Labor Day Weekend Greetings from Howard Mesa

Silence and solitude in the middle of nowhere.

I’m writing this from the picnic table outside our camping shed at Howard Mesa. We’ve got 40 acres on top of a mesa up here, about 35 miles south of the Grand Canyon. It’s pretty much undeveloped land, with five miles of partially maintained dirt road between our slice of Arizona’s high desert and pavement. There’s only one house in sight and, as usual, it’s deserted.

The silence at this time of the morning — 6 AM — is astounding. It’s the kind of silence that makes your ears work overtime trying to hear something. And when there is a sound — like Jack the Dog lapping up his water right now — it’s almost deafening. You can play the radio here with the volume turned down to 1 and still hear it fine.

It’s absolutely beautiful up here. The sun has just risen, casting a golden light over the grassy hills around us. There’s been a lot of rain up here this monsoon season, so the grass is green and lush. Our horses are wandering around, grazing. The whole 40 acres is fenced in, giving them plenty of space, but they like hanging around the shed and are seldom out of view. Later on, we’ll catch them and go for a ride.

It’s also very clear today. Yesterday’s rain must have washed away the dust that sometimes lingers in the air. We can clearly see the mountains out by Seligman to the west and Mount Trumbull on the Arizona Strip nearly 80 miles away.The sun is just to the north of the San Francisco Peaks, leaving them in silhouette. My new windsock, which we put up last time we were here, is hanging limp right now, but I know it’ll be moving later, when the wind picks up.

If you’re reading this, it means that I’ve managed to get my little PowerBook to go online via my Treo’s Internet connection using a Bluetooth connection between the two devices. I always compose blog entries with an offline editor — I prefer ecto — and that’s pretty convenient up here. I finish up the entry, get the Treo online, and then get the PowerBook to use that connection. If you’re reading this, it means I’ve succeeded.

I may not blog much this weekend. It’s my last big break before I need to switch into high gear to finish my Leopard book. After that, Flying M Air’s flying season will be in full swing — I already have much of September and nearly all of October booked. So I plan to enjoy the weekend with a hike, a horseback ride or two, a trip into Flagstaff, and some chores around the shed, preparing it for the winter.

I’ll be sending photos to my TumbleLog throughout the weekend from my Treo. Check it out if you have an interest in seeing what northern Arizona looks like in early September.

And, of course, I’ll be tweeting. You can read yesterday’s tweets here each morning. If you do or don’t like this feature, be sure to track down the poll about it and vote. I’ll be acting on your responses to this poll sometime around the middle of the month, so don’t delay.

[composed on top of a mesa in the middle of nowhere with ecto]

Yeah, I’m Still Here

Just really busy.

Those of you who read this blog regularly might think I’ve fallen off the face of the earth. I haven’t. I’m still here.

Last week, I was very busy working on The-Book-That-Must-Not-Be-Named, which, as usual, has an extremely tight deadline. This year, it’s even tighter given that I need to get back to work on my Leopard book to make that extremely tight deadline. So I haven’t been putting much time into the blog.

This weekend, we drove up to our place at Howard Mesa, just to escape the monotony of home. There, we were treated two two thunderstorms in the same day and nice, cool weather. Since we only planned to be there overnight, we left Alex the Bird at home to fend for himself in a cage full of food, water, and toys.

Sunset at Howard MesaSitting on our hilltop, we were treated to a beautiful sunset, just before the second storm rolled in.

LightningI played a bit with my new camera and managed to get some outstanding lightning shots by placing my camera on a snack table with its lens propped up, setting it to shutter speed priority, and setting the shutter speed to 30 seconds. I pushed the shutter release by hand and waited. 15 of the 20 shots I took included lightning. I think this one is the best.

I got to finish reading a book I’d started on Friday evening, The Lighthouse, by PD James. More about that in another post (I hope).

View from Sycamore PointOn our way home, we had a bit of an off-pavement adventure, driving out to Sycamore Point, which overlooks Sycamore Canyon, west of Sedona. The road is usually passable by any vehicle, but it was pretty muddy yesterday and a storm passed though while we where there. There was a great view of the canyon, which is a wilderness area and off-limits to motor vehicles. The light wasn’t favorable for photography, but I took a few shots anyway.

I realized that the spot was very close to a cliff dwelling I’d spotted from the air the last time I flew a direct course from Howard Mesa to Scottsdale and have become determined to track it down and see it again from the air.

We met our friend Tristan for dinner. He’s between jobs, between homes, and between girlfriends right now but not having a bad time. His helicopter will be back from its annual inspection on Friday and we’re hoping he lets Mike fly with him for a few hours at a good rate so Mike can get his R44 sign-off soon. He’s looking for a job as a pilot, but isn’t really in tune with the job market so I’m not sure if he’s going to be able to get the kind of job he wants.

At home, Alex was waiting for us and happy to see us.

There’s more, of course, but I need to get done with The-Book-That-Must-Not-Be-Named, so I have to get back to work. A more pressing problem is that I threw out my back this morning — for the first time ever! — while shoveling horse poop and I’m in incredible pain just sitting in my chair. Let’s hope I can get work done.

Could it Be? Monsoon Season?

Heat’s not enough. I want humidity and rain, too.

This morning, when I woke at 5:30 AM to the whistles of my parrot, I was surprised to see that Mike hadn’t opened the French door between our bedroom and the upstairs patio. He always opens it during the night this time of year. That’s the only time it’s cool.

But when I opened it, I realized why: it wasn’t cool. For the first time this season, the outside temperature remained in the 80s overnight. And that’s the first sign of what everyone in Arizona is waiting for this time of year: monsoon season.

A Monsoon? In the Desert?

Sure. I can’t make this stuff up.

Monsoon season in Arizona is marked by a number of meteorological events:

  • Dew point reaches at least 55°F for at least three days in a row. That’s the official indicator of the start of monsoon season in Phoenix. That means it gets humid outside. The “dry heat” isn’t so dry anymore.
  • The winds shift to bring moist air off the Sea of Cortez and Gulf of Mexico in a counterclockwise flow. This is why the storms, when they come to Wickenburg, come from the north or east during monsoon season.
  • My WebCamStorms build just about every afternoon. I can see them coming from my office window. (You can check out the WebCam image here; it’s usually available during daylight hours.) They’re isolated, severe thunderstorms, packed with high wind, lightning, and the occasional microburst.
  • It rains. That’s if we’re lucky. The clouds have lots of moisture, but if the ground is too dry, the rain dries up before it hits the ground, resulting in virga and, often, dust storms. But once monsoon season is underway, we get rain — although never enough of it to quench the thirst of our golf courses and swimming pools.
  • We get flash floods. That’s if we get enough rain all at once. A dry wash runs through our property and, with enough rain, it can turn into a raging river. For about an hour. Then it’s just a wet riverbed that, within 24 hours, turns dry again.

Want more info, you can get it here, here, and here.

And this is what most Arizonans are waiting for.

My Monsoons

I’ve experienced Arizona monsoons in three different places over the years.

Wickenburg
I’ve lived in Wickenburg for ten years now, and although I’ve been wanting to escape, like the snowbirds, in the summertime, I haven’t usually been able to. That means I’ve lived through a good bunch of monsoon seasons.

My office has always faced the mountains to the north (even when it was in a condo I own downtown). I’d be sitting at my desk, working away, occasionally glancing up out the window. I’d see the storm clouds building over the Bradshaw and Weaver Mountains, making their way southwest toward Wickenburg. The sky would get dark out there — while it remained sunny at my house — and lightning would flash. If the storm reached us before sunset, we were in for it. But in too many instances, the storm was just too slow and got to us after the sun set. Then it was a 50-50 chance that we’d get some storm activity — including welcome rain — before the storm dissipated.

Sometimes, the storms moved in more quickly — probably more moisture in the air. In those cases, we’d get a storm in the afternoon. What a treat! I’d stand under the overhang by my front door or on the patio at the condo and listen to the rain fall. Sometimes, if it looked rainy enough to get the washes flowing, I’d jump in my Jeep and head out into the desert, looking for a stream where streams don’t normally appear. I don’t drive through these — mind you — that’s dangerous. I just watch all that flowing water, remembering what it was like to live in a place where flowing water is a lot more common than dry streambeds.

On very rare occasions, a storm would move in just before dawn. I can’t remember this happening more than a few times, though. One time, it was the morning I was supposed to report back for work at the Grand Canyon, where I was flying helicopter tours. I had planned to take my helicopter up — the 1-1/2 hour flight sure beat the 3-1/2 hour drive. But with a thunderstorm sitting on top of Wickenburg, flying up was not a safe option. So I had to drive. I left two hours earlier than I would have and still got to work an hour late.

If you want to read more about the monsoon in Wickenburg, I recommend Lee Pearson’s excellent article for wickenburg-az.com, “The Monsoon Is Near“. It includes links to video footage he’s made available online.

Grand Canyon
In the summer of 2004, I worked as tour pilot at the Grand Canyon. I flew Long Ranger helicopters over the canyon 10 to 14 times a day on a 7 on/7 off schedule from April through the end of September.

My introduction to monsoon season came on my return from a flight in July. The storms had built up and were moving in toward the airport. I was about 5 miles out when a bolt of lightning came out of the sky less than 1/4 mile from where I was flying and struck the top of a Ponderosa pine tree. The treetop exploded into flames. I got on the radio, on our company frequency, and said, “It’s lightning out here. It just hit a tree about a quarter mile away from me.” The Chief Pilot’s voice came on and said, “Better get used to it.”

When you learn to fly, they teach you the danger of flying near thunderstorms. They advise you to stay at least 20 miles away. 20 miles! So you can imagine my surprise when I realized that the tour company had no qualms about continuing flight in the vicinity of thunderstorms.

And they were right — it didn’t seem to be dangerous at all. The storms were all localized — you could see them coming and usually fly around them if they were in your way. The rule we used was that if you could see through the rain, you could fly through it. Although it occasionally got a little bumpy, there were no serious updrafts or downdrafts. And although we were told that if things ever got too rough during a flight, we could land until the storm passed, I never had to. (Thus passing up my only opportunity to legally land a helicopter inside the Grand Canyon.)

The Grand Canyon with CloudsI do recall one other monsoon-related incident, though. The company I worked for had about ten helicopters on duty to do flights. Because of this, the company was very popular with tour companies, which would bus large groups of foreign tourists to the airport for helicopter flights. These flights were booked years in advance, so the company always knew when they’d need all helicopters to fly for a single group. One of these groups arrived late in the day during August. Nine other pilots and I were sitting out on our helipads, engines running, blades spinning, when the bus pulled up. Moments later, the loaders were bringing groups of five and six Japanese tourists to the helipads and loading us up.

It had been stormy most of the afternoon, with isolated thunderstorms drifting across the canyon. Farther out to the east, a controlled burn was sending low clouds of smoke our way. At the airport, however, the visibility was fine. We were scheduled to do a tour on the west side of the canyon, in the Dragon Corridor. One by one, we took off and headed west, making a long line of ten helicopters, all going the same way.

I was about six back from the front and could see we had a problem about five miles short of the rim. The north end of the Dragon Corridor was completely socked in with low clouds and falling rain. We couldn’t see across the canyon.

The lead helicopter announced on the company frequency that he was going to switch to an east canyon tour. He made a 180° turn. One by one, we all announced the same intentions and followed him. Now we were all heading back to the airport. We got permission from the tower to transition to the east, crossed about 1/2 mile south of the airport, and continued on.

Now we were in the smokey area. It wasn’t bad. Not yet, anyway. We crossed over the canyon and my passengers let out the usual oohs and ahs. And we proceeded to do the east canyon tour, which was reserved for weather situations because it normally ran about 35 minutes (and our passengers paid for a 25 minute tour). Of course, with the initial false start, their tours would be 45 minutes long.

The thing about flying at the Grand Canyon is that you have to stay on established routes. The only time I’d ever done that route was in training four months before, so I really wasn’t too clear on where I was supposed to go. Fortunately, there was a helicopter about 1/2 mile in front of me to follow. Unfortunately, the weather was closing in. It started to rain and visibility got tough. I focused on the other helicopter’s strobe light and followed it back across the canyon to the rim. Then I lost it in the smoke.

I pointed the helicopter in the direction I thought the airport might be and flew as if I knew where I was going. About a mile out, I saw the tower and other landmarks. I was only about a half mile off course. I landed safely, my passengers got out, and I shut down for the day.

I used to ask the Chief Pilot why we flew scenic tours in weather like that. His response: “If they’re willing to pay for it and it’s safe, why not?”

Howard Mesa
Howard Mesa is a mesa north of Williams and south of the Grand Canyon. It stands 300 feet above the Colorado Plateau. Our vacation property, with its camping shed, is at the very top of the mesa, with 360° views stretching out for 50 to 100 miles, depending on sky and dust conditions.

In the summer of 2005, I spent about a month at Howard Mesa, preparing our camping shed for its future duties. I lived in our old horse trailer with living quarters, a cramped space that was fine for one person, a dog, and a parrot. Mike came up on weekends to help out and escape Wickenburg’s heat.

Monsoon season atop Howard Mesa is a real treat. The clouds start building at around 11 AM and, because you can see in every direction, you can monitor their progress as they move across the desert. By 1 or 2 PM (at the latest), you can see rain (or virga) falling somewhere. This is where you can really get an idea of the individual storms because you can see them all, individually. I took this shot one afternoon around sunset. The view is out to the northwest. The mountain you see in silhouette is Mount Trumbull on the Arizona strip, 80+ miles away.

Monsoon Rain

The great thing about the monsoon up north is that when the rain comes, the temperature drops at least 20°F. I remember one day doing some work around our place in the morning. The temperature was in the 90s, which is pretty hot for up there. I was wearing a pair of gym shorts and a tank top. I hopped in the truck and drove down to Williams to do some laundry and shopping. While I was there, a storm moved in. In minutes, the temperature dropped down to the 50s. Needless to say, I nearly froze my butt off.

Of course, there’s also hail up there. Some friends of mine were on top Bill Williams Mountain south of Williams one summer day when a storm moved in. The golf ball-sized hail that fell did some serious damage to their car. And the fear of hail like that is what keeps me from leaving my helicopter at Howard Mesa, unprotected in the summertime. Rotor blades cost $48K a pair.

This Year’s Monsoon

Anyway, it looks like this weekend might be the start of the 2007 Monsoon Season here in Arizona. I’m hoping for lots and lots of rain — we really need it. And I’ll try to share some photos throughout the season. Sadly, I think all my old monsoon season photos were lost in my big hard disk crash earlier this year.

Flying with Cars, Take 2

Another gig at the Proving Grounds.

I spent yesterday afternoon sweating my brains out, flying in formation with cars.

I’d been hired once again to take a film crew around a proving ground tracks to get some footage for a internal marketing video. Last time, there had been one car. This time there were two. Last time it had been in September. This time, it was July.

The Flight Down

Mike came with me from Wickenburg. We topped off the tanks at the local airport here and took all four doors off. We’d filled a cooler with ice and bottled water and Gatorade to bring along. I also had a hand-held radio for Mike so he could listen in while we were flying. The flight from Wickenburg took about 50 minutes. It was hot — about 110°F/42°C — and even the wind through the open doorways did nothing to cool us. I had a small spray bottle and would douse my loose-fitting cotton shirt down with water as I flew. 2 minutes later, it would be completely dry again.

It was also bumpy. The desert, baked throughout the day by the broiling sun was sending waves of thermals straight up. But a 10 to 20 knot wind from the southwest was breaking all that up. As a result, the flight was like riding on a poorly maintained road with big, fat, soft tires. Bumpy but seldom jarringly so. Someone prone to motion sickness probably would have puked.

There were also dust devils: towering updrafts of swirling dust blown laterally across the desert floor. At any one time, looking out at the open desert, we could see at least two dozen of the damn things, some of them at least 500 feet tall. We were flying at about 500 feet above the ground, so dodging them became part of our flight path. If it looked like we’d hit one, I’d alter course to pass to the west behind it. This probably added a few minutes to the flight, but I wasn’t the least bit interested in getting very close to any of them.

By the time we got to the proving ground and landed on a piece of road where everyone waited, I was tired and red hot — literally! — my face was completely flushed — and partially dehydrated. It was a good thing we had an hour to kill before the film crew would be ready. I spent it drinking water and Gatorade in the air conditioned comfort of the facility’s lunch room.

The Film Crew

The film crew consisted of the same director and photographer as last time. The photographer had a big, professional video camera that he sat on his shoulder as he taped the action. The camera was attached by a cable to a small monitor that the director could hold in his hands during the flight.

The photographer was strapped in not only with a seat belt by with a rope that tied the harness he wore to the bar between the two front seats in the helicopter. In addition, they rigged up a come-along strap on the helicopter’s frame between the left and right side of the helicopter and had the camera attached to that by two separate straps. We clearly would not be dropping either the photographer or camera out of the helicopter.

Everyone on the film crew wore black shirts. These are obviously people unaccustomed to life in the desert. It doesn’t take long for a desert dweller to realize that black might look cool but it doesn’t feel cool with the sun shining down on you and a UV index of 10. They also drank a lot of Pepsi. No matter how many of us “locals” recommended water, they’d guzzle Pepsi and some weak tea looking concoction they kept in one-gallon plastic water jugs. I didn’t ask what it was.

Throughout the flight, the director would yell commands to me and the photographer through the helicopter’s intercom system. He had to yell because the photographer was hanging out of the helicopter to get his shots and his microphone was out in the 20 to 80 knot wind (depending on our speed, of course). The director also yelled into a handheld radio that the driver was tuned into, giving him directions.

Of course, the most challenging thing about communication was not the wind noise but the language. They didn’t speak good English.

The Flying

The kind of flying this time around was mostly chasing the car around the speed track (a large paved oval with sharply banked curves) and the dirt track (a smaller oval with a dusty dirt surface). I’d fly alongside, anywhere from 10 to 100 feet off the ground, but usually around 30. Speed ranged from a hover to as fast as 80 knots.

If you’re a helicopter pilot, you know that this kind of operation puts me in the shaded area of the height-velocity diagram or so-called “dead man’s curve.” I’m full aware of the dangers of this kind of flying and communicated them to my passengers.

But frankly, my willingness to do this kind of flying is what got me the job two years ago. They’d asked two other local operators to do it and they both said no. I think that the fact that they were flight schools played heavily into the decision. Wouldn’t be a good example to set for newly minted CFIs. Besides, I really think that this kind of “extreme” flying is best done by experienced pilots. Although I only have about 1,800 hours right now, that’s a heck of a lot more than the typical 400-hour flight school CFI.

The challenging parts:

  • Going from a near hover to highway speed in a very short time.
  • Keeping an eye on the car and the obstacles around the track, including poles with wires, antenna towers, tents used to hide cars from passing aircraft (believe it or not), and road signs.
  • Flying alongside the car at 20 feet above the ground, making smooth “hops” over lower obstructions (signs, tents, etc.) as necessary,
  • Swooping past the front of the car and turning so the camera didn’t lose sight of the car until it was past us.
  • Getting back into shooting position quickly after a technical shot so the photographer could maximize his video time.
  • Understanding what my passengers wanted me to do, especially on those occasions when they couldn’t agree and gave conflicting commands.

The best shots probably came close to sunset, when we were working with one of the cars on the dirt track. The clear sky, low sun, and dust combine to make magical scenes. Most of the shots used in the video from last time were ones from the dirt track. My job was to keep the setting sun, car, and helicopter in a line so the photographer could get sunset footage.

The Machine

I really enjoy this kind of work. Flying a helicopter from point A to point B is mildly interesting, but doing the kind of flying needed to photograph moving cars (or boats, for that matter), is extremely challenging. It takes all of my concentration to deliver what the photographer and director want.

But what’s probably best about it is the way my arms and legs go into a certain autopilot mode. I think of what I want and my body reacts to make the helicopter do what needs to be done. There’s very little thought involved. I’m just part of the machine — the brain, so to speak. And when flying — or doing anything with a piece of equipment, I imagine — becomes so automatic and thought-free, that’s magic.

The Trip Home

We finished up just after sunset. Rather than shut down and go inside for some refreshments, I decided to keep it running and head home. I wanted to get home before it was too dark. I was exhausted — I’d flown over 4 hours that day, including a flight from Howard Mesa and the ferry flight to the track — and was depending on the last vestiges of adrenaline to power me home. So the film crew got all their straps and cables out, Mike got in, and we took off.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Low Fuel light was flickering 2 miles from the nearest airport. Another plane was on final when I came in for my approach. I meekly asked him if I could land first because of my fuel situation. He gracefully pulled his twin engine airplane into a 360 turn to the right to give me additional room. By the time I set down at the self-serve pump, the fuel light was shining brightly. I thanked the pilot of the plane again after he rolled out from his landing.

It was still 104°F/40°C most of the way home — an hour-long flight in growing darkness. I’m accustomed to flying at night — I think every pilot should be comfortable with that skill — so it wasn’t a big deal. It was also very smooth; hardly any wind until we neared Wickenburg.

The only problem was the dust that had evidently gotten into my eyes during the last bit of shooting. It really messed up my contact lenses.

Treo Internet Connection Problems Resolved

But not very satisfactorily.

palm Treo 700p Smartphone (Verizon Wireless)A few days ago, I reported “The Trouble with Treos.” In short, I’d bought a Treo 700p so I could access the Internet from my off-the-grid camping shed on Howard Mesa. Although I’d been told that the Treo would “tether” with my Macintosh for an Internet connection, I later learned that feature wasn’t supported by Palm (maker of the Treo) and Verizon (my wireless provider).

Motorola Q Phone (Verizon Wireless)Today, while running an errand in the Phoenix area, I stopped by the Verizon Wireless store where I bought the phone (Happy Valley, north of Phoenix) and spoke to the woman who sold it to me. I believe her when she says she thought it would work. But I also don’t know why she didn’t tell me about the Motorola Q phone, which definitely would work. Could it be because it cost $150 less?

Could I Love My Phone?

Now, after spending the past week sending photos to my TumbleLog and text messages to Twitter while on a business/vacation trip to California, I’m rather attached to the darn phone. Just the other afternoon, while Mike was driving from the LA area to Santa Barbara, I was stuck in the back seat of the convertible he’d rented. With no chance of participating in the conversation between Mike and his cousin due to wind noise, I amused myself by exchanging a series of photos with my brother in New Jersey who was lounging by his friend’s pool with his friend’s family, his wife, and his dog. I sent him photos I’d taken earlier in the day, as well as a few scenes from the Mustang’s cramped back seat as we made our way up the coast.

That’s something I couldn’t do with my old phone.

I know that other people have been doing stuff like that for years, but I was never into the cell phone thing. Now it’s almost an addiction. And I just don’t want to give up my new phone, even though it doesn’t do everything I want.

But I’m a logical, reasoning person — at least at times — and it makes no sense to be emotionally attracted to a smart phone that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. So what was I to do?

Make it do what I needed it to.

Doing the “Impossible” — Poorly

So I got on the Web and I tracked down a software package called USB Modem. Available in Mac OS, Windows, and Linux flavors, this package includes software for the Treo as well as drivers for my Mac. I installed a few things, configured a few things, plugged in my tether, and connected to the Internet. In other words, I was able to do what Verizon had belatedly told me I couldn’t do: connect to the Internet using the USB tether cable.

But the connection seemed painfully slow. I fired up the Speakeasy Speed Test and tested it out. Sure enough, I had download speeds of only 120Kbps and upload speeds of only 20Kbps. Sheesh! This is broadband?

To be fair, I ran the same test on the Bluetooth DUN connection. I got 135 down and 85 up. Not much better.

Then I ran it on my house connection just for comparison. 524 down and 516 up.

(All these tests were done with the same computer.)

At Least I Have a Reason to Keep the Phone

The only good that comes out of this is that now I have a reason to keep the phone. True, it’ll cost me another $25 to buy the software to do the tethered connection — I was using a demo version to make sure it would work before I coughed up any more hard earned money — but at least it does work.

It just doesn’t work as well as I’d hoped. Or as well as the salesperson at the Verizon Wireless store said it would. Very disappointing.

I still have three weeks to decide.

Anyone out there use a Q phone with a Mac? Please do use the Comments link or form to share your experiences, good and bad.

The Trouble with Treos

Why my expensive new communications tool is going back to the Verizon store.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may know that I’m hoping to write my next two books at our off-the-grid “camp” on top of Howard Mesa. The place has solar panels that should generate enough electricity to power my computer equipment. But to work, I need an Internet connection — the one thing our place doesn’t have.

I explored my options. Satellite was too expensive. Wireless Internet available by pointing a specialized antenna at the top of Bill Williams Mountain wasn’t going to work because I was out of range. (The Internet guy drove up with test equipment last week to check.) That left the last option: a connection via a cell phone provider.

I’m a Verizon subscriber. I’ve been one for about six years now. Verizon has the best coverage in my area, with a nice strong signal in most places I go. I’m not a phone nut; I buy a new phone every 3 or so years. I’ve been using a Motorola flip phone for 3-1/2 years. No camera, no PDA, no Internet access, no fancy ring tones. It’s a phone, plain and simple. And it works well.

I went down to the Verizon store in the mall at Happy Valley Road in North Phoenix last Friday. (It’s a 41-mile drive from Wickenburg.) I walked in, got myself a sales person, and proceeded to tell her my needs: I need to be able to get any computer on the Internet from my cell phone. Somewhere along the line, I might have mentioned that I was thinking about a PDA. But I definitely told her I’d be connecting to a Macintosh.

Palm Treo 700pShe said the only PDA phone that would work with a Mac for syncing and Internet connection would be a Palm Treo 700p. She assured me that it would sync with my Mac using the included USB “tether.” I’d also be able to connect that tether to any computer with a USB port and, using that, get on the Internet. We talked plans and pricing and although it was going to cost me about $100/month to use the darn thing, Internet was unlimited. And the Treo has all kinds of cool features that would help make me more productive while on the road, including a keyboard for messaging, e-mail, Web browsing, and a camera. (Check out my TumbleLog for some photos I posted online from my phone on Thursday.)

So I bought it. And I bought the case, the Bluetooth headset, and the car charger to go with it.

I was incredibly busy on Friday night, all day Saturday, and on Sunday morning. But I still found time to set up tether and Bluetooth syncing. I didn’t find time to set up the Internet connection stuff for my PowerBook. But I just bundled all the hardware and software and manuals into my luggage and took it with me on my trip to California, figuring I’d have time to figure it out while there.

I didn’t have time until Thursday morning. And that’s when I realized that I didn’t have everything I needed to make it work. I needed software and it wasn’t on the Verizon Welcome disc.

So I used the Palm OS version of GoogleMaps on my phone (highly recommended) to find the Verizon store closest to Torrance Airport. And since we had about an hour and a half to kill, we drove over there. I brought my phone and the cables and the computer. And after some awkward confusion and two trips to the back room to consult with a hidden expert, the service person gave me the bad news: tethering did not work with Macs.

Of course, this is exactly the opposite of what I’d been told by the person who sold me the device. So who was I to believe?

Later on, I was able to get on the Internet and view the Web page with information about tethering. And it confirmed what the Torrance Verizon person had said.

Of course, I could still set up the computer to use dial up networking (DUN) with the cell phone. I was able to get the instructions to set up that from the Palm Web site, which I was able to view with the phone itself. I set it up and it worked. Then I realized that it might be using up my minutes — I only get 450 anytime minutes on my plan because I really don’t use my phone that much for chatting. So I called Verizon and asked. I was assured that the connection time to Verizon’s DUN system was included in my plan.

But DUN is about 1/3 to 1/2 the speed of the broadband connection I thought I was buying. And it can’t seem to hold a connection for more than 5 or 10 minutes at a time. And this phone cost a small fortune. So I’m not a happy camper.

And I still haven’t confirmed that it will work at Howard Mesa.

At this point, it’s likely that I’ll be taking advantage of that 30-day trial period Verizon offers to return the phone. With luck, they’ll have something that works correctly with my Mac. Otherwise, I’ll just have them reactivate my old phone and forget about Internet access via cell phone, at least for a while.

[composed in a hotel room while on the road with ecto]

Clean Up Patrol

I clear out my old office.

I”ve owned a condo in Wickenburg for the past eight or so years. It was the first non-stock investment I made when I started making decent money. I figured that real estate is always a good investment, and it would be nice to have a property that someone else paid for. So I bought the condo — which had been previously occupied by a single renter for 11 years — and put it up for rent.

The condo isn’t anything special. It’s two bedrooms, one bath, with a kitchen that’s separated from the living room by a breakfast bar. Total square feet is about 900. The big living room window faces out to the parking lot, a park where there are ball fields and the town pool, and the mountains. The bedroom windows face out on another parking lot and route 93, which is the main thoroughfare between Phoenix and Las Vegas for cars and trucks. The condo property includes a well-maintained swimming pool, a not-so-well-maintained spa, and mailboxes. (A big deal in a town that’s only had mail delivery for about 15 years. The place is a short walk to a supermarket and other shopping and is well within walking distance to two schools.

I put it up for rent within a month of closing on it and had a tenant within a month. Thus began my long career as a landlord.

Being a Landlord Sucks

Being a landlord is not a job for the faint of heart. Although most tenants show at least some level of responsibility, there are always a few in the crowd who will treat your property like it belongs to their worse enemy. Some tenants go out of their way to find things to complain about — one family complained so many times about how the shower door didn’t roll properly that Mike and I went to the apartment, removed the shower door, and replaced it with a curtain. (Let’s see you have problems with that.) And did I mention that the average tenant isn’t interested in living in the same place for 11 years? I witnessed a parade of four tenants in less than five years, with lots of cleaning and painting and empty unit time between them. Anyone who thinks being a landlord manager is an easy way to make a living is fooling himself. It’s a pain in the ass.

To make matters worse, I had another good year and bought another property. That one was a 3-lot parcel with a 4-unit studio apartment building and two bedroom, two bath house on it. What the hell was I thinking? I multiplied my single unit landlord headaches by five. Now there was always an empty unit somewhere, a unit to clean, a tenant complaint to deal with, an apartment to advertise and show.

I won’t go into the gory details. I’ll just say that after trying a rental agent (who took a fully-occupied property and had it down to just one tenant in four months) and letting Mike manage the place for a short while, I got smart and sold the larger of the two properties, leaving me with the condo.

In the meantime, the condo’s last tenants, a young married couple with a baby, terminated their lease early and disappeared. But not before they completely trashed the carpet, doing what would turn out to be $1,600 in damage.

I’d had enough. I was sick of being a landlord. I decided to take the apartment off the market and move my office into it.

An Office in Town

Having an office outside my home for the first time in about 12 years was a treat. My work wasn’t in my face all the time. I didn’t drift from the kitchen to my office and get caught up reading e-mail or working through edits. I went to work in the morning, worked until I felt done for the day, and went home to a life. Mike, who was working from home at the time, did the same. I took the condo’s living room, so I could look out over the mountains, and Mike took the larger of the two bedrooms. The place had everything we needed to be comfortable — full kitchen with dishwasher, bathroom, and access to high-speed Internet. (For about a year, MIke had wireless access that we think he picked up from the local Radio Shack. Ah, the days of unsecured wireless networks.)

The really good part about all this is that we reclaimed both of the bedrooms we’d been using as offices at home. Mike’s old office became the full-time guest room, with all the furniture you’d expect to find in a bedroom. My old office became the “library,” with all of our non-work related books, a desk, framed maps, and a futon for overflow guests. We usually kept the guest room closed off in the summer and winter so we didn’t have to air condition or heat it.

Of course, there were some drawbacks to the office situation. First of all, my office was about 6 miles away, which meant that if I needed something there, I was taking a drive. I had everything there except my 12″ PowerBook, so I dealt with all work-related matters there. For a while, we didn’t even have Internet access at home, since we didn’t “need” it. (It didn’t take long for that to change.)

But the worst part of the situation was when I got calls in the middle of the day for a helicopter flight. The airport is on the opposite end of town. So if I got a call for a flight that day, I’d have to pretty much drop everything I was doing, lock up the office, hop in my vehicle, drive home to put on some more appropriate clothing, and drive to the airport to preflight the helicopter and pull it out. That took a minimum of an hour. When the flight was over, I’d do the same thing in reverse. By the time I got back to my office, my concentration was gone and I wasn’t usually able to get back to writing. Sometimes, the whole day would be shot to hell for a 25-minute tour around Wickenburg that put just $195 in the bank — that’s gross, not net.

When space opened up at the airport for an office, I tried to get it. The Town of Wickenburg’s Airport Manager jerked me around to no end. (If you think coming to Wickenburg to start a business is easy, think again. It seems that the town management isn’t happy unless they present at least a dozen hoops for a new business owner to jump through. The smart ones take their plans elsewhere. I’ve spoken to three different people who were interested in bringing medium sized businesses to Wickenburg, and all three said they’d built their businesses elsewhere after dealing with the town.) It took over a year, intervention from the FAA, an RFP process, and the threat of a discrimination case to get a contract. Now I’m wondering whether I want the Town of Wickenburg for a landlord. Like the smart folks who give up when they see the hoops, I don’t think I do.

So I moved my office back home.

There’s No Place Like Home

The move wasn’t easy, but we were smart enough to do it in the winter months, when it was comfortably cool during the day. We gave away a lot of furniture so we could fit my desk and the things I needed back in the library. All the books went back upstairs, into some built-in shelves, so my work books — including the ones I’ve written — could go in my office. Mike, who now has much less need for space, took the library’s desk upstairs and set that up by one of the big windows with the good views. We put his old desk in my hangar, so I had more space there to do my FAA-required paperwork. (My old desk there had gone up to Howard Mesa months before.)

So now I live with my work again and, frankly, I don’t mind one bit.

I had a book to write, so I got right down to work before everything in the condo had been moved. It I was more ambitious about it, I would have cleared the place out right away, had it thoroughly cleaned, and put it back up for rent. But I dreaded the thought of dealing with all the accumulated paper — including boxes I’d packed in our first Wickenburg home (an apartment on Palm Drive) and ones I’d packed back in New Jersey ten years ago. So I just moved everything aside to give the carpet folks room to lay the new carpet, turned the heat pump off, and locked the place up.

Now I’m Cleaning Up

Months passed. And I finally did something radical to get me to clean up: I hired a professional cleaner. And I told her to come next Wednesday, when I’ll be away in California.

Of course, I don’t expect her to go through all my crap and box it up for my office or storage. That’s something only I can do.

I put it off as long as I could. Yesterday, I had a dawn photo flight here in Wickenburg and a lunch meeting with one of the companies I advertise with. A good day to work on my old office, I reasoned. Lunch would make a good mid-day break. I’d put in 6 hours or so and be done.

Wrong! Although lunch was a good break, I didn’t come close to finishing. I worked in the condo from about 8:30 AM to 11 AM, did some errands, went for lunch, and got back to work at 1 PM. Then I spent the next 3-1/2 hours going at it.

I threw away 7 tall kitchen bags — you know, the 13-gallon size? — full of junk, including stuff I’d saved for more than 15 years. I got rid of all the Apple promotional and developer disks I’d accumulated from 1992 through 2001. I got rid of old software and manuals. I got rid of magazines — about 40 issues of MacAddict that were still in their original wrappers. I got rid of loose receipts, bills, and bank statements. I was ruthless. My hands got filthy — I washed them at least once an hour. My feet got sore from walking barefoot on the cheap carpet I’d had installed in the place.

I filled six file boxes with stuff I wanted to keep. I made piles of stuff to give away — some stuff for the cleaner, miscellaneous paper items for my neighbor’s kids to do crafts, photo and negative holders for a photographer friend, empty CD-cases for the local print shop guy (who also uses Macs).

Later, at 4:15 PM, when Mike rolled up to help me take some of the boxes out, I was exhausted. We loaded most of the boxes into my Jeep and his car, dropped some of them off in storage, and brought the rest home.

But I’m not done.

I’m mostly done. I don’t think I’ll need more than another 4 or so hours. And frankly, I might take the lazy way out and just box up the stuff and stick it in storage without sorting through it. It’s a terrible, nasty job, but there’s only me to blame for it. I just keep too much crap.

So today, after getting a haircut at 8:30 AM, I’ll go back to work in the condo. I’ll get all the loose stuff gathered together, throw away some more junk, and stack up the boxes to go into storage.

Hell, at least I can turn on the air conditioner.