On the Road Again

Notes from halfway down the long drive from Wickenburg to Seattle.

I’m writing this from a Walmart parking lot. I’m propped up in a queen sized bed with three pillows behind my back and my laptop on my lap. It’s 3:30 in the morning and I’m pretty much wide awake after just over five hours of sleep. It isn’t noise that woke me — this Susanville, CA parking lot is remarkably quiet. I guess I’m just done sleeping for the night. But it’s too early to continue my travels along winding mountain roads, so I figured I’d share an update on my blog.

This isn’t a pleasure trip — although parts of it have been very pleasant. It’s for work; I’m repositioning a truck and my new RV from Arizona to Washington State for the summer. The RV will be my home away from home as I work on cherry drying contracts for central Washington growers. The truck is needed not only to pull this massive fifth wheel trailer but to carry the refueling system I need to meet my contractual obligations.

The Truck

I’ve written about my new RV elsewhere in this blog, so I won’t repeat that here. But I’ve probably neglected the truck. It’s my husband’s truck: a 2001 Chevy Silverado 3/4 ton pickup. It has a Duramax Diesel engine with towing package and an Allison transmission. A “man’s” truck, capable of towing more than 15,000 pounds. (We bought it new in 2001 to tow a horse trailer with living quarters that I’ve since sold.) Inside, it has many creature comforts, including heated leather seats, power windows, and stereo system with iPod connection. The truck runs well and is up to the task of towing my home away from home over 1,000 miles.

I’ve mounted my old Garmin 60c GPS over the dash and have it wired into one of the DC power outlets. I’d loaded in topo maps (my preferred map type) for my entire route and then some. I’m using it mostly as a trip computer, to calculate distance driven, average speed, etc. I’m keeping close track of fuel consumption so I can calculate burn rates.

I’ve also clipped my cell phone case to the visor and connected it to another DC outlet. I’m wearing my Bluetooth earpiece for most of the trip for safer hands-free communication — when I can get a signal. Verizon has the best network — which is why I use it — but even Verizon doesn’t cover some of the places I’ve driven through on this trip. I can hear the signal fade in and out with beeps in my right ear as I drive.

The Route and Stops

Track Me!
If I’m traveling — whether by helicopter or on a long drive — you can usually follow my SPOT Messenger track online at tinyurl.com/FindMaria

Every year I choose a different route for this drive, shunning freeways as much as possible. This year, the route included stops to visit with friends in Las Vegas and Reno, NV, and Ashland, OR. The route began in Wickenburg, AZ and headed west on route 60. What followed was a numeric alphabet soup of route numbers: 72 and 95 to Parker, 62 and 95 to Needles, 40 and 95 to Boulder City, 95 and 215 to Las Vegas, etc. You get the idea.

In Vegas, I visited with my friends Jim and Judith. Jim is a helicopter pilot who flies a Hughes 500c. He and his wife, Judith, lived in Wickenburg for quite a while but, like most of our other friends, bailed out when the saw the reality of the situation there. They moved to the San Diego area for a while, then various places in California, and finally in Las Vegas.

Jim, an airline pilot who took early retirement years ago — luckily, before the airline went belly up — is an inventor. He designs, manufactures, and sells power external aircraft power units called StartPacs. They’re used primarily for starting turbine engines, although he has a whole range of power products now, from power sources a pilot can use while fiddling with his avionics on the ground to big, self-propelled APUs for bizjets. When they left Wickenburg, they took their business with them. They now employ a handful of people in their Las Vegas office and manufacturing facility. Jim gave me a tour after lunch on Monday and showed me some of the new designs he’s gotten patents for.

I left Vegas and headed west and then north through Pahrump. Another road took me west again. By 4 PM, I was in Death Valley. Although the temperatures should have been topping 100°F there this time of year, it was unseasonably cool, in the high 80s, with plenty of cloud cover. There were also signs of rain coming from the clouds, but the ranger at the Visitor Center assured me that it was unlikely for any drops to reach the ground.

On one ranger’s suggestion, I made my way to Panamint Springs. After a long, slow climb up over the mountains, I experienced a harrowing descent down a 9% grade. The truck’s tow package really helped out, downshifting to 2nd gear automatically to reduce my need to ride the brakes. Note to self: avoid Route 190 between Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs when towing a 36-foot RV.

Panamint Springs is still inside Death Valley National Park, but it overlooks the Panamint Valley, which is one valley west. It consists of a motel-like lodge, restaurant, and dirt lot dressed up as a campground. I paid $15 for a water-only hookup for my RV for the night. (I didn’t bother hooking up; I didn’t need water.) I had a heck of a time getting the RV into its pull-through spot. Although it was plenty long enough, the campground designers had placed large boulders at either side of the driveway. Making the turn without damaging the RV’s underside was tough. But I eventually managed and Alex the Bird and I settled in for the evening. I watched the changing light on the mountainsides from a patio table at the restaurant. At night, it was dead quiet and very dark. I stepped outside to admire a sky full of stars with a crescent moon before turning in for the night.

The next morning, I was on the road at 7 AM, continuing west on Route 190. After fueling up just outside of Lone Pine, I continued north on Route 395. I didn’t realize that route was so mountainous. After leaving Bishop, the truck did a lot of climbing, eventually reaching over 8,000 feet elevation. (This was the day after descending to -230 feet in Death Valley.)

On the urging of my friend, Rod, I detoured to the Ghost Town of Bodie. That required me to negotiate 14 miles of narrow, windy road, the last three of which were unpaved. I was extremely pleased to see that the parking area was large enough to make a U-turn in without having to back up. I put Alex in the camper while I went to explore the townsite on foot with my camera. I’ll likely write about that in another blog post, when I get the photos off my camera.

I met Rod for lunch in the Reno area, not far from where route 395 intersects with I-80. Rod lives in Georgetown, CA; I’d visited him and his wife, Liz, there by helicopter several times in the past. This time, I was on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains and wasn’t planning on crossing. But Rod made the 2+ hour drive from Georgetown to Reno to meet with me. Rod’s also a helicopter pilot — he flies fires in twin-engine helicopters like Hueys — in the summer. The rest of the year, he does odd jobs around home. We had a very late lunch in a Chinese restaurant in Sparks, NV.

Then I continued my drive north on route 395, ending up here in Susanville.

Highlights of the Trip

I’ve driven through some beautiful scenery over the past two days. Snow-capped mountains, sheer granite cliffs, dry lake beds, sand dunes, layered rock thrust up on an angle and eroded to expose lines of color. Blue lakes, rushing rivers, puffy white clouds in otherwise clear blue skies. Herds of wild burros, pastures full of horses and cattle, deer. The ruins of a town in the middle of nowhere that once was home to over 10,000 people.

It’s all a blur. A trip like this on a route like this shouldn’t be crammed into a few days. It should be slowed down and savored, with stops here and there to take in the sights and sounds and smells. This isn’t quality sightseeing — it’s motoring. I may as well be on a freeway.

Later today, I’ll drop down from the mountains to I-5 near the Oregon border. From there, I’ll follow the Interstate north into Oregon. After another lunch with another helicopter pilot friend, I’ll make my way north to the Seattle area. I’ll camp out in yet another helicopter pilot friend’s yard. Whether I can get there today depends on how twisty and mountainous the roads between Susanville and I-5 are; I’ll know by lunchtime.

Why I Don't Share GPS Coordinates Online

I’m vague about locations for a reason.

One of the great things about exploring remote desert locations is that they’re seldom visited by others. And the fewer people who visit an interesting destination, the fewer people have the opportunity to vandalize it.

I’ve seen the results of vandalism firsthand.

  • A huge masonry house overlooking Lake Pleasant was abandoned in the late 1970s or early 1980s when only 75% done. It had windows once, but vandals took care of that and left their shotgun shells and beer cans behind.
  • A pair of cabins dating from the early 1900s in the Weaver Mountains had apple trees growing out front, but campers decided to cut them down for firewood.
  • A rock with petroglyphs carved into it in the mountains near Congress has more modern graffiti than ancient indian drawings.
  • Entire ghost towns in the Weaver, Bradshaw, and Wickenburg Mountains have been wiped off the map by souvenir hunters.

These are only a few of the things I’ve seen destroyed, lost forever. I don’t want to be responsible — even indirectly — for the loss of any others.

Many times when I write about places that are hidden away in the desert, I’m vague about their whereabouts. I know that I won’t damage them. And I know that the people I bring there won’t damage them. But who’s to say what people who get directions or GPS coordinates on the Web will do?

Just today, my friend Ray and I were talking about ATVers exploring all the old mine sites. They come up from Phoenix with their fancy quads, following directions they’ve found on the Web to places like Anderson Mill and Gold Bar Mine. Most of them are respectful of these remnants of our past. But it only takes one with a bad attitude to destroy fragile ruins.

And sadly, there are more than one of these people out there.

How do you make a million dollars in aviation?

Start with two million dollars.

That isn’t my joke — it’s standard aviation humor. And if you think it isn’t true, start an aviation-based business.

Yesterday, against all odds, UPS actually delivered the auxiliary fuel pump I needed to get Zero-Mike-Lima up and running again. Yes, on Saturday. In Wickenburg.

The UPS guy was at our neighbor’s house, looking for ours when we spotted him. Mike gave a New York hail-a-cab style whistle and the driver saw us waving at him from our hillside. Moments later, he was on our driveway in front of the house.

“How many deliveries did you have to Wickenburg today?” I asked.

“Two,” he replied. “And you’re lucky it was me driving. I was out for four weeks. If the other Saturday driver can’t find a house, he just doesn’t deliver.”

Yes, I was lucky. I needed the part to replace the fuel pump that had gasped its final gasp on Friday, right at the end of a flight. Although the pump is redundant in flight (so there was no danger during the flight), I do need it to prime the engine at startup. I couldn’t fly without it. And I had three relatively lucrative gigs lined up between Sunday and Thursday.

The fuel pump cost $1,500. Add another $40 or $50 for overnight Saturday delivery by UPS. Then add the cost of the mechanic who graciously agreed to come in on Saturday — one of his usual days off — to install it. I told him to charge me extra. He said he would. Hell, it’s only fair. He could have said it would have to wait until Monday. Then I’d miss out on one (which turned into two) of my gigs.

Doing the Math

Unexpected repairs like this are only part of what makes operating an aviation business a lot more expensive than people think. How many times have I been at a rides gig where people asked how much fuel the helicopter burned? Every single one. I tell them it’s 16 to 18 gallons an hour and sometimes they ask how much fuel costs. I tell them $4 a gallon. They do some math in their head to come up with $64 per hour. Then they see us loading people on board for $30 a head, sometimes three at a time, and figure I can get 6 10-minute flights in per hour. That number comes out to $540/hour. Jeez! I must be making a fortune!

The truth of the matter is, fuel is among the least of my expenses.

What people always fail to consider is insurance (at about $11,500 per year); regular maintenance like oil changes ($120 each), 100-hour inspections ($2,000 each), annual inspections ($2,000 each); and the cost of the oh-so-important overhaul due at 2,200 hours that costs (currently) a whopping $182,000. (Do the math on that: $182,000 ÷ 2200 = $83/hour.)

And then there are things like this fuel pump. The original pump lasted only 416 hours. If the final cost of replacement is $1,700 (with all labor and expenses), that works out to another $4/hour. Add that to the cost of replacing my primary radio, which is currently in the shop and may be declared dead: $2,100 for a used one plus several hundred for troubleshooting the old one and swapping them out. And the cost of that clutch down-limit switch that had to be replaced 200 hours ago: the $8 part with $800 labor. And, oh yeah, let’s not forget $120 just to make sure my transponder is working right — that’s something I’ll be paying for every two calendar years.

How about the support stuff that doesn’t go on my helicopter? Like the $1,200 tow bar and the $600 golf cart (used, thank heaven) to pull it? And monthly rent for the hangar to keep it safe and dry and out of the sun? And the charts and other FAA publications I’m required to keep up to date, including sectionals (twice a year per chart), terminal area charts (twice a year per chart), airport/facilities directories (every 56 days), and the FAR/AIM (once a year)? Or how about my annual medical exam, which is required just to keep my license? Or credit card fees just so I can accept credit cards for payment?

And how about marketing? The $1,600 I just spent on 4-color, tri-fold brochures and the $459/month I spend during the high season to get them in brochure racks throughout the Phoenix area? And the cost of the trade show I’ll be attending later this month to sell my multi-day excursions to folks looking for a different kind of vacation?

And how about the cost of my ground crew on those outdoor ride gigs and the cost of permits and commissions just so I can do them? And the cost for operating the helicopter just to get to and from the gig — sometimes more than an hour each way? And the cost of the table and chairs and shade structure and signs that we use on those gigs? And those orange cones and all that yellow Caution tape? And overnight lodging and meals for me and the ground crew on distant, multi-day gigs?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I knew I was in for it when I launched this business.

But it does explain why I have to charge $450/hour for flight time. I’m not pocketing nearly $400 in profits as most people may think. I’m barely covering my costs.

Paying for It

Today is Sunday and Zero-Mike-Lima is sitting snug in its hangar, all ready to fly. I picked up a second tour today, one of my Ghost Towns & Mines air tours. Right after that, I’m doing my first ever Swansea Town site day trip. On Tuesday, I’m taking a winter visitor to Scottsdale for some upscale shopping. And on Thursday, I’m taking some folks to Sky Harbor so they can catch a flight to Canada. The total revenue for these four flights is estimated at $1,895. That’s revenue, not net income.

Just enough to cover the cash outlay for that fuel pump and labor.

Would I give it all up? Hell, no! But I do hope the new fuel pump lasts longer than 416 hours.

A Few Desert Gigs

I spend two Saturdays doing rides in remote desert locations.

One of the things I like to do to earn a little money with the helicopter is short rides at outdoor events. We did great at the Thunderbird Balloon Classic back in October, but that was held down near Phoenix and attended by people with money to burn. Up here on the edge of nowhere, people are a little tighter with their hard-earned money. As a result, I have to price the rides affordably and give each passenger a lot of bang for the buck. The margins are lower at these outdoor events, but I get a lot of satisfaction giving people their first helicopter ride or showing them something they can only see from the air.

The past two Saturdays each had gigs like that.

On December 30, I flew at the ghost town of Stanton. Stanton was a mining town established in the 1800s. At one point, it was a thriving community, with an opera house, hotel, and stage stop. Situated at the foot of the Weaver Mountains alongside Antelope Creek, it was a gold mining community. Legend has it that a man looking for a lost burro climbed to the top of what would later be known as Rich Hill and found gold nuggets the size of potatoes. Like any idiot from that time, he couldn’t keep quiet about his find and, before long, miners were flocking to the area to cash in. The town grew. It was named after a man named Stanton who, I believe, was involved somehow in the Wickenburg Massacre. (More on that another time.) The town was eventually abandoned when it became too difficult or costly to pull out more gold. Later, a group called the Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association bought the townsite. They installed caretakers, which prevented the town from being vandalized like most ghost towns in Arizona were. (For example, there’s really nothing left of nearby Octave, another ghost town.) As a result, the Saloon/Opera House, hotel, and stage stop still stand. They’re actually in use to this very day, maintained by the Lost Dutchmen group. And a campground has sprung up around the property, giving the group members a place to camp out during the winter months.

I’d flown at Stanton before and although it wasn’t a lucrative gig, it made a small profit and was a lot of fun. The Lost Dutchman have “outings” at Stanton a few times a year. The year-end outing is the big one. Everyone wants to see the “Potato Patch” at the top of Rich Hill but no one wants the all-day hike to get up there. I can get them up there and back in 8 minutes, so that’s what I did.

Flying at StantonSo on December 30, at 12:30 PM, I arrived at Stanton as scheduled and landed on a seldom-used road near the campground. My ground crew — Mike, John, and Lorna — got out and set up a little table. I shut down and waited for the crowd to gather. They came in pairs and trios and when I had at least 4 people waiting, I started up again. Lorna took the money — $30, including tax, per person. Mike and John gave the safety briefings and loaded up the passengers. Then I took off toward Wickenburg, climbing, climbing, climbing. I rounded the south end of Rich Hill and climbed up its east side. The passengers had excellent views of what was left of Octave and the mining activity going on in that canyon. Finally, 2000 feet above Stantons’ elevation, I rounded the north end of Rich Hill, still climbing. We were over the next valley, with Stanton far below us in the mouth of the canyon. I pointed out the Potato Patch and the miner types oohed and aahed. I started the descent, coming down at a rate of more than 1,000 feet per minute. On the way down, I pointed out Wickenburg, far to the south, and Congress, to the west. Also, North Ranch (which, you may recall, the management claims occupants are too old for helicopter rides) and the dairy farm. Even at a 1,200 feet per minute descent rate, I can’t get to Stanton without overflying it and turning back, making an elongated spiral to my landing zone.

We flew 22 people that day. Not bad for a gig less than 15 miles from Wickenburg. Even with a side trip to Lake Pleasant before the flight, we made some money.

On January 7, I was back in the desert with my ground crew. This time, we went to Robson’s Mining World in Aguila. This was my third gig out there for their anniversary celebration. Every year was a little better and this year, I’d dropped my price from $35 per person to only $30. I think that made a big difference. We gave about 50 rides.

The setup for this event was a little more deluxe. Robson’s was having its annual Anniversary celebration and they had lots of activities and food and vendors inside their “town.” John and Lorna took their truck out there, so we were able to bring a long a lot of extra supplies. Flags, banners, a table, some extra fuel. Our setup, alongside the road, was very noticable, especially since we got there early enough to keep the space in front of our table clear of cars.

Flying at Robson's Mining WorldI flew for a few hours, taking a break for lunch before starting up again and flying some more. The route started from our desert clearing, which was just big enough for Zero-Mike-Lima to fit comfortably, to the east alongside the base of the mountain behind Robson’s. I climbed as I flew, pointing out where Wickenburg would be if we could see it (we couldn’t), Vulture Peak, Congress, and Alamo Lake if we could see it (we couldn’t). Then I came along the back side of the mountain, crossing over a saddle on the west side. (There were a couple of guys and a dog working an old mine shaft up there and I wonder what they think of the helicopter flying over them every 10 to 12 minutes or so.) I came through the canyon where Robson’s is nestled, pointing out the trail to the petroglyphs along the way. I flew jsut to the east of town, where everyone could see me but not be bothered by the sound of the helicopter, before circling around to land back in my LZ.

The passengers were all thrilled. They always are. It’s a rewarding job.

When it seemed as if we were done and the event was winding down, I shut down and took a walk with Mike, John, and Lorna to enjoy the event. The crowds were gone and it was pleasant. We bought $1 ice cream cones (brings back memories, doesn’t it?) and watched the old engines run out back.

Later, when we were ready to leave, there were a few people gathered around the helicopter taking photos. Two men who were part of a party of three people wanted rides. Since they were going back to Wickenburg, I offered to take them there for the same $30 each. (That’s where being a Part 135 operator really pays off; I can do that kind of stuff.) They agreed and while their friend drove to Wickenburg, we took off, overflying Robson’s one more time as we headed back to Wickenburg.

I should be doing similar events like this down in Buckeye and up in Yarnell over the next few months. I’m hoping to pick up a few new gigs in the meantime.

If you’re reading this in Arizona and think you have at least a dozen people interested in taking rides at $30 to $40 per person (prices depend on distance to the gig), give me a call. You can learn more at the Flying M Air Web site.