A Flying Kind of Day

And proof that I apparently can learn a lesson.

I flew to Prescott, AZ today. I had to get my transponder’s biennial check and my annual medical exam done. Both my avionics shop and AME are based at the field.

How to Start an R44 Raven II

The first indication that I’d have a less than perfect day came when I started up the helicopter on the ramp at Wickenburg. The main part of the startup procedure on an R44 Raven II goes like this:

  1. Turn on the master switch. This provides electrical power to the aircraft.
  2. Push in the mixture to full rich. This enables fuel flow to the engine.
  3. Turn the key to Prime and count off the seconds. This uses the auxiliary fuel pump to prime the engine. The number of seconds depends on conditions such as outside temperature (cold means more priming) and engine temperature (already warm means less priming). This is something you get a feel for when you fly the same aircraft in all kinds of conditions.
  4. Turn the key to Both. This turns on both magnetos.
  5. Pull the mixture completely out. This cuts fuel flow to the engine.
  6. Push the starter button while slowly pushing in the mixture. The idea is that when the engine catches, the mixture should be full rich. This can be tricky, but most pilots get the hang of it pretty quickly.

When these steps are completed, the engine should be running. You then follow up with a bunch of other stuff to get the blades spinning and everything else working.

This morning, when I pushed in the mixture (step 2), it felt different — like it was scraping on something. It felt okay when I pulled it out again (step 5). Then it felt weird when I pushed it back in (step 6). The engine didn’t catch, so I repeated steps 2 through 6 again with a bit more priming. (It was cold out.) The mixture still felt weird when I pushed it in.

I debated whether I should shut down and talk to my local mechanic, Ed, about it. But then I convinced myself that the stiffness of the mixture cable was probably due to the cold. I finished my warmup and departed to the north.

Flight to Prescott

E25 to PRCPrescott is 30 minutes north of Wickenburg. It’s a “mile high” city, with an airport at 5,000 feet elevation. The airport is home to Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, as well as two helicopter flight schools. It’s a busy place, with three runways and a tower that occasionally splits radio coverage to two frequencies to handle the traffic load.

I’ve flown to Prescott more times than I can count over the past nine years. This morning, I planned a direct route. I departed from the ramp at Wickenburg and crossed the runway low level, heading 017°. Then I began my climb toward the first of two mountain ranges I had to cross: the Weavers. I had about 15 miles to climb from 2400 feet at Wickenburg to the 5,500 feet (minimum) I’d need to cross the mountains just east of the flat-topped Antelope Peak.

I was past Wickenburg within minutes, climbing at nearly 500 feet per minute at 100 knots. It was just after 8 AM and the sun was still low in the sky, casting deep shadows on the cactus-studded Sonoran desert below me. I listened to my iPod, catching up on Future Tense podcasts. The miles passed quickly. Soon I was crossing the Weavers and leveling off at 6,000 feet.

Now I was over the high desert, passing Yarnell, Peeples Valley, Kirkland Junction, and Wilhoit. I began another climb, to 7500 feet, to cross over the Sierra Prieta Mountains. There was snow on the north sides of the hills in the mountains below me. Ahead of me was the town of Prescott and the wide, flat areas of the Chino and Prescott Valleys.

I tuned into Prescott’s ATIS and used its altimeter reading to set my altimeter. Then I keyed the mic to call the tower. “Prescott Tower, Helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is nine to the south with Zulu, request landing at Mile High Avionics.”

“Helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima, Prescott Tower, proceed inbound for landing on the numbers of Runway Three-Zero. Report two miles out.”

I read back the instructions and modified my course to come in from the southeast, pushing down the collective to begin my descent. I was cruising at 120 knots, descending at about 300 feet per minute. My course took me over the south end of Watson Lake and the Granite Dells. I was three miles out and had both the tower and runway end in sight when the tower came back on the radio.

“Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, cleared to land on the numbers of Runway three-zero. You can then taxi down the runway to exit at echo-three and taxi to Mile High.”

I read back the important parts of the instructions, wondering whether echo-three was prominently marked. Helicopter pilots rarely deal with taxiway exits, so we don’t usually study airport diagrams to learn them.

I exited at the right intersection and taxied over to the big ramp on the back side of Mile High Avionics’ hangar. I cooled down and shut down. The blades were still spinning as the big accordion doors opened. A short while later, we had the ground handling wheels on the helicopter and were pushing it into the hangar.

Errands in Prescott

It was 8:45 AM and the avionics guys were ready to get to work on my helicopter. My doctor’s appointment was at 10:00 AM right across runway 30. The only way to get there was to make a five-mile drive around the airport.

The avionics guys very kindly gave me a pickup truck to use while they worked on the helicopter. I headed over to the doctor’s office to see if I could get my medical exam taken care of early. It was a good thing I did. The doctor took ill not long after my exam. As I was leaving with my new medical certificate, an ambulance was arriving to take him away.

I’d like to think that taking my blood pressure and having me read an eye chart didn’t give him a heart attack.

I took the pickup to a hardware store in Chino Valley, where I picked up some weed pre-emergent. I have a gravel “helipad” at our Howard Mesa property and we’ve had some serious problems with tumbleweeds there. I wanted to get the problem under control this year.

Then I went to breakfast at the airport restaurant. Bacon, egg, and cheese on an English muffin. Yum.

I was back at the avionics shop by 10:30 AM. The helicopter was done. I paid up and the avionics guys helped me pull the helicopter back outside.

Next Stop, Howard Mesa

When I started up the helicopter, the mixture problem was just as bad as it had been that morning in Wickenburg. But now it wasn’t cold. There was no excuse for it. I was getting concerned.

PRC to Howard MesaThe tower cleared me to depart to the southwest, parallel to Runway 21, which the planes were using. A plane had just taken off and was climbing out. The controller had me switch to the north tower frequency and that controller instructed me to make my right turn, staying low level to depart to the north. I was at 5300 feet, about two miles north of the airport, when the controller asked what my altitude was. I told him and he replied with “Frequency change approved. Have a good day.”

I thanked him and wished him a good day, thinking that that last exchange had been a little weird.

I listened to an episode of Skeptoid on my iPod as I flew north, over Chino Valley and Paulden. I was heading toward the west side of Bill Williams Mountain and would have to climb to about 7500 feet to get up onto the Colorado Plateau. I was abeam Williams’ Clark Memorial AIrport before I saw it. I was already on frequency and made a courtesy call to the empty airspace.

There was a lot of snow on the ground. I started wondering whether there would be snow on my landing zone. And whether it was wise to spread pre-emergent when I might blow it away when I took off. And whether there was something wrong with my mixture control that would prevent me from starting up when I was ready to leave.

This last thought was weighing heavily on my mind. I didn’t want to get stranded at Howard Mesa. Sure, I could always start up the heat in the shed and wait for Mike to rescue me, but I wasn’t interested in a repeat of my 2004 mesa-top helicopter repair.

I began to slow down and descend when I was still two or three miles out from Howard Mesa. By the time I flew over my place, I was only about 200 feet off the ground. I was surprised to see the windsock hanging almost limp. There were patches of snow on the ground and a series of partially melted animal tracks across the snow-covered driveway. I swung around, made a tight turn to the right, and came in for a final approach from the north. I set down behind the shed, pushed the collective full down, and opened my door to see how my skids were set in the snow and ground. I didn’t want to sink into any muck (again). It looked solid enough.

And then I made a radical decision: I wasn’t going to shut down. Instead, I cooled down the engine and throttled it down to idle RPM. I tightened the cyclic and collective friction. And I stepped out to take care of my chores, leaving the helicopter running.

Now before you other pilots start scolding me, remember this: there was almost no wind and I was on private property in the middle of nowhere with no one around. The cyclic and collective friction on my helicopter do what they’re supposed to; neither control moves when they’re tightened up. The blades had enough spin to keep them from drooping. I was facing where I needed to go, so there was no reason to walk behind the helicopter. There really was no danger. Really.

I offloaded the pre-emergent and brought it into the shed. Then I fetched the two small pieces of furniture I’d come to get. I put one on each of the rear seats, fastening them down with the seatbelts. I climbed back in, double-checked the doors, and fastened my seatbelt. I think I was out of my seat for about four minutes.

I loosened the frictions and spun up. Then I very slowly and carefully lifted the collective, just in case some of that mud was trying to suck me down. The helicopter lifted straight up. I pulled more pitch, pushed the cyclic forward, and took off between two trees.

Mixture Problems Back in Wickenburg

Howard Mesa to E25I flew a direct route back to Wickenburg, detouring only a tiny bit around Granite Mountain. I listened to NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! podcast.

There were three planes in the pattern when I arrived — all flight training planes doing touch and goes on Runway 5. I came in behind the last one and set down on one of the helipads on the west end. When I shut down, I recorded a total of 2.2 hours of flight time for the day.

I fetched my cart and towbar and brought the helicopter back to the hangar. As I was getting ready to back it in, I noticed that oil had been leaking on my muffler. I got down on the ground and took a closer look. Oil was dripping in the vicinity of the starter motor. A leak somewhere. That could explain why I’d been using more oil than usual later. I decided to see if Ed wanted to look at it.

He came over with me. While he was checking that out, I told him about my mixture control. We backed the helicopter into the hangar and he looked underneath while I pulled the control knob in and out. It made a weird kind of squeaking noise when I pulled it out.

Let me explain how the mixture works. It’s a knob that’s attached to a long cable. The knob is in the cockpit. You pull it toward you to cut fuel; you push it in to add fuel. AIrplane pilots know mixture controls very well, since they often have to “lean” the mixture in flight. Robinson pilots don’t do that. It’s either full mixture while flying or pulled mixture when the engine is shut down.

Ed also had a service bulletin to take care of for me. Since he didn’t have any planes to work on, we figured it would be a good time for him to take care of the SB, lubricate the mixture cable, and see if he could find the oil leak.

I spent some time updating my log book, then drove off to get my hair cut. When I got back, Ed shared some bad news. He’d been working on the mixture and, when he pulled it, the cable broke.

With a broken mixture cable, my helicopter wasn’t going anywhere.

A Lesson Learned

I took the news well. You see, I’d spent a good part of the day before writing an article about how inconvenient some mechanical problems can be. I’d concluded that preventative maintenance could have saved me a lot of bother.

In this instance, I’d identified a potential problem with the mixture control. Even though it still worked, I’d asked my mechanic to take a look at it at the first opportunity. Sure, he’d broken it, but if he hadn’t, I probably would have.

And maybe that break would have been on top of a mesa.

Or when taking charter clients to Sedona or the Grand Canyon.

Any mechanical problem that occurs anywhere other than at home base with a mechanic around is a mechanical problem you want to avoid. Writing that article had reminded me of that simple fact.

And I managed to remember it for a full day.

Anyway, we ordered the cable. It should arrive on Thursday. Ed will fix it then. In the meantime, I hope he tracks down that leak.

Another View, No Fog

A quick shot or two…or three.

The other day, I blogged about Thanksgiving and the fog we experienced the following morning. I even included a photo of the foggy morning.

Howard Mesa ViewHere’s almost the same view today. This is normal weather here — blue skies and almost unlimited visibility. Although this photo is a bit too small to see it, Mount Trumbull, which is about 80 miles away, is visible just left of center on the horizon. We can also see the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (which is higher than the South Rim) about 40 miles away.

San Francisco PeaksMike shot this photo of Mount Kendricks (left) and the San Francisco Peaks (right) a little while ago. Both mountains got snow yesterday, although kendricks only got a dusting of it. If you’re not familiar with the San Francisco Peaks, Mount Humphreys, which is the tallest of the peaks, is the tallest mountain in Arizona. Don’t quote me, but I believe it’s somewhere around 12,000 feet. (No access to the ‘Net right now, so I can’t look it up).

SunsetAnd because I can’t resist, here’s a sunset photo taken on Friday evening. Clouds (or particulates in the air) are what makes for nice sunset photos. I rarely get an opportunity to take a decent sunset photo because there are rarely any clouds in the sky in Arizona. But there were clouds Friday and I snapped a few shots from right outside the camping shed. The mountains silhouetted on the horizon are about 50 miles away, near Seligman, AZ.

An Off-the-Grid Thanksgiving

A pleasant challenge.

Yesterday, on Thanksgiving Day, Mike, Jack the Dog, Alex the Bird, and I took the truck up to our getaway place north of Williams, AZ. It’s an off-the-grid camping cabin on top of a mesa, 5 miles from pavement. If you’re not familiar with the term off-the-grid, it means that it’s not connected to any public utilities. We have solar panels with related equipment for electricity, a propane gas tank, and hauled water.

We left Wickenburg at about 9 AM for the 2-1/2 hour, 154-mile drive. We made one stop on our way out of town — to buy milk and an onion — another stop at the Chino Valley Safeway gas station (where we got a 70¢/gallon discount on diesel), and a final stop at the Jack in the Box restaurant in Williams.

More about Jack in the Box

I do need to digress a tiny bit here. This was the first time since my college days 20+ years ago that I’d been in a Jack in the Box. The last one I’d been in was in Hempstead, NY. I’d been standing at the counter, waiting to place my order, when someone robbed the place by reaching over the counter and grabbing money out of the cash register drawer when it opened. The robber fled quickly — the whole thing happened in about 5 seconds. I clearly remember the manager of the place vaulting over the counter with a sawed-off shotgun. When I say it was a rough neighborhood, I’m not kidding.

The robbery isn’t why I’ve avoided Jack in the Box restaurants all these years. Back in those days, the menu at those places seemed to center around tacos that weren’t very good. I’m not a big fast-food person — I haven’t had a McDonald’s hamburger in at least 10 years — so it wasn’t easy to avoid Jack in the Box. But yesterday surprised me. Mike and I both had hamburgers (since we planned to have turkey for dinner) and agreed that they were probably the best fast food burgers we’d ever had.

Muddy Roads…Again

Anyway, we ate the burgers on the road. There was snow on the ground — maybe about 3 inches of the stuff. It was wet and didn’t completely cover the ground. The clouds were low and thick and slow-moving. Every once in a while, we’d get a clear view of some upper level clouds or some blue sky. Everything was wet and clean looking. It was so un-Arizona. It was magnificent.

Howard Mesa RoadsWe made the turn off pavement and started the five mile trek up to our mesa-top retreat. We’d gotten about 2 miles in when the road’s surface started getting snotty. That’s really the only way to describe the reddish brown dust when it gets wet enough to make mud. Soon, it had coated the truck’s tires and we were starting to fishtail. Mike put the truck in 4WD. We continued up a gentle grade. The truck would not stay pointed in the right direction. This was not a good thing since (1) the road was only a tiny bit wider than a single lane and (2) there was a deep ditch on one side with water flowing in a shallower ditch on the other side. The photo here shows what it looked like the next day, after at least two other vehicles had passed through. By this time, the snot had solidified a bit and the road was passable again.

Back in May 2005, as I summarized in my blog post, “The Roads of Howard Mesa,” Mike’s truck had slid off the road into a deep ditch about 2-1/2 miles short of our place. The conditions had been similar. We’d been fortunate in that a neighbor had seen us go off the road and had “rescued” us with a Jeep. But it had cost $250 to get a tow truck over to pull the truck out. Neither of us wanted a replay on Thanksgiving Day. So when it seemed clear that we weren’t going to make it up the hill, we decided to back down, turn around, and try another route. We wound up sliding into the shallower of the two ditches. Mike put the truck in 4WD Low and powered us down. It was a tense 5 minutes or so, but then we were making a tricky 3-point turn in a bend in the road and going back the way we’d come.

There are 3 roads to access the lots at the top of the mesa. The access road for two of them was the snot-covered road we knew we couldn’t pass. The other road went up to the west side of the mesa. Our friends live up there year-round and the road up is kept in good condition. Between their lot and our side of the mesa is a 2-track “road” carved in by ranchers and hunters years ago. It’s not maintained at all and seldom used. In fact, I’d venture to guess that I use it more than anyone else, since it’s a “shortcut” to our friends’ place from ours. But the good thing about the road is that it’s relatively level and free of the snot-like mud on all the mesa’s other roads.

So we went that way. It was a 2-mile stretch of snow-covered ruts. Mike took it in 4WD at a pretty steady pace. We were both very glad to see the big metal water tank at the other end of the road. We got back onto the gravel surface and drove the final 3/4 mile without any problems.

“Off the Grid” Doesn’t Mean without Conveniences

At our camping shed were more challenges. We had to get the systems up and running. That meant turning on AC power (flicking a switch), turning on the gas (a lever), getting the gas refrigerator started (sometimes tricky), getting the hot water heater turned on (also tricky at times), and firing up the furnace. It’s this last thing that caused the most grief yesterday. As usual, a mouse had build a home in the furnace’s burner area and it had to be cleaned out before we started it up. Our miserable ShopVac stopped sucking, making Mike’s job more difficult. He worked on it most of the afternoon while I cooked dinner.

Cooking wasn’t tough at all. After all, we had an oven big enough for our 7-lb turkey breast (and nothing else), a 4-burner stove, and the decent quality cookware I’d had at home until we replaced it last year. There’s enough counter space, a cutting board, two good quality, sharp knives, and all the bowls and other cooking implements I needed. If you didn’t know we were off the grid, you’d never guess it. The only thing I didn’t use was our 600-watt microwave — and that was mostly because I didn’t want to waste what battery power we had left on what had become a nasty, rainy day.

I made an abbreviated version of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner: turkey breast, stuffing. gravy, and rice pilaf. Although I’d fully intended to make a fresh batch of mango chutney to go with it (instead of cranberries), I’d forgotten to bring along the mango. Going to the store definitely wasn’t an option. So I made the mango chutney recipe with apples. It didn’t come out bad at all. I was going to make some brussels sprouts, but after cooking for about 3 hours, I was too tired.

By 5:30 PM, Mike had the heat going. It wasn’t cold in the shed — the oven and stove had taken care of the chill — but it was nice to get the heat up to a more normal temperature, especially while we ate. We got Jack the Dog back in — he’d spent all afternoon trying in vain to catch one of the fat pack rats living under the shed — and wrapped his wet muddy body in a towel. Then we settled down for a good Thanksgiving dinner, complete with wine.

Reward After a Long Day

After dinner, we did the dishes and spent some time relaxing. I really love it up here — it seems that the troubles of everyday life just don’t exist. We played some “Chicken Foot” dominoes, then loaded a DVD — “Flawless” with Michael Caine and Demi Moor — in my laptop, turned out the lights, and watched the movie. Later, we climbed up into the sleeping loft, where it was nice and toasty — remember, heat rises — and went to bed.

I spent a lot of time looking out the window into the almost perfect blackness. A cloud had descended onto the mesa and there wasn’t anything to see. I’m pretty sure we were the only people around for miles. Some brief flashes of light in the clouds to the north indicated a thunderstorm over the Grand Canyon.

View with FogIn the morning, when it got light, we were in a fog bank. We could see the clouds move in, then clear. It was all quiet except the sound of coyotes off in the distance.

I took this photo, mostly to remember the fog — and the moment. It’s the view from the shed, looking northwest.

In Arizona, fog is a special treat to be savored. There’s no better place to savor it than at our getaway place in the middle of nowhere.


Farewell to a good horse.

Jake on Wickenburg MountainOne of my two horses, Jake, will be slipping into the forever sleep later today. We don’t know his exact age, but we think he’s about 30. He developed some serious and painful foot problems this past spring and we’ve been unable to reverse the process. Rather than subject him to more pain with a questionable quality of life, we’ve decided to put him to sleep.

I bought Jake as a second horse about 10 years ago. I had just one horse and Mike and I could never ride together. So I went with a friend to a local horse trader to see what he’d brought back from his ranch up north that spring. He was offering Jake, a sorrel Quarter Horse gelding. Jake had a swayback — his back dipped down and then back up to his hind quarters — and really high withers. The horsetrader claimed Jake was 11 — a magic age for horses because it’s neither too old nor too young — but the vet later said he was at least 17. I saddled him up and went for a ride with my friend and the horsetrader’s wife. Jake was extremely well behaved. At one point, the horsetrader’s wife said, “I wouldn’t be ashamed to ride that horse.” I thought it was a weird comment. I wasn’t ashamed at all. I bought him.

I could tell at once that Jake was very different from Misty, my other horse. While Misty was friendly and would come up to you to be petted or brushed, Jake was far more aloof. He’d obviously been struck around the face — if you approached him with your hand up, he’d run away in sheer terror. It took a long time to build trust in him. But as soon as you put him on a lead rope or put a saddle on him, he was yours. He had a ranch horse work ethic and would do whatever you told him to, without hesitation.

Jake became Mike’s horse. My horse, Misty, another sorrel Quarter Horse, later developed serious front foot and leg problems. After months of pain, I made the decision to put her down. It was heart-wrenching. She was only 19.

I got another horse, a pretty paint Quarter Horse named Cherokee. Cherokee was a spoiled brat who really make Jake look like a prize. Jake was alpha male — the boss — who protected his food and space from Cherokee with pinned back ears and bites. Cherokee never gave up trying to steal Jake’s food. Recently, he was starting to succeed.

Jake and Cherokee at Howard MesaWe’d often bring them to our summer place on Howard Mesa, where we’d set them loose in our 40-acre fenced-in lot. When there was good grass, they’d graze together. Sometimes, Jake would wander off without Cherokee noticing. When Cherokee realized he was alone, he’d call out to his friend and prance around until he found him. We’d ride around the mesa on the two of them, enjoying the warm sunlight and high desert terrain so different from the Sonoran desert at home. Jake was always at ease and never spooked; Cherokee was always freaked out and, in those early days, taught me how to fall off a horse.

Jake’s teeth were the first to go. They got to the point where no amount of equine dentistry could fix them. We switched his diet to mostly pellets that we’d soak down with water. One vet told us that was keeping him alive.

Then he started coming up lame. We took him to the vet and had his front feet X-rayed. Navicular disease. It’s caused when the navicular bone gets kind of porous and puts additional pressure on the nerves in the horse’s foot. ALthough there’s surgery that could ease the pain — I know it well because Misty had it not long after I bought her — Jake was too old for that. We decided to go with pain medicine and special shoeing to ease the pain. But nothing really seemed to help and yesterday, Mike made the big decision, which I know was hard for him.

Animals are lucky. They have us to spare them from a long, painful, lingering death. Jake will go to sleep later today and not wake up. His pain will be over.

And we’ll miss him.

The Simple Things in Life

I have a great, ordinary day.

After spending yesterday being lazy and eating too much, I was determined to make the most of today. So I made rough plans to go for a hike at Red Mountain and then visit my favorite Thai restaurant in Flagstaff. I’d bring Jack the Dog and my good camera. I’d take my time and have a good time.

And that’s exactly what I did.

On the Road

I had a nice leisurely breakfast and spent a few hours reading something I’d written a long time ago. Reading my old fiction is always a bit depressing. I put so much of my time into it and now I realize how much rewriting it would do before I could ever consider publishing it. Both the content and writing style are immature. I wonder how many other writers look back at their old, unpublished work and feel the same way.

By 9:30 AM, I was ready to hit the road. I packed an orange and a bottle of water in a canvas bag, grabbed my camera bag and jacket, and loaded it all into the truck. I put Jack in back — I refuse to get dog hair all over the cloth seats in the cab — and closed the cap on him. Then I headed out.

I stopped to visit Matt and Elizabeth on my way out. They live full-time on the other side of the mesa. In fact, they’re the only people who live full-time on the mesa at all. They were in the middle of cleaning out one of their sheds, getting it ready to turn into a greenhouse. We chatted for a while as Jack wandered around their yard. I remembered that I didn’t have a leash for Jack and asked Matt for a piece of rope. I left with a 6-foot piece of nylon rope that I fashioned into a leash. Although there wouldn’t be many people where I planned to hike, there’s always one in the crowd ready to complain if your dog is off-leash.

We descended down the mesa and through the flatlands below. At route 64, I turned right, heading toward the Grand Canyon. There weren’t many people on the road, which kind of surprised me. It was, after all, Saturday morning. What better time to visit the big ditch?

Planes of Fame

At Valle, a small town at the intersection of routes 64 and 180, I made a brief stop at the Planes of Fame Air Museum. This remarkable aviation museum, which is based at Valle Airport, has an amazing collection of planes and aviation memorabilia. It’s impossible to miss, since General MacArthur’s Constellation is parked right out front. Oddly enough, it gets few visitors, despite the fact that thousands of people drive past each day on their way to or from the Canyon. I highly recommend it; it’s worth the stop for anyone interested in aviation — especially military aviation. And it the name of the place sounds familiar, it’s because it’s associated with the larger Planes of Fame museum in Chino, CA.

I was stopping in to hand over some brochures for Flying M Air. The museum’s lobby walls are lined with brochure racks for things to see and do all over Arizona and I like to keep my brochures there. At the same time, I usually pick up a batch of the museum’s brochures and put them in the racks at Wickenburg Airport. (It’s the least I can do!)

I had a nice chat with the two women there. They still had some of the brochures I’d mailed to them about six months ago. I asked them to put the brochures away until September 1. I told them I was closing down for the summer and there was no sense getting phone calls when I wasn’t ready to fly. They were completely understanding.

Walking Inside a Mountain

On leaving Planes of Fame, I headed southeast on route 180 toward Flagstaff. I’d planned to hike at Red Mountain, the remains of an ancient volcano that had collapsed in on itself thousands of years ago.

We’d discovered Red Mountain years ago, in 2003. While at Flagstaff’s excellent visitor center, we’d stumbled upon a free publication called 99 Things to Do in Northern Arizona. Number 26 was “Walk Inside a Mountain”:

Located 32 miles north of Flagstaff on U.S. 180, Red Mountain is one of the most intriguing sites in the Flagstaff area. The mountain is a volcanic cinder cone that rises 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape. It is part of the San Francisco Volcanic Fields, a belt of volcanoes stretching through Flagstaff and on to the canyon of the Little Colorado River.

The northeast flank of the volcano is deeply sculpted, with a natural amphitheater in the center….The 2.5 mile round-trip hike is well worth it because you actually get to see what a cinder hill looks like on the inside.

This was enough to pique our interest, so we tracked down the trailhead and paid it a visit with Jack the Dog and a picnic lunch. I remembered it as an interesting yet easy hike — a good destination for another hike with Jack.

Today, I skipped the lunch and just brought along my Nikon D80 with two extra lenses in the fanny-pack style camera bag I bought for such hikes. I let Jack out of the truck and hung his makeshift leash around my neck. Another couple started the hike right after we did, but I let them pass us when I stopped to take a rest.

The trail to Red Mountain is an easy gravel pathway, partially eroded but plenty wide in most spots. It winds through typically high desert vegetation: grasses and pinon and juniper pines. Plenty of sun and shade. The path climbs gradually almost its entire length, offering occasionally glimpses of the cinder cone at its end, as well as the San Francisco Peaks and Mount Kendricks, beyond it, to the east.

The trail follows a dry stream bed into a canyon between two steep slopes of dark gray volcanic gravel. These slopes have been here a long time, as evidenced by the huge ponderosa pines growing out of them. They also give the trail a sort of claustrophobic feeling, especially with all the shade from tall trees all around.

The trail ends abruptly at a six-foot tall stone dam completely filled in with silt. A slightly tilted ladder with handrails leans against it. As Jack and I arrived, a group of 5 people were just making their way down. We waited.

One of the people asked, “How are you going to get the dog up there?”

“Oh, he’ll climb it,” I assured them.

“He’ll climb the ladder?”


By this time, they’d all come down. They stood a few feet away, giving us an audience. I climbed up the ladder and Jack followed me, placing each foot carefully on a step as he climbed.

“It’s a circus dog!” someone called out.

Beyond the dam, we were inside the mountain. It was very different from what lay outside. Inside were mostly red rock formations very similar in appearance to the “hoodoos” at Bryce Canyon National Park hundreds of miles to the north. There were trees and hills and black rock. The force of erosion was quite evident. Jack and I explored the west side of the mountain’s insides and found ourselves winding through a series of narrow slot canyons. Of course, I had my crazy fisheye lens with me. I took a few shots with it, including this shot with Jack the dog. You can’t imagine how much red dust I got on the seat of my pants sliding off this observation point.

Here’s another weird shot with that fisheye lens. For this photo, I lay my flannel shirt, which I’d shed during the hike, on the dusty ground under a small pinon pine tree, facing up. Using the self timer, I snapped the shutter, then moved away quickly so as not to be in the photo. I love taking weird photos like this.

We explored inside the mountain for about 30 minutes. We were the only ones there. I’d forgotten to bring water with me and I knew Jack was thirsty. On the north-facing rocks, there was snow and I led the way to the base of a particularly snowy area, hoping that the snow was melting before it evaporated into the dry desert air. We found a small puddle and Jack had a good drink.

I took a few more shots, experimenting with various lenses and exposures and focal lengths. What I saw through the lens didn’t do the actual scene justice. It was beautiful and surreal.

We headed back to the dam and ladder. A pair of hikers stopped to pet Jack. When we got to the ladder, he carefully made his way back down. I wished I’d gone first and had taken a movie of it with my phone. I don’t think too many people would believe it, especially if they saw the ladder.

One of my favorite photos of Jack the Dog was taken the first time we visited Red Mountain. In it, he’s running towards us on the trail, with the San Francisco Peaks in the background. I decided to reconstruct the photo. When I got to the right spot, I called Jack back to me and snapped this photo. It wasn’t as pretty a day, but I think it’s a better photo.

We reached the truck, where Jack and I had a drink of water. Then I closed him up in the back of the truck and headed out of the parking lot. It was about 1 PM.

I should mention here that I have a photo of Red Mountain taken from the air. You can see it in the post titled “The Winslow Loop.”

The Drive to Flag

I continued southeast on route 180 toward Flagstaff. There was one spot I wanted to visit along the way — the very picturesque Chapel of the Dove. But when I neared it, I saw that its tiny parking lot was full of cars. I figured they must be doing some kind of memorial service and I didn’t want to intrude. So I kept driving. I’ll stop there another day when there’s no one around.

I did stop alongside the road to take this photo for Miraz. If I’m not mistaken, it’s the same spot a photo on one of her recent blog posts was taken. I’m off the ‘net right now, so I can’t check.

Along the way, Route 180 climbs to just over 8,000 feet above sea level. My redneck truck sure didn’t like the elevation. It drove terribly. Even cruise control couldn’t keep up the speed. I’m very glad my trip this summer won’t keep me in the mountains.

Thai Food and Errands

Boy, I sure wish I could remember the name of the Thai restaurant we’ve been eating at in Flagstaff when we’re there. It’s right downtown, across the street from Babbitt’s, with a connecting door to the Hotel Monte Vista. It has the best Pad Thai Noodles I’ve ever had and a really great “combination” soup with a clear broth, rice noodles, chicken, tofu, pork (?), and veggies.

That’s where I went for lunch. I parked the truck in front of the tattoo parlor on Route 66, tied one end of the makeshift leash to Jack’s collar, and walked the two blocks. I tied Jack to a signpost outside the door and went in. After washing my hands three times to get the dirt off them, I settled down for a nice lunch. I only finished half of what they put in front of me, so I took the rest to go. (I’m finishing up the soup now. Yum.)

Afterward, we walked over to the Flagstaff Visitor’s Center to drop off a bunch of Flying M Air brochures. The Visitor’s Center shares space with Amtrack in the original train station right downtown.

Back in the truck, we headed over to the HomeCo Ace Hardware on Butler Road. This is a great hardware store that I’ll take over Home Depot any day. (Having spent much of a summer in the Flagstaff Home Depot, I can assure you that I’m sick of it.) It’s a good-sized place with everything you need and enough floor staff to help you find whatever it is you’re looking for. The True Value Hardware Store in Williams is also very good, although not nearly as big.

Although I was tempted to hit the Barnes and Nobel Bookstore on Route 66, I talked myself out of it. Instead, we hopped right on I-40 and headed west.

I did make one more stop before returning to the mesa: Dairy Queen in downtown Williams. They make the best hot fudge sundae. Even a small one!

Why It Was a Great Day

Now this day may seem pretty ordinary to you. A bunch of errands, a hike, and lunch out. Big deal.

But I enjoyed the whole day immensely — perhaps more than I should have. And knowing that I enjoyed it so much made me enjoy it even more.

Perhaps one of the things that made it so enjoyable was my choice of listening material for the long drives. (I did, after all, drive well over 100 miles today.) I had my iPod plugged in via cassette tape adapter thingie and was listening to podcasts. I was alone, so I didn’t have to worry about missing what was being said because of conversation. The podcasts I listened to — Point of Inquiry — gave me something to really think about. I like getting thoughtful input.

Another thing that contributed to the good day might have been my complete lack of schedule. I had a list of things I wanted to do and plenty of time to do them all. I didn’t need to be someplace — or back at the mesa — at a specific time. So there was no stress, no rush. Very relaxing.

Now I’m back on the mesa, relaxing in our camping shed. Outside, the wind is absolutely howling — they forecast winds 25 to 35 mph with gust up to 50 mph. My windsock is stuck straight out as if starched. Occasionally, the building shakes. But its cosy and safe in here with music on the radio and sunlight coming in through the windows.

And I have leftover pad Thai noodles for dinner.

A Day on the Mesa

A lazy day, with photos.

I spent the day at our place on Howard Mesa today. It was a lazy day. I read, ate (too much), napped, chatted on the phone, wrote and posted blog posts, and took a walk.

In the late afternoon, I noticed what I thought was a cow just outside the gate, alongside the road. Howard Mesa is open range land and the only way you can keep cows off your property is to fence them out. We’re one of only two lots on top of the mesa that’s completely fenced in. We did it primarily to keep the horses in, since open range cattle rarely come up here. But my friends had their yard destroyed by cattle one day, so I’m glad our place is fenced in — even though there isn’t much here for them to destroy. (Who wants cow poop all over the place anyway?)

I walked down to the road with Jack the Dog to check out the cow. And that’s when I realized it wasn’t a cow. It was a bull. How could I tell? Balls instead of udders.

It didn’t have any horns, so I think it may have been young. Of course, the horns could have been cut off. I think ranchers do that sometimes. It was very interested in us, but I kept my distance. I’ve been to rodeos and I’ve seen cowboys and rodeo clowns chased. I didn’t want to be a rodeo clown.

I took some pictures with my phone and sent them to TwitPic and my TumbleLog. But this photo, taken with my CoolPix, is much better, especially after a trip though Photoshop Elements for exposure correction and cropping.


Later, I went for a walk, partially to walk off all the food I’d eaten. I find that I eat a lot when I’m up here — probably because there isn’t much else to do for distraction and I always bring along food I really like. Jack and I hit the road and took a right. I was hoping to see some other property owners, but I knew how unlikely that would be. There aren’t many places with less going on. I did see a truck drive by earlier today, but I don’t know where it went. I didn’t see it come back. I thought that there was a slight chance that I’d see where it went and possibly meet the people that were in it.

I didn’t. I didn’t see anyone. But what I did see was some neat textured dirt alongside the road. The ground gets like this in the spring, after numerous snowfalls and freezes have melted away. This stretches go on forever up here, with few tire tracks or animal tracks to disturb them. I like textures, so I took the picture.


I figure I walked about a mile round trip without seeing a soul. Even the bull was gone. It was so quiet, my ears hummed. All I could hear was the sound of the breeze in the pinon and juniper trees around me.

When I got back to the shed, I paused long enough to take a photo of Mount Kendricks (left) and the San Francisco Peaks (right) in the distance. The zoom on my CoolPix shortened up the distances — the snow-capped peaks are at least 50 miles from here but, as you can see, are clearly visible.

San Francisco Peaks

The sun’s getting low now and will set within the next 30 minutes or so. I’m looking forward to getting some shots of the moonrise. There are wisps of cirrus clouds in the sky, but I don’t think they’ll spoil my view. We’ll see.

Solar Power

One solution for off-the-grid living in Arizona.

Our little off-the-grid vacation place has solar power. It’s an extremely simple system that consists of two 120-watt (I think) solar panels mounted on the roof and four deep cycle batteries in a little cabinet. The panels are attached to the batteries with a charger. Whenever there’s sun — which is just about every day in Arizona — the solar panels charge the batteries. All we do to maintain them is make sure there’s enough distilled water in the battery cells.

The building has both AC and DC power. That’s a weird thing that we decided on when we first set up the place. It’s a very small place with just one room, a loft, and a bathroom alcove. There are very few electrical appliances, and they’re split between AC and DC. On the AC side is an iHome clock radio (the kind you can put an iPod in), a 700-watt microwave, and a 600-watt single cup coffee maker. There are also outlets that can power a small ShopVac or laptop. Everything else is powered by DC power: 9 small light fixtures, the water pump, and a ceiling fan. (Do you know how hard it was to find a DC ceiling fan?) There are round DC power outlets everywhere there’s a standard AC power outlet. The fridge, stove, water heater, and furnace are all propane gas.

Theoretically, we can run the whole place on DC power with gas. On very short stays, we don’t even bother with the fridge. But since the batteries are hooked up to a 2000-watt AC inverter, we usually turn on the inverter so we can use those AC appliances and outlets when we want to. We have a little meter that plugs into a DC outlet to monitor the amount of juice in the batteries. At night, the power level gets low, but never too low to run lights or watch a movie on a laptop with power connected. And, in the morning, even before dawn, there’s always enough power to run my coffee maker.

It’s a great system. It cost about $2K for Mike to design and install and it meets all of our limited needs. I’m certain that if we built a house up here with more conveniences, a system just three or four times the size — perhaps supplemented with a small wind generator — would easily meet those needs. After all, it’s cool enough up here that air conditioning is not required in the summer — especially if the house had an energy efficient design that kept the hot air out. And if the sun isn’t shining, the wind is probably blowing.

Today, while relaxing with a book, the radio suddenly died. I checked the little DC meter and saw that we had plenty of juice — 15.4 volts, in fact. That’s the highest I’ve ever seen it. I went out to check the inverter and found lights blinking on it. Consulting the manual revealed that we had too much power for the inverter to use. The system is designed to shut down when available power exceeds 15 volts.

Oddly enough, to get the AC power to work, I had to come inside and turn on a bunch of lights and the ceiling fan and run the pump for a while. In other words, I had to throw away excess power. Once I got stored power down to 14.8 volts, I went outside and turned the inverter back on. Everything worked fine.

Keep in mind that this is a very small system and there’s no tracking on those solar panels. The panels are fixed to the roof, pointing southwest. (Imagine how much power we’d pull in if the panels were set up to track the sun?) It was about 2:30 PM when the problem occurred; it’s now almost two hours later and the sun is lower, so I don’t think the problem will reoccur.

My point is this: Arizona is a perfect environment for solar power, especially for small to moderate use. There’s no reason why solar can’t be set up to at least supplement power coming into an on-the-grid home. And for an off-the-grid home with modest needs, it seems to be a perfect solution.

So why aren’t more homes built with solar as part of the standard builder package?