I did in all my months of training.

The oral part of the check ride went pretty well. The examiner was the flight school owner and he did a good job putting me at ease. Then we went out to fly. I don’t remember much, but I do remember thinking that I was flying pretty badly. I didn’t think I’d pass.

I think it was the tire that killed my meager confidence. It was a huge truck tire, painted white. It was out in the desert and one of these days I’m going to go find it. The examiner told me to hover up to it, facing it. Then he told me to hover around it, facing it the whole time. I did a terrible job, and I couldn’t even blame it on the wind.

I was feeling pretty bad by the time we went back, certain I’d failed. But I did make the absolute best approach and landing I’d ever made to the confined space we parked in at Scottsdale. Maybe that’s what saved me. Or maybe my performance wasn’t any better or worse than most student pilots on their check rides. I passed. When the examiner shook my hand, he told me I was a pilot.

But he was wrong. I wasn’t a pilot yet.

I knew I wasn’t a pilot the following month, when I took my first passenger for a ride. We’d rented the same helicopter for two hours. We drove the 70 miles to Scottsdale to pick it up and I did my preflight as I had so many times before. It was warm and the doors were off. I took off and headed back toward home. The plan was to fly over our town, then bring it back. We had just enough time and fuel to make the trip without rushing.

Although the air wasn’t any more turbulent than it had been on my check ride or when I flew with Paul, it seemed different. I was sharply tuned to the sound of the rotor blades, which changed based on their pitch and the pockets of air they sliced through. It seemed to me that there was an unusual amount of blade slap. My passenger, Mike, was also tuned to the sound and it made him nervous. He held onto the doorframe. He made me nervous. I made myself nervous.

It wasn’t a bad flight, but it wasn’t a good one, either. I wasn’t any more a pilot than I had been during my check ride.

I know I wasn’t a pilot when I started my commercial pilot training at a flight school in Prescott. My new instructor, Raj, didn’t baby me. When he realized that I was afraid to fly in heavy wind, he made me face my fear by having me spend twenty minutes on a very windy day, practicing hovering. I remember the lesson well; it was the first time I’d ever been told to make a hover turn using only one foot on one pedal.

Three-Niner-Lima
My first helicopter, an R22 Beta II, in a friend’s driveway in Aguila, AZ not long after I got it.

I still wasn’t a pilot when I bought my helicopter, a 1999 Robinson R22 Beta II with only 168 hours on its Hobbs meter. I’d gone back to my first flight school and had a new instructor there, Masohiro. He flew with me around the Phoenix Sky Harbor surface airspace to show me how I could fly from Chandler to Wickenburg without talking to ATC. Then I was on my own, to fly Three-Niner-Lima home with Mike.

I don’t recall feeling nervous that day, although I’d logged less than ten hours since our first flight together from Scottsdale five months before. I don’t recall him seeming nervous either. Perhaps I was overwhelmed by the significance of what I was doing: flying my own helicopter.

But I certainly didn’t feel like a pilot a few days later when I flew solo for the first time in over a year to bring Three-Niner-Lima back to Chandler. (I was leasing it to the flight school and I only got it on weekends.) As I took off from Wickenburg, I choose a poor departure route, over the hangars, and for a brief moment, I thought I wouldn’t clear them. (I haven’t done that since.) And I was nervous all the way down to Chandler.

I didn’t feel like a pilot the following month, when I checked out to rent a helicopter in St. Augustine, FL. I wanted to take my stepfather for a ride. The autorotation I did for the flight instructor who checked me out, Ziggy, was so bad, he asked for another one. It must have been okay, though, because they let me rent it. But I wasn’t a pilot yet.

I almost felt like a pilot the month after that, when I participated in a Young Eagles rally in Aguila, AZ. I followed all the rules and worked with a ground crew to give safe rides to five kids. I told them about the helicopter and answered their questions. I knew what I was talking about and what I was doing. And it was clear that everything there thought I was a pilot. But I still wasn’t sure.

I didn’t feel much like a pilot a month later, though, after making my first bad decision regarding weather. The weather forecast called for ceilings of 900 feet along my route from Wickenburg to Chandler and I figured that was enough, since I normally flew at 500 AGL. We took off to the south and soon discovered that the ceilings were lower than expected. They seemed too low along my preferred route, so I decided to take my backup route, which looked a little better. Soon, they were low there, too, and I was flying at 350 to 400 feet AGL, with wisps of cloud bottoms passing the cockpit bubble. The ceilings rose when I was halfway there, but then the rain started to fall. The temperature dropped to freezing and I began to wonder about icing on the blades. The visibility deteriorated to about three miles—still within minimums. But to a fair-weather flyer like me, it seemed as if I were flying in a fog.

I was just about to set it down in the desert and wait out the weather when I picked up Chander’s ATIS and was encouraged by the ten mile visibility it reported. I was five miles out and still couldn’t see the airport, but I followed the familiar route in. I was glad to be on the ground. And fortunately, my passenger—who was from the San Francisco Bay area and accustomed to such weather—never knew about my concerns.

Two months later, on my first long cross-country trip, I realized that I still wasn’t a pilot. I stretched my fuel supply almost to exhaustion with 2.9 hours of flight time. I must have been running on fumes when the fuel guy in Boulder City put 28.5 gallons into a pair of tanks that hold 29.7 gallons. Another few minutes of flight and the Low Fuel (or “Land Now”) light would have come on—possibly while still over Lake Mead.

But a week later, I certainly felt like a pilot. The comment in my log book for that 1.2 hour flight says simply “Yarnell Hill!” I’d followed the Hassayampa River north through the Weaver Mountains and into the valley beyond. Then I’d followed Waggoner Road to Route 89 and followed that to the town of Yarnell. At about 4,500 feet elevation, Yarnell is nestled near the edge of a cliff that the locals call Yarnell Hill. Beyond it, the earth falls away to the Sonoran desert floor near Congress, 1,500 feet below. Worried about the possibility of downdrafts, I’d approached the cliff edge at about 6,000 feet MSL. But the air was smooth. As I cleared the cliff, I lowered the collective almost to the floor and entered a sort of “powered autorotation.” Gliding down at the rate of 1500 feet per minute at about 80 knots airspeed, I got the most amazing rush. I pulled in the collective gently to level off at 3500 MSL feet over the dairy farm, close enough to smell the manure. Now that was flying!

A few off-airport landings for the $200 hamburger also made me feel not only like a pilot, but like a helicopter pilot. My favorite spot is Wild Horse West, about a mile east of Pleasant Valley Airport near Lake Pleasant. I line up with the old pavement of what used to be Route 74 (before it was moved to bypass the restaurant) and land near the entrance to the parking lot. Then I hover-taxi off the road into a clearing where Three-Niner-Lima will be out of the way. A helicopter near the parking lot turns a few heads, but I haven’t gotten a parking ticket yet.

Of course, a new flight instructor who was impossible to please didn’t make me feel much like a pilot at all. I reached new levels of frustration, not long after my departing instructor told me I was ready for my commercial check ride. The only thing that impressed the new guy was my GPS skills—a fact he noted boldly in my student folder. I decided to complete my training elsewhere.

I started feeling like a pilot again when my friends Mark and Gary gave me some formation flying lessons. It was June and I was scheduled to fly along with the world’s largest airworthy biplane (piloted by Mark) to AirVenture in Oshkosh the following month. Gary took off in his Cub and we took turns being lead and wing. It was tough flying slow enough for him to keep up with me when I was lead—and Mike complains that helicopters are slow! I wish I could have seen what we looked like from the ground. I bet it was a sight to see.

The Oshkosh trip fell through but I came up with another cross-country alternative: Colorado. I took a leisurely three-day solo flight, logging 7.0 hours of flight time to Eagle County Airport. Maybe it was that trip that made me a pilot. I learned a lot about flight planning, mountain flying, and weather. And I saw so much! Of course the ride home was tough, especially the 6.1 hours logged in one day, flying from Moab, UT to Wickenburg, AZ with my friend Janet. Heavy departures from high altitude airports, multiple fuel stops, and turbulence combined to make it a flying day I’d rather forget.

But a few months later, I was again doubting whether I was really a pilot.. I had to fly Three-Niner-Lima from Wickenburg to Long Beach, CA to finish my commercial training, and I didn’t think I could do it alone. A private pilot from the flight school took a commercial flight to Phoenix to make the trip to California with me. He wanted to build time; I wanted someone to guide me through the complex Los Angeles area airspace. But when he took the controls on the leg from our lunch stop in Chiraco Summit to our fuel stop at Banning, I knew I was more a pilot than he was. He couldn’t maintain airspeed and let our ground speed drop as low as 52 knots in a 20 knot headwind. Cars on I-10 were passing us! I took control again from Banning to El Monte and showed him how to push into the wind.

I finished my commercial training in just over a week and passed my commercial check ride. (So much for the opinions of difficult-to-please flight instructors in Chandler.) Was I a pilot then? Maybe. Or maybe I became one on the way home the next day. I had to navigate from El Monte to Wickenburg, alone with a late start, handling all radio communications. I had to request special VFR clearances to fly through two Class D airspaces. I had to decide whether to spend the night at Thermal, near Palm Springs or push onward to reach Blythe or Parker before nightfall. I made all the right decisions and had a good, safe flight. I even enjoyed the overnight stay at Thermal, where the FBO generously gave me a brand new car for transportation to and from the hotel.

Trailer Landing
This trailer landing was a piece of cake compared to the platform I regularly land my R44 on at home these days.

I must have been a pilot when I took my first two paying customers up for rides a few weeks later. Or when Mike and I flew to Falcon Field for dinner at Anzio’s and enjoyed the light of the full moon on the otherwise dark trip back to Wickenburg. Or when Mike’s cousin Ricky and I landed at Swansea, in the middle of nowhere, to explore the ghost town’s ruins without making the five hour round trip car ride. Or when I landed Three-Niner-Lima on the back of a 8×16 flatbed trailer so I could show it off in the Wickenburg Gold Rush Days parade. Or when I stayed on the controls with Mark so he could try out a few maneuvers in the only type of aircraft he’s not rated to fly.

Things felt right during all those flights. I felt confident and my passengers had confidence in me. I didn’t do anything foolish, anything I would scold myself for later on. I was still learning from every flight, but I felt that I had built a solid base of knowledge and skills to fly safely—and enjoy almost every minute of it.

But maybe it was the flight that gave me the idea to write this article. It was just the other morning. I’d gone to the airport at 6 AM and had Three-Niner-Lima out on the ramp and preflighted by 6:30. A few minutes later, we were airborne, just me and my ship, headed south.

The doors are off, the cool morning air rushes through the cockpit. The radio is strangely quiet; am I the only person aloft on that normally busy shared frequency? We pass over the top of Vulture Peak, then make a steep descent and continue south and then west, riding along Aguila Road toward Aguila. Trucks hauling rocks make lines of dust in the distance; soon I’m flying right over one of the trucks on the road. A manmade structure atop a mountain to the south of us catches my eye and we go to investigate. Just a radio tower, but down in the foothills, the ruins of a mining building. A good place to land nearby; I mark it on my GPS for investigation with Mike when the weather cools down. Weaving around the mountains, circling around, looking for anything interesting in the empty desert. There’s the mountain near where we found that saguaro skeleton several years ago. And there’s the old quarry we saw later that day. I mark a few other interesting points, then look ahead. Harquahala looms huge in front of me, rising 3,500 feet from the desert floor. I decide to climb, to see if any other early riser has made the 11-mile, 90-minute journey by four-wheel-drive vehicle to the top of the mountain.

I reduce speed to 60 knots and climb at 500 feet per minute. The ground falls away through my open door and the world spreads out as I gain altitude. It’s a clear, calm morning and I can easily see 50 miles or more in any direction. I notice a road along the ridge that I’d never noticed before. Then I begin to pick out the details at the top of the mountain: the antenna array, the solar panels, and the remains of the Smithsonian Solar Observatory. But the observatory is partially demolished and covered with scaffolding. I circle and check the windsock. There’s no wind. I land at the tiny helipad.

I’m the only human being on top of the mountain that morning as I get out to explore. The observatory is undergoing renovations. I sign the guest book, noting that I arrived by helicopter. Then I walk around, enjoying the silence of the mountaintop and the views all around me. For a while, I feel perfectly in tune with the world.

Time slips away and I have to leave to be back in time for an appointment at 9:00. I climb back into Three-Niner-Lima and start the engine. I bring it up into a hover, then move forward, toward the edge of the cliff. Once clear, I push down the collective and go into a steep glide, following the canyons around to the back of the mountain, where the dirt road winds down to the valley floor. I level off at three thousand feet, then make my way back to Wickenburg.

As I put Three-Niner-Lima back into the hangar, I know that I’m finally a pilot.


After reading this, I pulled out my original logbook and searched for the flight to Harquahala, the one that made me realize that I was a pilot. It was on May 29, 2002, about two years after I got my private pilot certificate. I logged 1.6 hours for that flight and, at that point, had less than 300 hours logged as a pilot in command.

I remember that flight as if it were just yesterday — flying around the desert, then climbing to the top of the tallest mountain in the area and setting my little R22 down on the tiny helipad up there. It was dead quiet that morning and I felt like I was the only person in the world. It was still cool that early in the day and I could see for miles. There was something magical about it.

Of course, there would be many, many magical flights to come.

Anyway, I thought I’d rescue this essay and put it on my blog where it belongs. Consider it a taste of the book to come.

My Thanksgiving Cactus

An early blooming Christmas cactus is back in my life.

I’ve always been a plant lover. When I was a kid, the windowsills and shelves in my room were lined with plants. I even belonged to the Horticulture Club in my New Jersey high school.

My love of plants stuck with me throughout my life. I had plants in my various homes — especially in the early years of my life in Arizona. That house was so bright that there was plenty of light for plants — even the ones tucked up on top of shelves in my kitchen. I had a vegetable garden for a few years and did some minor landscaping work out in the yard.

The trouble with plants is that they need water. Watering the plants on the high shelves was a pain in the butt — too much of a pain in the butt for my wasband to deal with while I was away every summer in our later years together. So those plants died and I replaced them with silk plants that actually looked a lot better. (I have those plants now in my new home.)

Christmas Cactus Bloom
One of the blooms from my Christmas cactus.

One plant I always took care of, however, was my Christmas cactus. Started from a very small plant acquired not long after moving into my Arizona home, I repotted it multiple times, allowing it to grow into ever bigger pots. It lived on a handwoven Navajo mat in the middle of the kitchen table where it was handy enough to get water when it needed it. Christmas cacti are extremely drought tolerant and can take a lot of neglect. The plant survived my summers away — even my wasband didn’t find it too difficult to care for — and thrived.

In late October every year, the plant would produce buds. Then, by Thanksgiving, it would flower. It had two flower colors — likely because it was started from two different plants — fushia and pinkish white. Over a period of two or three weeks, the entire plant would be covered with flowers. It was spectacular.

In 2012, while I was away in Washington for the summer, things back home changed. For some reason, my wasband moved the Christmas cactus off the kitchen table — where it had always been — and put it in the much darker living room. He apparently wasn’t home very often so all the plants in the house left were neglected. When he did come home, he overwatered everything — which was quite apparent from the water damage on the living room floor near a tall potted tree there and water stains on the glass-topped living room tables.

Of course, I didn’t know any of this until I got home in September. That’s when I found the Christmas cactus looking half dead on the coffee table. I brought it back into the kitchen and began nursing it back to health.

As I said earlier, these plants can take a lot of neglect. Within a month or so, it was looking much better. But when late October rolled around, there wasn’t a single bud on it. There were no flowers that Thanksgiving.

All that autumn, I was under the mistaken impression that my future wasband would settle by Christmas and I’d have to leave the house, which he wanted to keep. (What an idiot; he could have saved at least $120K and kept the house if he had.) So not only did I spend much of my time at home packing up my belongings, but I also started giving away my things, including my plants.

For months, every time someone invited me to their house for dinner, I’d come with a potted plant. It became a bit of a joke.

A few weeks before Christmas, I decided to spend the holidays with my family in Florida. Although I wasn’t in any hurry to leave — I had nowhere else to go — I still clung to the hope that my future wasband would see the light and settle. That could mean I’d be out of the house soon, possibly by New Years Day. I might even spend the whole winter in Florida.

Budding Cactus
The first of many photos Rose Marie has sent me since I dropped my Christmas cactus off at her home.

At that point, the only plant left was my Christmas cactus. It had fully recovered and was just starting to show a few tiny buds. There was a good chance it would bloom, possibly soon. So I loaded it up into my car and took it to the home of two of my friends, Stan and Rose Marie. I was sort of sad to leave it there — it had become such a fixture in my everyday life.

I went to Florida and spent some quality time with my family. On December 17, Rose Marie sent me a text with a picture of the plant: “Starting to bud.”

A few weeks later, she sent another photo.

Christmas Cactus in Bloom
Fully recovered, my Christmas cactus bloomed right around Christmas time in its new home.

Since then, Rose Marie has sent me annual photos of the plant in bloom. It seems to bloom around Christmas time each year in her home. I’m not sure why it blooms a whole month later for her — it might have something to do with the amount of light it gets. But she seems to prefer it blooming around Christmas, so it’s all good.

Early this year I was back in Arizona for a few weeks and had dinner at Stan and Rose Marie’s house. It was February and the plant had finished blooming for the year. I got a sort of crazy idea: maybe I could take a few cuttings from it and try to root them at home? When I left that evening, I had three cuttings from various parts of the plant wrapped up in a piece of wet paper towel.

In the guest house I was staying in, I put the cuttings in a small glass of water. A week or two later, I packed them carefully in my carryon bag and took them home with me on the plane. They looked pretty ratty when I put them into water. Within a week, I’d moved them into some potting soil that I kept moist. I honestly didn’t have much hope for them — it was relatively dark back in my RV where I was living, parked inside my garage for the winter.

But they rooted. And they grew.

I repotted the cuttings into one of the nice painted terra-cotta pots I’d brought with me from Arizona. When I moved upstairs into my new home, which is even brighter during the summer than my Arizona home was, the plant thrived.

And on Thanksgiving day, the plant started to bloom.

New Christmas Cactus
Here’s the descendant, so to speak, of my old plant in its home on my new coffee table.

I just sent a photo to Stan and Rose Marie. Their response: “Good deal! You’re on a roll. Small but looks great. Obviously you have a green thumb.”

It’s a start. I hope to be able to share a much more impressive photo of my Thanksgiving cactus next year.

Some Thoughts on Travel

“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Anonymous

Ludwigsburg
Perhaps my wanderlust was fed by this 1976 trip to Germany with my grandparents. Or perhaps it’s in my DNA, planted by my maternal grandfather, who used to follow us on vacation when I was a kid.

I need to start off by saying that I love to travel. I love getting into a car or plane or train with luggage and going someplace and staying for a while. I love learning about new places, meeting new people, and seeing new things.

Travel for Work

In the past, I was fortunate to have had a series of jobs that sent me all around the country. My job as an internal auditor for ADP (based in New Jersey) sent me to Chicago, Kansas, Los Angeles, Orlando, New Orleans, Denver, and Washington DC, as well as a few places closer to home. Trips ranged from one to three weeks in length. The job was 40-50% travel and I was told I’d get tired of it. But I never did.

When I started out as a freelancer, I worked as a hands-on computer trainer for Data Tech Institute. They sent me on numerous trips all over the eastern half of the country, from Milwaukee to Cape Cod to Atlanta. The trips were three days each: a travel day followed by two work days with travel at the end of the second day. I remember one particularly busy month when I visited eight different cities with 20 airplane legs and a round trip train ride. While I was exhausted at the end of that month, I was also ready for more.

Later, my writing work took me to New York, Boston, San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver, Santa Barbara, and Boulder to speak at conferences, meet with editors, and record video courses. I looked forward to every single trip.

Even my flying work got me traveling. Short trips to tourist destinations like the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Monument Valley, and Las Vegas. Overnight trips for survey and photo flights in northern Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Nevada. Training flights to the Los Angeles area. Long-term trips to Washington (where I later moved) for cherry drying and to California’s Central Valley for frost control. I loved those trips most — probably because someone was paying me to fly my helicopter there.

I simply loved to travel.

Don’t get me wrong — It isn’t because I didn’t like it at home — I did. (Well, I did until my marriage started falling apart.) I just liked to get out and get a new perspective of the world. And to me, that’s what traveling is all about.

The Stay-At-Home Rut

My future wasband and I traveled quite a bit during the first 20 or so years of our relationship. We had some amazing trips: Seattle to San Francisco by car; Shenandoah Parkway, Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Outer Banks by motorcycle; and a handful of islands in the Caribbean by cruise ship are among the top 10. He even accompanied me on quite a few of my business trips — several times to California and once to Hawaii on my frequent flyer miles — and I went with him on a few of his.

Havasu Falls
I went to Havasu Falls for the first time in 2004 on an Arizona Highways photo excursion. Alone, of course.

But that ended in the mid 2000s when he started a series of dead-end jobs with limited vacation time. Suddenly, long trips were difficult to arrange and weekends were the only time he could get away. (Unless, of course, he needed to visit his mother; he could always make time for her.) I tried to get him to commit to one three-day weekend trip every month. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But it apparently was.

I fell into in a stay-at-home rut. I wanted to travel — and I did actually make a few trips on my own — but unless it had some connection to my work, it wasn’t easy to do without having to deal with the resultant guilt trip my wasband put me on. You see, it wasn’t fair to leave him behind. Why should I have fun when he couldn’t? So I stayed at home, waiting, eventually looking forward to spring when I could go back to Washington, get a change of scenery, and spend time with friends. By that time, didn’t want to be at home.

Things are different now, of course. I don’t have a ball and chain holding me back. All I have is a 10-12 week period every summer when I’m stuck in the Wenatchee area for cherry drying work and another 8 weeks in early spring when I need to be within a few hours commercial flight time of Sacramento for frost work. I’m pretty much free to travel the rest of the year. Best of all, I don’t have to wait for a weekend to do it.

I got a chance to really stretch my legs in the autumn of 2012 and spring of 2013 with multiple trips from Arizona to California, Las Vegas, Washington, and Florida. I can’t tell you how good it felt to finally be able to go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted.

The Benefit of Traveling Alone

Beatty NV
My self-labeled “midlife crisis road trip” in the summer of 2005 lasted 19 days and covered 10 states. I saw a lot of off-the-beaten-path places, like this ghost town in Nevada.

Although I do prefer traveling with a good travel companion, I’ve only managed to find one — and she lives in Colorado with her own set of responsibilities. I thought I’d found another this past summer, but we apparently had different ideas of what “sharing the cost” meant. If I’m going to pay for more than half a trip, I’ll take it by myself so I don’t have to compromise with a “frugal” — his word, not mine — travel companion.

Compromise is only part of the problem when traveling with a companion. The other is spontaneity — the ability to make last minute plans and see them through. When there are two or more people traveling, planning a spur-of-the-moment trip is nearly impossible. Even making changes to travel plans once you’re on a trip is difficult. But when you’re running the show and you don’t have to worry about making someone else happy, you can do whatever you like, whenever you like.

And that’s where I am today. Loving it.

Recent Trips, Upcoming Plans

Since cherry season ended in late July, I’ve gone on several trips:

All that in three and a half months! It’s amazing I get anything done around here.

And that doesn’t include day trips to Seattle (for shopping), Woodinville (for wine-tasting), or local hiking trails and mushroom-gathering locations.

Right now, I’m thinking about other trips. I’ve already got an overnight trip to Spokane (yeah, big deal) with a friend planned. If I don’t spend the winter in Arizona, I’ll likely go on my annual cross-country skiing trip to Winthrop. One way or another, I’m sure Arizona will be a January destination — I’m thinking of driving down with my boat and stopping at various lakes along the way. Looks like I’ll spend part of the late winter in the Sacramento area again for frost; if that doesn’t pan out, I’ve got a job offer in Ohio that I’ll try to grab. (Yes, I do work for a living.) I’ll be back in Idaho with my boat to visit friends with a new home on the Spokane River and would love another trip to Alaska in May.

What about big trips, like the one I’d hoped to take with my wasband in late 2012 to Australia? Well, those are on the back burner right now while I finish my home and get my helicopter ready for its overhaul next winter. Once that’s all done and the dust has settled, I’ll be thinking about going way south for the winter of 2017/2018.

A travel companion would be nice, although not required. I’m looking for just the right person to join me.

My Tree of Life

A Navajo rug with a story behind it.

One of my few prized possessions — indeed, one of the very first things I packed when I returned to Arizona in September 2012, expecting the quick divorce my wasband claimed he wanted — is my Navajo rug. This is the real deal, woven by a woman named Rena Mountain who lives on the Navajo Reservation at Cedar Ridge, AZ. Ms. Mountain is known for her pictorial rugs and seems to be an expert on the Tree of Life design.

Re-Hanging My Rug

I unpacked the rug about a week ago to show Kirk. I’d been thinking about it for a while, wondering where I could hang it, and I didn’t want to pull it out until I was ready. But I also wanted to show off this prized possession to someone I thought might appreciate its beauty. (I’m not sure how impressed Kirk was.) I knew that finding a place to hang it would take some thought.

One of the great things about my new home is the windows that line most of the walls. But those windows leave very little room to hang art. They also let in a lot of sunlight — much of it direct at certain times of the day and year — that can fade colors and cause sun damage. Where could I hang it where I’d enjoy its beauty while protecting it from direct sunlight?

And if you’re wondering why I don’t just put it on the floor — after all, it is a rug — you’ve probably never owned something so beautiful and relatively valuable. Simply said, this isn’t something I could imagine walking on. Ever.

I finally decided to hang it in the hallway across from the bathroom door. There’s a little stretch of hallway there and the walls of the hall perfectly frame the rug’s 45 x 60 inch size.

Back in Arizona, I’d hung it in the living room near the fireplace with velcro on a piece of wood that fastened directly to the wall with screws. I’d sewn the soft side of the wide velcro strip to the back of the rug using big, fat, easy-to-remove stitches. I’d stapled the rough side of the velcro strip to the wood using a staple gun. Then my wasband had drilled holes in the wood and, using molly bolts for extra support in the drywall, screwed the wood strip onto the wall. When I’d taken down the rug, I’d taken down the wood strip, too. I’d even, by some miracle, kept the molly bolts and screws. So I had everything I needed to re-hang it in my new home.

Tree of Life by Rena Mountain
My Navajo rug, hung in its new home.

I did this yesterday afternoon, using my stud finder to confirm that a stud was not available and a level to make sure I mounted the wood strip properly on the wall. The whole job, including fastening the rug to the wood strip, took just 10 minutes.

And it looks great. I can even reposition the track lights in the hallway to shine directly on it if I’d like to.

I posted this photo on Facebook when I was done. Almost immediately, my friend Jeremy asked for the story behind the rug.

How did he know there was a story? There is and it’s a pretty good one. I promised a blog post — this one — to tell it.

The Story behind the Rug

It was in September of 2000 or 2001. Or possibly 2002. I’d been living in Arizona for a few years. My writing career was building momentum and I’d finished my Quicken book, which ruined ever summer, a few weeks before. I had free time and was eager to get away for a while after working too many 12-hour days at my desk to get the book done on time.

I don’t remember who came up with the idea — it might have been me — but I decided to take a road trip with two friends to the Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock. This is an annual event, like a county fair, but its held on the reservation and has a definite Navajo flavor, with lots of Navajo arts and crafts, food, and dancing. Along the way, we’d go exploring on the Reservation, visit the Hopi Reservation (which is completely surrounded by the Navajo Reservation), and do whatever struck our fancy. In other words, we make things up as we went along. I love traveling like that.

My two companions for the trip were Shorty and Martin.

Shorty was about 10-15 years older than me, a real cowgirl who spoke with a Texas drawl and had been married four or five times. She was short (hence the name), lean, and kind of gnarly, with skin browned and somewhat wrinkled from too much time in the sun. She was currently between husbands, living in her pickup camper in a friend’s yard, with her horse staying in a pen there. Over the two or more years we were friends, she’d move from place to place — even spending a few weeks camped out in my yard and housesitting for me — work at a local dude ranch, and train my rather difficult paint horse. I’d also be the maid of honor at her Las Vegas wedding — and that’s one hell of a crazy story — spend an evening catching Colorado River toads at an off the grid adobe house she lived in for a while, and dog sit for her three dogs while she went to England with what she hoped would be her next husband — another long story.

Martin was a young — maybe 35 years old? — good-looking guy from Germany. Like so many Europeans, he’d fallen in love with the west and dreamed of being a cowboy with a Fresian horse. (Not exactly a practical choice with all that hair to keep neat and brushed.) He was in the U.S. on a visa and was friends with the man who owned the local German restaurant. He tagged along with us, smoking whenever we stopped for a break. Shorty insisted on pronouncing his name mar-TEEN, claiming that it was the German pronunciation. Since he never corrected her, I got into the habit of doing the same.

The three of us headed north in my Jeep from Wickenburg, AZ. Martin sat in the back with the luggage in the tiny space behind him.

We pretty much bee-lined it up to the Hopi Reservation. Shorty wanted to send a friend a postcard from Old Orabi, which was founded back in 1100, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements within the United States. We got there and I don’t recall there being much to see. That has a lot to do with the simple fact that the Hopi people do not generally welcome visitors and many of them prefer to continue their traditional lifestyles. We walked around among a lot of seemingly deserted pueblo style homes — the Hopi are a Pueblo tribe — and then moved on to a Post Office where Shorty could mail her card. I’m pretty sure that was Hotevilla-Bacavi, also on Third Mesa.

The post office had a bulletin board and there was a card on it advertising fresh ground cornmeal. We found a payphone — back in those days, we didn’t all have cell phones — and called the number. We then got directions to a Hopi woman’s house nearby. We drove over and were welcomed in. The house was simple but modern, sparsely furnished but clean and comfortable. I clearly remember there being a bunch of kittens playing together in one of the rooms. The cornmeal, we were told, was leftover from a wedding ceremony. (Corn is an important crop to the Hopi people and plays a big role in their traditions.) It was stored in a big galvanized trashcan, lined with a plastic bag. The woman used a tin can to scoop out the cornmeal — did I mention that it was blue? — and put it into a Bluebird Flour bag (which I still have). Shorty paid for the cornmeal — I can’t remember how much, but it wasn’t much. The woman, likely seeing the opportunity of spreading tourist dollars to friends, told us about another woman who made dance shawls. Before you could say Kykotsmovi Village, we were off to another home. Shorty wound up buying two or three of the shawls. They weren’t my style, so I declined.

I totally enjoyed this side trip — cornmeal and dance shawls — because it gave me an opportunity to see the modern culture of these very private people.

Afterwards, we stopped by the Hopi Cultural Center, where I bought a “Grandmother” cradle Kachina, thus starting my limited Kachina collection. Our last stop in the Hopi land was Tsakurshovi, a native crafts shop in Shongopovi. That’s where I was introduced to Hopi Tea. I’d later come back to this wonderful shop several times to add to my Kachina collection.

We continued on our way, leaving the Hopi Reservation and continuing through the Navajo Reservation. We stopped at the Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado, which is a National Historic Site and still a trading post. I wandered into the Rug Room and that’s when I saw it: the most beautiful rug I’d ever laid eyes on. Rena Mountain’s Tree of Life.

I fully admit that when I looked at the price tag I had a serious case of sticker shock. I’d never spent that kind of money on anything that couldn’t be driven or slept in.

I left the room and continued wandering around the Trading Post. But I kept thinking about it.

I wanted the rug. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything as utterly impractical as that rug as badly as I wanted that rug.

I grabbed Shorty and brought her into the room to see it. I was hoping she’d talk me out of buying it. But how could she? It was beautiful. And we both knew that I could afford it.

Yes, I could afford it. As I said earlier, my writing career was booming and I was bringing in more in royalties every year. I’d been investing in real estate and, in October 2000, bought my first helicopter. But my mind was stuck in budget mode and the idea of spending that kind of money on a rug I couldn’t even walk on was outrageous.

But I could afford it. And Shorty wasn’t going to talk me out of it.

So I got a sales person and brought her over to the rug. I timidly asked if they could do anything for me on the price. She cut it by $500. The next thing I knew, I was at the cash register with my American Express card out.

The cashier had to call American Express. They wanted to talk to me. I’d never spent this much on my card before and they wanted to make sure it was me.

The clerk folded up the rug and they put it in a plastic bag that looked remarkably like a garbage bag. I put it in the Jeep, way under the seat. For the next few days, I’d take it into the motel room at night and worry about someone stealing it out of the Jeep during the day.

We continued the trip. The Navajo Nation Fair was an amazing event. We saw more rugs on display — if I hadn’t already bought one, I would have bought one at the fair — ate mutton, saw traditional dancing and costumes, and watched the country’s only all-Indian rodeo, which was announced in both English and Navajo.

After two days of that — staying in a Gallup Hotel because Window Rock’s were booked — we headed out to Canyon de Chelly near Chinle, AZ. This is a National Monument with limited access. Because we had a 4WD vehicle, we hired a Navajo guide who rode with us in the Jeep and told us about what we were seeing. I loved the sound of his voice and the way he phrased things and repeated certain things in almost a sing-songy way. It was there that I learned about the brutality of Custer and his soldiers and got an idea of how mistreated Native Americans were in the 1800s. When I saw a point of interest — some rock formation — and asked him about it, he was strangely quiet. I asked him if there was some significance to the place that they didn’t share with visitors and he nodded. I asked him if there were many places in the canyon like that and he nodded again. I didn’t ask any more. I respect the culture and privacy of these people. Not everything needs to be a tourist attraction or photo opportunity.

I don’t remember getting into Monument Valley on that trip. I suspect we went home right after Canyon de Chelly. I do recall exploring a road back near Tuba City with views down from a mesa top and seeing petroglyphs that weren’t on any map. Real exploring — not following tourist guidebooks — that’s how I like to travel.

Certificate of Authenticity
The Certificate of Authenticity, with a photo of the weaver, hung beside the rug for years.

I got home with the rug and, with my wasband’s assistance, hung it on the wall as described above. I took the tag, which featured a photo of Ms. Mountain holding up the rug, and asked my friend Janet’s partner to mat and frame it for me. It hung on the wall beside the rug. (I just spent about 30 minutes looking for a photo of how they hung together but can’t find one — all the photos I have of my house’s interior are either of damage/neglect by my wasband while I was in Washington or after I’d begun packing. As I mentioned earlier, the rug was one of the first things to be packed.)

Postscript

Time marched on. Although that was one of the most memorable trips of my life, it was not to be repeated. Shorty married Martin to keep him from getting booted out of the country. I was maid of honor/witness at the crazy Las Vegas wedding. Later, Shorty met her “soulmate,” a retiree from Britain who stayed at the dude ranch where she worked. Their courtship lasted a few months, during which time I assume she and Martin were divorced. But the wedding plans fell through and it wasn’t long before both she and Martin fell out of my life.

I went back to the Navajo Nation Fair the following year. It was a non-event. The Navajo young people were wearing the same falling-down pants as the rest of the brain-dead youth in our country and much of the charm I’d experienced the year before was gone. You know what they say: you can never go back. This is a perfect example.

But the rug remains and now it hangs in my new home to be part of my new life.

I’m glad to have it and the memories that go with it.

Hiking with the Dogs

As strange as this may seem, I have more stamina than two young golden retrievers.

I’m dog sitting for some friends in Arizona. In my charge are two golden retrievers: 1-1/2 year old Birdie and 6 month old Don Don. Of course, Penny the Tiny Dog, my 6-1/2 pound chihuahua terrier mix, is also with me.

I’m a huge believer in off-leash walking. Why would anyone put their animal on a leash if it can safely run free without bothering others or endangering local wildlife? In the Arizona desert, that means choosing a path on just about any back country trail or dry wash. Since the house I’m staying at is on a huge dry wash and Don Don is next to impossible to get into the car, it made sense to simply walk from the back yard out into the desert and down the wash.

Desert Wash
Although it’s not the most scenic place for a hike, a “wash” — or flash flood runoff channel — is a fine place to let dogs run off-leash and do some fast-paced hiking.

Trip ComputerI’d done the walk last week when my friend Janet was in town with her dog. We’d walked about three miles — almost all the way into town and back. Today, I did almost the same walk alone with the dogs. Total trip was 2.58 miles in under an hour. My Gaia GPS trip computer shows the details. You can see the steady but gentle downhill walk and the climb back. Elevation change was only 74 feet — no big deal. You can also see where I rested along the way back.

I had three goals:

  • Get some exercise. I’ve been slacking off this week, not doing nearly as much walking as I should. I kept up a quick pace, aiming for 3.5 miles per hour moving average. (I achieved 3.2.)
  • Get some color back into my skin. For the first time since 2012, my skin has returned to the sickly white color it had when I spend most of my time indoors, often in a cavelike Phoenix condo. Fortunately, it was sunny — for the eighth consecutive day in a row — and in the 70s. I put on a tank top and shorts for maximum exposure and put my hair up in a high pony tail to prevent it from shading the back of my neck.
  • Get the retrievers tired. These dogs have a lot of energy to burn off. Getting them worn out would be a great way to ensure a peaceful afternoon.

The dogs were a funny group. Birdie pretty much stayed near me for most of the walk. Don Don wanted to explore, but because he’s still a puppy, he’s afraid to go out on his own. Penny is fearless and loves to explore, especially if there’s birds or rabbits to smell or chase. So Penny took the lead and Don Don sort of blundered after her. Once in a while, Birdie would explore with them — especially when she saw Don Don getting good sniff of something on the ground.

I kept walking as fast as I could on the sand. And it was sand — sometimes deep sand. Fortunately, the rain that fell here the week before last was sufficient enough to form a sort of crust on much of the wash surface. It was broken only by a week’s worth of 4WD traffic and the footprints of others. In addition to the tracks Janet and I had made with the dogs the previous week, I saw tracks from horses, deer, and dogs or coyotes. I kept to the hard, crusty sand as much as possible. It was easier to walk on and I was able to keep up that good pace I wanted.

As I walked, the dogs would disappear from view. Every once in a while, I’d call out, “Penny, Don Don, Birdie, Penny, let’s go.” One by one they’d come back into view — usually Birdie, then Don Don, and usually Penny. Penny was always last. She had far more important things to do than come when I called her to make an appearance. But she always came so I didn’t bother putting her on the leash I’d brought along in case I had to tie them up.

Penny did a lot of running under the low bushes and trees that grew in and along the wash. Don Don often tried to follow her but was simply too big.

It was warm with a nice breeze on the walk out. The sun was ahead of me, to my right. The temperature was perfect for my tank top. And although the sun felt strong, I didn’t feel as if I was getting burned. (And indeed, I did not get burned. My skin seems to remember the sun very well.)

We walked as far as a set of power lines strung across the wash. I turned around and started back, consulting the trip computer to see how far we’d gone: 1.25 miles. Perfect.

It was warmer on the way back. I was now walking with that gentle breeze, so I didn’t feel it. The sun was at my back left side. As I walked, I began working up a light sweat.

Penny the Tiny Desert Dog
Penny kept motoring along.

The dogs, in the meantime, were definitely tiring out. Well, the big dogs were, anyway — Penny kept her fast pace, never stopping once. The retrievers now stuck together. They’d walk a bit ahead of me, then drop down to the ground in the shade and look up at me as I passed as if asking me to take a break with them. I kept walking and they’d eventually get up, catch up, and repeat the same process. Birdie was panting hard and it was easy to see why — she has a very heavy coat of fur.

Tired Dogs
These were some seriously tired dogs after less than a mile and a half of walking.

I stopped twice along the way for a total of less than 6 minutes non-moving time. The second time was in the scant shade of a large mesquite tree. The two big dogs rested, panting hard, while Penny explored the underbrush. Then we were off again, more than halfway home.

We didn’t pass a soul, either in a vehicle or on foot, in either direction. The only other animals I saw were quail and rabbits, including a rather large jackrabbit.

Our Track
Here’s our track, presented by Gaia GPS on a hybrid topo/satellite map.

I admit I was glad when I found the spot we’d entered the wash 50 minutes before. I was hot and tired and a little worried about the two big dogs.

When we got inside, they went right to their water dishes. I had to coax them out of the nice cool house and into the backyard. Then I got them over to a hose, turned it on, and hosed them off a little. Birdie seemed to like not only getting hosed down but drinking out of the hose. Don Don wasn’t as enthusiastic but did let me get him a little wet. And Penny, of course, wanted nothing to do with it.

Back down at the guest house, I filled a big water dish for them and set it down outside my door. Birdie and Don Don stretched out in the shade while Penny and I went inside. Penny drank and finished her breakfast. I had some lunch.

Within an hour, all four of us were dozing.