Phoenix to Sacramento by Helicopter

Another ferry flight with a pilot friend.

[Note: I’ve been working on this post for the past two weeks. Just so busy with other things! Finally got it done today. Better late than never, no? (Cynics need not answer that one.)]

For the fifth February in a row, my company, Flying M Air, has been contracted by an almond grower to provide frost protection for one of his Sacramento-area ranches. Frost protection is one of the lesser-known services a helicopter pilot can provide. We basically fly low-level up and down rows of trees to pull warm air from a thermal inversion down into the tree branches where developing crops — in this case, almonds — are growing. Almonds are susceptible to frost damage for a 4 to 8 week period starting around the time that flowers are pollinated. Because the temperatures are most likely to be lowest at night, most of the flying is done then or, more likely, right around dawn.

Before the Trip

My helicopter had been in Chandler, AZ (near Phoenix) since October when I dropped it off for its 12-year/2200 hour overhaul. Although it technically didn’t need to go in for overhaul until January 2017, I needed it done by mid-February for this work. The overhaul, which I blogged about here, takes a minimum of three months to complete, so I made sure the excellent maintenance crew at Quantum Helicopters got an early start. I don’t fly much in the winter anyway and planned to fill my downtime with some snowbirding, most of which would be in Arizona and southern California. I like snow, but not months of it, and I really do need to be in the sun in the winter time. I’ve structured my work life to give me time to go south every winter.

Paul from Overhaul
Director of Maintenance Paul Mansfield pulls my R44 out of the Quantum hangar after its overhaul on February 20, 2017. At that point, I hadn’t flown for four months and I was ready.

I picked up the helicopter on Monday, February 20 and spent much of the week flying it around Arizona with friends: up the Salt River, to Wickenburg, to Bisbee for an overnight trip, and to Sedona for breakfast. Along the way, I got to fly some familiar routes and see some familiar sights: along the red rock formations of Sedona, down the Hassayampa River Canyon, over the Salt River lakes, and over herds of wild horses in the Gila River bed. I needed to put some time on the helicopter to make sure there weren’t any problems before I left the area.

A lot about the helicopter felt or sounded different — and I tell you, you really get to know an aircraft when you’ve put over 2000 hours on it in 12 years. The auxiliary fuel pump sounded different, the blades sounded different, and the engine start up felt different. I immediately noticed that it was running at a higher cylinder head temperature. The guys who worked on it assured me that was normal until the rings on the newly rebuilt engine were set and I took it off mineral oil, which was recommended for the first 50 hours. The belts were also too loose when the clutch was disengaged and needed to be adjusted. And my strobe light, which had been working intermittently when I dropped it off, was now not working more often than it was. These were all minor things and I had them taken care of on Friday afternoon, when I flew it back from Wickenburg to Chandler. While I was there, the head of maintenance offered to do an oil change and, since the oil was getting dirty, I let his crew do it. I suspect the strobe light fix — which required a new part — was the most bothersome of all the fine-tuning work they did. They’d keep it in their hangar overnight.

My Ride
My ride from Chandler to Mesa with Captain Woody at the controls.

While they got to work, my friend Woody picked Penny and me up in Chandler in his company’s newly leased R44 — with air conditioning, that he had turned on, likely to impress me (it worked) — and flew me to Falcon Field in Mesa, where his company is based. For some reason, I decided to live broadcast the flight via Periscope — how often do I get to be a passenger? — and Periscope decided to feature it. Soon 450+ people were watching our progress across the Chandler/Gilbert/Mesa area. By the time we’d landed, over 4,000 people had seen all or part of it. I think Woody got a kick out of that.

Woody, Jan, and Tiffani operate Canyon State Aero, a helicopter flight school that also does tours and aerial photo work. They have a modest fleet of Schweizer 300s, plus the newly added R44 and an R22 that should arrive next week. I hung around the office while they finished up paperwork and other things, occasionally answering their questions about R44s and R22s. I’m hoping to see that R44 again in Washington this summer for cherry drying.

Afterwards, Jan, Tiffani, and I went out for dinner. We tried for seafood and wound up with Chinese food. Back at their house, we talked and drank wine and watched some amazing time-lapse videos of the desert on Netflix while Penny played with their dogs and stared at their cats. I had an allergic reaction to something — likely the cats — and made the mistake of taking two Benadryl. That pretty much knocked me out for the night.

I woke up early (as usual), feeling refreshed and allergy-free. Woody showed up around 7:30 AM. After some coffee and goodbye hugs all around, Woody, Penny, and I hopped into Woody’s Prius and headed back to Chandler. We hoped to be off the ground by 9 AM.

Getting Started

I’d planned the flight via Foreflight, with fuel stops at Twentynine Palms and Porterville, CA. The total time was estimated at about 6-1/2 hours with a slight headwind. It was a variation of a flight I’d done a few times before, starting with a solo R22 flight in the 2003 from my Wickenburg home to Placerville, CA and ending, most recently, with the 2013 trip that took my helicopter out of its Arizona hangar for the last time and brought it to California for its first frost season. This was the first time I’d be doing the route from Chandler and I worried a bit about making it all the way to Twentynine Palms for fuel. There aren’t any fuel options between Blythe and Twentynine Palms, so having almost enough fuel to get there wasn’t an option. But Foreflight and my own personal experience with the helicopter said I could do it, so that’s what I planned.

Planned Route
Our planned route, as shown on the SkyVector website. Good thing we didn’t fly today when I plotted that for illustration here; there’s a 22 knot headwind.

The weather was absolutely perfect for flying. I’d been monitoring various forecasts for points along our route and it all looked good with the possibility of some wind in the Tehachapi area and a slight chance of rain near our destination. Visibility was good. It would be a bit cool — even in the California desert — but the helicopter has good heat if we needed it. I was looking forward to a good, although somewhat long, flight.

Woody would fly. Woody’s an airline pilot nearing retirement. He’s got a bunch of hours in helicopters and recently got his R44 endorsement. Now he was interested in building some time in R44s. We agreed that he’d pay for fuel — which accounts for less than 1/3 of my operating costs — for the whole trip in exchange for stick time. I didn’t need the time — I have about 3500 hours in helicopters (R44, R22, 206L) — and I’d been flying around all week. And I really don’t mind being a passenger once in a while, especially with a good pilot at the controls. Still, I sat in the PIC seat and he sat in the seat beside me, using the dual controls.

Penny, of course, sat in the back. The back of the helicopter was completely full of stuff, including the wheeling toolbox I’d brought along to hold helicopter parts and accessories — think headsets, charts, log books, etc. — while the overhaul crew stripped down the helicopter to its frame, my luggage, Woody’s luggage, Woody’s pilot uniform, a box of Medifast food (long story), and Penny’s travel bag. I’d forgotten to bring along a bed for Penny, so I folded up my cotton sweatshirt and put that on top of the toolbox for her. She perched up there and slept for most of the flight.

Chandler to Twentynine Palms

I took off from Chandler, crossed the runway per the tower’s instructions, and struck out almost due west. As soon as I got to cruising altitude — 500 feet above the ground (AGL), which was 1700 feet above sea level (MSL) — I offered the controls to Woody. He took them and I settled back for the first leg of the flight.

We flew west along the south side of South Mountain, where we saw a flight of four Stearman airplanes. Woody was pretty sure he knew one of the pilots, but since we didn’t know what frequency they were on, we couldn’t raise them on the radio. (We tried 122.85, 122.75, and 123.45, which are common air-to-air frequencies around Phoenix.) I was kind of surprised to see that we were gaining on them and eventually passed them. (Did I mention that my helicopter is now about 10% faster than it was before the overhaul and now cruises easily at 110-115 knots?) We crossed the north end of the Estrella Mountains just south of Phoenix International Raceway (PIR), mostly to avoid having to talk to the tower at Goodyear. We did tune in, though, and that’s how we learned that Luke Approach was closed so we wouldn’t have to talk to them to cross Luke’s Special Air traffic Rule (SATR). Woody wasted no time getting right on course; I’d already dialed my Garmin 430 GPS in to KTNP for Twentynine Palms.

Flight of Four Stearman
Flight of four Stearman planes, in formation.

Captain Woody
Captain Woody flying past some mountains in California near the Colorado River.

There wasn’t much of anything exciting for the next two hours. We crossed over Buckeye Airport as another plane was coming in, flew north of the steaming cooling towers of the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant, paralleled I-10 for a while, and then drifted north of it, crossing SR60 just east of where it joined I-10. Then we crossed a little mountain range and entered the Colorado River Valley about halfway between Parker and Blythe. The Colorado River was a ribbon of blue snaking from north to south beneath us. Then we were in the southern reaches of California’s Mohave Desert, crossing a sandy desert landscape that looked as inhospitable as the Sahara but without the tall dunes. Woody kept pretty close to the GPS track, but did detour around the tallest parts of any mountains in our path. Our altitude varied from 300 to 1000 feet AGL, depending on where we were. For a good portion of the flight, we were the only living things in sight.

Rice Valley
There’s a whole lot of nothing in the California desert between Joshua Tree National Park and the Colorado River.

I did a lot of talking, telling Woody about the helipad on top of Harquahala Mountain where I’d landed my R22 years ago and later my R44, and sharing some of the stories of my flights with low-time pilots who had done ferry flights with me over the years. We agreed that most helicopter pilots didn’t get much real-life experience as they built time as flight instructors. He asked me a bunch of questions about my time working for Papillon at the Grand Canyon. I told him about the excellent learning opportunities a season at the Canyon offered, but lamented about the fact that some of my coworkers had been either immature or cocky head cases. We talked a little about pilots we’d known who had died flying. We agreed that it was ironic that so many people said “he was a great pilot” about pilots who had died in crashes; if he was so great, why was he dead? (There are old pilots and bold pilots but no old, bold pilots.)

We flew through the very northernmost edge of Joshua Tree National Forest, along a road there. When the park fell away to the south, the abandoned buildings started up, one after the other. It was as if hundreds of people had made sad little homes on five-acre lots out there, only to abandon them to the desert wind years later. Many of them had completely blown away, leaving only concrete slabs and scattered debris. I remembered this part of the flight very clearly from my other trips through the area and didn’t take any photos this time around. But if you look on a zoomed-in satellite image of 29 Palms Highway east of Twentynine Palms, you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s kind of eerie.

East of 29Palms
A satellite image from Google of an area east of Twentynine Palms shows a sample of the scores of abandoned or wrecked buildings out in the desert.

We reached the airport in just over two hours — which is about 15 minutes quicker than I’d planned for. (All my flight plans are for 100 knots airspeed; I’d rather over-estimate time than underestimate it, especially when flying out in the desert.) Woody landed in front of the pumps. We cooled down the engine and shut down. Woody handled the fueling while I cleaned the windows and then added a quart of oil. An old guy with a taildragger flew in and came to a stop nearby; he’d wait for us to leave before refueling. A friend of his drove into the airport and they chatted for a while. They came over to look at the helicopter and Penny, who I’d let out to get some exercise and take a pee. Woody used the bathroom and I took a picture of the helicopter. Then we all climbed back on board, I started up, and I took off to the west.

At TNP
Zero-Mike-Lima at Twentynine Palms.

Twentynine Palms to Porterville

The next stop was Porterville, which was in California’s Central Valley. Unfortunately, we couldn’t fly a direct path to the Porterville because of the restricted airspace between it and Twentynine Palms. So I plotted a course that took us to Apple Valley and Victorville and on to Rosamond before climbing over the pass at Tehachapi and then dropping down into the Central Valley. The route would keep us clear of all the restricted airspace, including Edwards Air Force Base, which is east of Rosamond at the edge of a not-so-dry lake bed.

The desert west of Twentynine Palms was almost as empty as the desert east of it — but not quite. There were homes and small communities scattered about the immediate area, growing ever more rare as we continued west. After a lot of mostly empty desert, the population climbed as we passed near Lucerne and Apple Valley. Woody talked to Victorville’s tower and got permission to cross over the top — we were the only one the controller talked to the whole time we were tuned in. There were dozens of planes mothballed on the tarmac beneath us.

Planes at Victorville
Some of the planes stored at Victorville.

We passed near El Mirage Lake, another dry lake bed that Woody knew from gliders or racing or something I’ve forgotten. Then more empty desert in an area the chart warned us had Unmanned Aerial System operations below 14000 feet. We tuned into Joshua Approach’s frequency as the chart suggested, but never did hear anything about drones.

Then we were south of Edwards Air Force Base and could see the huge dry lake bed where they occasionally landed the space shuttle off in the distance. But because of all the rain California had been having, it looked more wet than dry.

We turned the corner of the restricted airspace and Woody steered us northwest, over the town of Rosamond, where I had the misfortune of being stuck overnight once back in 2003, and toward the windmills on the south side of Tehachapi Pass. There had been windmills — or, more properly, wind turbines — on that hillside for as long as I could remember, but every time I came through the area, there seemed to be more. This time, I decided to share the view on Periscope. Although my voice couldn’t be heard above the sound of the helicopter’s engine and blades, I moved the camera around a lot, showing off the turbines, Woody, and even Penny perched atop the rolling toolbox in back.

Green Foothills
The foothills of the Sierra Nevada, on the west side, just north of Tehachapi. Despite the gray day, they were very green.

We crossed over the pass and began the descent down the other side into California’s Central Valley. It was like a completely different day. On the south side of the pass, in the desert, it had been mostly sunny, bright, and warm. But on the north side, it was mostly cloudy, gray, and cool. But the foothills were so lush and green!

Our flight plan had us heading northwest bound through the valley with our next fuel stop in Porterville. As usual, I tuned in the radio for the next closest airport so we could listen in on any traffic and make a radio call if necessary. There wasn’t much to hear or report on.

When we landed at Porterville, we found a nice looking Bell 47 already parked there. We squeezed in in front of it. While Woody handled the fueling, I wiped down the windows, and Penny began exploring our surroundings, the helicopter’s owner and a friend came out. “You’re from Washington!” the helicopter’s owners — whose name I’ve already forgotten (sorry!) — exclaimed. It turns out that he reads this blog and put two and two together when he saw me. (After all, how many red R44s are piloted by a woman who often travels with a small dog?) We all chatted for a while and Woody asked for a picture of us with my helicopter. Penny made new friends, too — a pair of small dogs that hang out in the airport office. Woody and I visited the rest rooms before climbing back on board, starting up, and continuing our trip.

Maria and Woody
Woody and I posed for a photo with the helicopter at Porterville.

Porterville to Woodland

The last leg of the trip wasn’t very exciting. We flew over a lot of farmland — California’s Central Valley is a major food producer — including more than a few almond orchards in full bloom. We’d already been in the air for more than four hours and I was ready to be at the destination.

Airport
One of the many general aviation airports we passed near or over as we made our way northwest through California’s Central Valley.

One by one the small general aviation airports ticked by beneath us or within sight: Visalia, Selma, Fresno Chandler, Madera, Chowchilla, Oakdale, Lodi, Franklin.

Just past Stockton is when I began to notice the flooding below us. Farmland inundated with water. A broken levee. Closed roads. When we reached the Sacramento River and ship channel, we saw a sea of silty water with occasional “islands” of homes and equipment yards. It was sobering.

California Flooding California Flooding
California Flooding California Flooding
California Flooding California Flooding
A few shots (through Plexiglas) of the flooding we flew over just south of Sacramento, CA.

Just past Davis, I asked for and took the controls. I wanted to overfly Yolo County Airport, where I was based last year. The orchard I’m contracted to cover for frost season is adjacent to it; I wanted to fly by and see the condition of the orchard and trees. There was no flooding down there — at least not that I could see — and the trees were in full bloom. Pallets of beehives were scattered among the trees. Business as usual.

I steered us north and zeroed in on our final destination, a small privately owned airport nearby where my camper was already set up and waiting for me. A while later, I was touching down at the fuel pumps, ready for Woody to top off the tanks after our long trip. Once that was done, I started it back up and hover-taxied to a parking spot on the ramp.

Then I was on to my next adventure with Woody and Penny: getting a cab to take me to where my truck was waiting, having dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in town (I highly recommend the venison osso buco), and driving Woody to Sacramento International Airport for his flight back to Arizona. I returned to the helicopter to retrieve my luggage not long after dark and, a few minutes later, was letting myself into my camper where I was soon dead asleep after the long day.

Postscript

The arrangement I had with Woody worked out for both of us, especially since fuel prices have come way down in recent months. He got more than six hours of flight time that cost him less than $500; I saved about $500 on fuel, got company for my flight, and even got treated to dinner with cocktails when we arrived at our destination. And because Woody is an airline pilot, he was able to catch a company flight back to Phoenix at no cost. Win win.

I didn’t mind letting Woody do the flying. I’d put about 10 hours on the helicopter since picking it up from overhaul and knew I’d be putting more time on it soon. Sometimes its nice to be a passenger — especially when you have confidence in the flying capabilities of the guy at the controls. (With a certain “Sunday pilot” flying, I’d rather remain on the ground.) I got to sit back, take a few photos, and enjoy the scenery.

Best of all, my helicopter is now officially back at work, earning me money — even while parked in a deluxe hangar in California.

My Facebook “Boycott”

I might actually mean it this time.

How many times have I threatened to leave Facebook? How many times have I caved in and gone back? This time might stick.

Facebook LogoFor the record, I have never liked Facebook. Search this blog and you’ll find more than a few posts where I’ve bashed Facebook in one way or another. (Here’s an example from January.) While I will admit that it is a great place to reconnect with people from your past and keep in touch with people you know and like who might not live nearby, it has recently become a tool for the spread of misinformation, helping to divide our country — as if it needed any help. Even after unfollowing or unfriending or even blocking the folks with crazy ideas, there seems to be more arguments on update comments than anything else. It’s also depressing when you realize just how crazy some of your friends or even family members can be.

But what became the last straw back in February was when Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and the guy who gets a healthy chunk of Facebook’s revenue, donated $120,000 to CPAC. CPAC, if you don’t know, is the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual event where right-wing blowhards bash progressives and liberals for being…well, progressive and liberal. Normally I wouldn’t care much about this event, but this year it had made the news by proudly inviting Milo Yiannopoulos, a person who makes his living by publicly trolling people he doesn’t like on Twitter (until he was banned, anyway), Breitbart News (where he was a staff member), and elsewhere. Apparently there’s a lot of money in the trolling and hate speech business because an imprint of Simon & Schuster had signed a book deal with him for an advance of $250,000. I guess the folks at CPAC like the crap Milo was selling because they were welcoming him as a speaker, despite the fact that he’s gay (which I always thought conservatives had a problem with). I have no patience for trolls of any sort and I think that giving credibility to someone like Milo will only further the divide that is destroying our country.

The way I saw it, my participation on Facebook was generating the content and activity that Facebook uses to sell ads. In a way, part of that $120,000 donation made by Zuckerberg to CPAC was coming out of my pocket. I didn’t like that. So I posted a link to the Media Matters article I linked to above on my Timeline, informing my friends and followers that I was out of there. Then I logged off from everywhere I was logged in — there’s actually a link buried in Facebook settings to do that — deleted all the cookies in my browser so Facebook couldn’t follow me around anymore, and deleted the Facebook app from my mobile devices.

I suffered from withdrawal for about two days. Then I pretty much forgot about it. I did step up my Twitter use a bit. I’m enjoying the political activism there. One of my recent tweets to [so-called] President Trump went viral and was mentioned in a magazine article. That was kind of fun.

I’m in California now, helping out a friend with a few spray jobs he has and doing some recreational flying now that my helicopter is out of overhaul. (I’m going to Lake Berryessa today, hopefully to see its “Glory Hole.”) I’m also trying to set up a lunch date with my friend Shirley, who lives in the Sacramento area. She and I usually get in touch on Facebook — frankly, she’s one of the people I miss from Facebook — and I wanted to see if I’d missed a message from her. (I never used Facebook Messenger on don’t plan on starting.) So I logged in today.

No message from Shirley, but two messages from friends. One was a link to a neat airport home in Bisbee, where I’d recently visited with friends. The other was spam from a new “friend” who I’m starting to think is an idiot who needs to be unfriended. There were also 57 notifications that I looked at. I started to follow up on them, but grew bored and discouraged after just a few. Same old shit. Seriously. This person liked this. That person commented on that. These people liked that page. I realized, with a start, that I really didn’t care about the notifications. And when I found myself reading an update written by one of my friends, I realized that I could easily get sucked back in anyway. So I logged out.

I’m not going to try to convince anyone to stop using Facebook. I know it’s a waste of my time but it’s apparently not a waste of other people’s time. Besides: who am I to tell people how to spend their time, which is the most valuable thing they have?

But I’m so glad to be off Facebook and I really hope I can stay that way.

Oh, and in case you missed the news, Milo lost that CPAC speaking gig, book deal, and Breibart job.

Karma, baby. It rocks.

Snowbirding 2017: Two Days at the Dunes

With a note about why loneliness doesn’t exist for people who don’t need the company of others.

On Friday afternoon, I took a right turn off a two-lane road in San Bernardino County, California. A historical marker indicated that I’d found the “Harry Wade Exit Route,” a route a man and his family had taken to escape a particularly deadly desert valley in 1849.

Thus I began a long trek down a series of washboarded single-lane roads into the Mohave Desert. I was on a quest to visit some sand dunes in the farthest reaches of a National Park that gets nearly a million visitors a year but there wasn’t a single vehicle on the road with me. After bumping along on one road and then making a right turn onto another, the only indication I had that I’d entered the park was a weathered sign with the park name followed by a similarly weathered sign warning that off-road travel was prohibited.

Map
My map of the area was very detailed.

I crossed a few dry washes, recalling quite clearly that my detailed map warned “River crossing dangerous in flood.” I had seen water flowing earlier in the day and suspected the meandering river might enter the valley, but it certainly didn’t seem as if the water had made it this far. Until a healthy stream trickled across the road a few hundred yards ahead. Surely my big pickup with its beefy tires could cross this sandy stream? Even with my big camper on back? I knew that a slow crossing was not advised, so I gave it a bit more gas and surged forward. The tires started to bog down on the far side of the stream, but by then momentum had carried us through. On the way back, I’d use 4WD.

Saratoga Springs
This was supposed to be a photo of the ponds by the springs but it’s a better picture of the dreary weather. Apparently, it was pouring in the main park area.

I followed signs to a spring where another sign that I suspected might be there said “No Camping.” There were no people in the parking area, although there was a weather station that I later found on Weather Underground. I never saw the source of the spring, but I did see the huge reed-fringed ponds that had formed in a desert well-known for its lack of water. I heard water fowl and frogs and, after retrieving my binoculars from the camper, saw a few dark colored birds floating on one of the ponds. I also saw what I think was burro (AKA donkey) dung along the trail.

I was tempted to park there for the night despite the sign, but didn’t want to get in trouble in the unlikely event of a park ranger stopping by this remote spot during the night. My camper is pretty much zero-impact; it’s fully equipped to haul what I need — fresh water, fuel for cooking, food — in and what I don’t need — waste water and garbage — out. A campfire isn’t necessary for cooking. All I need is a relatively level place to park, preferably with a view. But rules are not meant to be broken and if this spot wasn’t protected by the “No Camping” rule, it would likely be overrun with motorhomes and people bathing in the springs as soon as word got out about what a great spot it was.

We are our own worst enemies.

The goal, I reminded myself, was the dunes. It would be better if I could find a place closer to them to park for the night. Although the weather was degrading and rain was in the forecast, a hike to the dunes from my campsite was a possibility, either that evening or in the morning. So I came away from the spring and turned left on the washboard road, continuing north and mindful of the sign that warned about deep sand 4 miles up the road. I didn’t plan on going that far.

I found what I think was a parking area for the dunes about a mile up the road and turned in. There was a sign about it being a wilderness area that allowed foot and horse traffic only. There was space between the sign and the road for my rig, so I pulled out, turned around, and backed in with my camper’s back door facing the dunes. I killed the engine, fetched a few things from the truck, and opened up the camper. After spending about 10 minutes putting out the slide and picking up the things that had fallen during the bumpy ride, I was settled in.

The dunes, over a mile away without a clear trail to them, taunted me under a darkening sky.

Parking for the Dunes
Parking for the dunes — the view out my camper’s back door.

I fed Penny.

I checked my cell phone, fully expecting to see No Service in the area where there are usually dots representing signal strength. I was shocked to see three dots and LTE. That had to be wrong. I ran SpeedTest and was even more shocked to see that not only did I have Internet service, but it was the fastest service I’d had since leaving home.

I checked in on social media. I admit that part of me wished I didn’t have an Internet connection so that I could fully disconnect. But, at the same time, I’m a realist and know that if anything goes wrong, it’s nice to be able to call for help — even if help would likely take hours to find me. (My dead starter was still fresh in my mind, which also explains why I always back into a campsite now.)

I found a classic rock station on the radio that actually played good music. I listened for about 15 minutes before realizing I preferred silence.

And it was silent. No sound of cars or trucks or planes. I could hear the wind coming through the greasewood (AKA creosote) bushes before it reached me. I occasionally heard a bird.

From my parking spot, I could see for miles in almost every direction; nothing moved.

I looked again with my binoculars. Nothing.

I sat at the table, writing a blog post on my laptop (that I might never publish), finishing the last of the ice tea from my late breakfast in Boulder City. Occasionally, I’d glance outside to see if Mother Nature would surprise me with a ray of sunshine highlighting the dunes or mountains behind them. I heard a few raindrops on the roof. It got dark out without the pleasure of a nice sunset.

Despite the full moon that had risen behind the clouds at around sunset, it got very dark.

I made some dinner and sat up in bed eating it while I did a crossword puzzle. I debated watching a movie but decided against it.

I realized I was exhausted. I’d started the day with a 4-1/2 mile hike on the Historic Railroad Trail near Hoover Dam, which would have been nothing if I was still in shape. But I’d been letting exercise opportunities pass me by and it was starting to really make a difference. Which is why I’d done the hike.

So I went to bed early.

As I slept, I was very aware of the persistent rain on the roof. I thought about that little stream I’d crossed and wondered whether it would be a bigger stream.

Later, I was also aware of the wind loudly snapping the ratchet tie-down strap holding my old rotor blades in place on the roof. There was no way to stop the sound without going outside and climbing a ladder, so I tried to ignore it. Eventually, the wind — and the noise — stopped.

I slept well after that, waking enough just a few times to notice that it wasn’t dark anymore. The clouds had thinned enough to bathe the desert around me in faint moonlight.

I’d slept until after 5:30 AM, which was actually quite late for me.

No surprise that it was dead quiet when I woke up. It was still cloudy. The sky was brightening from the coming sunrise. The dunes taunted me.

I had some coffee and breakfast, fed Penny again, and caught up on social media. The world is going nuts, but you don’t really feel it when you’re disconnected. Sadly, I was not disconnected and can feel it. It makes me sad.

I looked out at the dunes. It wasn’t worth the mile plus walk to get out there with bad light and I definitely didn’t want to spend the day out there waiting for the light to get good.

But I didn’t mind waiting in my camper for the light to get good. There was no place else I had to be. Heck, I had enough food, water, and fuel to last me at least a week and didn’t need to be at my next destination, which was only 536 miles away for six days.

And I really liked the solitude of this roadside campsite in the middle of nowhere.

So I pulled out my portable solar panels and set them up on the south side of the camper. There was enough blue sky that I knew they’d eventually generate some power. I certainly didn’t want to run my generator and break the silence.

And that’s how I spent the day: writing, relaxing, reading, and shooting the occasional photo.

A park ranger stopped by around 10 AM. We chatted for a while and he gave me some advice about road closures and campsites over the next few days of my stay in the park. A while later, two guys in a pickup stopped, wanting to know what the road was like up ahead. I told them I didn’t know, but mentioned the deep sand sign, which they’d also seen. I told them not to get stuck because I didn’t want to pull them out. We laughed.

Much later in the day, two SUVs parked near me and two men and a woman got out. By then the wind was really howling and visibility had dropped due to blowing dust. It was also cloudy and threatened rain. They told me they’d been much farther north in the park and it had poured on them all day. I asked them if they were going to hike to the dunes and they said that they’d come this far so they had to go all the way. I watched them bundle up against the wind — the temperature had dropped to the 60s — and head northeast. It rained while they were gone, but not enough to make anything wet. Around sunset, when they still hadn’t returned, I took out my binoculars and saw them at the base of one of the dunes. I guess they were doing some photography; it was too far away to really tell. I wondered if they’d taken camping gear with them; I hadn’t really paid attention to their departure.

A few other pickups and SUVs drove by but didn’t stop. It was actually a lot more activity than I expected.

The sun finally made an afternoon appearance about a half hour before sunset, illuminating the dunes and the mountains behind them and making deep shadows. It was too late to walk out there — and besides, the wind was still blowing pretty good — so I satisfied my urge to document the moment using my 70-300mm lens from the roof of the camper. The light was constantly changing and I took quite a few photos. The one below, which I obviously cropped, is one of my favorites.

Sunset at the Dunes
Sunset at the dunes.

When the sunset show was over, I started making dinner: chicken cordon bleu with fresh creamed spinach and chanterelle mushrooms (from the freezer). It got dark quickly. I kept checking out the back windows for the moonrise, which was expected just north of due west at about 6:30. There were clouds out there on the horizon and I wondered it they’d clear out enough for me the see the moon coming over the mountains. Overhead, stars started appearing one-by-one with Venus leading the way.

My dinner was almost ready and it was dark when the sand dune hikers returned. I turned on one of my outside lights for them. Soon their engines were running and I saw taillights down the road. I didn’t envy their drive back to pavement in the dark.

Moon Rise
Moon rise through the clouds.

My friend Bob called and we chatted for a while. It had snowed quite a bit at home and he’d spent the weekend in his shop, working on a Moto Guzzi motorcycle he’d owned for more than 20 years, getting it back into pristine condition. Unfortunately, the work he needed to do on the engine required him to keep the door open to the cold so he wouldn’t be overcome with fumes. While we talked, the moon rose just where I expected it to, making the clouds around it glow. Overhead, the stars faded away, unable to compete with the moon’s brightness.

I went to bed with a book I’d downloaded from the library, Time and Again by Jack Finney. I originally read it not long after it was first published in 1970 and it seemed brand new to me. I recommend it.

I slept great until about midnight, then woke for a while, then slept again until after 6:30. The sound of rain that was nearly forecasted nor on radar got me out of bed. It was overcast (again).

Outside, the dunes taunted me.

The hourly forecast said it would clear up around 10 AM. It would be my last chance to hike to the dunes; I really did need to get on my way if I wanted to see other remote parts of the park. So, after coffee and breakfast, I did the dishes and dressed, getting the camper prepped as much as I could for departure. The sun finally made an appearance as the clouds fled west, faster than the sun could climb into the sky.

Two pickups drove by. I started wondering why vehicles nearly always came by in pairs.

It was just after 9 AM when I started my hike to the dunes. Although satellite images had shown the remnants of a road that went that way, I couldn’t find it. So I just cut as straight as I could through the desert. Halfway there, I stripped off my flannel shirt and faced the sun in a tank top. The shade temperature was below 60°F, but I was not in the shade. The sun felt amazing on my skin and the light breeze kept me cool.

I looked back every once in a while. Although I thought the route was pretty flat, we apparently descended into a dip; I couldn’t see the camper when we were about halfway to the dunes. I later saw it again and made a note of the knob on the mountaintop behind it so I could easily navigate back in the unlikely event that my phone’s GPS tracker failed and I couldn’t see my rig.

Desert Mushroom
I saw three of these within a half mile radius of each other. They were about an inch and a half tall.

The walk took about a half hour, with stops along the way to look at interesting plants, including mushrooms (!), and rocks.

The dunes are large and I felt small beside them. Penny went nuts running up and down the sand. She loves the beach and I suspect that to her, there was nothing better than a beach without water.

Ibex Dunes
A closeup shot of part of the dunes.

Dune Ridge
I didn’t get very far trying to climb up this ridge.

I took a bunch of photos. Unfortunately, although I might have been in the right place, I was definitely not there at the right time. The dunes were in full sun and the golden hour was long gone. Shadows were relatively small. The light was bright and harsh. A more serious photographer would have arrived at dawn — and gotten rained on along the way.

I tried to climb one of the ridges, but when I got to the point where every step forward slid me a half step back, I quit.

It was windy there — windy enough for my footprints to disappear within seconds of me laying them down.

We stayed about a half hour, then turned around and headed back. By this time, it was almost cloudless. The sun still felt good on my skin and I never really worked up a heavy sweat. Halfway back, my path intersected with the old road and I saw the footprints of the previous day’s visitors. I almost lost the trail when a wide wash ran through it, but I picked it up on the other side and was almost surprised to see that it delivered me almost right back to the door of my camper.

Behind me, the dunes smiled and winked.

After a bathroom break and something cold to drink, I finished up this blog post. I want to get back on the road before noon and I suspect I won’t have as good an Internet connection as I have here for a few days.

I know a lot of people will read this and be amazed that I spent two days alone in such a remote place. Wasn’t I scared? Wasn’t I lonely? How could I stand to be so completely alone for so long?

First of all, no, I wasn’t scared. I come to places like this very prepared. Why would I be scared when help is a phone call away, phone service is excellent, and I have everything I need on hand to survive for at least a week without skipping a meal?

Second, no, I wasn’t lonely. I don’t get lonely. Loneliness is a feeling suffered by people who need to be around other people to be happy. While I wouldn’t call myself anti-social, I’m also not dependent on other people to keep me — well, what? What is it that people need other people for? Conversation? Sex? Companionship while watching television? Am I that unusual in that I can go for more than two days without any of that?

I love my friends, but I don’t need to be with them all of the time.

And third, not only can I stand to be alone, but I rather like it. I’ve always needed a certain amount of alone time. Time to think and reflect without having to keep someone else entertained. Time to read and write and do photography without someone interrupting me, demanding my attention. Time to do whatever I want to do without someone else making judgements about how I spend that time.

When I was in a relationship, every year my future wasband used to ask me what I wanted for my birthday. In the later years, I told him that all I wanted was to have the day to do what I wanted to do. I wanted alone time.

I finally have as much of it as I want.

When Home Isn’t Home Anymore

How I feel about living in a town that was my home for 15 years without actually living in the house that was my home.

My visit to Wickenburg again this winter brings up something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately: how Wickenburg was my home but isn’t my home anymore. This wasn’t really an issue in past visits, but is really on my mind this year.

What’s different? Well, I made friends with the folks who bought my old house.

New Friends in My Old House

It was Mary who started the dialog earlier this year. My wasband had left behind a metal sculpture she thought I might want. She tracked me down online; between this blog, my business website, my Twitter account, and my Facebook account, I’m really not that difficult to find. I didn’t want the sculpture and explained why. We started a dialog in email. I thought she and her husband might like my friends Jim and Cyndi (who I house/dog sit for in Wickenburg) so I made introductions via email. They really hit it off. We became friends on Facebook. And the other day, when I arrived at Jim and Cyndi’s, I got to meet Mary and Jeff in the flesh. I think it’s safe to say that we hit it off, too.

We’ve been hiking with the dogs at least once every day since I arrived.

The other day, I went to their house (formerly my house) to lead a hike on one of the horse trails I used to take. I thought it would be a nice introduction to the trails near where they lived. (That turned into a bit of a fiasco when the trail was longer than I remembered and obviously hadn’t been used in some time so it was hard to follow. And what’s with the fences?)

Palm Tree
This Mexican fan palm, which was about five feet tall when we planted it in 1999, is easily 30 feet tall now.

I’d flown over the house in October on my way to Chandler to drop off the helicopter for overhaul. That was the first time I’d seen it in 3-1/2 years. Oddly, I didn’t feel any emotional pangs looking down at it from about 500 feet up. It was just a nice looking house with a well-kept yard and a very tall palm tree.

Still, I thought I’d feel weird about actually going to the house. After all, it was what the court referred to as my “marital home.” But again, the weird feeling never really sunk in.

Mary and Jeff have made some changes to the house and yard that really improve it and make it look better than it ever did while I lived there. They’d increased the height of the wall around the yard and installed some really pretty yet simple metal gates where needed. Whatever vegetation had survived since my departure in May 2013 — a lot died when my wasband turned off the irrigation before deserting the place in the summer of 2012 — had really grown. The single palm tree, the mesquite (Spot’s tree) in the back yard, the two saguaros, the desert willows, and the palo verde that I’d nursed from seed were all at least twice the size I remembered them being. All the overgrown plants and weeds had been cleared out and everything was nicely trimmed.

All these things combined made the house seem different.

Is that why I didn’t really feel any weird emotions while I was there?

Or is it because my mind has completely closed that chapter of my life? Because my mind closed that chapter on the very last day I was there, when I drove away for what I thought would be the last time?

Marital Home?

In all honesty, it really wasn’t much of a “marital home.” How could it be? More than half the time I was there during my short, ill-fated marriage I was there by myself while my wasband played house in his Phoenix condo with a roommate or went back to New York to spend time with his mommy. It was my home, the home I’d painted and furnished and decorated the way I saw fit. Where I worked and played and relaxed, mostly alone.

There had been very little input from the man who occasionally lived there with me before abandoning it for a walled-in tract home in a decaying Scottsdale subdivision. The man who, for some reason, tried to keep me out when I returned that last autumn by changing the locks and fighting me in court when I got in anyway. (As if an $8 lock would keep me out of my own home.) The man who was so desperate to get me out after the divorce trial that he agreed to give me every bit of personal property in the house and his condo that I wanted. The man who wanted it so badly in the divorce that he eventually paid me half of its court-appraised value.

And then he never moved into it, neglected it, incurred huge expenses getting it ready for sale, and wound up selling it for less than his appraiser told the court it was worth.

(Yeah: I made more money on the sale of the house than my wasband did. I did mention elsewhere in this blog that he made a lot of really stupid decisions, right?)

Anyway, although I thought I’d feel weird about going to the house, I didn’t. It was just another house. Sure, I’d lived there for fifteen years, but I’d moved out and I’d moved on. Any fond memories I had about the place had been pretty much erased by the abuse and neglect I dealt with after I married the man who seldom lived there. My mind was on my current home, a home not haunted by a failed relationship and false marriage. My old house was no longer my home and I had absolutely no regrets about leaving this one behind. I was much happier where I lived now.

The “Then” Photo

One of the things I did before leaving home this November was to track down one of the framed photos that had hung on the wall in my old house. It’s an aerial image of the house, shot in 2000, not long after I’d started the landscaping in the yard. All the trees and other plants I listed above are still quite small. My horses are down in the wash — you can see almost all of Cherokee, but just Jake’s butt sticking out from under the shade that is no longer there. I’m standing near the front door, holding my aviation radio, wondering why a helicopter is hovering over my neighbor’s house.

I packed the photo that last winter mostly because I didn’t want to leave it behind, but when I got to my new home, I had no desire to hang it. So I packed it when I headed south.

The other day, I remembered to give it to Mary and Jeff. Part of me was worried that they’d think I was just getting rid of my old junk. I was prepared for a very unenthusiastic response. But to my surprise, they liked it.

I promised them a helicopter ride to get another shot just like it, so they can get a sort of Then and Now comparison. (I hope Mary or Jeff won’t mind riding with a door off to get reflection-free photos.)

I thought I had the original floor plans for the house, too. I distinctly remember them being rolled up and stowed away in one of the poster tubes I had in my office closet. But when I went through the poster tubes I packed and brought to Washington, I couldn’t find them. Maybe my wasband has them. Maybe when his old whore reads this — she follows my blog and tweets because her own life isn’t very interesting — she’ll ask him to look for them and send them to Mary and Jeff. He knows the address.

More likely, he threw them away, as he threw away the rest of his life.

How Do I Feel?

So how do I feel about being back in Wickenburg? Great!

My hosts here have given me a very comfortable place to stay while I watch their dogs and house. I get to enjoy daily hikes out in the desert I know so well and drive my truck down the desert roads I used to bump along in my Jeep. I get to eat at the restaurants I remember and like — the pollo asado burrito I had at Filiberto’s the other day was just as amazing as I remember it and I can’t wait to get up to Nichols West, “the best restaurant in Wickenburg.” (The joke is, it’s not in Wickenburg.) I get to see old friends who are all genuinely glad to see me. And of course, I get to soak up the sunshine in warm temperatures that let me wear t-shirts so I can start working on my summer tan.

What’s not to like?

Best of all, I don’t have the burden and responsibility of owning a home here. And I don’t have to deal with local politics and policies, which are apparently as close-minded, crooked, and skewed to favor the “good old boys” as they ever were. (Seriously, Wickenburg: do you really think hanging a digital sign on the Community Center is going to get the Phoenix/Vegas drivers to stop? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: people stop at destinations. Hanging a tacky sign does not make Wickenburg a destination.)

I’m not tied to Wickenburg anymore and I like that. When I’m ready to move on — or my friends start hinting that I’ve overstayed my welcome — I’ll put my camper back on my truck and head out to explore other places. And when all my friends die or move away, I’ll likely stop coming here. By then, I’ll have other places I prefer to spend my winter time — possibly places a lot farther south than Arizona.

So “home” really isn’t home anymore — and I don’t have a problem with that at all.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Two people helped me get started in cherry drying.

Yesterday, I got an email message from someone I hadn’t heard from since 2009. His name is Rob and he’s one of the two people who helped me launch my cherry drying business here in Washington state.

The first person, of course, was Erik Goldbeck. Erik contacted me way back in 2006 about joining him in Washington for some cherry drying work. It was Erik who explained what the work entailed and why it’s done. He tried to get me up to Washington from my home in Arizona in the summer of 2006 and again in 2007, but he was unable to guarantee me work or the standby pay I needed to make the trip financially viable. It wasn’t until 2008 that Erik got enough contract work to bring a second pilot on board with guaranteed standby pay. He chose me and I prepared to come north to join him.

At Pateros
Here’s my helicopter, parked on the lawn beside a motel in Pateros, WA where I worked for 10 days that first cherry drying season.

Then two things happened. First there was a late season frost that destroyed half the crop. Suddenly Erik only needed one pilot. But Erik was not going to be that pilot. Almost at the same time, he was diagnosed with cancer. When I met him in person for the first and only time, he was in the hospital recovering from surgery, relearning how to walk. He sent me to Quincy, WA to handle the remaining cherry contracts he’d gotten for us. I was only there for seven weeks that first year and only flew five hours total.

The following year, 2009, Erik was out of the picture. (He died that summer; his illness and death had a profound effect on me.) I prepared to go to work for the same company he’d contracted with for much of the work the previous year. I had two contacts: Rob in the Quincy area and Dan in the Chelan area. They worked for a man named Ed, selling helicopter services to orchardists and getting helicopters to do the work.

About a month before my season start, Ed apparently decided he didn’t want to be in the business anymore. He shut down without any notice, leaving Rob and Dan unemployed, dozens of orchardists without any protection for their cherry crop, and more than a few pilots wondering what the heck they were going to do. I got in touch with Rob, who seemed disillusioned and fed up. He told me he was going to retire and then he did something I’ve always appreciated: he gave me the phone numbers for a bunch of orchardists in Quincy and Wenatchee who might need helicopters.

I worked the phones. I got enough orchardists interested in hiring me to make it worth coming north on my own. I created a contract based on the one Erik had with me. I collected standby pay. And in late May, I hooked up my old RV and headed north to Washington for the summer. I even managed to extend my season with a new contract that had me in the Wenatchee area until mid August.

At the end of the season, I sent Rob a “commission” check to thank him. I think he was surprised.

Each year, I built up my client base to add clients and orchards. By 2011, I had enough work to add a pilot for about three of my eleven weeks. The following year I added one for four weeks. The next year, there were three of us for a while. Then four. This year, which is my ninth season, I have four pilots helping me for my busiest part of the season: two in Quincy and two with me in the Wenatchee area, where I’ve been living full-time since May 2013.

But without the leads from Rob, I would never have been able to come back that second season and I wouldn’t be where I am now — living in a place I love, surrounded by good friends and friendly people, enjoying a life I’d only dreamed about having.

I tried to contact Rob a few times, mostly just to say hello. But I never got a response.

Until yesterday’s email, which was sent using the contact form on my blog.

I’d taken his two granddaughters, aged 6 and 3, on a helicopter ride during an event at the airport on Saturday. They “wanted to fly with the girl pilot.” He was writing to say hello and thank me. He mentioned that he was still retired and living at his orchard but he occasionally did some seasonal inspection work. I wrote back to tell him how good it was to hear from him and to thank him again for helping me get started.

Rob probably doesn’t realize how much he helped change my life for the better. Cherry drying was the good paying work I needed to make my helicopter business thrive. It gave me the excuse I needed to get away from Arizona’s brutally hot summers. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it also gave me a chance to enjoy a few months of freedom every summer, living like a single person and making my own decisions. I fell in love with this area over those summers and it was a no-brainer to move here full-time when my marriage fell apart.

Rebuilding my life here has been one of the most pleasurable challenges in my life — and it wouldn’t be possible without the business I built here with Erik and Rob to help get me started.

Cross Country Flight: Sacramento to Seattle and Wenatchee

A look back at a memorable flight.

Since the winter/spring of 2013, my helicopter has spent two months each year in the Sacramento area of California on a frost control contract. I fly the helicopter down in late February and fly back in late April. I usually take along a fellow pilot who does most of the flying to build R44 time and shares the cost of the flight. Most of these people are relative strangers and although they’re usually nice guys or gals that I stay friends with after the flight, I admit that I prefer flying with people I already know pretty well. So this spring, when it came time to start thinking about that return flight, I started thinking about who I could invite to join me.

The answer hit me like a lightning bolt: of course I should invite my friend Don.

Don’s been a pilot for much of his life and has flown airplanes and helicopters. I don’t know how much time he’s logged, but I’m certain it’s more than my 3,300 hours. I also know he has tons of cross-country experience, including helicopter flights between the Seattle area and Alaska.

Why Don?

You might be wondering why I’d invite such an experienced pilot when there were so many low-time pilots who’d likely jump at the chance to fly with me on a six to eight hour cross-country flight. There are three reasons.

First, Don is a good friend I’ve known for years. He and his wife were very supportive during my crazy divorce, and you know what they say about a friend in need. He’s easy going and has a good sense of humor. I knew I’d enjoy spending time with him.

Don't Helicopter at PHX
Don’s helicopter on the T3 Helistop at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix in 2009. After I shared my experience approaching and landing at the helistop, he often picked up and dropped off visitors there. Later, in October 2012, he dropped me off there when I was off on one of my many trips.

Second, Don had owned a helicopter very much like mine — in fact, it was only six months newer — which he’d kept in his garage at his Seattle area home. About two years ago, he sold it. I knew he hadn’t flown much since and probably missed it. He would appreciate the flight; surprisingly, not everyone I’ve invited to fly with me on a long flight has.

Third, because Don already had so much flight time, he’d actually share the flight with me. After all, I like to fly. When I fly with other pilots, they’re paying for the privilege of every minute of stick time they can get. They don’t want to share the stick with me and I don’t feel comfortable asking them to.

So I texted Don to see if he was interested. The response came almost immediately. Hell, yes!

Getting to the Helicopter

Don has two homes, one in the Phoenix area and one in the Seattle area. He made arrangements to be in the Seattle area on the day we’d go south to fetch the helicopter.

I booked my flight from Wenatchee to Sacramento, which included a plane change in Seattle. Don booked his flight from Seattle to Sacramento on the same flight. Since Don always flies First Class, I bought a First Class ticket, too. When he booked his flight, he got the seat right next to mine.

We met at the gate for the Seattle to Sacramento flight. I’d been at the airport for two hours and had treated myself to a breakfast of trout and eggs at Anthony’s. Don had also been at the airport for a while and had breakfast.

I had Penny with me, of course. She’s always excited when she sees me take out her airline travel bag. She’d gotten back into the bag at the gate before Don arrived and he didn’t even realize I had her with me until we boarded.

There wasn’t supposed to be breakfast on our flight, but there was; a nice yogurt and granola bowl with fresh fruit that would have gone nicely with the Bloody Mary I couldn’t have. (First Class on Alaska Air really is worth the extra cost. Can’t say the same for all airlines.)

On the flight, we chatted, ate, read. Time passed quickly. We were on the ground by 10:45 AM. With no bags checked and a quick exit from the plane, we were at the curb waiting for our Uber driver by 11 AM. Penny seemed happy enough to be out of the bag, sniffing around someplace she was pretty familiar with. After all, we’d flown to Sacramento quite a few times over the past four years.

It was about a 30 minute ride to the airport where my helicopter had been parked on the grass for two months. I settled up my bill for parking and said goodbye to the staff there. Don preflighted and installed the dual controls while I folded up the cockpit cover and tie downs and went to work setting up my GoPro. That’s when I realized that I’d left the Mini SD card for the camera at home. Duh-oh! There would be no video from the flight.

California to Washington

We’d discussed our route briefly on the flight down. Neither of us was in a hurry and both of us leaned toward a flight up the coast, which would add about an hour to the flight time.

Marine Layer
Here’s a shot of the marine layer on the coast of Oregon that forced us inland during a flight from Seattle to Wickenburg with my wasband in 2009.

My experience with flying the coast was varied. What I’d learned was that if I could get to the coast, I probably wouldn’t be able to follow it all the way up. The California and Oregon coasts are well known for their “marine layer” clouds. Although I’d flown the coast many times in the past, from Los Angeles to the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington, those damn clouds always made an appearance, forcing me inland so I’d never covered more than one or two hundred miles at a stretch. Last year, when I’d flown north by myself, planning on a coastal route, clouds with rain moved in not long after I hit the coast, forcing me inland for a dreary flight with more scud running than I like to do.

But nothing ventured, nothing gained, eh?

We followed Cache Creek west into the hills. I did the flying. I’d been wanting to fly Cache Creek all winter, but truck troubles had messed up my March plans and I wound up spending most of the month home instead of with the helicopter. I hadn’t flown nearly as much as I wanted to. This was my chance to get flying out of my system, flying a familiar and loved route. Somewhere in the hills, I turned the controls over to Don and he steered us over Clear Lake. Although the weather was clear where we were, there were clouds to the west (of course) and neither of us were sure whether they came into the coast or were off over the Pacific.

After flying up Highway 101 for a while, we decided to try heading west to see if we could make the coast. So we followed one of the canyons — I’m not sure, but I suspect it was the one the Noyo River flows in — concentrating on the path ahead of us. As expected, we were moving right in toward the clouds, which forced us lower and lower. But ahead of us, to the northwest, the sky was bright. Maybe it was clearing up?

We were flying about 300 feet over the road, stretching our necks to peer ahead of us and ready to turn around as the road went around a bend at a high point in the hills. We followed the bend and the road dropped away. We kept going.

Low clouds kept us flying low in the hillsides near Fort Bragg. We turned north, heading for our first fuel stop at Eureka. The coast was to our left and we occasionally caught glimpses of it as we flew over tree-covered hills with the clouds only a few hundred feet above us. I don’t think either of us wanted a trip up the coast in such conditions — I know I didn’t. But I also didn’t want to fly the I-5 corridor, which is painfully boring, especially once you get north of Eugene. We’d make a decision at Eureka.

The ceilings were much higher when we stopped for fuel at Eureka. We gassed up; Don bought the first tank. Then we went inside for a potty break. There wasn’t much else to do there — although the airport has a nice little pilot shop, there was no restaurant and nothing was within walking distance. So we climbed back on board and continued on our way, this time following the coast.

Cloudy Coast
Despite the clouds, it was beautiful on the coast.

Brookings Bridge
If you’ve driven on the Pacific Coast Highway — Route 101 — through Brookings, CA, you’ve driven over this bridge.

Near Newport
The coast near Newport, OR. I love the way the breakers line up when you see them at just the right angle.

Lincoln City, OR
A look down into Lincoln City, OR.

By this time, the scenery around us was interesting enough to take some pictures while Don flew. The doors were on, of course, so most of my photos have reflections and glare and even window dirt. But they give you a feel for what the weather was like and show a little of how beautiful the California and Oregon coasts can be from about 500 to 1000 feet up.

The coast was very rugged at the beginning, where the Redwoods National and State Parks come right up to the rocky shoreline. There were no roads in many places — just trees right up to the cliffs with lots of small waterfalls dropping down into the ocean. This is a view few people see, a view that can only be seen from the air off the coast. Don steered us along its left, over the ocean, just within gliding distance of land.

In some places, we saw sea lions stretched out on rocky beaches. I took pictures, but they didn’t come out good enough to share.

The Pacific Coast Highway hit the coast and then went inland several times. Finally, just before we hit the Oregon state line, it came out to the coast and stayed there for quite a while.

The weather got a little worse at first, with light rain pelting the cockpit bubble in more than a few places, then started to get better. By the time we got into Oregon, we saw patches of blue sky. The sun was shifting ever lower toward the horizon to the west and the light started getting kind of good.

Good Light on the Coast
Light is 90% of photography.

Waterfall
Waterfall near Otis, OR. Yes, I cropped this image; we weren’t that close.

Cloverdale
Cloverdale, OR looks like a pleasant place to live, eh?

Tillamook, OR
Don fueling up at Tillamook. The huge hangar behind him was used for airships years ago. I think there’s a chance it might be an air museum now.

We made our second fuel stop at Tillamook, OR. Don pumped while I paid. It was just after 5 PM and the airport office (and restrooms) were closed. It was also chilly. I let Penny loose to do her business, then called her back to get back on board. We didn’t hang around.

Oregon Coast at Seaside
The Oregon Coast near Seaside.

By now, we were hungry. Two breakfasts had filled us before noon, but skipping lunch hadn’t gone unnoticed. Don had been texting back and forth with his wife who would have a hot dinner waiting when we arrived at their Seattle area home.

We continued up the coast a bit more before heading inland not far from Astoria, where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. This was, by far, the longest stretch of the Pacific Coast I’d flown in one day: more than 400 miles.

Don navigated northeast toward his house. It was all familiar territory to him — I didn’t fly much west of the Cascades. We flew east of Olympia and right over the top of the airport at Puyallup. From there, it was only a few minutes to Don’s place.

My iPad, with Periscope running, broadcast the approach in typical low-def quality.

Don let me take the controls and guided me in. I’d flown to his house before a few times but honestly couldn’t remember much about the approach. He had to keep pointing out landmarks and reminding me to slow down. It is tight — that’s for sure — with a steep approach between tall trees into a clearing beside his garage. I had Periscope running on my iPad in its cradle and recorded the whole thing.

And then we were on the ground, the long part of my journey over.

Resting Up

We went in and had something to drink while Don’s wife, Johnie, finished making dinner. Penny played with their new dog and ran around their grassy yard occasionally taking a detour to terrorize their chickens through the fence.

After dinner and a nice dessert, I went out to the barn with Don to see the two cows they’d “rescued.” They were huge. I really wish I’d had the presence of mind to take a photo, but I was so shocked by what I was looking at that I simply didn’t think of it.

I hit the sack in the guest room pretty early. I was still fighting a cold I’d had for at least three weeks and was exhausted. I slept well with Penny at the foot of the bed.

Seattle Area to Wenatchee

In the morning, after letting Penny out and then taking a quick shower, I dressed and met my hosts for breakfast. It was overcast and questionable (as usual) as to whether I’d make it across Snoqualmie or Stampede Pass. The automated weather station at Stampede was reporting half-mile visibility, which was enough to get through legally. But what about the rest of the flight? There was no accurate weather reporting in other places in the mountains. The only way to find out whether I’d make it was to give it a try. If I couldn’t get through, it was a long flight around the Washington Cascades to the Columbia River Gorge. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to go that way.

Don's Heliport
Another cloudy morning at Don’s place.

After thanking my guests and saying goodbye, I did a quick preflight, added some oil, and climbed on board with Penny. Then I started up and warmed the engine, setting up my iPad and iPhone with weather resources and Firelight maps to guide me while I waited. When the helicopter was ready to go, I picked up into a hover, turned 180 degrees over the driveway, and climbed out through the trees the way I’d come.

I had ForeFlight’s track log feature enabled during the flight, so I know exactly how I went. Originally, I thought I’d hook up with I-90 and follow that through the mountains at Snoqualmie Pass, which is at 3004 feet. But that would require me to head north quite a bit before heading southeast. It didn’t make sense to go out of my way. So instead, I followed the course of the Green River up into the mountains, aiming for Stampede Pass, which is higher at 3800 feet, but had that handy ASOS weather station. The weather there was reported at 1/4 mile visibility with mist, but I knew that could change at any time.

My Route
An overview of my route from the Seattle area to Wenatchee. Not exactly a straight line.

In the meantime, the flight was pleasant, even under the clouds, taking me over the Howard A Hanson Reservoir and a few communities that were no more than named points on the map. The area below me was thick forest, for the most part, with a road following the river for part of the way. I wish I could have taken pictures, but I’m a terrible photographer when I’m flying. I really missed my GoPro on that flight.

I steered up another canyon to the left just past Lester, heading for Stampede. The only roads were forest roads now as I climbed with the hills, getting ever closer to the cloud bottoms. Soon, I could see Stampede Pass ahead of me. I’d forgotten all about the wires that crossed through the lowest (and clearest) spot. I’d have to cross at a higher point a bit east where the clouds seemed to touch the ridge line. I could tune into the ASOS by that point; it was still reporting 1/4 mile visibility with mist.

My route over the pass
Here’s a closeup of my route (the blue line) through the Stampede Pass area on a Sectional Chart. I crossed the mountains just southeast of the pass, not at all interested in crossing over all those wires.

I slowed to 40 knots and creeped up to the ridge. I knew the rules I’d set for myself, rules that had never failed me when dealing with weather flying: if I could peek over the ridge and see the ground and my path ahead, I’d cross the ridge. Otherwise, I’d have to backtrack or find another place to cross.

I peeked, I saw. The ground dropped away ahead of me as I crossed the ridge near the pass and descended down into the valley beyond. Soon I was flying over I-90, past the lakes near Roslyn and Cle Elum. I steered east northeast, then due east, then northeast, direct toward home.

I crossed the mountains south of Wenatchee at Mission Ridge and made a slight detour to check out the slide damage areas at Whispering Ridge and Joe Miller Road. Then I made a beeline for the airport to get some fuel and take care of some paperwork with my mechanic.

A short while later, I was landing on my platform, which I’d left outside before heading down to Sacramento the previous day. It was good to get the helicopter put away.

Nine Years on Twitter

Twitter LogoAn unexpected anniversary.

This week marks the 10 year anniversary of the social networking site, Twitter. It’s been getting a lot of press and there are a lot of tweets from Twitter highlighting events throughout its history. I read through a bunch of them yesterday and remembered more than a few.

That got me thinking of how long I’d been on Twitter. I went to my profile page, and saw that I opened my account in March 2007. Almost exactly nine years. But what day in March? Had I missed my anniversary?

I Googled “Twitter anniversary date” and discovered Twitter Birthday, a site that exists solely to tell you when a twitter account was opened. I put in my user name. And I discovered that my account was opened on March 20, 2007. Exactly nine years before.

Twitter Birth Certificate
My Twitter “birth certificate,” retrieved exactly nine years after my account was opened.

Over the past nine years, I’ve been very active on Twitter, posting more than 57,000 tweets. I’ve formed good friendships with many people from all over the world that I’ve met on Twitter, including Andy Piper (the first person I ever followed, who now works for Twitter), Miraz Jordan, Ruth Kneale, Barbara Gavin, Shirley Kaiser, Michael T. Rose, Mike Muench, Esther Schindler, Jonathan Bailey, Chuck Joiner, Mike Meraz, Greg Glockner, Daniel Messier, Bob Levine, Ann Torrence, Bryan William Jones, Patty Hankins, April Mains, Debbie Ripps, Pam Baker, Terry Austin, Kirschen Seah, Jodene, Amanda Sargent, Ryan Keough, Steven Pass, Bill Evans, Derek Colanduno, Derek Bartholomaus, Bonnie Pruitt, Arlene Wszalek, Marvyn Robinson, and others.

I’ve met several of these “virtual friends” in person, including Andy (who lives in the U.K.), Shirley (California), Esther (Arizona), Mike Muench (Florida), Mike Meraz (California), Daniel (Arizona), Ann (Utah), Bryan (Utah), Patty (Maryland), Terry (Texas).

Barbara (Massachusetts) and Jodene (Washington) have gone on helicopter rides with me and Amanda (Washington/Louisiana) has actually flown my helicopter in Washington while I was tending to some divorce-related business in Arizona.

I wrote a book with Miraz (New Zealand) and was interviewed once by Marvyn (U.K.) for his Inspired Pilot podcast and multiple times by Chuck (New Jersey) for his MacVoices video podcast.

I’ve also used Twitter to keep in touch with people I already knew from my personal and business life. And organizations that tweet information that interests me. Those lists are too long to recite here.

Twitter has changed my life in another important way, too. In 2009, I authored and recorded the first of several video courses about Twitter for Lynda.com. This turned out to be a real contributor to my income with impressive royalties year after year as the course was regularly revised. (Sadly, I no longer do this course for Lynda and can’t recommend the current version.)

I blogged about Twitter and my relationship to it. My very first post about Twitter concerned then presidential candidate John Edwards using Twitter way back in 2007 to attract voters. That’s not a big deal today, but it was huge back then. Another post from 2007 titled “Reach Out and Meet Someone” covered my thoughts on social media and meeting people online. I felt as if I needed to explain it — it was that new. I also blogged “Four Steps to Get the Most Out of Twitter,” which, nine years later, is still valid. You can read more of my posts about Twitter by following the Twitter tag.

Nine years after joining Twitter, I’m as enthusiastic about it as ever. While it’s true that I’m not thrilled about some of the changes I’ve seen — notably the preponderance of “promoted tweets,” the Moments feature, and the algorithm now used (by default!) to sort your timeline — Twitter has remained unique enough to make it an important component of my social networking efforts. It’s still my “water cooler,” the place I turn to get social when I need a break from my daily activities.

While I lot of people just “don’t get” Twitter, I’m pretty sure that I do. And I expect to be using it for a long time to come.